Other Acts which increased Democracy
Although Britain was taking great strides to become more democratic by 1867 by
increasing the franchise, essential ingredients of democracy such as the right to vote
free of intimidation and in secret were still missing from the political mix. This was due
to the fact that voting was done in the open. Open voting required voters to announce
their choice of candidate in public. This could lead to intimidation, threats and loss of
homes and jobs if the voter did not support the choice of his employee. However, the
Liberal Prime Minster William Gladstone took it upon himself to fix this anomaly in the
democratic system by passing the Secret Ballot Act of 1872 which meant that all votes
were cast in secret. Although this did result in secret voting, forms of bribery still
continued. Due to the wealth of the candidates they could ‘buy’ votes by offering food
and drink and even jobs to likely voters. To prevent this the Conservative government
passed the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act. This Act limited how much candidates
could spend during the election and banned candidates from buying food or drink for
potential voters. It also meant that all election costs had to be accounted for and that
corruption became illegal. Therefore, it is clear that Britain was much more democratic
by 1883 due to the passing of the 1872 Secret Ballot Act and the 1883 Illegal Practices
Act, as a fundamental right of a democracy is the right of its citizens to be able to vote
in secret without intimidation or bribery.
Very little was done to make Britain more democratic after 1885 until the Liberal
Government reformed the non-elected House of Lords in 1911 by Passing the Parliament
Act 1911.. This was vital to the growth of democracy in Britain as the unelected
chamber of the House of Lords, had the power to veto legislation from the elected
government. The Liberal government 1906-11 found it increasingly difficult to get their
budgets passed by the house of Lords which was mostly made up of Conservative Lords
as they wanted to tax the rich to help relieve the poor of poverty.
During the Liberals time in power 1906-11, they found it increasingly difficult to pass
legislation to help the people of Britain (most famous the Peoples Budget), not past the
elected members of parliament but by the House of Lords. The power of the House of
Lords was therefore cancelling out any rights the working man had as the Lords were
The Secret Ballot Act, 1872
Before 1872 voting was a public act. One reason for this was the idea that those given
the privilege of voting were somehow the representatives of all the people living in their
community and, as a result, everybody in the local community had the right to know how
each voter had voted. Open voting, however, allowed and sometimes encouraged
intimidation and opponents argued that it should be replaced by a secret ballot.
Historians agree that there was little interest in the secret ballot in Parliament until
after the 1868 general election. The rowdiness and rioting, the flood of petitions
protesting that bribery had taken place in particular constituencies and the trials in
open court, caused the new Liberal government a good deal of heart-searching.
Following the 1868 general election, a Select Committee was set up to investigate
conduct at elections and it was specifically asked to examine whether a secret ballot
should be introduced. The Select Committee recommended that a secret ballot should
be introduced and, after a battle in Parliament, the Ballot Act became law in 1872. As a
result, electors were to vote secretly marking a printed ballot paper with a cross and
placing it in a sealed ballot box. Votes were to be counted in the presence of the
The 1872 Ballot Act was a significant step because it reflected a change in attitude
towards the vote, O’Leary argues that: “It was on the issue of the ballot that the
Liberal Party as a whole came round to the radical view that the vote was a right, not a
trust or a privilege.”
O’Leary also points out that, by replacing the Hustings with the polling both, the Act
ensured that voting came to be seen more as “a political act rather than as a social
occasion”. In addition, the Act was constitutionally important since it was an important
step on the path to democracy. By enabling electors to vote as they chose rather than
as others commanded, it made the electoral system more representative and
Historians agree that the amount of violence and intimidation during election campaigns
was reduced as a result of the introduction of the secret ballot. But, they also agree
that the Act did little to reduce bribery.
Support for the secret ballot.
The abolition of voting by public declaration and its replacement by a system
of voting by ballot was introduced by Gladstone’s Liberal government in 1872.
Radicals had long campaigned for this reform as a means of preventing the
influencing, bribing and intimidation of voters through more discreet means
of persuasion by aristocratic patrons.
The extension of the franchise in the boroughs in 1867 brought within the
electorate working-class men who, it was feared, might be more susceptible
to bribery than the more affluent middle-class voters.
There was also an element within the Liberal Party, personified by John
Bright, who believed that the tenant farmers in the countries were obliged
to vote for the landlords’ candidates through fear of eviction from their
The secret ballot, therefore, was considered to be essential first step
towards the rooting out of corruption and influence in elections.
Defenders of open voting
The system of open voting was not without its defenders. Lord John Russell,
the architect of the First Reform Act of 1832, was adamantly opposed to
the secret ballot, which he described as a “change from publicity to
Defenders of the open voting system regarded secret ballots as being in
some way “unmanly” and tainted with cowardice.
The significance of the reform
Evan after the introduction of the secret ballot, corruption of voters was
not rooted out and elections continued to be very lively affairs.
Those constituencies which had a reputation for a corrupt electorate
continued to cause concern after 1872; it seemed that the only difference
the secret ballot had made was that voters could now take bribes from both
sides of the context. The election of 1880 was the most expensive to date.
It was not until the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 imposed stiff penalties
for bribery and set limits on election expenditure that the conduct of
elections was, at least partially, cleansed of corruption.
The Problem of Corruption Electoral Corruption
In the mid-nineteenth century corruption during elections was widespread. The kinds
of bribery and “treating” of voters which marked the Maldon election of 1852 were
typical. Money was handed out by mysterious strangers, groups were entertained in
dozens of pubs, bills were presented to candidates listing the gallons of beer that had
In addition to bribery and “treating” many electoral contests descended into violence,
sometimes violence of serious proportions. Between 1865 and 1885, there were at least
71 incidents of serious disorder. Often this violence was the by-product of bribery and
“treating” with drunken supporters of the different candidates clashing around the
Hustings. On occasion, however, the violence was planned, with candidates hiring people
to intimidate voters. In most of the large urban constituencies the more genteel
electors were sometimes terrorised on polling day by gangs of hired bullies and
deterred from voting.
Example One - Hull, 1837 and 1852
In 1837, boatloads of Hull electors, after sailing across the Humber, were met by
coaches at the pier and whisked to a tavern. There they were provided with large
amounts of food and drink. They were then taken to cast their votes and, following
that, provided with yet more food and drink before being shipped back home that night.
Hull was a comparatively large borough, but it had a reputation for corruption.
After the 1852 election (which cost the four candidates at least £9,200), a Royal
Commission found that a third of the 3,983 people who had voted had been bribed.
Example Two – the Sandwich by-election of 1880
After the Liberal victory in the 1880 general election, the M.P. from Sandwich was
promoted to the Lords and a by-election was held. The Conservative agent’s first move
was to hire 88 pubs as “committee rooms” at £5 a piece. Only 17 were ever used. All
that the innkeepers did for their money was to post up a few posters . The agent
then divided the constituency up into districts and appointed 42 canvassers at £6 a day.
He spent nearly £350 on rosettes for the wives and children of voters. Thousands of
yards of bunting and ribbon was bought from local traders (all of whom were voters)
and, on the day before the election, cards were sent in Conservative colours to all
inhabitants, allowing them to use the Deal pier free of charge. The Conservative agent
spent £6,500 on the election, but could only account for £5,600 (which probably means
that £900 was spent on direct bribes). Meanwhile, the Liberal candidate spent £2,000
partly direct bribery, partly on flags and banners, and partly on dubious employment.
The result gave the Conservatives 1,145 votes and the Liberals 705. When the Royal
Commission that had been set up to investigate electoral practices published its report,
it found that 1,005 people had accepted bribes (127 from both sides) and that both
sides were guilty of corrupt practices.
The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883
The Ballot Act of 1872 failed to end bribery. Corrupt practices were commonly used in
elections as late as 1880. Just as the 1868 general election was the turning point which
led to the secret ballot, the 1880 general election led to the Corrupt and Illegal Practices
Act. The general election of 1880 was disgraced by widespread corrupt practices.
Following the election, the government introduced a Bill designed to put an end to corrupt
practices. This Bill became law in August 1883.
It was experience of elections under the secret ballot that persuaded the majority of
MPs to support further measures to counter corruption. Politicians disliked heavy
election costs, especially since the secret ballot meant that those who accepted bribes
would not necessarily do the honourable thing and vote for their benefactor. Some
electors might even take bribes from both candidates.
The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act was by no means the first piece of legislation
designed to eliminate electoral corruption. But, its penalties were much more severe than
those imposed by previous legislation and historians agree that, in the long term, it was a
success. O’Leary describes it as a “landmark in the struggle for electoral purity” and
says:“Its effect was to transform the whole character of British electioneering within a
Certainly, the number of election petitions significantly decreased after the Corrupt and
Illegal Practices Act was passed (election petitions were legal challenges against an
election result based on the allegation that illegal actions had taken place).
The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883 defined precisely the amount of money
that could be spent on each electoral campaign, ruled out every form of bribery and
undue influence, and laid down the number of conveyances that could be used for bringing
voters to the polls. The Act went a great way towards clearing up various forms of
electoral corruption, and elections are still governed by its rules to this day.
It was not until the Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 imposed stiff
penalties for bribery and set limits on election expenditure that the
conduct of elections was, at least partially, cleared of corruption.
The restrictions on campaign spending produced two apparently
contradictory results. Firstly, the parties needed more professional
election agents who were well versed in the law. Secondly, the parties
also needed more volunteer workers, who could undertake much of the
more mundane work involved in election campaigns at no cost to the
candidates or the party organisations.
The Conservatives set up the Primrose League in 1883 as their vehicle
for recruiting party volunteers.
The Redistribution Act, 1885.
The Redistribution Bill was based on two main principles;
all constituencies should have an electorate of roughly the same size.
the vast majority of constituencies should return a single MP
The Redistribution Act was passed in June 1855. Under the terms of the Act, boroughs
with a population under 15,000 lost their MPs and merged with the counties. Boroughs
with a population under 50,000 lost one of their two MPs. As a result, 138 seats were
made available for redistribution. In addition, existing constituencies were broken up so
that 647 constituencies out of a total of 670 became single-member constituencies. The
new distribution of seats tackled the North-South imbalance. Cornwall’s seats, for
example, were reduced from 44 to 7; Lancashire, by contrast, increased its
representation from 14 to 58. Similarly, large cities gained considerably more seats.
The Redistribution Act brought the most thorough redistribution of seats in the whole of
the century. Most constituencies henceforth had only a single Member of Parliament.
The Parliament Act, 1911
The hereditary character of the House of Lords and its power of veto over legislation
passed by the House of Commons had long been regarded by radicals as an obstacle to
democracy. Abolition of the Lords, or its replacement by an elected second chamber,
were included in radical programmes during the nineteenth century but never pursued
with any great vigour or urgency. For radicals, the priority was to make the House of
Commons more representative.
A Liberal government was elected in 1906 and right from the beginning there were
problems with the House of Lords. The major clash with the Lords occurred over the
budget of 1909. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lioyd George proposed to raise
extra government revenue to finance the new Old Age Pension scheme by increasing
taxes. Much of this increased tax burden would fall on the wealthy, particularly
landowners who were faced with increased death duties and a tax on land values. There
was an unwritten convention that the House of Lords did not interfere with finance
matters but on this occasion the House of Lords, with the assent of the Conservative
leader Balfour, rejected the budget. Asquith’s Liberal government regarded this as an
unconstitional challenge to the authority of the elected government and decided to take
on the House of Lords and reduce their powers.
Following a protracted struggle, the Parliament Act became law in 1911. The changes
made by this act to the powers of the Lords were essentially limited. The Lords still
kept their power to delay legislation for up to two years; since the period between
general elections was reduced to five years, the Lords in practice still had the power of
veto over legislation introduced during the last years of a government’s term of office.
During the nineteenth century, the electorate increased to include people from all
sections of society. Naturally, voters wanted to select MPs who would represent their
wishes and give them fair representation in the House of Commons. However, the
unelected House of Lords had the power to veto, or scrap, any of the proposals for new
laws that came from the House of Commons. For Britain to become more democratic, the
power of the House of Lords would have to be changed.
The catalyst for change came with a row over government spending. In 1909, the Liberal
Government made its taxation proposals clear in its so-called “People’s Budget.” They
intended to raise money by introducing a “super tax” on the very wealthy. These taxes
were to help pay for a series of reforms known as “the Liberal Reforms.” The House of
Lords used their power of veto to scrap the budget proposals. However, if the budget
did not become law, the Liberals could not raise taxes and could therefore not pay for
The connection to the issue of democracy is this: since the elected government of Britain
had decided to pass a new law (the budget is a type of law) what right did the non-
elected House of Lords have to stop it? After a long argument and two more elections
the Parliament Act of 1911 resolved the situation.
The Parliament Act reduced the power of the House of Lords and replaced their veto
with the ability only to delay bills from the House of Commons for two years. The Lords
could no longer interfere with any “Money Bills” – bills that dealt with taxation or that
voted money to the Government. This meant the House of Commons could make its own
mind up about what money it raised through taxation, an important issue in the twentieth
century when all governments were spending more on social reform. Therefore the
Parliament Act of 1911 helped make Britain more democratic.
Payment of MPs
In a democracy, people who want to be involved in politics should be able to participate.
For most of the nineteenth century, MPs were not paid and had to own land. Working
class men who had to work for fairly low wages could not afford to give up their day jobs.
For Britain to be a democracy, the chance to become an MP would have to be opened to
everyone. In 1858, MPs no longer had to own land but, more importantly, from 1911 they
became salaried, thereby allowing ordinary people to stand for election.
The Representation of the People Act,1918
The 1918 Representation of the People Act was the most radical and far-reaching of any
of the Reform Acts. The First World War played a major role in bringing it about. The
experience of war rendered old assumptions about the unfitness of women and young,
working –class males to participate in political life manifestly untenable. Strong support
for manhood suffrage from leading politicians such as Lloyd George was a direct result of
the sacrifices being made by young men on behalf of the nation. Once the question of an
extension of the franchise was back on the agenda, the issue of “votes for women” could
not be ducked or sidelined by governments any longer, especially as women too were
demonstrating their commitment to the war effort in a number of ways. By 1918 a
“patriotic consensus” in favour of an extension of the franchise had developed and the
Representation of the People Act was the result.
The Act resulted in an expansion of the electorate by a factor of almost three. This was
the largest extension of the electorate by any of the major Reform Acts; it included
about 8 million women, who now made up about 40 per cent of the total electorate. The
Act also extended voting rights to those adult males who had been excluded after 1884,
the vast majority of whom were from the working classes. The Act therefore completely
changed the character of the electorate; it was noticeable that around three-quarters of
those who voted in 1918 were doing so for the first time. The Representation of the
People Act did not, however, create a system of “one person, one vote.”
A large number of adult women were still excluded from the franchise
because of their age; younger women-the so called ‘flappers’-were still
considered to lack the maturity necessary for exercising political
Around 5 per cent of adult males did not register to vote for a variety
Plural voting was allowed to continue; although the exercise of plural
voting was now limited to one extra vote, significant numbers of
middle-class men had an extra vote in university seats or in a
constituency where they owned business premises.
Many undemocratic features were retained in the electoral system
after 1918. The inequality between the voting qualifications for men
and for women was redressed in 1928 by the Equal Franchise Act.
The anomaly of plural voting was removed in 1948. But it is possible to
describe the post-1918 electoral system as ‘democratic’, in contrast to
the pre-war arrangements that manifestly were not.
The 1872 Secret Ballot Act.
Votes were cast in secrecy in polling booths.
Voters could no longer be threatened or bribed by employers or
The 1885 Redistribution Act
Redrew constituency boundaries throughout Britain.
Towns of 50,000-60,000 still had 2 MPs
Elsewhere single-member constituencies were introduced.
Scotland now had 72 MPs.
Effects of these Acts: -
Only 40 % of men could vote.
The vote was thought of as something that was EARNED. It was not seen
as something which was RIGHT.
Women did not have the right to vote.
The 1911 Parliament Act
This Act was concerned more with Parliament than with voting: -
The power of the House of Lords was reduced. The Lords lost the power
to amend or reject Money Bills.
Any bills passed by the commons on three successive sessions, though
rejected by the Lords, would become laws.
The length of Parliament was reduced from 7 years to 5 years.
For the first time MPs were paid.
The 1918 Representation of the People Act
This Act gave the vote to: -
All men who were over 21.
Women over 30 whom were householders/married to householders or who
were university graduates.
Effects of the Act: -
Over 2 million women now had the right to vote.
6 million men were added to the electorate.
1928 Parliamentary Reform Act
All women and men over the age of 21 now had the right to vote.