By-elections in British politics, 1832-1914

by elections bookPublished this month, By-elections in British politics, 1832-1914 (edited by T.G. Otte and Paul Readman) includes contributions from our editor, Philip Salmon, and our assistant editor, Kathryn Rix.

Philip’s chapter on ‘Plumping Contests’ is about the different electoral process that operated in by-elections and its impact on Victorian voting behaviour. Most English voters were able to vote for two MPs at general elections during the 19th century. Sharing votes between parties (‘splitting’) was extremely common – in the 1835 and 1857 general elections almost one-fifth of all English voters cast votes for candidates from different parties (See Gary Cox, The Efficient Secret (1987), 103).

Maidstone poll book

Split voters (*) in an 1837 pollbook

These non-partisan ‘splitters’, in particular, faced really difficult choices when only one MP was to be elected in a by-election. Using the evidence of over a quarter of a million voter choices, as recorded in 160 surviving pollbooks across the period, Philip shows how by-elections forced these ‘splitters’ to make party choices that were then kept up in subsequent general elections. Instead of returning to ‘splitting’ at the next general election, most former ‘splitters’ repeated the party choice they had ‘plumped’ for in the by-election, and now used both their votes to support just one party. Put simply, by-elections helped to turn ‘splitters’ into partisans.

A number of historians have charted the rise of voter partisanship in Victorian elections, most notably Gary Cox, the late John Phillips, and Edwin Jaggard. Building on their work, Philip shows how by-elections, with their use of a single vote, were a crucial component in this process of electoral politicisation.

Kathryn’s chapter, on ‘By-elections and the modernisation of party organisation, 1867-1914’, considers the ways in which by-elections became the focus of intensive activity by the rival Liberal and Conservative party organisations, particularly in the decades after the Third Reform Act of 1884-5. Vast resources were poured into these contests: at the 1905 North Dorset by-election, 132 Liberal meetings were held, addressed by 83 different speakers. This effort reflected the significance which the parties placed upon by-elections, devoting considerable attention to what William Gladstone described as ‘political meteorology’ – that is, trying to predict the outcome of the next general election on the basis of by-election results. Not all politicians, however, especially among the Conservative party, were convinced by the forecasting powers of by-elections: one leading Conservative described them as being ‘rather like a weather glass, that is not always right, and not infrequently wrong’.

Yet as this chapter argues, for the local, regional and central party activists who served in the Liberal and Conservative party organisations, by-elections offered something more than an opportunity to predict future electoral outcomes. They gave the growing numbers of professional party agents the chance to demonstrate their utility and expand their influence. Organisers from other constituencies routinely went to assist elsewhere with by-election campaigning, which provided an invaluable means of spreading the benefits of modern electioneering techniques across the constituencies. Their presence was not always welcomed – one local activist in Peckham in 1908 described them as ‘sharks’ – reflecting the ongoing tensions between the different elements of the party organisation at local, regional and national level. Despite this, Kathryn’s chapter concludes that the development of a cohesive network of professional party organisers was a central factor in shaping the major changes which took place in by-election campaigning during this period.

Further Reading:

Gary Cox, The Efficient Secret (1987)

John A. Phillips, The Great Reform Bill in the Boroughs (1992)

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2 Responses to By-elections in British politics, 1832-1914

  1. Pingback: MPs memories: election campaigns | The History of Parliament

  2. Pingback: Six lessons from Tiverton and Honiton: LDN #162

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