Harry Quelch January 1911

Representation and Referendum

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. XV, No.1 January, 1911, pp.1-6, (1,953 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2008). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

It can scarcely be doubted that Mr. Balfour did us a disservice when he suggested that the question of Tariff Reform should be submitted to a Referendum.

We Social-Democrats have always been in favour of the Referendum—especially in such vital questions as determine our relations with other countries and involve the maintenance of peace or the outbreak of war. And we had always supposed all serious Radicals to be equally in favour of the only really democratic method of securing “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” “Measures, not men,” we were told, should be submitted to the people for their approval or rejection. We agreed. In all that makes for the democratisation of our political machinery, and for enabling the will of the people—for good or ill—to be expressed in legislation and administration, we stand for the most advanced Radical programme. We may, as a matter of fact, claim to have taken over the whole political stock-in-trade of the Radicals—in so far as it makes for democracy—neglected by them in their pursuit of Imperialism, Puritanism, and other false gods.

Nevertheless, the Radicals had never abjured their faith in political democracy. It was still in their “programme,” although its performance was constantly deferred. But some day, some day, in the dim and distant future—when the Labour Party had been translated to a House of Lords inhibited from passing any but Liberal Bills; when the Welsh Church had been disestablished and the Nonconformist Conscience had been appeased by the appointment of a dissenting divine as headmaster of every elementary school; when every public-house had been closed and the workman had been freed from temptation because there was nowhere for him to go outside his doss-house but the factory, and cocoa had been established by law as the national and only beverage—in that happy, but, alas, distant time, we were led to suppose the Radicals would seriously begin to think about giving practical effect to their programme of political reform. Until then, of course, the House of Lords and these other urgent reforms block the way. Get these settled and then the way will be clear for Payment of Members and Election Expenses, Adult Suffrage, Proportional Representation, Shorter Parliaments, and—the Referendum!

And then Balfour as good as promises that in the event of his Party coming in they would put the question of Tariff Reform to a popular vote before trying to put it into operation in an Act of Parliament And at once it was suddenly discovered what a mischievous thing the Referendum would be. That which was right before, became wrong; that which was white was now black. Simply because the proposal came from the Tory camp! It was impossible that any good could come from the Tories. Therefore the Referendum, which had hitherto been regarded as a Radical measure, as the best and most perfect means of giving expression to democracy, was scouted as a Device of the Evil One, and a wicked and fraudulent dodge to dish the good Liberals.

There is little doubt that had Balfour made the suggestion sooner, so as to have united his Party on the Referendum as an electoral cry, he would have given the Liberals a very bad time in the election. As it was, raising the cry as late as he did, the Liberals were mightily scared by it, and were hard put to it to find reasons for opposing and repudiating the Referendum. Their leader, Asquith, was very wroth. In one breath he declared that he would never be a member of a Government which depended upon a Referendum, and in the next he asserted that the recent General Election, from which he claims to have obtained his mandate, was a real Referendum. Every conceivable objection is now urged against the principle of the Referendum by those whose chief political cry is that, above all, they desire that the will of the people shall prevail. They demand the suppression of the Lords’ Veto because it is opposed to the will of the people. But the will of the people as they understand it, is not expressed, or should not be expressed on any clear and definite question or principle, but is expressed by elected representatives who may be elected on a whole multitude of contradictory issues—or none—and who, by some mysterious virtue attaching to their election, know better than the people themselves, not only what is good for them, but what is their will, on everyone of those questions.

The recent election was loudly proclaimed by the Liberals to be a contest between “Peers and People,” the Liberal-Labour-Nationalist Party being the “ People’s Party,” and the Tariff-Reform-Tory- Unionist combination being the “Peers’ Party.” But that was really not the case at all. It was not “People versus Peers,” the common people against the House of Lords; but plutocracy and aristocracy as enthroned by haphazard election in the House of Commons, against plutocracy and aristocracy reigning by right of birth or appointment in the House of Lords. That really was all the contest amounted to. The House of Lords, it is said, stands for class interests and privilege. The same could be said with equal truth of the House of Commons. The House of Commons is nominally a representative institution. But it does not represent the common people; it represents class interests, and its chief function is not to deliberate upon measures of its own initiation, but simply to vote those of the Cabinet, and to keep the Cabinet in power. “Representative” Government has been proved a sham and -a delusion, and one of the chief objections to the Referendum is one of its chief merits-that it would destroy representative government.

A member of the House of Commons loftily protests that he is not a mere delegate, but a representative. He does not represent the views of his constituents. On the contrary, they are supposed to have endorsed his own. These are generally of the haziest description—even when he has any at all. Usually he has none, and his election address and speeches consist chiefly of parrot-like repetitions of the utterances of his Party leaders. It is an advantage to the representative, of course, to have no very definite opinions of his own—or, at least, not to express them—because he is saved the trouble of changing them when his leaders decide to alter their policy. He just swings round as a matter of course.

In these circumstances it is absurd to talk about representative government, and equally absurd to elect a House of Commons of 670 members. It would be very much simpler for the electors to vote on the question of Asquith v. Balfour, and let the one who secured the highest number of votes select a certain number of devoted followers to compose the Government and the other to select a somewhat smaller number—in proportion to the votes received—to form the Opposition. Such a method would achieve precisely the same result as is arrived at now, and would avoid all the fuss and bother and expense and corruption and lying of a General Election. It would, moreover, be a kind of Referendum, only it would be one of personalities instead of principles. It would, too, eliminate all the various side issues and the personal influence of the various candidates, which do so much to confuse the issues and to obscure the actual decision of the electorate on the principal matters upon which it is supposed to vote.

In the present election, for instance, the Liberals claim to have received a clear mandate against the Lords. Leaving the Labourists and Irish Nationalists out of account, however, the Liberals have only a majority of two—275 to 273. In England, Scotland, and Wales combined, they actually polled a minority of votes—2,266,878 to 2,358,430. Yet this minority vote gives them a majority in the three kingdoms of 18 seats—276 to 253; or adding the Labour, Socialist, and Nationalist vote outside of Ireland, a majority of 264,693 votes, and of 61 seats!

When we find that 2,773 Liberal voters in Bedfordshire Boroughs elect three members, while 2,754 Tory voters in the same constituencies have no representative at all; that 37,286 Liberals in Durham boroughs elect 10 members, while 32,827 Tories in the same places only elect 2; that 18,711 Liberals elect 3 members in the boroughs of Nottinghamshire, while 18,374 Nottinghamshire Tories elect 4; that 1,750 Tory borough electors in Wilts have four times the representation of the 9,508 electors of West Ham who voted for Will Thorne—we see how completely haphazard the present “representative” system is, and how little right the Government has to claim to have received a mandate on any question whatsoever.

All these anomalies, of course, would be swept away by a simple system of Proportional Representation; with every man and woman one vote, every vote would have equal value; the electors would vote for the principles connoted by the various party titles and programmes, and the personal considerations which now so often decide an election and confuse the issue, would disappear.

Even with Proportional Representation, however, it could not be claimed that the elected representatives were the collective wisdom of the nation, and there would still be the need for the Referendum. With our present haphazard system of electing “representatives” it is of immeasurably greater importance. But it is objected—and this by Liberals, too!—that the Referendum is so foreign, so un-English. And yet it has been put into operation over and over again in deciding such municipal questions as the establishment of a Free Library, the building of Baths, or the taking over of a Tramway service. It is the usual procedure adopted by a trade union for deciding any important matter involving the general body of the members in collective action or collective sacrifice. Surely if the voters of a municipality can be consulted on such questions as those indicated, or the members of a trade union can have referred to them the question of whether they should pay another penny a week contribution, or put forward a demand for a reduction of an hour in their working-week, the electors of the United Kingdom might reasonably be consulted on a radical change in fiscal policy, or any other question of equal moment.

It is sometimes objected that the people are not the best judges in such matters, and would probably vote wrong. But such an objection cuts at the very root of democracy and of popular self-government. It is an argument for despotism—benevolent or other—and is essentially destructive of the theory of a “mandate” given to any elected Government. If the Liberals cannot “trust the people” by means of a Referendum, how can they pretend that the mandate of this untrustworthy people is sufficient authority for them to abolish or even modify the Lords’ Veto? Either the people are sovereign or they are not, and government exists by the will of the governed or it does not. If the people are sovereign, then they should constitute the final court of appeal, not in the present haphazard fashion, not as between two bodies of men with identical interests and as like as two peas—that is no choice at all; but on a clear and distinct issue, a question of a definite principle or policy. And that can only be done by means of the Referendum.