Politics and parties 1868–1918
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After studying this section you should be able to:

  • explain how the expansion of the electorate affected both Houses of Parliament and the political parties
  • assess the importance of the women’s suffrage movement and other pressure groups in the development of democracy

The House of Commons
The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 more than trebled the size of the electorate. From 1885 two-thirds of adult men were able to vote. The great majority of the new electors were working class: the 1867 Act gave the vote to urban workers, the 1884 Act to agricultural labourers and industrial workers in the many smaller industrial towns and villages. In 1868, however, elections were still conducted by open voting and were marked by bribery, corruption and intimidation. The Secret Ballot Act (1872) and the Corrupt Practices Act (1883) were important in changing the character of elections and allowing the new voters to exercise their votes independently.

The growth in the size of the electorate made it necessary for political leaders to devote much more effort to gaining support in the country through election campaigns. Gladstone’s victory in 1868 was achieved partly by a vigorous campaign in which he spoke all over the country, and his Midlothian Campaign was equally important in the 1880 election.

The social composition of the House of Commons, however, changed comparatively little. Since MPs were not paid, they were drawn almost entirely from the middle and upper classes. It was only with the emergence of the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century that there was a small group of MPs from working-class backgrounds. They depended at first on trade unions for financial support but in 1911 payment for MPs was introduced.

The political parties
The changes in the electoral system led to changes in the organisation of the parties. In Birmingham, Joseph Chamberlain set up a network of ward organisations, partly to make the most effective use of Liberal votes. From this developed the National Liberal Federation, which provided help for constituency parties in fighting elections. The Conservatives set up the National Union of Conservative Associations in 1867, following this in 1870 with the appointment of a National Agent (J.E. Gorst) and the establishment of Conservative Central Office. From 1867 Birmingham had three MPs but electors had only two votes, so they had to be distributed carefully.

Electoral changes forced both parties to seek support from all classes. The Liberal Party gained support across the social range from Whig aristocrats to working-class radicals. A few trade unionists were elected as Lib-Labs. The importance the Conservatives attached to winning working-class support is shown by the setting up of Conservative working men’s associations and clubs. In the 1880s Lord Randolph Churchill founded the Primrose League, which had two million members by 1912. Some historians would claim that Disraeli created the modern Conservative Party by associating it with ‘Tory democracy’, a phrase actually coined after his death by Lord Randolph Churchill. The growth of working-class Conservatism was an important feature of late Victorian politics. Especially in Lancashire.

The electoral reforms also gave rise to two new parties. One was the Irish Nationalist Party, which won over 80 seats in every election from 1885 to 1910 and held the balance of power, with crucial effects, after the 1885 and 1910 elections. The other was the Labour Party. The granting of the vote to working-class men suggested the possibility of a separate party to represent the interests of labour.

The leaders of the New Unions which developed from the 1880s advocated political action to improve social conditions by legislation and government intervention. The formation of the Independent Labour Party by Keir Hardie in 1893 was an important step but the key development came in 1900 when the Labour Representation Committee was set up, with representatives from the trade unions, the ILP, the Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation. This became the Labour Party in 1906. Its first Secretary was Ramsay MacDonald.

KEY POINT - The organisation of the political parties changed in response to the widening of the franchise.

The development of a more democratic electoral system also led to the formation of extra-parliamentary pressure groups. The Fabian Society and the SDF were two such groups, but there were also temperance societies (particularly influential among nonconformist Liberals), peace societies, and women’s suffrage societies. Joseph Chamberlain’s Tariff Reform campaign, which he started in 1903, may also be regarded as a pressure group.

The Women’s Suffrage Movement
The extension of votes to working-class men in 1867 and 1884 raised the question of allowing women to vote. John Stuart Mill proposed this in the debates on the 1867 Reform Act. Suffrage societies were formed in many areas in the 1870s and 1880s. The National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (founded 1897) and the Women’s Social and Political Union (1903) formed powerful pressure groups.

The election of the Liberals in 1906 gave hope to both groups and the WSPU drew a great deal of attention to the issue by its increasingly militant tactics. There were, however, powerful forces working against the women. Ideas about the role of women in the family and the community which today would be regarded as prejudice were deep-rooted and sincerely held. The issue was tied up with the question of granting the vote to the 40 per cent of men who still could not vote. Most Liberals favoured votes for women but some feared that women were more likely to vote Conservative.

The militancy of the WSPU convinced some men that women were not fit to have the vote. Asquith, the Liberal Prime Minister, stalled as long as he could and the issue had still not been resolved in 1914. It also made it difficult for the government to agree without seeming weak.

KEY POINT - The pre-war suffrage movements failed to achieve their object, but in 1918, in recognition of the contribution they had made to the war effort, women over the age of 30 were given the vote. But at the same time it was given to men over 21.

The House of Lords
Until 1911 the House of Lords had the power to veto bills passed by the House of Commons. The widening of the franchise in 1867 and 1884 meant that a House elected by over 60 per cent of the adult male population could be overruled by a hereditary House. This was particularly galling to Liberals since the House of Lords had a permanent Conservative majority, which was strengthened by the defection of Whig aristocrats from the Liberal Party in opposition to the First Home Rule Bill in 1886. In 1893 the Lords rejected the Second Home Rule Bill and between 1906 and 1908 they rejected several Liberal bills, despite the huge majority won by the Liberals in 1906. The Conservatives encouraged them to do so, hence the nickname ‘Mr Balfour’s poodle’.

The issue came to a head over Lloyd George’s 1909 budget. After two general elections in 1910, the powers of the Lords were curtailed by the Parliament Act of 1911. They were not allowed to reject a money bill and could only delay other bills for two years. This meant that the will of the elected House would ultimately prevail. To counter the argument that this would allow governments to force through measures for which they had no electoral support, the interval between general elections was reduced to five years. The maximum interval was previously seven years.


  • 1868–74 Gladstone’s first ministry
  • 1874–80 Disraeli’s second ministry
  • 1880–85 Gladstone’s second ministry
  • 1886 Liberal Party split over Home Rule
  • 1900 Formation of Labour Representation Committee
  • 1906 Liberal election victory
  • 1911 Parliament Act
  • 1916 Lloyd George replaces Asquith – split in Liberal Party

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