The Slippery Slope/Democracy and Local Elections

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For some time past there has been a growing uneasiness in the minds of many observers with regard to the question of our system of local government. On the one hand there are widespread complaints of municipal mismanagement and extravagance, on the other a constant demand for the conferring of greater powers and responsibilities upon municipal bodies. Often, indeed, the very people who are loudest in their complaints of incompetence are most insistent in demanding further powers for the bodies they denounce. Meanwhile enterprise of all kinds, both civic and philanthropic, is passing more and more out of the hands of individual citizens into those of public bodies "elected by the people." The magnitude of the powers now exercised by these bodies, and the fact that there appears to be no prospective limit to their activity, render it imperative that we should scan closely the operation of the system under which they are appointed and ask ourselves whether it works as it is intended to work, and whether we are securing under it the administrators best fitted for functions which concern the future of the country more closely than any question of foreign policy or imperial extension.

The nature and constitution of municipal bodies and the methods of their appointment were finally settled and prescribed by the Local Government Act of 1894. The main object of that Act was, as is well known, to carry the democratic principle to its extreme limits in local elections. Qualifications both for candidates and voters were swept away—as also was the principle of nomination by the Local Government Board. The last trace of plural voting was effaced, and the principle that taxation and representation go together finally discarded. It was urged that the measure would widen and intensify the interest in local affairs, that with greater power there would come greater responsibility, and that thenceforward every citizen would be awakened to an intelligent interest in local government and to a full sense of its importance. The average citizen who had up to that time displayed a persistent disregard for the affairs of his town or parish was to be "educated" out of his apathy by a sense of responsibility. It was suggested at the time that the administration of the Poor Law was too difficult and complex a subject for the turmoil of the hustings. The answer was that the electorate would soon learn all that it was necessary to learn about the Poor Law, and would exercise their suffrages with discretion and intelligence. More than ten years have gone by. The Act has had a fair trial, and it is time to inquire how it has worked, and whether in fact it has had, or appears in the fair way to obtain, the results that were anticipated by its authors.

An attempt is made in this article to bring these questions to some sort of preliminary test by an inquiry with regard to a single local election in a single place—the election, namely, of Boards of Guardians in London, which took place in 1904. A fuller inquiry is no doubt very desirable, but a single election in a great town may be fairly taken as a test of the conditions attending similar elections in other great centres of population. Moreover, a Poor Law election has a special significance because the Poor Law is a branch of local administration which has a sinister history behind it, and which demands special qualifications and capabilities from those who undertake it. It becomes essential to inquire whether its administrators possess these qualifications, and whether the electorate itself is becoming better qualified to judge as to those who will serve it best.

The method adopted has been as follows. Information has been collected from all parts of London with regard to the election in question, including statistics as to the polls in each union, election addresses of candidates, local newspapers, and other contemporary expressions of opinion. The information is not absolutely complete, because in some cases it was found impossible to obtain the particulars asked for, even within a short time of the election, which is rather a significant sign of the ephemeral nature of the interest awakened. However, a large amount of matter has, through the kindness of various correspondents, been brought together, and it is hoped that it may be considered of sufficient importance to establish the necessity of further inquiry upon some of the points indicated.

First of all, with regard to the polls, statistics were obtained as to the number of wards in each union contested or uncontested. When there were contests figures were asked for as to the number of voters upon the register and as to the number of those who actually voted. A detailed table of the results will be found at the end of this article, but the following is a summary.

Information was furnished from twenty-seven out of thirty-one unions. In these twenty-seven unions there were in all 236 wards. Of these 122 were polled; 115, or nearly half, remained unpolled. In two of the twenty-seven unions there were no contests; in three, though there were contests, it proved impossible to obtain the actual figures. In the remaining twenty-two unions, out of 296,725 electors upon the register in the contested wards, 69,385 voted, or rather less than one-quarter. We may take it therefore that, in the whole metropolis, in round figures, half the wards were polled, and that in that half a quarter of the electorate only made use of their votes.

These figures, however, do not represent the whole truth. It is, of course, well known to everyone who has been concerned in local elections that those immediately interested spare no effort to secure the return of themselves and their friends. The support of political and other associations is enlisted. Election Committees and bands of canvassers are organised. No means that human ingenuity can devise are left untried in order to induce people to vote. In Lambeth, according to a local paper, "seven out of eight of the voters were whipped to the poll by party organisations." In Islington it was "a matter of the candidates drumming up such of their private friends and neighbours as would go outside their doors to oblige them." In Lewisham "what excitement there was was limited to the candidates and their friends." The same story comes from all parts of London. In Marylebone "little enthusiasm"; in Shoreditch "deadening lack of interest"; in Camberwell "colossal apathy"; and so elsewhere. But it is hardly necessary to elaborate the point. The figures speak for themselves. In the individual polls it is rare indeed to find one which runs into four figures, though the voters upon the register in the wards are usually from 3000 to 5000. Local elections have been "democratised," but the democracy, after many years' trial, still stands aloof. What voting there is, is organised by the efforts of candidates themselves. There is no spontaneous interest. A letter in the "Clapham Observer" (16th April 1904) analyses the voting in the huge union of Wandsworth, containing a population of more than 400,000, and points a moral. The writer states that, in the three years of office of the outgoing Board, a total of £642,620, showing an increase of twenty-seven per cent, in the three years, "had been spent by the Guardians." He goes on to say that, at the three elections out of twenty-four wards only eight polled. "The total number of voters in the union is 73,340; of these only 5086 voted, or not quite seven per cent. In the eight wards contested only 21.66 per cent., or not one-quarter of the ratepayers, took the trouble of voting. Upon whom does the blame rest if the expense of Poor Law administration goes up by leaps and bounds?"

What, then, is the cause of this? The answer probably is that there are many contributory causes, but that the main cause is the little credit which local government enjoys in popular estimation. The average citizen looks on it with something like contempt: he will neither take part in it himself nor will he trouble himself to vote, or even to learn anything about it. He has a<vague idea that Guardians are "Bumbles," and borough councillors not much better. He has no clear ideas as to the functions of a multiplicity of local bodies, and he resents the frequency of elections. This is the case with the "well-to-do" class of voter; the poorer voter, in addition, has the grievance that he has been repeatedly promised all sorts of benefits without any result, and his constant dictum is that "one lot is as bad as the other, and that he won't vote at all." The discredit into which local government has fallen affects unfavourably the class of candidates who offer themselves for election. The average citizen sees in it no outlet for honourable ambition. He is, as a rule, especially in the poorer parts of London, fully occupied with his own business, and there is little temptation to him to sacrifice any part of his time to work which brings with it little credit and not seldom a considerable share of blame. The absence of candidates of some standing and position reacts unfavourably upon the electorate, who, as a rule, know little of those who offer themselves, and feel no enthusiasm for them. The position with regard to Poor Law administration is a particularly difficult one. The road to popularity does not lie through the careful expenditure of public money. The Press and many public men lose no opportunity of denouncing "bumbledom," and the opprobrium often falls upon those who deserve it least.

The result of all this is that the work too often falls into the hands of those who have "axes to grind," and that in the absence of suitable candidates the electorate is at the mercy of anyone who will come forward, and that scandals of all kinds are of frequent occurrence. In a recent number of the "Poor Law Officers' Journal" it is reported that at a single sitting of a certain metropolitan Board of Guardians this year, no less than two sons of Guardians were appointed to paid offices under the Board, in spite of the protest of a minority. Anyone who is behind the scenes will know that this is no isolated occurrence. But, further, a seat upon a local Board is frequently the first step to an office under that Board. The present writer is aware of a case in which at least three medical officers have obtained appointments under a certain Board, having first been "elected by the people." The local government papers report frequently "the resignation of a Guardian" in order to take up a registrarship or even the post of relieving officer: people who do these things will not of course stop short at other doubtful practices. All this naturally tends to bring local government into deserved disrepute, and the whole system moves in a vicious circle; the discredit into which it has fallen becoming the chief obstacle to improvement. Meanwhile those who are responsible for these practices are frequently the very men who appear before the public at election time as the most ardent advocates of humanity, the foremost champions of the cause of the poor.

It cannot be a matter for wonder that the electorate, who over a succession of years have watched the sequence of promise and performance, should regard the situation with something more akin to dislike than indifference, and should abstain from taking any part in electing those whom they have learned to distrust.

The fact that local elections are decided by so small a number of votes places the control in the hands of political clubs and associations, and other combinations which may happen to be influential for the moment in any district. Candidates are elected because they are Conservatives, or because they are Liberals, or because they are Churchmen, or because they are Nonconformists. In Brixton, for instance, "four wards were swept by the Nonconformist churches." In Chelsea and other places the political associations controlled the election. In some places labour organisations are all-powerful. This was the case in Battersea and Hackney. But the smallness of the polls in every part of London precludes the idea that the results were really representative of public opinion, or that they really indicated "the voice of the people." When the associations take no part in these elections it is hardly too much to say that there is no voting at all. The present writer was upon one occasion returned for a ward containing 5000 voters at a bye-election. He received about 230 votes; his opponent received about 50.

It has been said that Poor Law elections are a specially crucial test of local government, because administrators of the Poor Law require special qualifications of knowledge and intelligence. It may be added that they differ from other municipal authorities in that they deal directly with human beings, rather than with things, and that human nature is a dangerous plaything for amateurs. In order to gauge to some extent the existence of these qualifications in those who came forward as candidates, a large number of election addresses have been gathered and examined. The result is extremely disappointing. The addresses which exhibit any knowledge of Poor Law history or principles are insignificant in number. The majority are studiously vague. " Economy and efficiency," "humanity and kind treatment of the poor are the most frequent watchwords. Or they appeal for support on the ground of "long residence" or for other personal reasons. Where they descend to particulars there is one feature that is common to almost all of them, namely, the advocacy of outdoor relief "to prevent expenditure upon bricks and mortar and upon large and costly buildings"; "to prevent the breakingup of homes"; "to keep the poor by their own firesides." From one union comes a pictorial address: "(1) United and happy—outdoor relief; (2) Parted and pauperised—no outdoor relief." The first is a representation of an old couple sitting by the fire drinking tea; the second of a similar couple bidding good-bye to one another at the workhouse door. Another complains of "the niggerly [sic] manner in which outdoor relief is granted." Generally speaking, that is the line taken by the great majority of addresses which deal specifically with any question of administration, and it may be added that addresses of the same nature have done duty at Poor Law elections for many generations. No one apparently stops to ask why it is that though outdoor relief has of late years been largely on the increase in all but an infinitesimal number of unions, expenditure upon "bricks and mortar" has tended to increase even faster. No one has asked why it is that the largest increase of indoor expenditure has taken place precisely in those unions which have expended most upon outdoor relief, or why it is that more "homes are broken up" in outdoor unions than in indoor ones. Yet as to the facts there can be no doubt. Meanwhile the advocacy of outdoor relief is, and always must be, popular, and is of course especially welcome to those associations which control the elections, and which themselves largely depend for their existence upon popularity. Here and there we find an address of a different quality. One from Paddington contains a quotation from an Annual Report of the Local Government Board to the effect that "outdoor relief has never sensibly reduced indoor relief." A very outspoken one from St Pancras defines the object of the Poor Law as being "the diminution of the curse of pauperism, and the raising of the condition of the poor." The writer failed to be elected. One from Shoreditch speaks of the "difficult and complicated question of outdoor relief," one or two more of the necessity of "discrimination," but they are very guarded in their utterances, and, speaking generally, the public is not likely to derive much enlightenment upon Poor Law questions from the addresses of the candidates, and so far as these are concerned the "education" of the electorate does not appear likely to progress apace.

There are also some addresses of an extremist kind. The increasing intervention of the labour party in local elections has been already mentioned. In at least two unions they have an official programme and manifesto containing a long list of proposed "reforms," many of which would be considered outside the province of the Poor Law. Judging from that programme, it would appear that they look to the Poor Law for the solution of the problem of poverty, and we have the ominous spectacle of a "labour" party clamouring for relief from the rates.

But there are other extremists besides those of the labour party. It is remarkable that in those unions in which outdoor relief has been carried to its greatest lengths the cry for its extension is the most persistent. In Camberwell, for instance, the out-relief expenditure is some,£30,000 a year, and yet we find the following in one of the addresses from that union:—

"The people are being driven into the workhouses at enormous cost, where outdoor relief at one quarter the cost is being viciously refused … the money is infamously dragged from the poor and lavishly squandered upon the rich. One big butcher got a contract for nearly,£8000 [sic] of meat, for one six months. If outdoor relief were intelligently given, thousands of aged workhouse inmates could live at home with their grown-up sons and daughters, and the little butchers would sell more meat, and we should all be paying less rates, and everybody would benefit." This sounds like an echo from some far-off fiscal platform. Another address from the same union also advocates more outdoor relief: "habitual pauperism," it contends, "is encouraged by indoor relief." In Poplar, Hackney, Islington, and other unions in which the expenditure upon outdoor relief is already enormous, there is a similar demand upon all sides for its extension.

Another somewhat singular address comes from Camber well. It purports to emanate, not from the candidates themselves, but from "the inmates of the Gordon Road workhouse" who are "gratified to know that Mr W. H—— is contesting the ward against Miss J—— . The aged inmates (rather ungallantly) wish him every success. Mr J—— is also an exceedingly able young man. Nunhead will do well to elect them." This address has some significance as marking the fast disappearing margin that divides the administrators of the Poor Law from the recipients of poor relief. It does not stand alone in this respect. Not long ago in another workhouse a memorial was extensively signed by the inmates in favour of the election of certain candidates, and it is becoming plain that the recipients of relief are occupying more and more a position to dictate the terms of their own relief. The writer was concerned a few years ago in an election in which the contest turned upon the out-relief question. The out-relief party won. At the first relief meeting of the newly elected Board applicants appeared before the Board with the election addresses of the out-relief party in their hands, which they flourished in the face of the Guardians present.

Passing from the consideration of the election addresses to other features of the election in question, one point that appears to be novel is the number of ex-officers of Guardians, some of them actually in receipt of retiring allowance from their Boards, who came forward as candidates for election. There were several of these in Lambeth, and at least one was elected. In Fulham, Bethnal Green, and probably other unions there were ex-officers amongst the candidates. The question of their eligibility or otherwise was put before the Local Government Board, who declined to give an opinion. The position is, however, a somewhat difficult one. The best qualified officers are not, as a rule, those who are the first to be retired, and it may happen that an officer who has been retired for incompetence or other reasons may return to the control of the very institutions which he has been considered unfit to manage, and all sorts of personal friction may be the result. In any case, he may be put into the somewhat invidious position of signing cheques for his own salary.

It is not, of course, intended to suggest in what has been said that none of those who come forward at these elections are qualified for the position. On the contrary, there are many who are fully qualified in every way, and are doing excellent service. The general standard, however, is not a high one, and they work as a rule under extreme difficulties. They have, it is true, often an influence disproportionate to their numbers, but the advocacy of economic doctrines is unpalatable to the caucuses, and their position is at all times precarious. They find considerable difficulty in obtaining election; every three years they are liable to be unseated, and many of them have met with that fate. They are as a rule elected in spite of their opinions rather than because of them. Their appearance is accidental, and in spite of the system rather than because of it.

Another difficulty that they encounter is in the changed action of the Local Government Board. There was a time when they could have looked to it for support in the maintenance of principles which the Board itself has repeatedly recognised. Now the circulars and letters of the Local Government Board are thrown in their teeth at every turn. They have succeeded after a struggle in reducing extravagant expenditure upon outdoor relief. The Local Government Board issues a circular commending it to Guardians. They endeavour to maintain some sort of discipline and regulation in workhouse management. The Local Government Board issues circulars enjoining relaxation and indulgences. Since Mr Goschen's circular of 1869, the central Board has in fact abdicated its old controlling function. The inspectors, in London at least, show little or no sign of official disapproval of laxity of administration. This has changed to some extent since Mr John Burns succeeded to the Presidency of the Local Government Board.

To sum up, then, if we may judge from the analogy of the election in question, there is no reality in our system of popular representation in local government. We hear the voice of political clubs and coteries, of churches and chapels, and of late especially the voice of a small but well-organised socialist party. The voice of the people is conspicuously silent: about one-eighth of the electorate only voted, and that under great pressure. The extreme subdivision of local administration, involving a wearisome multiplicity of elections, and obscuring the broader issues to the public mind, is to a great extent responsible for the discredit into which it has fallen. There is little inducement to the more capable citizens to offer themselves for election, and little inducement to the average elector to record his vote. The system has got into a rut out of which it is essential that it should be extricated.

It is sometimes urged that the remedy will come automatically: that the increase of rates will eventually bring about its own cure. This of course may be true, but the process is a slow one, and meanwhile the position may become irremediable. The increase of rates is disguised to the great majority of the electors. The working classes complain, it is true, of the increase of their rents, but they are for the most part compound householders, who do not pay their rates direct, and they ascribe the increase of their rents exclusively to "grasping landlords." Almost the only direct ratepayers in poor districts are the great firms and corporations and a percentage of the shopkeepers, but they have scarcely any voice in the matter, and are looked upon in many cases as legitimate objects of plunder. It must not be forgotten that of late years the socialist party has been gradually acquiring more and more power in these local elections. In some places they control them almost exclusively. They make it no secret that it is their object to bring about a silent revolution through municipal action, and subordinate all other considerations to that end. Not only the Poor Law, but borough councils and education committees are their field of action. So long as this is the case we may be sure that no considerations of economy will be allowed to have any weight, not at all events till it may be too late. We have seen also that the line of demarcation between those who pay the rates and those who receive them is fast disappearing, that inmates of workhouses are now proposing to select the managers of the workhouses, and that the main issue put before electors in poor districts is that of outdoor relief. Already there is strong pressure for the removal of the disfranchisement of paupers, and a forward move in that direction has been given by the Unemployed Workmen Act, which is a standing invitation to the electors in poor districts to vote for those who will make work for the unemployed outside the Poor Law. In fact, the danger of a corrupt motive in local elections is becoming more and more evident on every side.

We have for a long time been drifting in these matters. It is evident that we cannot continue to do so much longer. We are near the parting of the ways, and must make up our minds whether we are to accept the position of the socialists or whether we are to revert to the older ideas as to the functions of local bodies. The decision rests with that great body of public opinion which has till now remained silent.

Elections of Guardians in 1904.
Name of Union. Wards
Number on
register in
contested wards.
who voted.
Kensington  5  3  10,001 2,462 24
Paddington  5  3  11,478 1,405 13
Fulham  4  4  11,275 2,788 25
Hammersmith  6  1  2,721   714 26
Chelsea  0  5  12,029 2,958 24
St George's Hanover Sq.   5  2  8,568 1,646 19
Marylebone  6  3 no particulars
Hampstead  5  2  3,6l3 552 15
St Pancras  5  3  14,510 2,843 20
Islington  5  6  27,856 3,409 12
Hackney  12  3  13,132 2,684 20
St Giles  5  0
Westminster  1  4  4,734  1,355 29
Strand  4  1  1,618   356 22
Holborn no particulars
City no particulars
Shoreditch  6  7  16,083 4,198 26
Bethnal Green  1  3  14,453 3,376 23
Whitechapel  5  3  2,592   899 35
St George's, E.  0  2  3,659 (abt.) 1,800 50
Poplar  6  8 no particulars
Stepney  5  0
Mile End  0  6 no particulars
St Saviour's  4  6  20,746 3,945 19
Bermondsey  1 10  17,507 6,425 36
Lambeth  0  9  48,781 7,512 15
Wandsworth  16  8  33,465 5,086 15
Camberwell  8  12  27,456 12,953  47
Greenwich no particulars
Lewisham  0  8  22,293 4,325 21
Woolwich no particulars
Total 115 122 296,725 69,385