Friday, February 10, 2006

A sit in at the Star & Garter

Today's House Points from Liberal Democrat News. This being neutral is killing me.

Standing charge

With the leadership election in full swing, House Points has to be careful. Mention one candidate and you have to mention them all. Pay tribute to Boodle in one sentence, and you are obliged to say nice things about Coodle and Doodle in the next. So I’ll leave you to make up your own minds while I look at parliamentary contests 150 years ago.

In March 1854 the Attorney General brought in a bill to prevent corruption. When you read the evidence quoted in the debate, you can see why.

Canterbury saw bribery on a large scale, but the individual voters had a problem. A lot of the money stuck to the fingers of candidates’ agents and never reached them.

So they cut out the middleman. They took to meeting in a pub and selling their votes en bloc at so much per head. One family was nine or ten strong and always charged £10 per vote. It’s no wonder that in some small boroughs electoral corruption was the inhabitants’ chief source of income.

Cambridge was closely contested in 1845. Realising this, some voters staged a sit in at the Star & Garter unless they were paid. There was a stand off until one of the candidate’s agents came to the pub, called a register of his supporters and handed them a tenner each. Some got their money so late they had to run to arrive in time to vote.

Meanwhile in Essex, two candidates from the same party spent £30,000 on only 845 Maldon electors; £2,150 went on beer alone.

But the most creative voters were those in Barnstaple. One year they were alarmed there were only two candidates for the two-member seat. That meant no contest, and no contest meant no bribes.

The answer was obvious. They met to draw up an advertisement inviting a third person to stand. They did not mind what his politics were. The important thing was that there was a contest. They sent their notice off to The Times, but the unsporting editor refused it.

Purely by coincidence, of course, both Barnstaple and Cambridge are now Liberal Democrat seats. But neither Nick Harvey nor David Howarth is standing for the leadership, so I think it is safe to mention them.

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