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110 The Story of Parliament


political campaigns, most early 19th-century elections continued to be dominated by the personalities and influence of local, mainly landed, elites. Teir rivalries and the mustering of their supporters under local campaign colours set the tone and agenda for polls that were almost feudal trials of strength. Tis was especially true in the county constituencies, where the votes cast, in the words of one seasoned election agent, resembled “a topography of the great estates”. Deference to landlords and employers, shared economic interests and local religious identities further underpinned the community-based nature of early 19th-century elections. When national issues featured at all, they were usually viewed through a distinctly local lens.


Te move towards a more recognisably modern electoral


system, oriented around nationally organised parties, owed much to the gradual extension of voting rights under the three Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884. As electorates expanded, older forms of electioneering based on personal contact with each elector became impractical. Instead, candidates became ever more reliant on national party appeals and the work of party associations to attract and mobilise support. At the same time bribery and treating not only became more expensive, but also subject to far stricter control, though it would take the anonymity of the secret ballot and the curbs on expenses of the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act to limit such practices effectively. Expanding electorates, however, were not the only force


changing elections in the 19th century. As late as 1857, one-fifth of voters in English double-member seats were still “splitting” their two votes between candidates from opposite parties. Tis cross-party voting, supported by local traditions of independence and by open polling, acted as an important brake on the development of modern electoral partisanship. “In every constituency there are many voters who, from various motives, desire to please both parties, and therefore divide their votes,” observed an 1868 election manual. Secret voting after 1872 released electors from the


pressures of public scrutiny and local influence, accelerating the development of an electoral culture based around individual party allegiances and the party platform. However, it was the replacement of double-member constituencies with single- member districts—leaving voters with only one vote to cast


—which ultimately forced every voter to make a choice for one party or another. By 1900, much of the public spectacle and community activity associated with open voting had been replaced by the sober solitude of a curtained poll booth.


Parliament and state regulation in the 19th century Te 19th century is often characterised as an era of minimal central government, free trade and laissez-faire. According to this view, the British state was smaller and interfered less in the lives of its subjects than it had done in the 18th century, when it had been geared to waging a series of intercontinental wars against France, or in the 20th century, when the state began to provide an increasing range of public services. Social critics such as the Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, setting the tone for later commentators, complained that social evils, such as poverty, disease and ignorance, flourished in the absence of state regulation and action. Such a view, however, ignores the wide range of public


services and social provision that was funded and delivered locally. It also ignores the fact that throughout the century there was a gradual expansion of infrastructure, regulation and social policy, to give just a few examples, all of which involved the state. In both of these aspects, parliament played a crucial role. While the central state bureaucracy, or “Whitehall” as


it is termed today, was small, this was only possible because many functions were delivered and administered by local bodies with powers to raise rates (local property taxes) to provide services. After 1834, the system of English public welfare, the poor law, was financed and distributed through locally elected bodies called boards of guardians. Locally elected highway commissions raised rates for the maintenance of roads, while improvement commissions served a similar purpose for paving and lighting many towns. After the reform of local government in 1835, elected town councils began to take on many of the functions that had previously been exercised by these separate bodies. After 1870, locally elected school boards had the responsibility of overseeing educational provision and funding it through local rates. All of these local bodies derived their powers from legislation


passed by parliament. In the early 19th century, many localities lobbied parliament for Local Acts to enable them to establish


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