A guest post, written and researched by Michael Bursill. This piece first appeared in Chartist Magazine on 15th September 2023 to coincide with International Day of Democracy. The full pamphlet from which this extract is taken is available here.

Introduction

It is sometimes thought that Britain’s use of First Past the Post (FPTP) to elect Members of Parliament to the House of Commons is part of Westminster’s ancient heritage. This isn’t so. The introduction of single-member FPTP in 1885 was as much a piece of electoral engineering for the benefit of the leading political parties of the time as it is possible to imagine in a democracy. It mattered, and still does, because it set in stone a distorted way for votes to be translated into seats in parliament.

The Electoral Reform Society and The Constitution Society have each published articles explaining how the UK’s voting system for general elections has been subject to constant contention and frequent change for the past 200 years at least. What their respective accounts overlook are the motivations and calculations that produced the UK’s distinctive execution of Single-Member Plurality voting – or, in less technical language, the First Past the Post that we still have today.

For example, though the concept of localised representation had taken root many centuries before, not until 1885 did single member constituencies become the norm. Up to this point, the number of MPs per constituency had varied between one and three, and in most cases, it was two.

In order to maintain the size of the House of Commons, the changes of 1885 authorised smaller constituencies to be drawn up, on average halving their size and doubling their number. As a result, at 29 of the subsequent 35 general elections, these smaller single-seat constituencies have enabled the formation of single-party governments that represent only a minority of the nation’s voters.

Constituent representation was likewise degraded by the 1885 changes. While many MPs seek to act on behalf of all their constituents, the realities of the UK’s party system mean one MP cannot reliably speak and vote in parliament on behalf of the voters who did not support her or him in the election – and yet these voters may well outnumber those who did. Constituents who voted for other parties’ candidates are left with neither local representation of their viewpoint, nor an MP they can approach who shares their political outlook.

If proper representation was the victim of these changes, party political interests reaped the rewards. 

A time of change for British politics

The UK parliament of the 1880s was comprised of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party, with the Home Rule Party holding many of the Irish seats. The Liberals had dominated the House of Commons more often than not for several decades, while the Conservatives always held sway in the Lords. Unlike today, both Houses had the individual constitutional power to prevent any non-financial Bill from passing into law.

Politics had been essentially the province of the aristocracy, but this was changing. Most unpropertied working men in the boroughs were now entitled to vote, but their peers in the rural counties were not – an obviously intolerable inequality.

Historic constituency imbalances and the failure of constituency boundaries to keep pace with population changes meant there was a 250 to 1 difference in the size of constituency electorates across the nation, resulting in millions of voters in places like Manchester and London being grossly under-represented in parliament – even for those fortunate enough to have the vote.

What happened: The Arlington Street Compact

It was against this backdrop that in the spring of 1884 the Liberals, under Prime Minister William Gladstone, tried to pass an enfranchisement bill that would give the vote to most working men in the counties. This would more than double the size of the rural electorate, a traditional stronghold of the Conservatives.

The Conservative leader in the House of Lords, Lord Salisbury feared that enactment of this legislation could decimate his party’s seats in the House of Commons. He therefore ensured that the Lords blocked the passage of the bill, even though he knew this would anger sections of the public and threaten a constitutional crisis.

Under pressure from Queen Victoria to resolve the impasse, Gladstone set up a Cabinet committee charged with finding a way to achieve enfranchisement of the county men in a way that was acceptable to both Conservative and Liberal interests. Agreement between the two parties was achieved within two weeks, in talks held principally at Lord Salisbury’s London residence in Arlington Street.

Salisbury’s condition for allowing passage of the enfranchisement bill [1] was that Gladstone should commit to following it with a second bill to fundamentally rearrange the constituencies. At Salisbury’s insistence, this redistribution bill [2] would go further than addressing the geographical inequalities of representation: it would roughly double the number of constituencies, halve their average size and, crucially, give the vast majority of them a single MP, rather than between one and three.

Both reform Acts were passed, the county working men got the vote, and the necessary mapping out of the new constituencies was completed, all over the course of a few months, and in time for the general election of late 1885.

Although the Liberals won that election, they lost their parliamentary majority. The Conservatives had taken seats from them, particularly in redrawn suburban constituencies. Within a few months, the contentious matter of Irish Home Rule was to rearrange the party-political structure of the UK, toppling the Liberal government and making Salisbury the Prime Minister.

Salisbury’s election fears and his remedy: First Past the Post in smaller, single-MP constituencies

Salisbury was a formidable scholar of voting behaviour in general elections across the UK. This is clear from his October 1884 article, The Value of Redistribution, published to defend the Conservative Party’s original decision to block the enfranchisement bill.

In his article, written well prior to the Arlington Street Compact, Salisbury had used examples to demonstrate that, the more the nation’s range of political views were evenly spread across the constituencies, the more a single party could win every one of the nation’s seats while only receiving slightly more votes than its principal opponent.

Salisbury’s article is a textbook illustration of the most serious problem of single-member plurality voting: it exaggerates parliamentary seat majorities, translating minority support at the polls into majorities in the House of Commons, sometimes by a wildly exaggerated margin. As Salisbury had pointed out, a competing party could even improve its vote share from one election to the next and yet be rewarded with fewer seats.

Revealingly, Salisbury had also suggested that a party polling a substantial minority of votes should win a substantial and proportionate number of seats. As he had put it, “no system of distribution is completely just which does not […] give to the minority a representation corresponding to its actual weight.”

Now, however, with continued opposition to the enfranchisement bill politically hazardous, Salisbury feared that the steady extension of the franchise – about to include another two million working men in the counties and, he deemed, likely not to stop there – could overpower the votes of existing rural and middle-class voters. This, Salisbury calculated, would disrupt the tendency hitherto of many constituencies to lean towards either Conservatism or Liberalism, on which he felt parliamentary diversity relied.

By the time of the Arlington Street talks, Salisbury had convinced himself that the solution to this problem – and necessarily, a solution that the Liberals would agree to – was to accentuate the Liberal or Conservative leanings of constituencies. Leveraging his effective power of veto in the Lords, Salisbury demanded that the new constituency boundaries be drawn not just to tackle their unequal electorate sizes, but to create constituencies dominated by one social class.

This was gerrymandering to create majority-minority districts for the benefit of the two established political parties. As Salisbury saw it, this would eliminate the risk of Conservative wipeout by the Liberals, who were being helped by the voting system, and mitigate the ‘threat’ of being overridden by new workers’ parties. It would also establish the predominance of what we now call ‘safe seats’, a damaging legacy which we endure to this day.

The consequences of Salisbury’s Redistribution scheme

The new constituencies were to be mapped out by Boundary Commissions, made up of nominees of the political parties, working to prescribed guidelines. Urban populations were to be separated from rural ones as far as possible, which would have its effect on a constituency’s political slant. In the case of the populous boroughs (or built-up areas) that were to be divided, the Boundary Commission’s instructions included:

“…in the arrangement of the divisions special regard should be had to the pursuits of the population.”

This was taken to mean arranging boundaries of urban constituencies to make them composed more of one social class, rather than evenly mixed.

Having smaller constituencies was, in itself, going to increase the political asymmetry of most of them. Careful application of the new boundary guidelines offered the possibility to augment this effect. In handing as many safe seats to the Liberals as to his own party, Salisbury could be confident of their approval, while guarding against his worst fear of being decimated in the Commons.

In a direct reversal of his earlier pronouncements in The Value of Redistribution extolling the importance of minority representation in parliament, Salisbury’s new arrangements guaranteed that votes for losing candidates would have no value. Indeed, according to the chair of the talks, Sir Charles Dilke, Salisbury wrote on the cover of Gladstone’s copy of their draft agreement:

“Minorities not to be directly represented.”

and

“The above, (i.e., that minorities be not directly represented) will be considered by the Government as vital – and the Government will resist as vital question the insertion in the Bill of any provision inconsistent with the above.”

This was a system intended by Salisbury to ensure substantial representation in parliament for the two established parties. An inevitable consequence, upon the arrival of three- or multi-party politics, was that a candidate and party needed only a minority of the votes cast to win the constituency seat, as long as it was the largest minority.

Further, by creating a ‘winner takes all’ situation, Salisbury’s provisions amounted to the systematic disenfranchisement of a huge minority or even majority of the nation’s voters, for the purpose of securing alternating tenure of government for the two political parties of the aristocracy.

This was especially the case for the newly enfranchised workers, since it would restrict the ability to win seats of any emergent new party formed to represent their interests, rendering their votes effectively impotent. (Though a workers’ party would eventually supplant the Liberals in the duopoly, it could only do this by absorbing traditional Liberal supporters, diminishing its radical credentials and limiting the range of views able to achieve representation in Parliament.)

Provided Salisbury could shore up his party’s immediate future with these changes, he could then look to identify ways of gradually improving Conservative electoral prospects in traditional Liberal strongholds. There were emerging new societal trends such as ‘Villa Toryism’: a tendency for aspiring middle-class households in the expanding city suburbs to identify more with Conservative thinking. Through this the Conservative Party could, over time, hope to increase its share of seats in built-up areas.

None of this long-term thinking, however, could be delivered if the party was soon to be annihilated in the Commons as a consequence of the new franchise bill and forthcoming general election of 1885. Salisbury saw this as an existential moment for Conservatism. Whether he was right or wrong, we will never know Salisbury’s actions saw to it that his fears for the Conservative Party’s future were never seriously tested against reality.

By engineering the electoral system to entrench the political power of the existing elite, as a bulwark against the effective articulation of the interests of a newly enfranchised working class, it is difficult not to conclude that Salisbury laid the foundations upon which more than a century of Conservative Party electoral success, and the disenfranchisement of millions of voters, has been built. The tale of Salisbury’s manoeuvring retains a depressingly familiar echo: party was put before country, with the UK’s democracy co-opted to partisan self-interest.


[1] subsequently becoming the Representation of the People Act 1884
[2] subsequently becoming the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885

Photo credit: Constantin Wenning