« AnteriorContinuar »
There will be no lack of advisers as to so serious an evil when the time comes, because electioneering, like education, is one of those subjects on which everyone regards himself as an authority, and there will be great diversity of advice. Some of the judges have already given their suggestions, but these amount merely to this, that only a limited number of agents are to be employed by any one candidate, and these agents are to be named to the returning officer. The learned judge who volunteers this advice has recently had some experience in this matter, and his opinion is consequently entitled to attention. But to the non-judicial mind it would appear that a definite limitation of the number of responsible agents increases the opportunities for irresponsible agency. If this suggestion were carried out, it is to be feared that the bribing of the future would not be done by the acnowledged agents, just as it is not done at present by the candidate. But it would be done by friends of the acknowledged agents, and the only effect of the limitation would be that agency could not be proved, and the candidate who through his unacknowledged agents had debauched his constituency would retain his seat. Something more effective will have to be devised if bribery is to become a thing of the past. But it becomes more difficult every day to say what is and what is not bribery. If the law is to be interpreted in the light of the judgment in the Boston case of 1874, it is bribery to give coals to the poor in the middle of a bitter winter. But if we are to follow the judgment in the recent Plymouth case, it is not bribery when a man sits himself down before a constituency, flaunting his wealth in the eyes of the electors, distributing lavish 'gifts' of food and clothing to the tune of several thousand pounds a year, and doing everything in his power to prevent a less wealthy candidate than himself from having a chance with the poorer and more needy portion of the constituency. He may do all this, and yet be declared to have done nothing to invalidate his election, but only to have acted the part of a charitable and benevolent friend of the poor. In the light of judgments given in other cases a candidate may employ any number of local lawyers, and buy their influence by preposterous fees, but he may not have a number of watchers at ten shillings a day, nor engage public houses at five guineas apiece. Nay, it is possible, as we know, in certain small and scattered constituencies to buy up beforehand all the usual agents of the sitting member, and to have everything secretly prepared by their help, even to the extent of forming local associations, in favour of a new candidate whose only recommendations are money and impudence. But what difference is there between bribing an active solicitor who has a number of voters under his thumb with a fee of some hundred guineas and bribing a publican with a five-pound note or a watcher with half a sovereign? It is notorious that in nine constituencies out of ten-and this applies to counties as well as boroughs—the candidate must employ one of the local solicitors and his partner or partners, and two or three subordinates, at enormous fees, or allow him and his influence to be
bought up on the other side. But this is not regarded as bribery. It is a commendable act, without which a candidate has little or no chance of winning his election. The fact is that the whole financial arrangements in accordance with which elections are carried on at present have been devised for the convenience of wealthy men to enable them to get into the House of Commons, to the exclusion of their less affluent brethren. The system has been contrived to promote disguised and undisguised bribery, and to fill the pockets of the local lawyers. A story is told of the recent election, which illustrates the system by which the candidates are bled, and how the local solicitor fattens on the system. The election agent for the candidate in a county election calls upon the manager of a printing establishment, to whom he has been introduced by a leading member of the committee-who is also a leading shareholder in the printing establishment. The agent opens the negotiations in the directest manner by the statement that he is going to give him some printing, but the amount will depend upon the commission which the printer allows. The printer innocently states that he is not accustomed to give commissions, but as the order promises to be a good one, he would like to know what the gentleman would consider adequate. It is not a question of adequate,' replied the solicitor; my terms are 31 per cent. on every order which you execute, and if you agree to my terms you shall have a handsome account from my division, and I think I can promise that my friends, the agents in the other divisions, will give you their printing also on the same terms.' The printer, who was not accustomed to give commissions, could not consent to such a wholesale demand as this. He stood firm at 10 per cent., and struck a bargain on that understanding. The solicitor carried out his part of the undertaking, and ran up a bill to something over a thousand pounds, but the printer had the mortification to see the bills and placards of the other divisions of the county done by his rival on the other side of the street. It is obvious from this illustration that the system of bleeding wealthy candidates is so inveterate, so deeply set, and so thoroughly methodised, that any such proposal as that of the eminent judge to which we have referred would be futile.
Other suggestions have been made, which, in default of anything more radical, might tend to purity of election-such as the appointment of something of the character of the Queen's proctor for election cases; the prohibition of the employment of paid canvassers under penalty of the forfeiture of the seat, and a prohibition against the unseated candidate assisting at the subsequent election. These, and especially the last mentioned, might be valuable as checks. But they would only be checks; they would not be remedies. For a remedy we must look for something much more radical. Restrictions, limitations, and penalties in this as in other forms of national delinquency, are apt to drive the disease deeper into the social system, and to suggest to ingenious minds new forms of evasion. Something may
be done to purge the state of this pollution by the influence of local opinion among the leading citizens in a given constituency. Something has been done in one or two cases by this agency. Liverpool was at one time a grossly corrupt constituency. Some of the leading Liberals connected with the place determined that the disgrace should be wiped off. They worked at it for years, and succeeded in making it, on the whole, a fairly pure constituency. The same thing occurred in one of the smaller constituencies in the south of England. Some fifteen years ago it was a sink of electoral corruption. The leading townsfolk on the Liberal side of politics determined to purify it. They got the sitting members unseated, and then commenced their reformation on a system. They formed committees and passed stringent regulations for the conduct of their election business. Among these perhaps the most stringent was one to the effect that no lawyer should be employed in any capacity by the Liberal candidate, and that all the work of canvassing should be done gratuitously. It may seem impossible to carry this out as a general rule, but we are very much inclined to think that nothing short of it will meet the difficulties of the case. It is notorious that in not a few constituencies in Scotland as well as England the disposal of the seat is virtually in the hands of certain local lawyers, who are quite well known, and who manipulate the constituencies entirely for their own purposes, at once pleasantly filling their own pockets and gratifying their local spites and prejudices. Another regulation in the constituency referred to was that the candidate or member should not be bound to contribute anything to local objects, except through the intervention of the executive committee. He subscribed a small fixed annual sum for registration purposes, and another fixed sum for borough subscriptions to public and undenominational objects, and that was the full extent of his liabilities. All applications for subscriptions or charities were transmitted by the candidate or member to the chairman of the executive, and were dealt with by him. The candidate or member was by these means relieved of all trouble and annoyance caused by the countless applications from clergymen, ministers, benevolent women, and the like, for their churches and chapels and pet schemes of indiscriminate charity, which are the plague of a Parliamentary representative's existence. The advantages of these regulations and of this discipline are obvious. The cost of an election in such a constituency, conducted on these principles, is a mere bagatelle, and the subscriptions are trifling, and if they were enforced on both sides nothing could be better or more satisfactory. But when they are enforced on one side, and not on the other, one set of candidates starts at an obvious disadvantage. He has a clear conscience, and a knowledge that the small sum of money which he has been called upon to spend has not been spent improperly; but this satisfaction is somewhat damped by the strong probability that he will be at the bottom of the poll. Liverpool, since its reformation, has refused to return more than one member of
the reforming party, and at present is represented by three members of the opposite party. And in the other constituency to which reference has been made, although at the commencement of the reign of purity the Liberal candidates were successful, in the election of 1874 and in that of 1880 the heavy handicap of purity has been too much for the electors, and the Liberal party has failed to be represented.
This experiment, therefore, though it has everything to recommend it in theory, can hardly be said to have succeeded in practice. But there are other experiments which might be tried before the work is given up as hopeless. In some constituencies the custom is that the candidate should pay down a given sum towards the election fund, and that the party to which he belongs should find the rest. In that arrangement might be found the germ of a system which might at least be tried, and that is the suggestion which we would contribute towards the solution of the difficulty. Form large constituencies, we should say, of not less than 7,000 electors, and, with the exception of a given sum contributed by the candidates, let these enlarged constituencies bear the expense of the elections. If the bulk of the expenses fell upon the constituency the struggle between the candidates would be, not as to which should spend most money, but as to which should spend least money. The true, indeed the only road to the favour of the electors would be a frugal expenditure, and, in consequence of this frugality, an imperceptible rate wherewith to saddle the constituency.