Orders of the Day — REPRESENTATION OF THE PEOPLE (No. 2) BILL.

– in the House of Commons on 30th March 1922.

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Postponed Proceeding resumed on Question, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

Question again proposed.

Photo of Mr Charles White Mr Charles White , Derbyshire Western

This Bill, suddenly sprung upon us to-night, prevents a good many Members who would have liked the opportunity of speaking against it to do so, because they did not expect it would come on. This is a Measure which, I submit, requires very grave consideration. I am not going to impute any sinister motives to the Home Secretary, except to say this: that at one time in his career, when he was imbued with those Liberal principles which those of us on this side of the House still believe in, and which he now lacks, he would have been a strong opponent of this Bill. I know no stronger than he would have, been. Let us look at what Clause 2 really does mean. It says: In calculating the amount of the expenses of a candidate at a Parliamentary or local government election for the purposes of any enactment limiting those expenses, any expenditure on postage for printed packets within the meaning of the Post Office Acts, 1908 to 1920, shall, if the rate of postage for any such packet is higher than it was on the first day of January, nineteen hundred and nineteen, be reckoned as though that rate had remained the same as it was on that date. We know perfectly well that on that date there was the penny postage. To-day we have the 2d. postage. If this Bill had provided for the use of a penny stamp instead of a twopenny—which might have been reckoned as a penny stamp—then it would not have got to a maximum at present, assigned to the candidates, and especially those who like myself are poor men. It does not do this. May I illustrate? I like to give concrete instances. I daresay I am the poorest Member of this House. I am rather proud of it, because it puts me in a class by myself. My opponent is the eldest son of a duke who lives in a palatial mansion some miles from where I live in my cottage. He runs quite a dozen motor cars, and as I represent a constituency which consists of 400 square miles of territory and 126 parishes, he starts very much ahead of me in that respect, because I have not even a wheelbarrow. My opponent therefore, in addition to his present maximum, if this Bill passes, will be allowed to spend £130 a year more than he is allowed to do now. I cannot possibly compete with a rich candidate like that. Therefore I speak on behalf of the poor Members of the House and candidates. I hope a good many poor candidates, who would be an acquisition to the House, will become Members at the next election. Therefore we shall be penalised in our expenses because we are poor. I shall have the greatest difficulty in providing money to disseminate the truth in my constituency. My opponent, who is, naturally, a Tory of the most reactionary type, will spend his extra £130 in spreading those pernicious doctrines which I shall not have the money to counteract, because I cannot afford it. I should like to know what the Prime Minister thinks about all this. I once used to appear on his platform, but I had not found him out then, and I would rather like to know if he has one spark of those Liberal principles left in him, which he used to profess, at the present moment, because, if he has, he could not possibly support a Bill of this kind.

This is class legislation of the very worst type. When we see the present constitution of the House of Commons we know that every possible means will be used to secure their return at the next election. I am an old election and registration agent, and if I spoke from that standpoint I should say, let us have £130 more to spend. I shall have, however, to fight the next election as a poor man, and I have not got this extra money to spend. Consequently, I consider this matter not from my own standpoint only, but from the standpoint of those democrats who will fight the next election without spending more than the maximum amount because they have not the means. The rich man can spend £130 more in my constituency over and above the maximum now allowed. I know all the difficulties of fighting elections. I know it is impossible in my own constituency to fight an election anything like effectively on the money now provided, but do not give the rich man any further advantage over the advantages which he already possesses. I think this Bill should be defeated on its Second Beading. I hope this House of Commons, undemocratic as it may be, will exercise that fairplay and justice which has characterised the House of Commons in the past before 1918. I sincerely hope that honesty and justice will once more assert itself, and that we shall reject this Bill by an overwhelming majority on its Second Reading.

Photo of Mr James Hogge Mr James Hogge , Edinburgh East

Like the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, I am astonished that the Government should submit a Bill of this kind on the slender arguments which have been advanced by the Home Secretary. I should like to know from the right hon. Gentleman who on the other side of the House, or among our local government authorities, have asked for this reform.

Photo of Mr James Hogge Mr James Hogge , Edinburgh East

The right hon. Gentleman says it is a very small point, but I think I can show that it is a large point, and so far as the question of a cheap method of election is concerned, it is the thin end of the wedge, to restore if possible those conditions of popular election which prevented any constituency getting the widest choice of candidates possible. Hon. Members may think that we on this side are pleading against this Bill because we have a particular interest in it. But whether the candidate seeking the suffrages of the electors be Conservative, Labour or Liberal is of no actual concern, because if there is one thing more important than another, not only for representation in this House, but for the representation of the people on local authorities it is the widening of the choice which any constituency may have, and any penalty or any handicap, or any restriction that is put upon that choice is therefore a handicap of the type I have described. My right hon. Friend is apparently unable to answer the question as to who asked for this reform. That being so, we can only conclude that this is one of the first instalments of the great programme of social reform which the Coalition Government came into office to carry through. I cannot conceive the Government asking the House to waste its time in considering a reform of this kind, in view of tie graver and weightier matters we are called upon to discuss from day to day. That is the first point I want to raise in this Debate. We ought to know what is the real purpose of this Bill and for whose sake it is being promoted. Before we are prepared to vote on the Bill, we are going to try to secure that information.

I want to address myself, secondly, in the short time which remains to us for this discussion, to the problem which evidently the Home Secretary is content to dismiss with a waive of the hand. I do not know if for the purpose of shortening the discussion the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to get up and say that the Government will withdraw Clause 2. If they are prepared to do that I do not suppose that we on this side will have any great objection to the other Clauses. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh, yes!"] I am not committing hon. Members, but if the right hon. Gentleman desires he may possibly get the Second Beading of his Bill by agreeing to eliminate Clause 2. In the absence of any response to that suggestion, I must address myself to the arguments why Clause 2 should be left out. The House will observe that what it does is to give in the case of one expenditure, and one only, in the matter of election, the right to spend more money than is being spent now.

It is almost like talking shop to talk about electioneering among Members of this House, but Members of this House know that electioneering is not confined to the issue of postal packets, and it may be that many of us who are engaged in these conflicts would prefer to spend in other and different directions that extra money which is allowed for postage. For example, let us suppose that in my constituency of East Edinburgh, where they do not require any further education to reject the policy of this Government, I wished to spend this money in a different way. Let us suppose that I wanted to spend it in renting halls in my constituency, in order that, instead of posting packets of literature, I might attempt to reach the electors from the public platform. That is a very much better method of electioneering. No elector can ask a pamphlet a supple- mentary question. No elector can heckle an election address. But he can go to a public meeting, and he can not only question or heckle, but he can debate public questions with the man who is seeking his suffrages; and the atmosphere that is created in any constituency by a series of propaganda meetings of that kind is, in my view, a much more healthy way of stimulating public opinion than the issue of printed leaflets through the post. But if the Home Secretary happened—if that be conceivable—to be my opponent in East Edinburgh, or I happened to be his opponent in West Newcastle, and if he cared to choose the method of this Bill, and spend the money in postage, he could do it, whereas I am not to be given that choice. After all, although he is a Member of the Coalition Government, he perhaps retains some of his old radical principles, and I am sure he will agree that every candidate for Parliament or for any local authority ought to have an equal chance, and that it cannot be fair to put any handicap in the way of that candidate's reaching his desire. Again, why should not a candidate be entitled to the same reduction in the cost of printing to which he is entitled in the cost of postage? Why should the Government say: Any expenditure on postage for printed packets within the meaning of the Post Office Acts, 1908 to 1920, shall, if the rate of postage for any such pocket is higher than it was on the first day of January, nineteen hundred and nineteen, be reckoned as though that rate had remained the same as it was on that date. The Government are going to subsidise the wealthy candidate by allowing him the cheap postage rates of 1919. On the same basis and on the same lines, why, in printing our election addresses, in advertising in our newspapers, in posting on our walls, in conducting our meetings, and all the paraphernalia of an election, should not the Government subsidise all candidates and give them all that at its cost on the 1st January, 1019? We might even push it to the ridiculous and say that, while we are in our constituencies incurring personal expenditure, we were entitled to our expenses in our hotels or inns or houses during the election at their cost on that particular date. That, obviously, is the argument that reduces this Bill to an absurdity if my right hon. Friend persists in carrying Clause 2, and that is the meticulous argument against Clause 2.

On the wider argument there is this to be said. When the last reforms were made the biggest reform of all was the omission from a candidate's expenses of the Returning Officer's expenses, and we were by that method enabled to put a candidate—even though he did not agree with our particular party colour and was an independent candidate—into the field, and at the minimum cost to himself or those whom he represented to test the feeling of the constituency. That is an enormous thing. How frequently in this House, when a Member retires or a Member dies, does a large constituency have to go by default, as there is no political party that can afford to fight that particular seat? In the old days it could never be contested, and from year to year and Parliament to Parliament you had great areas in this country which were never tested and never had any political propaganda done in them, because nobody was really able to put up the money necessary to fight the wealthier candidate. When you do away with Returning Officers' expenses any man, by hiring halls or speaking at street corners, can test public opinion. There are so many important questions that arise from time to time that it is most undesirable that any further cost should be imposed. On the broader argument, then, that this will destroy something to which democracy has gained access for the testing of public opinion on every available occasion, I shall vote against the Second Reading of the Bill unless the Government are prepared to say, here and now, that they are ready to omit Clause 2.

Lieut.-Colonel J. WARD:

I also wish to add my appeal to that of my hon. Friend who has just sat down (Mr. Hogge) that Clause 2 should be struck out of this Bill. Everything that adds to the expense of an election adds to the difficulty of the poor man being returned to this House. I could have understood quite easily if, owing to the opinion of the Government, the Home Secretary, and the Department that has been considering this business, it had been decided that the expense of postage was such that it hampered the candidate considerably because of the amount he had to spend on an election and it had been decided to make it a public charge. I could have understood that the public Exchequer should have met the extra, so that the candidate was not called on to pay more in proportion than he paid when circumstances were more equal than they are to-day. But that you should put it in the power of the wealthy man to have a better opportunity than he had previously to be returned to this House because of the amount of money he has at his disposal to spend on an election, is not doing justice to the democratic character of this House, and for that reason most certainly I would add my appeal to the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether he was delivering his speech merely for opposition to the Measure. The other matters that I see in the Clauses of the Bill really require to be enacted, in spite of the suggestions made a moment ago that even if Clause 2 were struck out our friends would continue to oppose it. I have looked through the Bill carefully and I am of opinion that there are matters connected with election law which require to be remedied and the Bill if passed into law might confer advantages, but I am utterly opposed to this Clause. I remember quite well when we used to discuss, at street corners and elsewhere, a reduction of election expenses to not more than £500, and I am certainly of opinion that we ought to aim at curtailing the possibility of lavish expenditure at elections rather than increasing it. It really does not give a poor man a ghost of a chance. If you are going continually to increase the amount which can be spent on elections, you may be sure the man who has plenty of money at his disposal will go to the extreme limit, and the poor man is placed at considerable disadvantage, and this House never can be really democratic until both at an election and in attendance in this House the poorest citizen in the State, provided he has ability, has an equal opportunity of a seat in it.

Photo of Mr Neil Maclean Mr Neil Maclean , Glasgow Govan

I also take exception to the second Clause of the Bill. It has as its title "The Representation of the People Act." Judging from the Second Clause, it will cease to be a Representation of the People Measure, and will mean practically the buying of some seats. It has been said by various speakers that a rich man, owing to the operation of Clause 2, will have an undue advantage over the poor man who may be contesting the same constituency. That from the very read- ing of the Clause itself is obvious; and I am surprised that the Government should try to obtain a Second Reading of the Bill to-day, with such a short time allotted for the discussion of such an important Measure. It is reversing in every possible direction the operation of the Representation of the People Act, which has now become the law of the country, and upon which the elections were fought in 1919. It takes away a great deal of the democratic rights that that Act gives to the poor man by the operation of this part of Clause 2 which gives to a wealthy candidate, who is able to send several times the printed matter by post, an undue advantage over the like of the Members who sit on the Labour benches and poorer candidates in other constituencies, and in consequence entirely vitiates the right of democratic representation of the people. I have been questioned because I have made the suggestion that we should also oppose Clause 3. Even if the Government withdrew Clause 2, Clause 3 remains as a Clause which we cannot support.

It being Eleven of the Clock, Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed To-morrow.

The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.