First past the post

Peter Clarke

  • The People of England by Maurice Ashley
    Weidenfeld, 240 pp, £11.50, October 1982, ISBN 0 297 78178 2
  • A New History of England, 410-1975 by L.C.B. Seaman
    Macmillan, 576 pp, £6.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 333 33415 9
  • The Making of Modern British Politics, 1867-1939 by Martin Pugh
    Blackwell, 337 pp, £19.50, May 1982, ISBN 0 631 12985 5

It is notorious that all societies manifest some sense of their history as part of their own collective self-consciousness. The past is drawn upon selectively, compounding nationhood, cultural heritage, class identity or historical destiny in the creation of a necessary myth. The myth may be necessary in order to fortify the ambitions of the restless, to gratify the complacency of the satisfied or to console the amour-propre of the dispossessed. The functions of the past, in this sense, are governed by the needs of the present. Much general interest in history arises in this way, explicitly or implicitly, and historians would be less widely read if they did not cater for it. Yet their own professional concerns, so they disdainfully affirm, are otherwise.

Their lack of interest in the vulgarisation of their discipline is not just a matter of snobbery: it is a matter of fashion. For by the time works of history intended for the general reader have processed the fruit of historical research for consumption by a wider public, it has, in the way of processed fruit, lost its initial tartness. New tastes have by then become fashionable. As far as historians are concerned, therefore, the popular presentation of their subject often has a stale reek of the past – not the more distant past with which it ostensibly deals but the more recent past in which the historiography took shape. It is one thing to acknowledge the ideological uses of history, and thus to recognise that the questions we ask about the past are prompted by particular concerns of our own in the present: but when those concerns have in turn yielded to new ones, the answers with which we are left are also bound to look outmoded. The live questions in historical research are now playing upon other problems.

Which is a ponderous approach to a paradox: that nothing is apt to look so dated as history. That this constitutes an occupational hazard will be well-known to Maurice Ashley and L.C.B. Seaman, both of them veterans of many campaigns in taking history to the people. Their new books show abundant evidence of their craftsmanship and also of their wish to keep abreast of recent historical writing. They tackle subjects so vast in time and so forbidding in scholarship that younger men would readily be forgiven for blenching. To have made sense of the fundamental transformation of English society over two millennia, as Mr Ashley has done, is in itself a feat of scholarly improvisation. If the air with which it is done is that of the clubman, the reader will become aware that it is a very good club and one in which he wishes he felt as much at home as the author. For Mr Seaman, by contrast, history is not to be evoked with the wave of a pipe but rather surveyed with the riffle of a card index. A slot for everything and everything in its slot is the method of A New History of England. Perhaps more useful as a handbook than compelling as a story, the book brings its account up to date by carefully incorporating the salient findings of a number of monographs published during the 1970s. No cause for professional reproach here.

What Martin Pugh has done, however, must be distinguished from this sort of enterprise. True, The Making of Modern British Politics is frankly aiming to make itself heard beyond the ranks of academic historians. But its wish is explicitly to take their current concerns into the classrooms and lecture theatres and libraries where students and teachers are grappling with the historiography of this period of seventy or so years’ duration. His plan is to build the framework of his own analysis around issues which recent historians have identified and are debating. Not afraid to take a firm line himself, the author is nonetheless concerned to present the lineaments of the problems confronted in the current literature. The result is a commanding synthesis in which the changing structure of politics in the country as well as at Westminster supersedes a recital of ministries and legislation as the core of the subject. Martin Pugh succeeds brilliantly in finding the right voice to explain what matters now.

And what matters now, of course, comes from asking questions which have only occurred to us as a result of our own experience in the last twenty years. By pushing questions, as they now seem relevant to us, back into the history of the past century, we can hope to get more convincing answers about what mattered then. Themes which have been maturing in current politics thus yield surprising refractions within the politics of an earlier era. Martin Pugh’s own monograph on the Fourth Reform Act,[*] too little noticed when it was published, is a case in point, and one can go back to that book in illustrating his method, using electoral reform as a special case.

From 1867 Britain operated a system of household suffrage, at first confined to boroughs but extended to counties in 1884. This was an era of mass politics if not of full democracy, which would have required the granting of the suffrage to the residual adult men who did not qualify as householders – and to all adult women, of course. Such measures were urged in the thirty years after 1884, not least by the Labour Party, which succeeded, however, in forcing an entry to Parliament in their despite. If justice, equity and democracy all pointed this way, whatever was the check? The politics of the issue need first to be recognised. Indeed, it is tempting to generalise more widely, and say that all proposals for electoral reform have spread the sail of principle but carried the ballast of self-interest. This applies as much to debates over proportional representation as over the extent of the franchise. The salience of proportional representation is itself something we have become predisposed to recognise, and it seems correspondingly significant, rather than merely inevitable, that the ‘first past the post’ system should have been entrenched when the Fourth Reform Act was passed in 1918.

The existing system led to the periodic over-representation of each party in the House of Commons and to the virtually permanent over-representation of certain regions by each of the parties. The result was that the majority party at any one time had benefited directly from over-representation, and that even on the Opposition benches members had a vested interest in the over-representation of their own regions. Flushed with memories of how they had swept the board in 1906, the Liberals were not persuaded of the virtues of PR while it lay in their power to implement it. As a minority party, Labour might have been expected to be more favourable, and indeed there seems to have been a good deal of support among MPs. But Labour was exactly the sort of minority party which might thrive without PR, since its support was highly concentrated in certain seats. Thus the PR case even here was not seen as vital and compelling.

What confused the issue was the Alternative Vote – the proposal that voters should number their preferences among candidates. The Liberal and Labour Parties in practice assumed that they were tapping much the same kind of constituency. The electoral pact between them in 1903 produced what Edwardians called a ‘progressive alliance’ in the next three general elections (1906, January 1910 and December 1910) which minimised rival candidatures and maximised joint support. The centrality of ‘progressivism’ to the politics of this period is well argued by Dr Pugh: it gave a coherent basis to the Liberal revival and, conversely, its disintegration heralded Liberal decline. The by-elections of the years 1911-14 showed that the major threat to the Liberals’ position – and that of the Labour Party – lay in three-cornered contests, where the Unionists, who would have lost to a single progressive candidate, had a chance of taking seats on a minority vote.

The Liberals therefore tended to favour the Alternative Vote to spring them from this trap, on the assumption that Liberals and Labour would give each other their second preferences. Progressivism as an ideological force of convergence among the voters would thus do duty in place of a progressive alliance operating as an electoral pact contrived by the party wire-pullers. This had attractions for both Liberals and Labour, and at more than one level. It would allow both party organisations to flourish side by side in any constituency they pleased, and to nourish ambitions of fielding their own candidates without fear of splitting the vote. At this point, however, the argument held a further twist, which probably accounts for the inaction of the Liberal Government. First-past-the-post had a deterrent effect which itself constrained the parties’ behaviour, and fear of splitting the vote was the very weapon most likely to keep Labour in its place. A robust, thrusting, independent, broad-based Labour challenge might have made the Alternative Vote necessary for Liberal survival, but a hobbled, vacillating, compromised, sectional movement would hardly produce the same effect.

By 1917, however, PR had become practical politics. Moreover, even if it were not to be implemented (in whole or in part), the Alternative Vote was seen by Liberals and Labour as a pressing necessity. The attractions of PR were many-sided, and there is some evidence that it was conceived primarily as a concession to the Unionists if they were to be induced to cede manhood suffrage. What was proposed was a system of multi-member constituencies for urban areas, which would effectively protect a minority party from swamping. Initially Labour might gain seats in this way: but in the long run a rising Labour Party would be restricted to its proportionate share, and thus the Conservative – or Liberal – interest would be preserved. (This is reminiscent of the debates over the 1867 Reform Act and the minority clause then applied to three-member boroughs.) In all other seats, so it was proposed in 1917, the single-member system was to be qualified by the Alternative Vote, which was more straightforwardly to the advantage of Liberals and Labour. How these proposals came unstuck, whereas the bulk of the other recommendations of the Speaker’s Conference were railroaded through Parliament, is a story of which Dr Pugh has already shown himself master.

It is not the case that PR fell through its own incoherence or novelty or impracticality or general un-Englishness. What happened was that it became entwined with the retention of a substantial plural vote, on which the Unionists placed an exaggerated and atavistic reliance. There had been an agreement that a plural vote for business premises should be preserved, but that no one should vote twice in the same constituency. It follows that if a large town became a multi-member constituency for PR purposes, the plural vote would be decimated, whereas sub-division into several single-member divisions would open up new possibilities for the business qualification. At this point the Unionist MPs acquired a partisan reason for bringing down the PR scheme, and in the course of 1917 their rooted opposition proved strong enough to wear down the less resilient support PR received from the other parties. Given that the Unionists’ indirect self-interest was sufficient to scotch PR, which had some initial attraction for them, it is less surprising that the Alternative Vote, more directly threatening, went the same way.

The spectre of the Alternative Vote haunted the electoral dispositions of the Liberal and Labour Parties in 1917. In particular, the plans of the Labour Party, as they matured under Arthur Henderson’s direction in the months following his departure from the Lloyd George Government, were premised upon this assumption. Thus we find Henderson assuring the Liberal editor C.P. Scott in December 1917 that ‘in the majority of cases he would depend on the alternative vote and on a friendly understanding between Liberalism and Labour to give each other their second choice.’ Thinking in this way, Labour was ready to encourage 500 candidates. Why not? When the Alternative Vote was finally abandoned in February 1918 by a Parliament increasingly under the sway of the Lloyd George coalition, Labour’s strategy remained set. First-past-the-post was thus to be the rule after all, but the constraint of knowing this to be so had been removed during the very months when Labour steeled itself for power.

If reform of the electoral system proved so difficult, why did franchise reform achieve such sweeping success? In terms of numbers, the Fourth Reform Act made the biggest single increase in the electorate, from about seven million before the war to 21 million in 1918. There is wide disagreement among historians over the significance of this change. The extreme view, that it transformed the conditions under which the Labour Party grew, is heavily discounted by Martin Pugh, who minimises the class character of the change. He emphasises the fluidity of the pre-war electorate, arguing that although only 60 per cent of adult males may have had the vote, they were not always the same 60 per cent. But why was the electorate so limited under household suffrage? The author contends that the great majority of disfranchised males ‘failed to make good their claim (usually as householders or lodgers) simply because of the complicated process of registration’. This probably goes too far. In the first place, the effect of registration was itself a class effect to a large extent. It penalised mobility, and mobility of a more or less enforced kind was a prime hazard of life for a section of the working class. Furthermore, registration is not the whole story, and household suffrage itself needs more understanding. We are, in short, getting very near to the coalface of current research here.

At any rate, it is clear that putative changes in the franchise aroused sharply different hopes and fears in the Liberal and Conservative Parties, even if we leave Labour aside. The Liberals wanted manhood suffrage before 1914 and believed that it would benefit them. Judging by the survey which the party organisation undertook in 1911, its most experienced agents had no inkling that franchise extension would hand the constituencies over to Labour. Their assessment tallies with that of Ramsay MacDonald, whose acute political instincts did not correlate deprivation with Labour politics. ‘In places like the Potteries where poverty and degradation is of the blackest kind,’ he wrote in 1912, ‘the Labour Party is bound to be weak.’ Conversely, MacDonald looked for his supporters among a section of the working class sufficiently well off to escape the probability of disfranchisement: ‘it is the skilled artisan, the trade-unionist, the member of a friendly society, the young workman who reads and thinks who are the recruits to the army of socialism.’ Moreover, with democracy on the doorstep in 1917-18, the Labour politicians did not champion the Reform Bill as their passport to power and signally neglected it during its passage through Parliament. All told, therefore, Labour does not seem to have had a special interest in enfranchising the excluded.

It was, of course, the Conservatives who consistently feared the effects of democracy – at least until 1917. Why did they then capitulate to a measure little different from the Liberal Bill of 1912 to which they had been opposed? The short answer is that the war had turned ‘workers’ into ‘soldiers’ with incontestable claims to be considered ‘citizens’. From the outset the Unionists wanted to make sure that all enlisted men had the vote – if need be, in a wartime general election where shirkers and conscientious objectors, pacifists and radicals, would be made to feel the force of patriotic opinion. As the new armies grew, so did the Unionist conception of the electorate. The Speaker’s Conference, which hammered out the shape of the new franchise, was thus able to catch the tide of 1917: a moment of flux when everything seemed possible in a mood of sacrifice, good will and reconstruction. Speaker Lowther, the Tory squire whose dubious ruling on woman suffrage had wrecked the Liberal Reform Bill of 1912, emerged as the patron of democracy. With the issue of manhood suffrage settled, he was able to make full amends for his malfeasance by putting through an agreement on woman suffrage which echoed the pleas of pre-war radicals.

As regards woman suffrage, it is clear that a big measure was the only way that it could come, and this in turn meant that it had to come within the shadow of a measure of male suffrage which went still further. One can demonstrate how Liberal votes swung in favour of the wide measure of woman suffrage in 1917 as compared with the narrow proposal of 1911; and given that the Unionists had now accepted adult male suffrage, they had no special reason for holding out against the women. Those who got the vote had to be not only over 30 years of age but also (except where they qualified in their own right) the wives of local government electors. This meant, in effect, household suffrage for women. These were not the girls who had attracted publicity as munitions workers or VADs, casting considerable doubt on the whole notion of how war service was ‘rewarded’ by society. ‘Votes for Matrons’ could have been the slogan in 1918.

Thus politics determined the shape of a new electoral structure in 1918 and this in turn helped shape the politics of the subsequent period. The new franchise did not in itself sweep Labour forward, as detailed electoral evidence serves to demonstrate. But the party was now poised for a significant, though not dramatic, breakthrough. Martin Pugh comments: ‘In retrospect, the concatenation of a Liberal split, the war, and electoral reform created such obviously favourable conditions for a fresh strategy by Labour that it seems remarkable that the party was so slow to seize its opportunity.’ Slow but sure, Labour now advanced, and the political system was transformed. The Making of Modern British Politics lives up to its title. It asks the questions that matter now and points us towards answers which speak to our own experience.

[*] Electoral Reform in War and Peace, 1906-18 (Routledge, 228 pp., £6.50, 1978).