It is not possible to form an exact estimate of the size of the electorate before 1830, since there was no registration, assessments are unreliable, and we cannot be certain of the number of votes uncast. In addition, though registration of voters was introduced by the Act of 1832, it was at first very imperfect until party managers realized how many votes were going to waste. Grey's Reform Act introduced a standard franchise of £10 householders in the towns and augmented the franchise in the counties by allowing tenants at will to vote—the Chandos clause. The biggest increase was certainly in Scotland, where the electorate jumped from 4,500 to 65,000; in Ireland the electorate nearly doubled, from 49,000 to 90,000, and in England and Wales the increase has been put at from 435,000 to 653,000. Most of the new voters were middle-class citizens and many of the working classes were disappointed to find themselves excluded. Though as a debating ploy the Whigs insisted that the Act was a final settlement, agitation for an extension of the franchise soon recommenced and was an important ingredient in the chartist programme of the late 1830s. By the second Reform Act of 1867, introduced by Disraeli after Lord John Russell's measure had foundered on party disunity, the vote was extended to working-class urban electors on the basis of household suffrage, adding some 938,000 to the existing electorate of 1,056,000. By 1884 natural increase had raised the UK electorate to some 3 million. Gladstone's Act of that year raised it to 5 million, bringing in large numbers of county voters. With the majority of adult males now enfranchised, the total exclusion of women became more prominent and by 1897 a majority of MPs had been converted to the general principle of enfranchising women. The First World War did not so much change attitudes as enable politicians to climb down with some dignity and the 1918 measure went through with little disagreement. Even so, the vote was restricted to women over 30, so that they should not form a majority in the electorate, bearing in mind the heavy male casualties during the war. The electorate was increased by some 7 million to more than 21 million (13 million men, 8.5 million women). Three more measures brought about almost complete adult suffrage. In 1928 the age limit for women voters was brought down to 21, giving the vote to 5 million extra ‘flappers’. The Labour government's Act of 1948 ended plural voting by taking away the business vote and the special university representation. In 1969, with little controversy, the voting age was lowered to 18, bringing in another 3 million voters. At almost every extension, apprehension was expressed that the new voters would prove fickle and irresponsible: in every instance they behaved very much like the older voters they had joined.
Of equal importance were accompanying redistribution measures, legislation against undue influence and corruption, and the introduction of democracy into local government. The redistributive clauses of the Great Reform Act of 1832 were probably its most dramatic feature, with the total abolition of 56 ‘Schedule A’ boroughs, including Old Sarum, Gatton, Dunwich, and Hindon, and the award for the first time of parliamentary representation to great industrial towns like Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bolton, Blackburn, Bradford, and Wolverhampton. Further redistribution was effected by the 1867 Act, which deprived 38 small boroughs like Honiton, Stamford, and Dorchester of one of their two seats; brought in Burnley, Middlesbrough, Gravesend, and 7 other boroughs with one seat (two for Chelsea); and gave an extra third seat to Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds, and Manchester. An even more drastic redistribution accompanied the 1884 Act. Seventy-nine towns with less than 15,000 population lost both members, and a further 36 with less than 50,000 lost one: the Act moved a long way towards single-member constituencies, which predominated in the 20th cent.
The struggle for purity of elections was laborious throughout the 19th cent. The introduction of the secret ballot in 1872 did not solve the problem. The Corrupt Practices Act of 1883 made more impact by tightening up control of election expenses, though isolated instances of bribery continued to be revealed.
Local government reform was effected by the Municipal Corporations Act of 1834, which set up elected councils in the larger towns; by the County Councils Act of 1888, which replaced the old government in the shires by justices of the peace by 62 elected councils; and by the Parish Councils Act of 1894, hailed as a great measure of local democracy, but hamstrung by financial limits and watered down by 20th-cent. legislation.
J. A. Cannon
Reform Acts or Reform Bills, in British history, name given to three major measures that liberalized representation in Parliament in the 19th cent. Representation of the counties and boroughs in the House of Commons had not, except for the effects of parliamentary union with Scotland (1707) and Ireland (1800), been materially altered since the 17th cent. The system was very irregular and greatly restricted the franchise; it failed to take into account the great shifts of population and the growth of new social classes that attended the Industrial Revolution.
controlled by the crown or large landholders, and
whose populations had declined (the most notorious was Old Sarum, which had virtually ceased to exist) were amply represented. Yet large cities such as Manchester and Birmingham returned no members of their own. Out of a population of about 24,000,000 in the British Isles (including Ireland), only about 435,000 were qualified to vote. Corruption and the sale of seats flourished. Reform agitation, beginning to develop in the 1760s, was supported by William Pitt and others, but the emergency period of the French Revolution interrupted it. Revived c.1807, it had become the leading issue of the day by 1830.
The Reform Act of 1832, enacted under the Whig administration of the 2d Earl Grey, redistributed seats in the interest of larger communities; it also extended the franchise in the boroughs to those who occupied premises of an annual value of £10 and in the counties to similar leaseholders—to the advantage of shopkeepers and other middle-class men—and it simplified registration and voting procedure. The bill was passed in the House of Lords only as a result of the government's threat to overcome opposition by creating enough Whig peers to ensure passage. The electorate was increased by about 50%, but the new distribution of seats still allowed the rural areas to retain their supremacy.
Agitation by the advocates of Chartism and others for further reform produced no results until Benjamin Disraeli made a bid for the support of the working classes by enacting the Reform Act of 1867. This act, which further redistributed the seats and more than doubled the electorate, gave the vote to many workingmen in the towns. The Reform Act of 1884, passed during the administration of William Gladstone, removed the distinction between county and borough franchises and, by the reduction of rural qualifications, added about 2,000,000 more men to the electorate. A redistribution act in 1885 rendered representation nearly proportional to population. It was not, however, until the passage of the Representation of the People Acts in the 20th cent. that the British Parliament adopted universal male and female suffrage.
See studies of electoral reform by C. Seymour (1915, repr. 1970) and H. L. Morris (1921, repr. 1971); N. Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel (1953); F. B. Smith, The Making of the Second Reform Bill (1966); see more general studies by A. Jones (1972), J. Cannon (1973), M. Barker (1975), and T. A. Jenkins (1988).