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The Electoral System and Parliamentary Reform. Sarah Richardson (extra handout with facts and figures on timetable page). Outline. Introduction The franchise before 1832 Who voted and how? Pressure for reform 1832 Reform Act Did anything change with reform?. Introduction.

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the electoral system and parliamentary reform

The Electoral System and Parliamentary Reform

Sarah Richardson

(extra handout with facts and figures on timetable page)

  • Introduction
  • The franchise before 1832
  • Who voted and how?
  • Pressure for reform
  • 1832 Reform Act
  • Did anything change with reform?

Is Hogarth’s Election Entertainment a good summary of the electorate and the way elections were conducted in the eighteenth century?

the rage of party
The ‘rage of party’

Some historians argue electoral participation and activity was high in this period:

  • The size of the electorate: Plumb estimates electorate of 200,000 in William’s reign and about 250,000 in 1715. Holmes looks at total electorate rather than numbers voting giving figure of 340,000 voters by 1722: around 1 in 4 adult males who could vote.
  • The triennial act of 1694: there were 10 general elections in the following twenty years. The number of contests was never lower than 86 and only 30 constituencies failed to have a poll in the years between 1691 and 1715. After 1715 only an election every 7 years. Number of contests averaged below 40.
hanoverian period
Hanoverian period

Holmes: after 1715, in the counties there was a ‘prolonged electoral coma’ and the boroughs were ‘all but wholly anaesthetised’.

  • very few voters were free to vote as they wished, Namier arguing that ‘not one voter in 20 could freely exercise his statutory right’
  • electorate was thoroughly venal and regarded the vote as a piece of personal property
  • elections were exclusive concerning only political and social elites
  • political issues were unimportant in election contests and ideology had little part to play.
hanoverian period6
Hanoverian period

More positive interpretations by Frank O’Gorman in Voters, Patrons and Parties and J A Phillips in Electoral Behaviour in Unreformed England and The Great Reform Bill in the Boroughs.

  • electoral system was controlled by local elites, but with difficulty
  • electoral system was never closed, despite its antiquated and unrepresentative features.
  • electoral politics became an increasingly active and participatory experience because of traditions of popular independence, rise of the press and the growth of an articulate and educated public opinion
  • electoral politics were local with variety of local traditions and cultures involved
  • But do O’Gorman and Phillips focus on large, open and not very typical constituencies?
county franchise
County franchise
  • The franchise was a mixture of systems dating back to the medieval period and based on the early modern areas of wealth and population.
  • English counties based their representation on an act of 1430 which enabled 40 shilling freeholders to possess the vote - a uniform franchise.
  • Counties tended to be large open constituencies, rarely under the control of a single aristocrat
  • No residence qualification so ‘outvoters’ could perform a crucial role.
  • Largest county was Yorkshire with around 10,000 voters. Kent, Norfolk and Northants had about 6000. The smallest counties were Carnarvonshire and Rutland with around 500 voters.
  • Some towns had county status, including Lincoln and York
borough franchise
Borough franchise

Not uniform:

  • Inhabitant boroughs (55). All residents could vote
  • Burgage boroughs (41). Burgages were ancient pieces of real estate and property from which the right to vote was derived.
  • Corporation boroughs (19). Right to vote was restricted to members of the corporation.
  • Freemen boroughs (100) where only freemen could vote.
  • University boroughs of Oxford and Cambridge. Franchise restricted to Doctors and Masters of Arts of the Universities. Cambridge had a Whig tradition and Oxford a Tory one.
wales scotland ireland
Wales, Scotland, Ireland
  • Wales: 12 one member counties and 12 one member boroughs, totalling 24 seats in all. County franchise was 40 shilling freehold. Boroughs divided into 1 corporation borough; 9 freemen boroughs and 2 inhabitant boroughs 
  • Scotland joined the English system after the Act of Union in 1707. There were 30 one member counties and 15 districts of burghs returning 1 MP each, thus totalling 45 seats in all. Scottish boroughs were very venal employing a method of indirect election. In counties, Scottish electoral qualifications were based upon the ‘old extent’ and electorates were small ranging from around 21 to 240 voters.
  • After 1801 the Irish constituencies consisted of 32 two member counties, 2 two member boroughs (Cork and Dublin), 31 one member boroughs and the university seat of Trinity College Dublin returning a total of 100 MPs.
who voted
Who voted?
  • It is very difficult to ascertain who a typical voter was in the eighteenth century?
  • The borough electorates varied dramatically from all resident inhabitants to just the members of the corporation.
  • In counties local interpretations of the 40 shilling freeholder varied. In Cheshire there were a substantial number of ‘leases for lives’ voters but in Yorkshire assessments of who qualified for a vote differed from parish to parish.
  • Women were not excluded from the franchise by law – this was an innovation of 1832.
  • Elaine Chalus has uncovered evidence of women appointing male proxies to vote on their behalf. As the right to vote was often based on property, single women or widows owning that property could qualify for the vote.
poll books
Poll books
  • Evidence of who voted comes from poll books
  • Act of 1696 for regulating parliamentary elections required written return of the poll
  • Between 1696 and 1872 (secret ballot act) the returning officer of every county election (and from 1711 every borough election) had to return a copy of the poll
  • These were held in Crown office of Chancery. In 1907 they were destroyed.
  • Local copies do survive.

Contested Elections

Year Boroughs Counties Total %

1761 42 5 47 18

1768 62 11 73 27

1774 71 15 86 32

1780 65 3 68 26

1784 66 8 74 28

1790 67 8 75 28

1796 56 6 62 23

1802 67 8 75 28

1805 55 7 62 23

1807 59 13 72 27

1812 59 5 64 24

1818 84 12 96 36

1820 66 11 77 29

1826 78 11 89 33

1830 75 10 85 32

1831 65 13 78 29

  • Crowds at election contests could be numbered in thousands, rather than hundreds.
  • Candidates processed to the hustings in a great parade, led by flag bearers and bands playing the raucous election songs of the time.
  • Successful candidates were ‘chaired’ through the streets and alleyways of the town. Chairs vividly decorated with the colours and symbols of the new members of parliament.
  • Losing candidates could also be chaired and if the successful MPs were particularly unpopular, effigies were carried round the town before being ceremoniously and publicly burnt.
parliamentary reform
Parliamentary Reform
  • Economic reform (often supported by Tories): removal from voting of government placeholders and pensioners, distribution of more seats to counties. EgWyvill’s Yorkshire Association called for the redistribution of seats to counties.
  • Fairer representation of interests (often supported by Whigs). Eliminate some of the rotten boroughs and re-distribute their seats to major unrepresented towns. Supported patronage making a distinction between nomination and influence respectively.
  • More radical proposals: broader franchise; redistribution of seats; shorter parliaments; secret ballot. Move away from representation of property towards representation of people (See Cartwright, Take Your Choice!)
pressure for reform
Pressure for Reform
  • Burdett’s group attempted to chip away at the resistance to reform:
  • Tierney introduced measure to curb election expenses
  • Burdett raised reform in a debate about economic reform
  • 1820 Grampound disenfranchised & seats redistributed to Yorkshire
  • Catholic Emancipation 1828
  • Russell introduced bills for the reform of Penryn and East Retford. Passed in the Commons but not in Lords.
political unions
Political Unions
  • 1829-30 reform agitation revived
  • July 1829 London Radical Association was formed
  • December 1829 Birmingham Political Union led by Thomas Attwood
  • In Leeds and Manchester unions were split between w/c & m/c. In Leeds were 4 rival organisations
  • Francis Place formed National Political Union in October 1831 which aimed at co-ordinating agitation. Failed to replace the BPU
  • William Lovett and Hetherington set National Union of the Working Classes.

Medal struck in 1830 to support political unions. On this side is a bust of Thomas Attwood (founder of political unions) Text: The purity of the constitution. The peace and safety of the kingdom.

Text: The Reform Bill Nothing Less. Bust of Earl Grey

nature of political unions
Nature of Political Unions
  • LoPatin argues are direct links between political unions and the Corresponding Societies of the 1790s.
  • Also represented moderate m/c. Attwood argued should represent the ‘industrious classes’
  • Greatest concentration in North and the Midlands – in all over 120 individual political unions were formed between 1830 and 1832.
  • Ultimately, they endorsed the reform objectives of the Whig ministry
election of 1830
Election of 1830
  • Only 89 seats were contested and only 175 new members were returned to Commons.
  • But public opinion was vocal was clear & was against Wellington's administration
  • Brougham and Grey made it clear they would press for reform.
  • Wellington came out against it. On the eve of Broughams motion government were defeated on minor issue & resigned
  • On 17th November 1830, for the first time, a ministry pledged to parliamentary reform took office.
draft reform bill
Draft Reform Bill
  • 50 boroughs lost franchise; 54 lost 1 MP; 6 towns given 2 MPs & 22 towns 1 MP; 6 more seats given to London; 22 counties were to have 2 extra seats; 7 1 extra seat;
  • Was in favour of the secret ballot
  • Recommended higher qualification of £20 to mitigate effects of ballot
  • Five year parliaments to be introduced.
  • Non residents lost their right to vote;
  • More polling places & voter registration Ideas of responsible citizenship accepted but concepts of universal rights rejected.
from bill to act
From Bill to Act
  • 24 January 1831 cabinet amended the committee's draft - striking out the proposal for the secret ballot and lowering the franchise again to £10 householders.
  • 1 March 1831 bill was introduced to the Commons by Russell.
  • 22 March at the second reading the Bill was passed by only 302 votes to 301.
  • 18 April bill defeated at its third reading by 299 votes to 291.
  • May 1831 general election with Whig landslide.
  • Second Reform bill introduced and won its second reading by 367 votes to 231
  • In committee stages Marquis of Chandos won amendment that fifty pound tenants at will could enjoy the franchise in the counties
  • 21 September bill defeated in Lords by 41 votes.
  • Grey introduced slightly amended third bill.
  • 13 April 1832 Lords rejected the third Reform bill by 184 votes to 175.
  • May days: Britain close to revolution.
  • Wellington attempted to form a minority ministry but failed
  • Grey used the creation of peers as a threat and in September 1832 the bill got through the Lords with a majority of 9.
  • The first election to be held on the new franchise was December 1832.
what changed
What changed?
  • Were continuities: procedures and rituals survived; patrons used same techniques
  • But Lords, monarchy, church and people all changed roles after 1832
electoral effects
Electoral effects
  • Over 40 pocket boroughs survived + 12 which regularly returned same families
  • 8 English boroughs with electorates less than 200
  • Southern rural bias continued. London under-represented
positive electoral changes
Positive electoral changes
  • Registration: boosted party organisation and canvassing; candidates could locate voters accurately; encouraged people to see themselves as voters
  • Number of voters participating increased dramatically after 1832
  • Partisan voting is the norm (97% of Newark’s electorate cast straight party votes in 1841)
  • Participation increases
  • Organisation of elections
  • Public more politicised
  • 2 main political parties benefited
  • National politics increases
  • 1832 was an opportunity