Tackling electoral corruption: how Victorian Britain reformed the trial of election petitions in 1868

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the passing of the Election Petitions and Corrupt Practices at Elections Act, an important part of the electoral reforms which had begun with the Second Reform Act of 1867. Dr. Kathryn Rix of our Victorian Commons project explains why and how Benjamin Disraeli’s ministry aimed to tackle the problem of bribery and corruption at mid-Victorian elections.

On 31 July 1868 the Election Petitions and Corrupt Practices at Elections Act received royal assent. This measure transformed the way that Parliament investigated allegations of bribery and corruption at elections. Rather than election petitions challenging the result of the contest being considered at Westminster by election committees composed of MPs, they would now be tried in the constituency by an election judge.

Benjamin Disraeli, carte-de-visite (early 1860s) (c) NPG
Benjamin Disraeli, carte-de-visite (early 1860s) (c) NPG

Although it did not pass until 1868, this Act needs to be understood as part of a wider package of electoral reform, at the heart of which lay the Conservative ministry’s 1867 Reform Act. When he introduced that measure, Benjamin Disraeli declared that the ministry ‘would not be doing its duty’ if it did not also ‘attempt vigorously to grapple with this question of bribery and corruption’. During the debates on the Election Petitions Act, the Liberal Henry Fawcett declared that ‘Reform legislation could not be considered as complete till some measure of this kind was passed’.

The 1865 election had revealed the extent of the problem: candidates spent £705,429 on their campaigns, compared with £403,852 in 1859, although part of this increase was due to a higher number of contested elections. There were also more successful election petitions which unseated MPs for electoral malpractice: 16, compared with 11 in 1859. Four constituencies – Great Yarmouth, Lancaster, Reigate and Totnes – were considered so corrupt that royal commissions were sent to investigate further. At Lancaster the commissioners found that a staggering 64% of voters had been involved with corruption, while at Totnes, bribes of up to £200 had been offered. All four boroughs were punished by being disfranchised in 1867.

Yet it was evident that the problem of electoral malpractice went beyond this venal quartet. During the debate on the 1867 reform measure, there were several backbench attempts to add clauses to tackle corruption. Francis Berkeley introduced a motion for voting by ballot, as he had done almost annually since 1848, but this was rejected after a cursory debate. His concern was to safeguard voters against intimidation, but other MPs were more worried about protecting their own pockets from the increased election costs which an extended electorate would bring. John Hibbert, Liberal MP for Oldham, successfully added a clause making payments for conveying voters to the poll illegal in boroughs. However, the Commons rejected an attempt by Sir Thomas Lloyd, Liberal MP for Cardiganshire – who confessed that his £4,000 election expenditure in 1865 was ‘principally for public-houses’ – to prohibit the use of hotels, pubs and licensed premises as committee rooms at elections.

Conservative ministers took a different approach to tackling corruption. Rather than trying to curb the opportunities for electoral misdemeanours and excessive expenditure at their source, they hoped to deter corruption by increasing the likelihood that its perpetrators would be detected and punished. There had long been complaints that the existing system of election committees was inadequate. The success of royal commissions in uncovering the full extent of corruption in the most venal constituencies had shown the benefits of on-the-spot inquiries. Witnesses were felt more likely to be honest when testifying in front of their neighbours than in a Westminster committee room.

It was also hoped that trials in the constituency would be cheaper, as witnesses would no longer need to be brought to London, where they were ‘given good quarters, and plenty to eat and drink’. These trips often became ‘a sort of Saturnalia’, hardly the appropriate moral atmosphere in which to pass judgement on bribery and treating. An additional consideration was that election committees could not meet until Parliament reassembled after the election, delaying proceedings. Nor were MPs necessarily the best judges of their colleagues’ conduct. The Times described election committees as ‘the softest of tribunals’, where ‘each judge bears in mind that the alleged delinquent is a member and a brother’.

Disraeli’s decision to deal with corruption separately from the main reform bill was also tactically shrewd. Firstly, it removed the possibility that opponents of reform would try to scupper the measure by overloading it with clauses relating to bribery and corruption. Sir Rainald Knightley had already used the issue as a blocking tactic against the Liberal ministry’s 1866 reform bill. Secondly, disconnecting the question of electoral impurity from the reform bill helped to suppress uncomfortable questions about the representative system, in particular the fitness of prospective working-class voters for the suffrage. Robert Lowe, the Adullamite, had highlighted the perceived link between a wider franchise and corruption in 1866, when he declared,

‘If you want venality, if you want ignorance, if you want drunkenness, and facility for being intimidated … where do you look for them in the constituencies? Do you go to the top or to the bottom?’

By making it clear that corruption would be dealt with in a separate measure, ministers reduced the scope for awkward questions about the potential pitfalls of widening the franchise.

Disraeli presented his initial plans for reform of the election tribunal in February 1867, when he proposed that two assessors – experienced barristers selected by the Speaker – should try election petitions in the constituency, with a right of appeal to the Commons. This established the fundamental principle that election petitions should be tried locally rather than at Westminster. The appeal procedure and the Speaker’s role in appointing the assessors were an attempt to soften the blow of the Commons surrendering control of the trial of election petitions. This was overturned by the much bolder scheme put forward by the select committee which considered the bill after its second reading. It recommended that the Commons completely relinquish its jurisdiction over election petitions, which had previously been defended as a vital and historic privilege of the lower House. Petitions would be presented directly to the court of queen’s bench, and tried locally by an election judge drawn from the superior courts. It was hoped that judicial trial would encourage the belief that ‘bribery was a serious offence of which an honest man should be ashamed’.

In 1868 the ministry introduced a bill embodying the committee’s proposals. Unexpectedly, there was opposition from the judges, concerned about overwork and the impact on their reputation if ‘angry and excited partisans’ questioned petition judgements. MPs also proved unwilling to surrender their jurisdiction without a fight, but opponents of the reform were weakened by their failure to unite around a coherent alternative. Disraeli’s skills in overcoming these objections and guiding the measure through the Commons earned him ‘a new sort of regard’ even from those usually his critics. The Spectator recorded that ‘when [MPs] have got overheated he had adjourned the discussion; he has taken one or two important defeats with good temper and yielded with alacrity’. He was, however, firm in resisting a flurry of amendments, predominantly from Liberal backbenchers, who wanted wider measures to tackle corruption and the related problem of excessive election spending.

After what Gathorne Hardy wearily described as ‘hot, hot long nights’ of debate, the measure received its third reading in the Commons on 24 July 1868. It was rapidly ushered through the Lords in order to receive royal assent a week later, on the day of the prorogation of Parliament, which Disraeli had been prepared to delay in order to secure the passing of this crucial reform.


For more information, see K. Rix, ‘The Second Reform Act and the problem of electoral corruption’, Parliamentary History, 36:1 (2017), 64-81

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