|Electoral Distortion? Disproportionality and Bias in the British Electoral System, 1832-1910
Matt Badcock, University of Central England
The period between the First Reform Act in 1832 and outbreak of World War One saw significant changes to the British electoral system. Legislation expanding the franchise, introducing the secret ballot and seeking to curb the levels of corrupt expenditure among candidates was accompanied by the growth in importance of the of 'the party' within British politics. Although each of these areas has attracted a large degree of interest within British political history, the electoral system itself has been particularly neglected. As the mechanism through which the democratic sentiment of the electorate could be expressed, this paper argues that the operation of the electoral system – and the impact of all these changes upon it – deserves to be examined more fully as part of the history of political reform in nineteenth-century Britain.
The principal argument of this paper is that the British electoral system treated, firstly, the votes of electors and, secondly, the parties, disproportionately and differently. In 1832 both the Conservative and Liberal 'parties' received a share of seats in parliament that was virtually equal to the share of the vote they achieved. By the 1886 general election, however, there was an increasing disparity between vote and seats shares: the 45% share of the vote recorded by the Liberals translated into only 29% of the seats; at the following election, in 1892, an increase of 0.1% in their vote share resulted in 41% of the seats in parliament.
While the first part of this paper reviews the basic quantitative evidence for disproportionality in the operation of the electoral system, the second, main section presents an analysis of the degree of bias inherent within it – that is, the extent to which the system favoured one party over another. Using a method developed by Brookes (1959; 1960), and subsequently applied to post-World War Two British general election results by Johnston, Rossiter and Pattie (1999), it is possible to calculate what the situation would have been if the two main parties has achieved the same number of votes, as well as the sources of this bias. Based on the results of each individual county contest between the 1832 and December 1910 general elections, constituencies that are commonly perceived to be the electoral base of the Conservative party during the nineteenth century, this analysis finds that the electoral system strongly favoured the Liberal party. In 1868, for example, if the two parties had achieved equal shares of the votes cast, the Liberals would have had at least 20 seats more than the Conservatives. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, the degree of bias had decreased significantly, a trend that ran counter to the increasing disproportionality of the votes to seats relationship.
In sum, this paper offers three main arguments. Firstly, the nineteenth-century electoral system produced disproportionate results, with parties failing to achieve the same share of parliamentary seats as they did votes. Secondly, the same share of the votes cast could result in substantially different shares of the seats. Finally, and most significantly, the electoral system operated in such a way as to favour the Liberal candidates over their Conservative counterparts.