Reform of the electoral system
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After studying this section you should be able to:

  • outline the development of the electoral system since the early 19th century

Parliamentary Reform

In the early 19th century Britain had a parliamentary system of government, but it was not democratic. In England and Wales before 1832, there were 435 000 voters out of a population of 14 million. In the counties only 40-shilling freeholders could vote. In the boroughs the franchise varied but the number of voters was very small.

There were 92 county MPs and 417 borough MPs. Fifty-six boroughs had fewer than 40 voters. The electorate in Scotland, which had 45 MPs and Ireland, which had 100, was tiny. Parliamentary democracy developed through a series of changes in the electoral system.

The Great Reform Act (1832) increased the number of voters to over 700 000. In the counties £10 copyholders and £50 leaseholders were given the vote. In the boroughs the old qualifications were replaced by a uniform £10 householder qualification. Eighty-six small boroughs in England and Wales lost one or both MPs. Sixty-five seats were re-allocated to larger counties, 65 to newly created boroughs, eight to Scotland, five to Ireland. This meant the middle classes but not the working classes.

The Second Reform Act (1867) added £12 ratepayers (£14 in Scotland) to the county franchise, but the major change was in the boroughs, where the vote was given to all male householders and £10 lodgers. The electorate increased to nearly 2.5 million out of a population of 30 million. Fifty-two borough seats were abolished. Twenty-five were re-allocated to counties, 19 to existing or newly created boroughs, six to Scotland. An important feature was that Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester became three-member boroughs. This extended the vote to working-class men in the boroughs.

The Secret Ballot Act (1872) ended the system of voting in public and reduced bribery and intimidation in elections.

The Corrupt Practices Act (1883) laid down limits for election expenses and prescribed penalties for bribery and corruption in elections.

The Reform and Redistribution Acts (1884–5) introduced a uniform franchise for counties and boroughs – male householders and £10 lodgers. The electorate was increased to 5.7 million but about 40 per cent of men were still excluded by this definition. There was a major redistribution of seats, resulting in single-member constituencies except in big cities. This extended the vote to working-class men in the counties.

The Parliament Act (1911) limited the powers of the House of Lords and reduced the maximum interval between general elections from seven years to five. In the same year payment for MPs was introduced.

The Representation of the People Act (1918) gave the vote to all men over 21 and women over 30. The electorate was now over 21 million. There was a
redistribution of seats to achieve equality of size between constituencies. This meant a mass electorate, including women for the first time.

The Equal Franchise Act (1928) gave the vote to women over 21.

The Representation of the People Act (1948) abolished plural voting (the right of people with property in two constituencies to vote in both). Seats were redistributed in accordance with the recommendations of the Boundary Commission set up in 1944. Boundary changes have been made at intervals since then.

The Representation of the People Act (1969) lowered the voting age to 18.


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