The geography of voting behaviour: towards a roll-call analysis of England’s reformed electoral map, 1832-68

Ahead of next Tuesday’s Virtual IHR Parliaments, Politics and People seminar, we hear from Dr Martin Spychal, of the History of Parliament. On 16 March 2021, between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m., Martin will be responding to your questions about his pre-circulated paper on the geography of voting behaviour in Parliament between 1832 and 1868. Details of how to join the discussion are available here, or by contacting  seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

‘The Division Lobby, House of Commons’, Illustrated London News, 5 Dec. 1857

What influenced a nineteenth-century MP when they voted over policy and governments in the Commons? Were they voting for ideological reasons or to advance their personal and business interests? Were they voting disinterestedly or following the dictates of prototypical party whips? Were they voting on behalf of their constituents or countrymen and women? Or were they voting in response to shifts in public opinion and extra-parliamentary campaigns?

The voting records of MPs in the Commons – which were published officially by Parliament from 1836 – are a vital source for researchers trying to answer these questions. The History of Parliament Trust has digitised a very substantial number of these official voting records, as part of a longer-term project to develop digital resources on MP voting.

This data includes over 20,000 Commons division lists between 1836 and 1910. In doing so they have created an incredible set of ‘big data’ that has huge potential for historians trying to understand the relationship between Westminster, the post-1832 reformed electoral system and nineteenth-century UK politics and political culture.

Original division List for 31 January 1840 vote alongside a digitised record of the same vote

My paper for the Parliaments, Politics and People seminar on 16 March introduces the work that I’ve been doing to develop this dataset into a resource that can be used to help answer the kind of questions outlined above. It uses a constituency-led analysis of voting in the Commons between 1832 and 1868 to examine the diversity of party labels in the reformed UK electoral system, provide a four-nation analysis of MP behaviour in the division lobbies, and explore the political effects of England’s reformed constituency system after 1832.

Unofficial Division List for February 1835 vote in the Commons on the amendment to the address, Courier, 27 Feb. 1835

One of the things that I’ve been doing to expand the original datasets has been to include the unofficial records of votes in the Commons that took place after the 1832 Reform Act but before the official publication of divisions in February 1836. These voting records, which for major votes were usually highly reliable, were published in the press or in dedicated books, such as Richard Gooch’s The Book of the Reformed Parliament.

I’ve also been exploring ways of analysing MPs voting records against the mass of parliamentary returns published by Parliament during the nineteenth century relating to voters and constituencies. One really helpful method of doing so has been to visualise constituency and voting data using geographic information system [GIS] software.

Unlike today, where the UK electoral system operates under a single-member constituency system, in the nineteenth century most constituencies returned two MPs, and some returned up to four. This means constituency maps for the UK during the nineteenth century have to be presented in a different way to the ones you might be used to seeing on election night, which show a constituency in a certain colour depending on an MP’s party.

Constituency level map of 26 Feb. 1835 division on the amendment to the address. Compiled using voting data and Vision of Britain GIS shapefiles

The map above is one method I’ve used for understanding how MPs for different constituencies voted in the Commons between 1832 and 1868. It visualises how MPs for Yorkshire and Lancashire voted on 26 February 1835, when they were asked whether to accept the policy agenda of the new Conservative Government led by Sir Robert Peel.

A dark blue constituency (such as Lancaster) indicates that both of its MPs voted for Peel. A white constituency returned a neutral vote, either because both its MPs cancelled out each other’s votes (such as Leeds) or none of its MPs voted (such as Pontefract and Oldham). And a dark orange constituency (such as Yorkshire West Riding) indicates that both of its MPs voted against Peel. A light blue (Warrington) or light orange (Thirsk) constituency indicates a single vote for or against Peel respectively, either because it was a single-member constituency or because one member was absent.

Excerpt from C. Dod, The Parliamentary Pocket Companion for 1835 (1835)

As well as having a very different constituency system, the nineteenth-century Commons was filled with MPs who identified with an array of different party labels to those in use today. While many referred to themselves as Conservatives or Liberals, others preferred terms such as Reformer, Whig, Repealer, Radical, Protectionist, Independent Opposition, Liberal Conservative or Chartist, and some even refused a party label. Party was also used in a much more fluid sense than today, usually as shorthand to identify the political principles of an MP rather than their membership of a formal party organisation.

To make an analysis of MP voting as faithful to the conditions of the nineteenth century as possible I’ve been linking the voting records of MPs to a new database of party labels that I’ve been developing for the period. This database assigns an MP a contemporary party label based on annual copies of The Parliamentary Pocket Companion, manuscript sources, newspaper reports of election results, speeches and election addresses of MPs. These party labels can then be used in conjunction with voting records as a starting point for identifying shifting levels of party discipline in the Commons, and how particular issues came to define or split groupings of MPs.

To find out more Martin’s full length paper ‘The geography of voting behaviour: towards a roll-call analysis of England’s reformed electoral map, 1832-68’ is available here

Martin will be taking questions about his research between 5.15 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday 16 March 2021. To register for this Virtual seminar, please follow this link and click on ‘Book now’. If you cannot attend this session but wish to submit a question to Martin, please send it to seminar@histparl.ac.uk.

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