To what extent was did the British political system respond to the demands of its new electorate in the period 1867 to 1900
We can we define the British political system’s responses to the new electorate within three main categories. These would be the social reform Acts, the political reform Acts that were passed, and the new party organisation and structure. This will enable us to decide the extent to which the political system responded to the new electorate. It would be a fairly simple answer to merely reply that the parties became completely demagogic during this period, as it can easily appear this way, but there seem to be alternative motives behind nearly each major reform Act.
This is not to say that these Acts did not make the country more democratic, because they did, but it appears that this is more by coincidence than intention. Personal causes for the passing of an act can be see in the 1872 Secret Ballot Act. This Act was passed in an attempt to cut down on election corruption and intimidation, which we can see as a good and worthy motive for the passing of the Act. However Gladstone passed the Act so that he would gain the radicals support, including the famous John Bright. This was so that he could gain a majority in parliament and further votes from radical supporters.
It inevitably did make the elections far more democratic and representative, as many people no longer felt intimidated by their landlords or factory owners, but it was an Act passed by Gladstone simply to gain the support of John Bright. However there was still a need for the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act as parties could still bribe voters, but once again we can see that there were selfish motives behind the act. This Act had been called for by the radicals for years as elections could be won on the merit of the wealth of a party rather than on the merit of their political ideology.
However the actual passing of the Bill was an attempt to cut down on the expenditure of the parties with their bribes, as it had become too hard to know whether their bribed electorate were voting for them because of the Secret Ballot Act. Also the Liberals thought that they were least likely to suffer, and that the Conservative party was most likely to gain the hardship from this act as they were usually the wealthiest, and therefore much of there campaigning involved bribery .
However the Conservatives supported the bill as they too decided that they could conserve their money, and so the Bill was passed. This Act combined with the Secret Ballot Act did hugely cut down on the corruption which had been a major part of the electoral system for years, but there were those underlying reasons of selfishness which were the main causes for the passing, rather than a direct response to the electorate’s demands for fairer elections.
The Third Reform Act of 1884 was not called for by the public, so it was in no response to public demand, however it is an example of how the major leaders of the parties acted to sustain their parties influence over parliament and thus the people. This Act was one which caused unprecedented meetings between the rival party leaders of the Conservatives and the Liberals. Lord Salisbury was the leader of the Conservative party and held the majority in the House of Lords which enabled him to have the power to veto any Bill which he disagreed with.
He was very much against the idea that the vote should by right go to the lower classes, and he wanted to maintain the landed aristocratic system for as long as he could. This was a problem for Gladstone as he needed to make some form of reform to regain popularity with the people and to maintain the radical’s support. So secret meetings occurred between Gladstone and Lord Salisbury until they reached a compromise. Salisbury believed that single-class segregation was the only way to preserve the Conservatives, and so he wanted single member constituencies, instead of double constituencies.
This would mean that the middle-classes would have more of a chance to vote in Conservative candidates without the Liberal working-class votes overwhelming the same seat. So the ‘Arlington Street compact’ was agreed in which the Liberals attained the extension of the franchise, allowing Gladstone to maintain his support, and in return Salisbury’s redistribution act was passed, allowing the Conservatives to gain more single-member constituency seats. Once again we see that this was not based upon what the public wanted, this was what the parties wanted.
It was an underhand meeting allowing both the Conservative party, and Gladstone to gain from it. So we can see that there do not appear to be many examples of demagoguery in the political reform Acts, but it is also hard to find examples of the governments direct response to the new electorate’s demands in social reform Acts. Social reforms by their very definition should be for the benefit of all the community, but we see that the government did not always seem to agree with this definition, as we can infer through the Bills that they legislated.
The Artisans’ Dwelling Act was an act which empowered local authorities to buy land to build or re-house the lower classes who lived in impoverished conditions. The government, when necessary, could supply small loans to the councils for the work. This appears from the outside to be an Act which shows caring for the community, but it was only a permissive Act. The fact that it was not a compulsory Act implies that the government had no real desire to improve the conditions for the new electorate, but merely wanted to seem like they were making an effort to enhance the environment that the lower classes lived in.
Another example of the government’s wish to appear to be looking after the new electorate, but not have to effect any real changes can be seen in the passing of the Sale of Food and Drug Act in 1875. This Act outlawed the adulteration of foods and drugs which was not only unfair on the consumer, but in many cases dangerous for them. but the government failed to amend the Bill so that a food analyst had to be appointed by the local authorities. This made the Act almost entirely worthless. One of the few Acts that actually helped the new electorate, was the Forster Education Act.
It allowed the Department of Education of the councils to set-up school boards in areas where education was lacking in its quality. It also schools which were free to be built in these areas. This Act was one that was beneficial to the new electorate, but also to the government as the newly enfranchised would dictate the parties eventual success, or decline. Robert Lowe stated that “We must educate out masters”, and the new electorate were indeed also the new masters of the government. However this is not conveyed clearly through the Acts that the government passed.
But we see that the parties did respond to the new electorate in their organisation. The electorate rose from 1. 5 million to 2 million between 1966 and 1967, and these newly enfranchised men were of a lower class than those who had previously been enfranchised which meant that the parties had to respond to the masses in a new fashion. This involved the restructuring of the party organisation so that they would appeal to the new voters. Both the Liberal and the Conservative parties replied to this surge in voting numbers by establishing clubs and associations that the men could go and relax in, or rather drink in.
The Liberals instituted Working Men’s Clubs and the Conservatives set-up the National Union of Conservative and Constitutional Associations which was a group of local associations for the working classes. This was a clear response to the new electorate, however all of this could not have been enough because otherwise there would be no reason why there was the rise of Labour. If the political system had been functioning properly, there would have been no need for the Labour party to have emerged, because all the needs of the people would have been represented in parliament by the Liberals or the Conservatives.
But the fact is that obviously many people were unsatisfied with the policies, or indeed the motives behind many of the acts, and therefore the Labour party had to emerge. This implies that the political system, or rather the political parties failed to respond adequately to the demands and needs of the new electorate. This meant that the lower classes had to find another way to represent themselves, and they did this through the formation of group which eventually found common ground in the form of the Labour Representative Committee.
Analysis of the motives behind the major political and social reform acts show that the political system responded very little to the new electorate. It is evident that there was some degree of reply from the government in so much as the issues made the agenda, but very rarely was an act in direct response to public outrage. It appears that the case is far more complicated, and that there is never the one simple answer. The motives behind the acts are usually for the personal political gain of members of the parties, rather than for the good of the public.
The very fact that the Labour Representative Committee emerged shows that much of the new electorate, mainly the lower classes, felt that they were not being fairly represented in parliament. We can see that this is true as well, as Salisbury redistributed the seats so that the working classes had less influence over the outcome of the elections. The only direct response to the new electorate was the party organisation as this was to try to gain votes. So it is fair to say that the government responded to the new electorate to a certain extent, but obviously not enough.