HC Deb 31 March 1903 vol 120 cc761-76
MR. CROOKS (Woolwich)

called attention to the present inadequate representation of Labour in Parliament, and moved, "That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable and expedient that, in order to give constituencies a full and free choice in the selection of Parliamentary candidates, the charges now made by the returning officer to the candidates should be chargeable to public funds, and that all Members of the House of Commons should receive from the State a reasonable stipend during their Parliamentary life." He said that in all probability it would be pointed out that the Woolwich election had shown that there was no difficulty in returning a Labour Member. Here and there, no doubt, they found an incident of that character, but Labour candidates had very little opportunity in the constituencies at General Election times. At any rate, such an election should teach the House one lesson, viz., that workmen would rather be represented by those of their own class. He was speaking, of course, of purely industrial constituencies. He had never yet been able to make up his mind as to the position taken up by hon. Members in the House after their election speeches. There was a good deal of talk about there being absolute equality in this country, but there was, as every Member knew, only one way of getting into the House, and that was by spending substantial sums of money. A considerable sum of money was spent in securing his election, but he did not have to find a farthing of it. The cash was subscribed openly and freely. But he had often heard it asked when a poor man was standing, "Who is finding your money?" The British House of Commons boasted of its love for freedom and justice. Then let it give every man the opportunity of giving his brains and his work to the country by carrying into effect the Resolution he proposed, instead of putting all sorts of obstacles in the way of poor men.

They were told the other night that the great need of men in the Army was brains as well as muscle. If that were good enough for the Army it ought to be good enough for that House, which certainly stood in need; of the best brains of the nation. There should therefore be no bar to constituencies commanding the services of the best brains. It was all very well to say that no man was likely to succeed in the House of Commons who had not first succeeded in the world—whether in trade or otherwise, but why should they wait until a man had worn himself out before sending him to Parliament? Only the other day he saw the following advertisement in the Yorkshire Post:M.P.—A gentleman, thirty, holding a responsible position in London, desirous of entering Parliament, wishes to meet with an affectionate and wealthy lady, view matrimony. Genuine. Highest credentials. The highest credentials seemed to be that the applicant had the moral courage to advertise for someone who would find him the money to enter Parliament. The House should put its foot down on that sort of thing by leaving an absolutely free choice to the constituencies in the selection of their representatives. It might be suggested that men would go into the House of Commons simply to make a living out of it But was there not in the present House more than one Member who made a pretty good thing out of the privilege of being able to attach the magic letters "M.P." to his name? However that might be, he ventured to assert that the administrative capacity of this country had never yet been properly tapped. It was said a man needed to be trained for political life. Yes, but where? Was it at the University? Was it by taking a double first at Oxford or Cambridge that he would turn out a great lawmaker, or was it by constant contact with humanity? He had seen in the Press an observation to the effect that it was all very well for Labour to have its representatives in Parliament, but what did they know of those great historic and important questions which so vitally affected the interests and welfare of the nation. His answer to that was that it was infinitely more important to the average industrial worker of this country that the conditions of life should be bettered, and that an opportunity should be given for men to enter the House who knew what he wanted. There was a constituency, the name of which he was told was not on the map, but which sent a Member to the House—the Pudsey Division of Yorkshire——

MR. GEORGE WHITELEY (Yorkshire, W. R., Pudsey)

Oh, yes, it is on the map.


said he had been told in Yorkshire that Pudsey was not on the map. He was not personally responsible for the statement. The fact he wanted to bring out was that when an election was about to take place there, the working men selected a very good man as their candidate. They sent him to the returning officer to ask how much money it would cost to tight the election. He was told he would have to lay down £150, and at once replied, "I have only £100." The result was that because he had not sufficient money to pay the returning officer's fees the Labour candidate was unable to run on that occasion. In the case of another constituency a candidate was forced on it against the wishes of a large proportion of the voters, and when asked why he had come there, he replied, "Here I am, and you will have to take me whether you like it or not." It was something like compulsory vaccination. The nation had not a free choice of its representatives. When it came to selecting a representative of the people the choice should be as wide as possible. Apart from workmen there must be many business men who could ill afford to pay the election and out-of-pocket expenses of a Member of this House. If the nation wanted the best the nation ought to pay for it. He might be asked, Why should the nation pay when it got so much for nothing? Well, let people look at the condition of the finances and ask if they really got so very much for nothing. He was foolish enough to believe that the practical knowledge of working men would prove exceedingly helpful in the deliberations of the House. There were too many academically-trained men and too few practical men engaged in the Government of the country. If a dozen men were taken indiscriminately both from the workshops and the Universities and placed around a table to discuss a question, he undertook to say there would be more good sense supplied by the working men than by the University men. He had been in touch with working men for years and years; he had sat with them on administrative bodies and his experience was that one touch of nature was worth infinitely more than all the academic training Oxford or Cambridge could give. If the House would pass that Resolution, and if the Government would give it legislative force, they would never have cause to regret the wider and better selection of members which would follow forthwith.

MR. BROADHURST (Leicester)

, in seconding the Motion, said the subject of it had been discussed in that House many times. It embodied two essential points in connection with the freedom of choice in the selection of candidates for membership of the House of Commons. The first part of the Motion asked the House to declare that candidates for Parliamentary honours, like those for seats on county councils, town councils, and parochial bodies, should be relieved of official charges in connection with their election. These charges were the most difficult point which poor men had to contend with in their contests for a seat in the House of Commons, and he submitted that there was no reason whatever why they should be imposed on Parliamentary candidates any more than on candidates for seats on local governing bodies. As far back as 1883 he divided the House upon that question. Mr. Gladstone, in that year, was carrying through Parliament a Bill for the greater Prevention of Corrupt Practices at Parliamentary Elections, and that Act did very considerably reduce the channels of expenditure which had been open up to that date. While the Bill was in Committee he endeavoured to get inserted an Amendment charging the returning officers' expenses on public funds. In that proposal he had with him the sympathy of the House, and he hoped that the Motion now under debate would equally command the sympathy of hon. Members. Still it was not found possible thus to amend the law on that occasion. Mr. Gladstone, who was Prime Minister and Leader of the House, gave, however, an assurance of his deep sympathy with the object of the Amendment, and while pointing out that he could not accept it in a Corrupt Practices Bill, he promised to give favourable consideration to any Bill which might be brought in to accomplish the object it had in view. Consequently, in conjunction with the hon. Members for Morpeth and Poplar, he introduced a Bill, but, unfortunately, owing to the exigencies of Parliamentary procedure, he was never able to obtain an expression of the opinion of the House upon it in its concrete form.

In the constituency which he had the honour to represent, the official charges during the last three elections had amounted in the aggregate to £1,260. That had been divided between four candidates, and it would be seen that it was practically a prohibitive sum so far as poor men were concerned. In years past a suggestion was thrown out that the charge should be imposed on the local rates, but many objections were taken to that course. It was sufficient that night to say that they proposed to throw the charge on public funds. He had worked out how such a proposal would affect Leicester, and had found that it would represent a burden, of not more than two-sevenths of a penny. But in addition to that he believed that if once the charge were imposed on some public fund the claims of the returning officers would immediately be reduced by more than one half, and many expenses which were now incurred would in future be absolutely avoided. He thought the proposal embodied in the Resolution was a very reasonable on. It was advanced in the interests of economy, and he had no doubt that it would be welcomed quite as much by middle class men as by working men. It would even benefit those who were better equipped with the world's wealth than were working men. The other point embodied in the Resolution was the question of the payment of Members. The arguments for and against that proposal were quite familiar to the House, because it had been discussed over and over again. He would like to point out that the new Rules of Procedure had enormously increased the difficulties which beset working men in entering Parliament, and he would gladly see made some adjustment of them which would facilitate Labour representation. At present the House sat until midnight, but nearly two hours were wasted in the middle of the evening. Would it not be better to continue work during those hours, and to rise at ten o'clock? Another point which seriously affected poor men was connected with the high rents of houses in London, and the difficulty of getting to and from home.

At present Members were kept in the House until midnight, and later, when all means of transit to the suburbs had ceased; many hon. Members were therefore compelled to live near Westminster or to travel long distances at night. He hoped the House would get an expression of opinion from the Government on this question; and that the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be prepared to meet the demand they put forward, if not wholly at least partially. Having regard to the interest which the Chancellor of the Exchequer was evidently taking in the subject he would second the Motion with confidence.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable and expedient that, in order to give constituencies a full and free choice in the selection of Parliamentary candidates, the charges now made by the returning officer to the candidates should be chargeable to public funds, and that all Members of the House of Commons should receive from the State a reasonable stipend during their Parliamentary life."—(Mr. Crooks.)


There was one point in the excellent speech of my hon. friend the Member for Woolwich which I was sorry to hear from him. It was that part of the speech in which he let us know that he had received the impression that Members such as himself, who in a peculiar degree represent the working classes, were not received on all occasions, I will not say with respect, but with a feeling of courtesy and consideration by the House. I think that when my hon. friend has been a little longer among us he will be disabused entirely of that idea; because, in my experience, I have never seen an exhibition of such a spirit, and, speaking without regard to one side of the House or the other, I can say that there are no men who are listened to with greater patience and pleasure than those who speak as the representatives of Labour. What is the reason of what I should have called the exceptional interest which is taken in their speeches? It is not only that we are anxious to show our courtesy to them, but because they speak on subjects of which they have themselves a personal knowledge, and with an authority which is not possessed by other hon. Members.

This Motion is one which I shall support cordially. It is no stronger, and almost less peremptory, than the Motions of the same kind which we on this side of the House have supported before. It is not only a question of the numbers of those whom we call the working classes—by which live mean nothing but a compliment— it is not only their numbers that necessitate some provision of the kind; but it is the fact that they have a distinct view of interest in public matters which is not sufficiently represented in the House. And if we are to have any regard whatever to the full development of the democratic system of Government—the system of Government which we profess to have established in this country—we surely ought not to allow any barrier of mere money to stand in the way of the fullest expression of the wishes and desires of the people. And this resolution goes beyond those who may be included in the ranks of labour, as it is commonly understood. There are many men in this House who are not well off, though not Labour Members, and there are many men out of the House who would be most useful to it, but who are debarred from coming in by the expense, not only of the election, but of the life which a Member of Parliament has to lead. Is it not desirable to remove these barriers altogether? As to the expenses of elections, would it not be desirable to have an inquiry into them, for they appear to grow instead of to diminish? Beyond that there is the expense of living in London, and the charge which is thrown on a man by taking him away from his ordinary habits, and these are all bars to the full and free choice in the selection of Parliamentary candidates. I am anxious to see our representative system made as complete as possible, and one of the most essential of all changes, with a view to that completeness of our system, is the removal of the barrier of money from those who are not only competent, but in some respects the most competent of all, to tell the House what is required to improve the position of the people.

EARL PERCY (Kensington, S.)

said that as one who had had some academic training, and who therefore fell under the condemnation of the hon. Member for Woolwich, he felt some diffidence in speaking on behalf of the Government. It was to be regretted that there was such a short time for the discussion of this important subject, but all must admit the wit and ability which the hon. Member for Woolwich had shown in moving his Resolution. This Motion was one of more importance than those which they were usually called upon to deal with on Tuesday evenings. It was important, not only in the sense that it would introduce constitutional changes into our system of representation as great as any changes that were likely to result from any measure brought forward on the responsibility of the Government, but also because it was a question which they had not had an opportunity of discussing for many years. If hon. Gentlemen were right in thinking that opinion in the constituencies had changed in recent years, then it might be desirable to come to a decision on the subject, since it was only when the Party now in office were in power that any opportunity at all was given for the discussion of the question. The Motion would at once afford instruction to their constituents and a subject of profitable discussion to themselves. He did not, of course, allude for a moment to the pecuniary aspect of the question, which would not weigh with any hon. Member, since the Motion was not retrospective. He alluded rather to the opportunity of self examination, of appraising at their proper value the arduous but hitherto unrewarded services which they had rendered to a fortunate country. In these days, when the doctrine of economy was being preached, no doubt it would be gratifying to them to tell their constituencies that the taxpayers of this country, so far from not getting proper value for their money, had for a long time past been living on unearned increment, to hold up to them the example of the model employer and to claim for themselves, as hard-working legislators, if not an eight hours day, at any rate a living wage. He was the last to deny that there was something to be said for this Motion. He observed that the right hon. Gentleman still retained this particular item in the programme of the Party opposite. He had been in some doubt whether it was a measure which had a permanent place in that programme or whether it was one of those ornaments which were thrown aside as flyblown phylacteries—one of those inconvenient accounts which were rubbed off the slate by the advocates of efficiency and economy. This Motion was based on the ground that at the present moment that House did not adequately represent the people. That was a statement in support of which no proof had been adduced and no definition had been given of what was meant by representation. It appeared to be assumed that the representation could not be regarded as adequate, unless there were a certain number of Labour Members in the House He was the last to deny that the presence of Labour Members in that House was desirable. He had been sufficiently long in the House to appreciate the popularity which the Labour Members had deservedly won; and they all welcomed gentlemen like the hon. Gentleman the Member for Woolwich in their midst. But they did not welcome them because they belonged to a particular class, or were rich or poor, any more than they welcomed the right hon. Gentleman because he was a baronet, or capitalists because they were capitalists. They welcomed them, so far as these considerations were concerned, on the negative ground that the nature of a man's employment, or the amount of his private means had nothing to do with his capacity to represent a constituency. But he did not admit that a member of the working class was any more representative of a constituency than any other Member of the House. Many of them represented constituencies almost entirely composed of members of the working class. If they were to admit that working-class Members of that House were representatives of their constituencies in any other sense than other Members were, they would have to admit that they represented, not the constituency as a whole, but a particular class or section of the constituency.


said that the point was that the choice of the constituency was limited.


said the hon. Gentleman defended his Motion on the ground that it would widen the area of selection. It was undoubtedly true that the Labour Members they welcomed to this House had, in the nature of things, had special opportunities of studying certain social conditions, and therefore brought special knowledge to bear upon social problems. There might be something to be said for the Resolution in so far as it tended to widen the area of selection for that particular class of expert. But, if the House were to adopt this new principle of paying for expert knowledge, why were they to limit its application to Labour Members? It was entirely, erroneous to suppose that Labour was the only interest penalised. Many experts in every kind of profession, in business, at the Bar, and in scientific pursuits, were debarred from giving their services to the public in that House because they could not afford to give their time or forego their professional incomes. The proposals of the hon. Gentleman did not even guarantee that the workmen elected would have special knowledge of social questions; and if the principle of paying for expert knowledge were to be adopted, the money would be better spent, not in paying everyone whether they were worth it or not, but in paying a really adequate salary to men of eminence to induce them to forego lucrative work in their own particular walk of life, so as to secure their undivided attention and co-operation in Parliamentary councils. That was one argument against the hon. Gentleman's plan. Another was that his proposals did not tend, according to Colonial and American experience, to secure the object he had in view. A third argument was the financial one. These proposals would involve the country in a charge of £250,000 sterling at the least, and if they included municipal elections in an expenditure of £1,500,000. Could anyone say this expenditure was justifiable in existing circumstances? The taxpayers had the first claim. There were a number of problems awaiting solution on which the money might be better spent, such as poor-law reform, housing, education and licensing reform, every one of which would be thrown into the background if this Motion were accepted. He asked the House to reject the Motion on these grounds and because he believed it would seriously alter the character of representatives in the House of Commons, and inflict an irreparable blow on the public life and Parliamentary institutions of this country.


rose in his place, and claimed to move, "That the Question be now put;" but Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER withheld his assent, and declined then to put that Question.

Debate resumed.


said he believed that there was no country in the world in which there was such an amount of unpaid work done for the benefit of the community as in this country; and if they began to pay one particular branch of work, they would be opening the door to payment for all kinds of public service.

And, it being Midnight, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed to-morrow.