Local polls and national politics: a 19th century perspective

As much of the UK prepares to vote in local elections this week, in this blog (adapted from our Victorian Commons site), Dr Philip Salmon discusses the origins of 19th century council elections and how they quickly became guides to national polls.

As barometers of political opinion, local elections have long had a special place in British politics, offering useful (though not necessarily accurate) guides to national trends. The link between local and national polls, however, has always been complex and has a curious history. As the pundits get to grips with this week’s local polls and what they might tell us about the next general election, spare a special thought for the original pioneers of England’s first town council elections.

England’s first modern council elections, established by the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, were unbelievably complex by today’s standards. Held in the same year as the fourth general election to take place in less than five years, this brand new set of polls to create 178 elected town councils became highly politicised. What made 1835 especially unusual was the need to elect entire councils all in one go and then hold yet another poll to replace any councillors nominated as aldermen. In boroughs which were not divided into wards, electors might have the option to vote for as many as a dozen councillors on their ballot papers. Even in multi-ward constituencies they could usually pick six councillors. With both the Conservatives and Liberals putting forward candidates, along with a host of independent and radical contenders, the voting permutations and choices on offer became staggering.

In the six-seat wards of Shrewsbury, for example, council voters could chose one Tory and five Liberals, two Tories and four Liberals, half and half, four Tories and two Liberals, or five Tories and one Liberal. Each voter could also select different Tories and Liberals to make up these combinations, and of course the whole process could then be repeated by those who ‘plumped’ and opted to only use five, four, three etc. of all their six available votes. In theory (at least) Shrewsbury’s electors faced an astonishing 5,664 choices in these first town council elections. In nine-seat wards like those in Stockton, where two candidates vied for each council seat, there were an even more daunting 88,939 voting possibilities.

Fig. 1: Printed council election ballot paper: Shrewsbury, 1835

The way politicians and activists responded to these extraordinary first council elections laid the foundations for the type of national party involvement in local polls that still remains in place today. Rather than leaving anything to chance, and run the risk that voters might choose opposing parties or simply make mistakes, local Conservatives and Liberals began to prepare and distribute pre-printed ballot papers listing all their own candidates. Fig. 1 shows the list produced by the Liberals in one of Shrewbury’s wards, as used (and adapted) by Henry Westwood of Coleham. This was the first widespread use of printed ballot papers – of the kind used in modern elections – on this sort of national scale. Unlike today, however, all of these 19th century voting papers still had to be signed by the elector before being handed in – it would not be until 1872 that the secret ballot was introduced for council and parliamentary elections.

Using these pre-printed ballots proved extremely popular. As a result England’s first council elections showed a remarkably high-level of party-based voting, with many voters supporting exactly the same party that they had backed in general elections. Not everyone complied with this arrangement, however. As well submitting hand-written voting papers, which remained perfectly permissible, electors often altered the pre-printed party lists by crossing out names and adding their own choices (see Figs. 1 & 2).

Fig. 2: Council election ballot paper, Shewsbury 1835

One upshot of all this was that local election results became far more important than they otherwise might have been as potential indicators of national party strength. With so many municipal electors qualifying for the parliamentary franchise, largely because of similar voting qualifications and overlapping registration systems, national party leaders inevitably began to take a keen interest in the outcome of local polls.

In 1838, for instance, one election agent in Dover confidently informed the Tory leaders that the ‘new mayor’ and ‘other vacancies in the municipal body will … be supplied from the Conservative party, so that there may be reason to expect a corresponding improvement in the Parliamentary franchise’. In a similar vein, the future Conservative PM Sir Robert Peel was advised the following year that ‘the municipal election is already ours and this ascendancy will ultimately operate upon the parliamentary return’. The outcome of many local elections in the late 1830s was widely seen as laying the foundations for the defeat of the Liberals and the Conservative landslide victory in 1841.

Today’s political leaders will inevitably be scrutinising this week’s local elections for indications of how their parties could perform in the next general election. Whether these local polls will be as useful a barometer of national party strength as they were in the early Victorian era, however, remains to be seen.


Further reading:

P. Salmon, ‘Local politics and partisanship: the electoral impact of municipal reform, 1835’, Parliamentary History, xix (2000), 357-376 VIEW

J. A. Phillips, ‘England’s “other” ballot question: the unnoticed political revolution of 1835’, in C. Jones, P. Salmon & R. Davis (ed), Partisan politics, principle and reform in parliament and the constituencies, 1689-1880 (2005), 139-163

Find more blogs from our Commons 1832-1868 project at the Victorian Commons blog site.

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