As barometers of political opinion, local elections have long had a special place in British politics, offering useful (though not necessarily accurate) guides to national trends. The link between local and national polls, however, has always been complicated. As the pundits get to grips with this week’s local polls and what they might tell us about next month’s general election, spare a thought for the original pioneers (voters and parties) of England’s first town council elections.
England’s first municipal polls of 1835 were unbelievably complex by today’s standards. Held in the same year as the fourth(!) hotly contested general election to take place in less than five years, this new set of elections to create town councils quickly became highly politicised. What made 1835 especially unusual was the need to elect entire councils all in one go and then hold yet another poll to replace any councillors nominated as aldermen. With up to 12 council seats needing to be filled (in boroughs without wards), electors could cast a vote for one, two, three or up to a dozen candidates on their ballot papers. Even in multi-ward constituencies they could usually pick six councillors. With both the Conservatives and Liberals putting forward candidates, along with a host of independent and radical contenders, the voting permutations on offer became staggering.
In the six-seat wards of Shrewsbury, for example, council voters could chose one Tory and five Liberals, two Tories and four Liberals, half and half, four Tories and two Liberals, or five Tories and one Liberal. Each voter could also select different Tories and Liberals to make up these combinations, and of course the whole process could then be repeated by those who ‘plumped’ and opted to only use five, four, three etc. of all their six available votes. In theory (at least) Shrewsbury’s electors faced an astonishing 5,664 choices in these first town council elections. In nine-seat wards like those in Stockton, where two candidates vied for each council seat, there were an even more daunting 88,939 voting possibilities.
The way politicians and activists responded to these extraordinary council elections laid the foundations for the type of national party involvement in local polls that remains in place today. Rather than leaving anything to chance, and run the risk that voters might choose opposing parties or make mistakes, local Conservatives and Liberals began to distribute pre-printed ballot papers listing all their own candidates (see Fig. 1). All the elector then had to do was sign his name and hand in the voting paper. For many this provided the easiest route, and England’s first council elections showed a remarkably high-level of party-based voting, with many voters supporting exactly the same party that they had backed in general elections. Not everyone complied with this arrangement, however. As well submitting their own hand-written voting papers, electors often altered the pre-printed party lists by crossing out names and adding their own choices (see Figs. 1 & 2).
One upshot of all this was that local election results became far more important than they otherwise might have been as potential indicators of national party strength. With so many municipal electors also qualifying for the parliamentary franchise, largely because of similar voting restrictions and registration systems, national party leaders inevitably began to take a keen interest in the outcome of local polls. In 1838, for instance, one agent in Dover confidently informed the Tory leaders that the ‘new mayor’ and ‘other vacancies in the municipal body will … be supplied from the Conservative party, so that there may be reason to expect a corresponding improvement in the Parliamentary franchise’. In a similar vein, the future Tory PM Sir Robert Peel was advised the following year that ‘the municipal election is already ours and this ascendancy will ultimately operate upon the parliamentary return’.
Today’s political leaders will inevitably be scrutinising this week’s local elections for indications of how their parties could perform in the general election. Whether these local polls will be as useful a barometer of national party strength as they were in the early Victorian era, however, remains to be seen.
- See our earlier blog marking the 180th anniversary of town council elections
- F. Moret, The End of the Urban Ancient Elite in England (2015)
- J. A. Phillips, ‘England’s “other” ballot question: the unnoticed political revolution of 1835’, in C. Jones, P. Salmon & R. Davis (ed), Partisan politics, principle and reform in parliament and the constituencies, 1689-1880 (2005), 139-163
- P. Salmon, ‘Local politics and partisanship: the electoral impact of municipal reform, 1835’, Parliamentary History, xix (2000), 357-376 VIEW