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Electoral Politics before 1832

Historians have emphasised the unsavoury nature of electoral politics in the decades before 1832. Four charges were levelled at the electoral system by these critics

  • that very few voters were free to vote as they wished
  • the electorate was thoroughly venal and regarded the vote as a piece of personal property upon which they expected to make a profit every 7 years
  • elections were an exclusive proceeding concerning only political and social elites
  • political issues were unimportant in election contests and ideology had little part to play.

Assumptions have been challenged, most notably 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. They argue electoral system was controlled by local elites, but with difficulty.

Ireland

The Irish constituencies consisted of 32 two member counties, 2 2 member boroughs - Cork and Dublin, 31 one member boroughs and the university seat of Trinity College, Dublin returning a total of 100 MPs. The Irish system dated, like the Scottish organisation from the Act of Union, 1801 which abolished the old Irish boroughs and counties and reformed them.

Patronage

The potential for control by patrons was widespread in boroughs and Scottish counties. In its purest sense a constituency under patronage could be defined as one where one man and his heirs had complete control, for example, Old Sarum. In practice it meant domination. In 1792 a survey by the Friends of the People entitled 'A Report on the State of Representation' attempted to differentiate between good and bad patronage, categorising them as nomination and influence respectively. Patronage was an intrinsic part of the electoral system. Namier calculated that in 1761 over half the seats in England were under the control of patrons. It was uncommon for a patron to impose his will on a reluctant electorate. Voters had to be wooed.

Who were the MPs

Membership of the unreformed parliaments had been drawn from a very narrow pool. The knights of the shires were invariably sons of the great aristocratic, political families; who were claiming their birthright and following the path trodden by generations of their families. To these men, the title, ‘member of parliament’, was an essential addition to those of Lord-lieutenant and magistrate and signified their leadership of the county’s social and political institutions. Ownership of land was also an important prerequisite for the representation of borough interests and the so-called ‘independent country gentlemen’ had proved a formidable back-bench force throughout the eighteenth-century and indeed, into the early years of the nineteenth-century. Land ownership did not only confer status; the landowner was also proprietor, employer, landlord and client. In a constitution, where the franchise was based on land and property, the more substantial landowners assumed their place as the natural leaders of the community.

There were places for others in parliament, but these professional, business and military men often possessed landed estates in addition to following their careers. Predominant among the professional men were lawyers. Occasionally, sons of wealthy manufacturers, if they possessed enough wealth and talent, could attain membership of the House—Sir Robert Peel being a famous example—but the predominant view was that trade and politics did not mix. The first member of the Commons to sit for a county seat, who was a ‘practising’ industrialist was John Marshall, a millionaire owner of several Leeds’ woollen mills, who became MP for Yorkshire in 1826.

Voters: how independent were they?

The voter must not be seen as giving blind respect to the patron or accepting political, social or economic inequality. Instead constituencies must be seen, as DC Moore described them as deference communities. Dissidence was common. Contested borough elections occurred quite frequently. often the other candidate was put up by a rival patron challenging established interests in the locality.

Mutual Theory of Deference

The complexities in landlord-tenant, employer-employee and patron-voter relationships have led historians to come up with a theory to explain these liaisons, although some, such as Professor Christie believed that voters were dominated, at least in county elections by landlords and patrons and that most elections were decided by a small number of floating voters as the allegiances of the majority were predetermined by their landlords. D C Moore in his definitive work on electoral behaviour in the mid-nineteenth century, The Politics of Deference asserted that local deference communities were the decisive units of politics and that the 1832 Reform Act was an attempt by the landed interest to preserve the identity of these deference communities which were threatened by demographic change, economic development and urbanisation.

O'Gorman in a 1986 article puts forward the mutual theory of deference. That is that the landed establishment preserved their rule and sustained its authority by acknowledging a set of customary social, political and economic values.

Election campaigns

Often the best organised people during election campaigns appeared to be the unenfranchised. Election days were full of ritual and ceremony For example. the chairing of the successful candidates through the streets and alleyways of the town. The chairs were vividly, often luridly decorated with the colours and symbols of the new members of parliament. In proprietary boroughs such as Ripon, the electorate were offered some consolation for the lack of participation by the distribution from the chairs of large amounts of coins.

Alcohol was a crucial component of election campaigns and was liberally distributed to all participants in the contests. The commotion and disorder of contested elections had always been an occasion when all in society, high or low, the gentry or the dregs were brought down to a common base; and distasteful or not, marked a rare chance for popular participation and the communication of political ideas. Popular political interest was also raised by the vast amounts of propaganda spilling onto the streets during the election campaigns.

The production of election literature; the provision of colours, bands and flags, the canvassing electors and the nurturing of a constituency were all part of the costs of election borne by the candidates. Figures could reach legendary levels as in the Yorkshire election of 1807 where costs totalled a quarter of a million pounds. Expenses did not just fall upon candidates.

Conclusion

In the long run the landed classes maintained their influence over the voting system and were able to Influence the majority of voters but the price patrons and candidates had to pay increased as the nineteenth century entered its third decade and the economic and social changes of the period began to take effect.

Contested elections (England and Wales), 1761-1831

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

Voting for established candidates at 5 constituencies, by occupational category (%)

 

Gent/Prof

Merch/Mfr

Retail

Craft

Labourers

Overall

Chester

           

1812

63

55

49

48

53

51

1820

74

52

45

54

64

53

Colchester

           

1790

70

74

73

72

72

72

1820

75

63

57

56

61

62

St Albans

           

1820

78

73

78

85

59

81

1831

52

23

30

27

37

26

Shrewsbury

           

1806

62

66

77

73

73

72

1819

30

61

69

58

63

58

Southampton

           

1774

58

57

65

60

59

60

1820

35

30

30

30

28

31