On 14th February 2016 Lord Avebury, or Eric Lubbock, sadly passed away. Lord Avebury, a Liberal Democrat Peer, was a proud democratic reformer throughout his life, campaigning for proportional representation and a range of democratic causes. He was the grandson of Sir John Lubbock, the founder of the Electoral Reform Society – then the Proportional Representation Society – and followed in his footsteps as a supporter of positive changes to our politics.
Below is a speech Lord Avebury gave about his grandfather and democratic reform on 20th March 2014, at an event to mark the ERS leaving our old building (Thomas Hare House at 6 Chancel Street). We republish this speech in his memory. Our thoughts are with his family and friends.
“It was at a private meeting called by my grandfather Sir John Lubbock 130 years ago in the house of Beaumont Lubbock, Sir John’s brother, at 7 Clarges Street Westminster, that the formation of the Electoral Reform Society was proposed, in its original guise as the Proportional Representation Society; and it’s great that the ERS still has the original record of that meeting. The Society was then formally constituted on 5th March, when my grandfather was elected President and an Executive Committee formed, on which 12 of the 23 members were MPs, together with C P Scott, the legendary editor of the Manchester Guardian, the Rev Lewis Dodgson, known to the world as Lewis Carroll, and Thomas Hare, the inventor of the Single Transferable Vote.
My grandfather sat in the Commons from 1871 to 1900, and then in the Lords for the last 13 years of his life. He championed the cause of electoral reform, arguing the merits of the Single Transferable Vote in The Spectator, the Daily News and the Pall Mall Gazette, and in a hefty pamphlet under the title Representation. He actively canvassed for members of the Society, and I have the text of the circular letter he wrote to potential members inviting them to join in February 1884, which must have helped to recruit the 180 MPs drawn equally from the Liberal and Conservative Parties who joined the Society in its early days.
Sir John spoke frequently in the House and across the length and breadth of England on proportional representation, holding mock elections in most places. He engaged in a prolific correspondence with electoral reformers at home and abroad, including Thomas Hare, another pioneer of STV, and Professor D’Hondt, the inventor of a proportional system that was adopted in Belgium.
My grandfather was the archetypal Victorian polymath, who wrote and spoke on a wide variety of social and scientific topics and engaged with many different campaigns at the same time. He actively supported his next-door neighbour Darwin, in the controversy over the Origin of the Species; he passed the first legislation on the protection of ancient monuments; he invented Bank Holidays; he campaigned successfully for shorter working hours in shops and offices; he invented the clearing system for banks; and he ran the family bank which I’m sorry to say was taken over by Coutts after his death in 1913.
What would he have thought if he had come back to life today? He would certainly have been disappointed that we still have the First Past the Post system, which distorts the wishes of the electors and often gives us governments that are not in accordance with the way people voted. The last time there was a vote in Parliament on a resolution to adopt STV was when I moved such a resolution in the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Law in 1965, and was defeated by 17 votes to 1. The time before that was in 1918, when proposals for the STV in urban constituencies were originally included in the Representation of the People Bill. They were knocked out by the Commons, reinserted by the Lords, and finally deleted by the Commons.
Incidentally, another resolution the Speaker’s Conference rejected was a motion to reduce the voting age to 18, supported by myself, Lena Jeger and Jack Mendelson. As an aside, there was a transcript of the proceedings of that Conference, but the Commons Library tells me that no copy of it survives, not even in the archives of the Electoral Reform Society.
I think my grandfather would have been surprised that with everybody over the age of 18 entitled to vote, there has been a waning of interest in elections at both local and national level.
But he would certainly have been delighted to see that after 130 years the Electoral Reform Society is still campaigning hard for genuinely representative democracy. On local elections, it is pointing to the example of Scotland where as a result of adopting a fairer voting system in 2007, electors have more choice, uncontested seats have disappeared, and rotten boroughs are a thing of the past.
I am sure, knowing of his respect and affinity for young people, he would have been a strong supporter of the campaign led by the Society for votes at 16. This is yet another good example of the continuing need for the ERS, as it passes its 130th anniversary.”