Charting the changing culture of modern elections

A guest post today from Dr David Thackeray (Exeter University) on the changing culture of elections. David recently organised the exhibition ‘Democracy in Devon‘  at the Devon Heritage Centre (which you can still catch for a few weeks), and has also blogged for The Victorian Commons.

Charting the changing culture of modern elections, David Thackeray

How has the culture of modern elections changed with the democratisation of the last 100 years? This forms the central theme of an exhibition currently staged at the Devon Heritage Centre in Exeter. The public’s changing engagement with politics is explored through the themes of gender, class and media using the centre’s holdings on elections in the south-west.

DthackFigure 1 (JPEG)The image above shows an excited crowd awaiting the result at the declaration of the Mid-Devon poll in January 1910. In the Edwardian period elections were a spectacle that enthused whole communities, particularly in rural areas with limited sources of public entertainment. Handbills of election songs were distributed for crowds to sing at meetings, often to the tune of music hall favourites. Voters and non-voters alike, women and children were prominent amongst the crowd. Some newspapers estimated the crowd at 10,000 in a constituency of only 12,000 voters and the Mid-Devon women’s Conservative association claimed 4,800 members. Such was the enthusiasm that close contests generated that they sometimes led to scuffles. The picture below shows a crowd milling around a coffee-shop during the contest where suffragettes, publicising their cause during the Mid-Devon contest, were taking shelter having been pursued by a mob.

DthackDemocracy034 (edited)

How much did electoral culture change after 1918? Well, elections gradually became less local affairs due to the growing influence of national newspapers, radio, and eventually, TV. By 1951 a series of Conservative leaflets being distributed in Totnes focused on refuting the statements made by Labour leaders on the radio, bypassing the local campaign altogether. When Robert Dowse and Jeffrey Stanyer conducted an analysis of the 1964 Exeter election for the BBC it was found that only 25% of surveyed constituents could name the Liberal or Labour candidates and it was estimated that less than 1% of the population were party activists, many of whom had close links with the city council. Meetings were largely confined to committed voters and activists.

However, it would be overly simplistic to suggest that there has been a straightforward decline in popular involvement in politics and indeed, few would like to return to the violent and boorish aspects of Edwardian elections. The Liberal party’s embrace of ‘pavement politics’ in the 1970s was a key facet of their revival in the south-west and nationally. The rise of electronic media has created unprecedented opportunities for politicians to engage with the electorate, but also new perils if they appear ‘inauthentic’. This media also provides important new ways to explore people’s engagement with the political process over the long-term, such as the History of Parliament’s oral history project. Ironically, while the recent expenses scandal has been seen as a sign of politicians’ disengagement from the ‘ordinary public’, accusations of corruption and lavish spending were also very much a feature of elections one hundred years ago. Commentators have long expressed anxiety about the fraught relationship between politicians and the public and it would be wrong to assume there was any ‘golden age’ where this was not so.


David Thackeray is a Lecturer at the University of Exeter. His first book: ‘Conservatism for the democratic age: Conservative cultures and the challenge of mass politics in early twentieth century England’ is published by Manchester University Press in May 2013. He organised the May-June 2013 exhibition on ‘Democracy in Devon’ at the Devon Heritage Centre, which was curated with the help of Charlotte Anderson, Olivia Cottrell, Rosie George, Matt Kelsall, Anjali Mukhi and Anna Wilkinson.

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