The central thesis of Philip Salmon’s Electoral Reform at Work: Local Politics and National Parties 1832-1841 is that the details of the 1832 Great Reform Act matter because they had large and significant effects on the development of national politics and the embryonic modern party system.
Salmon investigates and illustrates how usually over-looked provisions, such as the introduction of electoral registers, encouraged the formation of semi-permanent political organisations at a local level with resulting frequent party conflict over electoral registration as people tried to get their supporters on the register and their opponents knocked off it.
Though in the Houses of Parliament party lines were often flexible and unclear – with much debate amongst historians as to what state Britain’s party system had developed to by the end of the 1830s – at a local level the binary conflict over getting people added to or struck off electoral registers resulted in opposing organisations on two-party lines in many parts of the country.
As Philip Salmon points out, electoral registration requirements were onerous and many who in theory qualified to get the vote after 1832 did not register initially. As a result, the initial increase in the electorate was far short of what reformers had expected and hoped for. It was only when political organisations got stuck into pushing their own supporters to register that many of these people actually joined the electoral register.
Local organisations were rarely closely controlled by the centre, even though it is the central organisations that have caught the eyes of historians in the past. Partly this was due to central organisational failings, partly due to strong local feelings of independence and partly due to the reluctance of many senior national figures across the political spectrum to see large and permanent party organisations develop and take a close role in yearly electoral registrations disputes.
As a result, the technical details of the Great Reform Act, “profoundly altered the legal and constitutional framework of political activity on the ground, sometimes in completely unforeseen ways”. It did so not only in the boroughs but also in the counties, where Salmon makes a strong case for a level of political vibrancy that has traditionally only been ascribed to boroughs.
Philip Salmon also carefully links together Parliamentary politics with other local contests, such as for the local corporation and for poor law unions, as their actions could alter who could or could not vote in Parliamentary elections (for example by being better or worse at collecting the local taxes which people had to pay in order to qualify to register).
The book leaves one big question unasked as the development of a modern political party system took place across many European countries during the nineteenth century. Therefore, how important really was 1832 in triggering developments in Britain? Even if in the short term it may have done so, given the common pattern across countries would other factors have eventually triggered a similar set of developments anyway? Towards the end Salmon hints briefly at this question, suggesting the answer is that a modern party system may have developed anyway, but it could have been with very different looking parties were it not for the way in which the Great Reform Act encouraged formation of the two specific parties which did emerge.
For a book that challenges so many previous views of historians, its conclusions have been remarkably little disputed – which is a tribute to the evidence and quality of argument presented by Philip Salmon.
The book is due out in paperback later this year, which may in part be due to the impending relevance of its lessons to contemporary politicians as major reforms to the way our elections are conducted (including the AV referendum, changes to boundaries, elections and a new electoral system for the Lords, party funding, recall and more). There has so far been little discussion of the inadvertent or deliberate knock-on impact on the way in which politics is organised and conducted caused by the details of how the headline decisions are implemented, despite Nick Clegg’s invocation of the parallels with 1832. History suggests that if that remains the case the likely impact of the reforms will often by unexpected and inadvertent.