‘Not another one!’: going to the polls in historical perspective

With UK electors heading off to the national polls for the third time in as many years and as part of our Election 2017 series, Dr Philip Salmon, editor of the Victorian Commons, looks for similar levels of electioneering activity in earlier periods…

By June the UK will have clocked up its fifth general election this century – an average of one every 3.4 years. Although this is slightly higher than the 19th century average (one every 3.8 years) and the 20th century (one every 4), it is remarkably similar in terms of each century’s first two decades: five elections had taken place by 1818 and five by 1918, an average of one every 3.6 years. Add in last year’s referendum, however, and modern voters will have experienced two general elections separated by a gap of just two years, and three national polls in a row. Both these scenarios are far more unusual.

Since 1800 there have only been five comparable occasions when a pair of general elections has followed this timing, starting with 1818 and 1820. Moreover, two of these five examples – 1818/20 and 1835/37 – were triggered not by political events, but by the death of a monarch, George III in 1820 and William IV in 1837. (This practice – the cause of three elections in the 19th century – stopped with the 1867 Reform Act.) A monarch also prompted the completely unexpected 1835 election. Upset at the Whig ministry’s plans to reform the Anglican Church in Ireland, William IV controversially dismissed his government in late 1834 and installed a minority Conservative administration, led by Sir Robert Peel, who immediately called an election. The new government’s bid to win a majority at the polls, however, failed, although it did kick-start the rise of the Conservatives after their rock-bottom performance in 1832. General elections held either side of a ‘gap-year’, for political reasons, are certainly unusual.

It is the holding of a national poll in three successive years, however, which really stands out. This has only happened twice since 1800, with the earliest example again taking place in the 1830s. The parallels between today and the trio of general elections held in 1830, 1831 and 1832 go further too, since the middle poll, held after the defeat of the Whig government’s reform bill, was effectively a ‘referendum’ about whether or not to reform the UK’s representative system. Even some of the 1831 slogans, about ‘restoring’ the constitution and championing  the ‘rights of the people’, have a familiar modern ring.

The third poll in this trio, held after the passage of the 1832 Reform Act, was mainly about public approval for the Whig ministry’s handling of the reform issue, which had sparked a major constitutional crisis. The whole question of reform had not only seriously divided the nation – prompting everything from family feuds to full-scale riots – but had also pitted the Commons against the Lords, before the unelected peers were forced to give way. Bolstered by nearly a third of a million extra voters and newly enfranchised industrial towns like Manchester, the Whig ministry led by Lord Grey won a famous landslide victory in 1832, which remains the largest in British political history. Within 18 months, however, Grey’s ministry had collapsed, torn apart by internal divisions.

While voters in 1910 and 1974 faced two general elections within the same year, the only other example of a national poll occurring in three successive years comes from the early 1920s, when the traditional parties and the growing Labour party vied for support from a newly expanded electorate, following the breakup of the wartime coalition. The Conservatives won the 1922 election, but Stanley Baldwin’s decision to seek an electoral mandate for major tariff reforms in 1923, giving trading ‘preference’ to the colonies, seriously backfired, allowing Labour to form its first government under Ramsey MacDonald, initially with tacit support from the Liberals. Conservative and Liberal opposition to Labour’s handling of relations with communist Russia, however, forced the ministry to resign after just 10 months in office, prompting the 1924 election. Aided by the Zinoviev Letter in the Daily Mail, an early example of ‘fake news’ alleging a communist conspiracy in Britain, the Conservatives were able to secure a major victory.

Both these examples of three consecutive national polls – from the 1830s and 1920s – have modern resonances, with the middle poll in both cases amounting to a form of referendum, whether on electoral reform or a new foreign trade policy. The outcome of the third election in each case, however, obviously turned out very differently. The first awarded the government of the day a landslide victory; the second brought about a dramatic shift in political opinion and a change of ministry. We will soon discover which model today’s trio of national polls – only the third since 1800 – will most closely resemble.


See our ongoing series for more posts inspired by the 2017 General Election – more to follow soon!

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