‘Elections and how to fight them’: electioneering a century ago

We continue our series on election campaigning through the centuries today. Dr Kathryn Rix, Assistant Editor of the Victorian Commons, gives us an insight into the campaign trail at the turn of the 20th century…

After the South Molton election of 1910, via http://sophialambert.com/familyhistory/CHAPTER8.htm
The winning candidate (George Lambert)’s headquarters after the South Molton election of 1910, via this website

The title of this post, ‘Elections and how to fight them’, comes from a handbook written in 1905 by John Seymour Lloyd. This was just one of several guides published to instruct candidates, election agents and party activists in how to run an election campaign. The Conservative Central Office’s ‘Practical Manual on the Conduct and Management of Parliamentary Elections, for the use of Conservative Candidates and Election Agents’ was first issued in 1890 and was into its fourth edition by 1909. Such handbooks provide fascinating insights into electioneering at the beginning of the previous century.

One of the key concerns of these advice manuals was to ensure that party organisers did not fall foul of election law, in particular the 1883 Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act, a landmark piece of legislation. For the first time, it placed strict limits on how much candidates were allowed to spend during their campaign, and for what purpose. For example, there were restrictions on the number of paid election workers who could be employed, and candidates were not allowed to have their committee-rooms in pubs, a provision designed to discourage the ‘treating’ of voters with free food and drink.

However, as their titles suggested, these manuals were more than simply technical guides to the complexities of election law. Instead they aimed to provide ‘information on practical questions which arise during the progress of an election’. There were tips on canvassing, the holding of election meetings, the distribution of election leaflets, and how to get the voters out on polling day.

With an exclusively male electorate until 1918, references in these publications to women were few and far between. But while women did not yet have the right to vote, they could still play an important role as volunteer election workers: the charms of the ‘lady canvasser’ and the usefulness of the female members of the Primrose League in performing secretarial tasks came in for praise. It was also suggested in Lloyd’s manual that the candidate’s ‘affectionate wife’ (if he had one) should accompany him on his polling day tour of the constituency.

As now, the sending out of election literature to voters in their homes was an important element of the campaign. At the 1906 general election, the Liberal and Conservative party headquarters between them supplied over 60 million items to the constituencies for distribution, and vast amounts of leaflets, pamphlets, posters and other material were also produced at local level. This was the major item of expenditure for candidates, and election agents were warned to keep a careful check on spending. Lloyd’s handbook suggested that ‘Committee Rooms are too often found littered with pamphlets which nobody wants and nobody reads’.

As the political parties were involved not only with getting voters to the poll, but also getting them on to the electoral register in the first place, they could accumulate significant amounts of information on individual voters and their interests, and send them targeted election material. One Liberal agent advised his fellow party activists to classify those on the register into eleven different occupational groups, ranging from ‘factory or mill workers’ and ‘farm labourers’ to ‘grocers, provision merchants, and sweet-stuff sellers’.

One striking difference from current constituency campaigns is the amount of attention which these early twentieth century guides devote to the organisation of public meetings and the skills demanded of election speakers. Election meetings were a vital aspect of the local contest, and it was common for several to be held daily in the run up to polling day. In 1906 the Conservative candidate for Chorley spoke at 50 meetings during his campaign, while in January 1910 the victorious Liberal in Mid-Devon managed over 150.

The advent of the motor car made it easier for candidates to get around their constituency during the campaign, although candidates at earlier elections had managed to reach far-flung districts on horseback or in carriages. Viscount Wolmer, Liberal candidate for the Petersfield division of Hampshire, ‘rode or drove over 1,000 miles to village meetings’ at the 1885 election. Cars could, however, prove more of a hindrance than a help: one Liberal election agent warned that any available cars should not be wasted in giving rides to party workers keen to experience this novelty, but used for taking voters to the poll.

The motor car was just one example of the application of modern technology to early twentieth century election campaigning. One hundred years later, with televised election debates and the use of social media to the fore during the campaign, it seems rather odd to read the tentative suggestion in a 1909 election manual that it would be worth installing a telephone in the candidate’s main campaign office, as this would save money on telegrams.

Given the lengthy list of electioneering tasks set out in these manuals, it is hardly surprising that Lloyd concluded that ‘during a contest there can be few idle moments for the person, be he candidate or agent, who is responsible for the conduct of an election’. Anyone involved in preparations for this week’s polls will undoubtedly sympathise with these sentiments from a century ago.


You can read all in our series on historical elections here – watch out for the final post on election day!

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