GRA: What was wrong with the existing electoral system by 1830?


How does our electoral system work now?

  • Only British citizens can vote, provided they are over 18; not a prisoner; not insane; and not a Lord/Royal
  • To vote, you go to your nearest polling station and vote by secret ballot so there is no influence or fear of retribution
  • Candidates cannot bribe or blackmail, or transport voters to the polling stations.
  • Parliament is much more representative than it was in 1830 however not completely. 1/3 of MPs are women, working class are under-repped and most are over middleaged. Only 10% are BAME.
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  • In 1830, the electoral system hadn't been updated since the 1600s, despite many changes like the industrial revolution.
  • Radicals nicknamed it 'Old Corruption'
  • The main problems were unfair constituency representation, the franchise and the elections
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Unfair constituency representation

MPs got voted into Parliament from...

  • 122 country/countryside MPs, 432 borough MPs, 100 Irish MPs (Act on Union 1800) and 2MPs each from Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Why were they unfair:

  • English county constituencies varied in voter numbers. Yorkshire had 17000 electors, but Rutland had only 609, which made it easier to control
  • Rotten boroughs existed. These still had 2 MPs, despite having a tiny electorate. For example, Dunwich was largely under the rising sea. There were 56 rotten boroughs with less than 40 voters, but still had 2 MPs.
  • New industrial cities like Manchester and Birmingham had no MPs. This made the North and Midlands under-represented compared to the South, even though they had bigger populations.
  • This also meant more MPS came from the South
  • England had a disproportionate number of MPs compared to Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
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The limited franchise

  • Only 5% of the population were qualified to vote (1/14 men) and in 1831, 400,000 out of 13M people voted. (After the GRA it became 1/7 men)
  • Male right to vote in counties depended on the property qualification. Men owning freehold worth £2, for example. The right to vote in towns was varied but usually linked to property and status
  • Women could not vote, however there wasn't actually a law forbidding them. Some women did vote if they were the head of house and owned land worth enough, for example in scot-and-lot or freeholder boroughs
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Types of boroughs

  • Pocket: Rotten borough in pocket of landlord - voters controlled
  • Freeholder/burgage: Those on land that historically had note can get the vote
  • Scot and lot: only those paying tax can vote
  • Potwallopers: those with a big enough hearth in their house (rich and worth the vote)
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Corruption of elections

  • There was no secret ballot. Voting was done on the Hustings, publicly and openly so candidates knew how people had voted. This led to intimidation and blackmail from landlords and some tenants were evicted if they didn't vote how the landlord wanted
  • Canidates bribed electors with money, jobs, gvt posts, contracts and free beer. In Liverpool 1830, it cost candidates £100,000. But bribery wasn't just tolerated, it was expected - if you were rich enough to bribe then you deserved the seat
  • Pocket boroughs: there was no contest in small consituencies. The local landowner chose who he wanted to be MP and the small amount of voters would approve, likely encouraged by gifts. They were pocket or nomination boroughs.
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Why did the unreformed system last so long?

1. The Ruling Aristocratic Elite: AKA the landed upper classes. They were united in defence of keeping the system the same because it was in their interests to do so. They controlled wealth, power and education, which meant it was difficult to change the system

2. The French Revolution 1789 and war with France 1793-1815: it brought fear of violence to BR from revolutionary FRA under Jacobin radicals. Most MPs therefore gave up reform ideas, and supported a coalition gvt of Pittite Tories and conservative Whigs. This was strenghtened by popular conservatism and militant loyalism.

3. No widespread reform movement emerged until ~1830: there were few major economic problems or military disasters, meaning it wasn't easy for disunited radical groups to form influence 1789-1815. The threat of radicalism appeared after 1815, but was crushed by Liverpool's Tory gvt. This repression, along with moderate economic reforms 1822-27, meant that the mainly aristocratic gvt survived. Liverpool's resignation in 1827 led to political divisions in the Tory party, which provided new opportunities for change, and the Whigs were determined to do so.

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