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Five times we've spent Christmas at the polls

Christmas decoration
Is it wise to mix Christmas festivities with politics? December elections in the UK have traditionally signalled a crisis in politics. Professor Sarah Richardson describes some of the UK's more tumultuous Christmases.
8 December 1832-8 January 1833:

Spare a thought for the voters newly enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act – a piece of legislation that had divided the political parties and brought the public onto the streets in droves – they endured a month of polling. Before 1918 elections did not take place on a fixed day but were spread over a three week period (this was handy if a high profile candidate lost in one seat, as they could contest another in the same election). Christmas and New Year extended the traditional three weeks to a month. The result was a landslide victory for the Whigs, the party that had backed the reform of the electoral system and Earl Grey was swept to power.

17 November-7 December 1868:

Thirty-five years after the first Reform Act, another pitched battle about who should have the right to vote was taking place at Westminster. Gladstone’s Liberal party favoured extending the vote to working-class men in urban areas but were resisted by the Conservatives (and some Liberals) led by Benjamin Disraeli. In a daring piece of parliamentary opportunism, Disraeli formed a minority government in 1867 and was successful in passing a more radical Reform Act than that put forward by Gladstone. His audacious act did not pay off at first, as Gladstone won the 1868 election with more than 100 seat majority. Disraeli did however become prime minister in 1874.

24 November-18 December 1885:

A further Reform Act giving the vote to all male heads of households was introduced in 1884. Gladstone’s Liberal party won the highest number of votes, but not a majority and the Irish Nationalist Party held the balance of power. The minority Liberal party was unable to retain power and there was another general election in August 1886.

3-19 December 1910:

1910 witnessed another parliamentary crisis with two elections taking place in the same year. The Liberals, led by Asquith with Lloyd George as chancellor, had put forward an ambitious but controversial budget which proposed taxing the wealthy to fund welfare reforms for the poor. The budget was continually blocked by the House of Lords, and the December 1910 election was fought to get a mandate for the Parliament Act (eventually passed in 1911) which would prevent the Lords vetoing Commons legislation. The result was inconclusive, the Liberals winning 272 seats to the Conservatives 271. The Liberals held onto power with the support of the Irish Nationalists. This was the last election before WWI.

14 December 1918:

The first election to be held on a single day was called immediately after the signing of the armistice with Germany which signalled the end of World War I. The election was known as the ‘coupon’ election as Lloyd George sent letters to endorse candidates who supported the coalition government. His tactics worked and the coalition achieved a landslide majority. 1918 was the first parliamentary election in which women were entitled to vote. The result was also delayed to ensure the votes of soldiers fighting overseas could be counted.

Published:

30 October 2019

About:

Prof Sarah RichardsonProfessor Sarah Richardson is a research historian at the University of Warwick. She is an expert in women and political culture in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century. This year she will present Warwickshire Women and the Fight for the Vote, a talk uncovering the unsung and unknown activists from the largely rural county of Warwickshire, at a number of venues across the county.

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