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Revision notes: Britain 1850 – 1979: THE GROWTH OF DEMOCRACY page 1 .


1. Features of a democracy.
 Universal suffrage (one ‘man’ – one vote)
 A system which allows the unhindered use of the vote (secret ballot)
 A system which gives equal weight to each vote (equal constituencies)
 Regular elections
 The right to participate in the political process (e.g. to stand for elections)
 Government by elected representatives (House of Commons)
 Government based on majority support
 Basic freedoms (e.g. freedom of speech, assembly, worship)

2. The franchise in 1850 (the franchise is the qualification to vote)

 Had been set by the 1832 Reform Act.
 Franchise based on property (the amount paid in rates by property owners or in rent by tenants
determined whether someone could vote).
 Voters were mostly from the upper, land-owning class, large tenant farmers and the upper
middle-class. They were also male.
 To be fair the Victorians did not claim that their system was democratic; rather it produced
effective government, it guaranteed ‘liberty’ and it was representative. What it represented
directly was those considered ‘fit’ by reason of their independence, their material stake in
society, their education and political knowledge to exercise the right to vote with a positive
effect upon political life. Men who spent their lives working so they could just survive were
unlikely to develop the capacity for political judgement thought the average voter and politician
in the 1850s.. Those elected to power represented the interests of the community as a whole.
The political system was not designed to deal with ideas of the rights of the individual.

3. Other features of the electoral system in 1850.

 Voting was ‘open’ which led to bribery and intimidation.
 The south of England was over represented in terms of MP’s. This did not reflect the spread of
the population, which had altered due to the industrial revolution. ‘New’ industrial towns in the
north were poorly represented.
 To be an MP you had to fulfil a property qualification, which meant you had to be a landowner
 MP’s had to have independent means as they were not paid a salary.
 Elections were infrequent and often not a contest as the political parties had done a ‘deal’.
Many constituencies returned two MPs (counties). One for each party, Liberal or
Conservative, was a deal that was often completed.
 The House of Lords (a body made up of hereditary peers and spiritual lords) had considerable
 Although the male non-voter could not vote he could become involved in the political process
by rioting, intimidating and marching on behalf of a candidate. This sort of behaviour meant
that the voting had to be extended over 2-3 weeks in order to allow the police to transfer
scarce resources from one group of constituencies to another. It was not until 1918 that they
felt secure enough to allow voting to take place on one polling day only.

4. The Second Reform Act (1867)

Minor re-distribution of MPs. 52 were taken from the most corrupt and smallest boroughs and
given to the large counties.
Number of voters increased. The following groups were now entitled to vote,
 all householders who paid rates and had lived in the property for at least one year
 all lodgers paying £10 a year
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 owners of property valued at £5 for rates
 tenants of property valued at £12 for rates
 the electorate increased from 1.5 million to 2.5 million
 1 in 3 men could vote now (before 1867 the ration was 1 in 7 men)
 most new voters were in the boroughs (skilled artisans benefited the most)
 largest increases were in the large industrial boroughs (eg Manchester and Leeds) In the
counties (Conservative strongholds) and smaller boroughs, the balance of political forces
remained the same – landowners, tenant farmers and middle-class householders were still in
 Right to vote still based on property and its value. Voting was a privilege not a right.
 MPs still unevenly distributed, with too many in the counties and small boroughs. Highly
populated new industrial areas such as the Lowlands of Scotland, Lancashire, Yorkshire were
seriously under-represented.

5. Dealing with corruption

Victorian elections were expected as a matter of course to be punctuated by excessive drinking,
mob action ranging from exuberance to intimidation, an exchange of cash and the application of
‘force’. Such ‘influence’ was considered to be perfectly natural in certain cases, i.e. the influence of
landed gentry on their farmers was ‘natural’ as they owed him loyalty. This is not democratic.

The Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone passed two laws to curb abuses.
(i) The Ballot Act (1872)
Introduced the secret ballot in response to a Parliamentary enquiry which had revealed the scale of
Comment: Intimidation declined but corruption was not completely wiped out. Elections simply
did not have enough voters. Landowners who had traditionally ‘controlled’ elections could still
apply influence on areas where the number of voters was small. E.g. in rural areas Conservative
landlords often stationed an estate manager or agent outside the polling station to take down the
names of those who had voted. Since ballot boxes were separately counted they simply observed
how many votes each village had cast for the other side.
(ii) Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act (1884)
Due to excessive levels of expenditure during the elections of 1868, 1874 and 1880 Gladstone’s
government passed the above law. The act set maximum expenditure limits according to size of
the electorate. Party Agents had to make a complete return of his candidate’s expenses.
Comment: This did end some of the worst abuses of the system. It was reasonably thorough
and effective.
Such practices, of bribery, etc dwindled essentially because they ceased to be an effective way to
influence the voter. As the electorate increased and the number of voters in individual
constituencies increased so large-scale bribery became too expensive and too obvious. Once the
franchise was further extended in 1884 the reformed electorate found its independent voice.

6. Representation of the People Act (1884) The Third Reform Act

The basic change of this Act was to make the franchise in the counties the same as that in the
boroughs since 1867. Although the Act rationalised the existing pattern of voting, due to the
complex structure of seven distinct types of voting qualification there was an uneven spread of
enfranchisement across the country. As a consequence of this considerable uneveness persisted
until 1914 in that residential towns like Oxford (75%) and counties like Cornwall (80%) enjoyed
substantially higher enfranchisement than industrial boroughs like Oldham (63%).
 The total electorate doubled (up to 5 million)
 2 out of 3 men could vote
 this was a move towards democracy
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 the right to vote was still linked to a complex series of property related qualifications rather than
simply the democratic principle of universal suffrage.
 The law excluded several important groups from voting
• Women who had been eliminated since the 1832 Act which adopted the term ‘male
persons’ for the first time.
• Men such as lunatics, aliens, criminals, peers, receivers of poor relief, those guilty of
corruption practices in elections
• Men such as sons living in their parents’ home and servants
 Many who were technically qualified to vote still could not vote because they were unable to
prove that they were qualified. And so could not get on the electoral register. It is estimated
that 2.5 million men were in this situation – mainly from the lower working class.
 In 1913, only 63% of adult males registered to vote
 ‘Plural voting’ still existed (ie. The same person was allowed to vote in more than one
constituency). In 1911, this accounted for 7% of the electorate. This system was less than
democratic as it allowed voting many times if you owned property of the correct value in a
number of constituencies. Some men claimed as many as 10 votes. They were helped by the
leisurely pace of polling which allowed men with multiple votes to move around the country and
vote in each constituency where they were qualified.
 Women not allowed to vote.

7.Redistribution of Seats Act (1885)

 Aimed to make constituencies approximately equal.
 The vast majority of constituencies now had only one MP (single member constituencies)
 Boundaries were redrawn so that most constituencies had an approximate population of
 Redistribution ended the old problem of too many MPs in the south of England as small
boroughs lost MPs and industrial areas in the north gained MPs.
 This Act brought into being a recognisably, ‘modern’ system of electoral representation.

8. The Effects of developing democracy on the Victorian political structure

 One of the most striking features of mid-Victorian elections is that barely half the constituencies
actually experienced a contest. Since two members were frequently elected for an electoral
constituency, Liberals and Tories frequently agreed to nominate a single candidate each with a
view to avoid the trouble and expense of a contest. After 1885 single member constituencies
eliminated this sort of agreement and the advance of formal party organisation may be
measured by the decline of unopposed returns at elections.
1859 – 383 unopposed returns
1880 – 109
1885 – 45
1892 – 63
 In 1885 there were just 45 uncontested seats. This is the closest 19 th century politics got to the
mid-twentieth century practice in which virtually every constituency is contested.
 The challenges and problems raised by the new franchises, the redistribution, and the
restrictions upon expenditure in the 1880s generated a permanent, framework of party
organisations which eventually covered the whole country. Three important areas of
organised political party activity may be identified.
 the professional party agent became more common as a result of the complexity of the
franchise and registration process after 1885. An alert party agent could ensure the
registration of voters and object against the registration of voters sympathetic to the
 The local party sponsored club. (especially in Lancashire and Yorkshire where working
men’s clubs were a long standing feature.
 Party growth showed itself in the development of formal political party constituency
associations based upon individual membership running into hundreds of thousands. This
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provided the centre for volunteer activists whose time and efforts provided free, much of the
canvassing, transport previously paid for on an ad hoc basis.
Representative constituency bodies were pioneered by the radical Liberals – it was dubbed
the caucus system – who gave it institutional form in the National Liberal Federation (NLF)
of 1877. Rank and file conservatives encountered greater opposition from landed and
parliamentary patrons who saw a threat to their own control of the party. However, after a
slow start in 1867 the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations
(NUCCA) attained official approval and grew during the mid 1880s, under the control of
Conservative Central Office.
 By building up habitual party loyalties the politicians hoped to replace older forms of
community and group influence in voting with institutional, political ones.
 However, the House of Commons remained dominated by ‘gentlemen of means’, due to the
fact that MPs were still not paid a salary, until 1911, so had to have independent means.

9. Developing political parties (another result of the extension of the franchise)
Political parties had to build up distinctive ranges of policies in order to attract the increased
number of voters.
 The Liberal Party was descended from the Whigs and nonconformist radicals. Gladstone was
leader of the first government (1868-74) generally called Liberal. Gladstonian Liberalism was
committed to removing restrictions on political, religious and economic life which involved
abolishing the privileges of the Church of England and promoting laissez-faire. The Liberal
party became more radical in the late 19th century due to the support of for Irish Home Rule in
1886. Many in the party who did not support Irish Home Rule stood as Liberal Unionists and
sided with the Conservatives.
 The Conservative Party generally believed that the role of the state should be minimal.
Benjamin Disraeli developed the reform image of the Conservatives to appeal to the new
voters and, helped to identify the party with Empire and putting Britain first. This appealed to
a wide range of voters as they were seen to be patriotic.
 A new political party emerged in 1900, called the Labour Representation Committee then the
Labour Party in 1906, to represent the needs of the new largely working class, voters who felt
that the existing political parties did not represent their views. This subject will be dealt with in
more detail in a later unit but you should be aware that this means greater choice for voters,
which means more democracy.

10. Representation of the People Act (1918)

♦ This Act should rightly be seen as a very significant step on the road to democracy:
♦ It simplified voting qualifications – 6 months residential qualification for all men over 21
♦ 8.5 million women over 30 were given the vote
♦ plural voting was greatly reduced
♦ the distinction between ‘county’ and ‘borough’ was ended
♦ the entire country was now single member constituencies
♦ There were as increased number of MPs for industrial cities.
♦ The electorate had trebled )from roughly 7 million to 21 million
♦ The industrial classs became, for the first time, the majority in a mass electorate
♦ This was to play a part in a changed political identity, as it helped the Labour Party to grow.

11. Further franchise reform

♦ 1928 female franchise made the same as men i.e 21 and over
♦ 1969 voting age reduced to 18

12. The Parliament Act (1911)

♦ The problem in terms of Britain’s developing democracy was that the unelected House of Lords
was blocking legislation passed by the elected representatives of the people i.e. the MPs in the
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House of Commons e.g. Franchise Bill (1884), Liberal legislation on education (1906) and the
Liberal ‘Peoples Budget’ of 1909. After a struggle the Liberals managed to pass the above Act
which meant that,
♦ The lords could not stop Bills to do with finance (taxation and government spending)
♦ They could only delay other Bills for a maximum of 2 years
♦ General Elections were to be held at least every 5 years

13. Payment of MPs

♦ Established a salary of £400 per year for MPs
♦ A democracy issue since everybody should have the right to be a ‘representative’ as well as an

14. Ongoing democratic issues

♦ All votes should be represented even where cast for a losing candidate so that each vote
♦ (Proportional Representation)
♦ the people to be consulted on important issues between elections (argument for referendums)
♦ less government by unelected representatives (arguments for the abolition of the House of
Lords or an elected second chamber; more accountability of top civil servants)
♦ less Government secrecy (arguments for a Freedom of Information Act)