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Alternative Vote or Proportional Representation

John Simkin

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In the 1929 General Election the Conservatives won 8,664,000 votes, the Labour Party 8,360,000 and the Liberals 5,300,000. However, the bias of the system worked in Labour's favour, and in the House of Commons the party won 287 seats, the Conservatives 261 and the Liberals 59. Ramsay MacDonald became Prime Minister again, but as before, he still had to rely on the support of the Liberals to hold onto power.

Ramsay MacDonald was forced to do a deal with David Lloyd George. This included reforming the way MPs were elected to the House of Commons. After a meeting on 19th May, 1930, MacDonald wrote in his diary: "Told me he (Lloyd George) could not get his party to accept alternative vote: would only have Proportional Representation. I said we would not accept P.R., but would offer alternative vote as a compromise." It seems that this is the same conversation that David Cameron and Nick Clegg have been having over the last couple of months.

The other thing that they could not agree on was public spending. During the 1929 election campaign David Lloyd George published a pamphlet, We Can Conquer Unemployment, where he proposed a government scheme where 350,000 men were to be employed on road-building, 60,000 on housing, 60,000 on telephone development and 62,000 on electrical development. The cost would be £250 million, and the money would be raised by loan. John Maynard Keynes also published a pamphlet supporting Lloyd George's scheme.

These views impressed Richard Tawney who wrote a letter to Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the Labour Party, about the forthcoming election: "If the Labour Election Programme is to be of any use it must have something concrete and definite about unemployment... What is required is a definite statement that (a) Labour Government will initiate productive work on a larger scale, and will raise a loan for the purpose. (B) That it will maintain from national funds all men not absorbed in such work." MacDonald refused to be persuaded by Tawney's ideas and rejected the idea that unemployment could be cured by public works.

During the economic crisis of 1930-31, MacDonald had a series of meetings with Lloyd George and Maynard Keynes about public spending. However, MacDonald refused to change his mind and unemployment continued to grow. When he took power in 1929 the unemployment figure was 1,433,000. By June 1931 it reached 2,735,000.

Most Labour MPs agreed with increased public spending. MacDonald favoured cuts and in July 1931 he formed a National Government with the Conservatives. Lloyd George and the Liberals did not get parliamentary reform or increased public spending. Is history going to be repeated?


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