p until 1832 there was a lot of criticism, which was aimed at the British electoral system. Despite this criticism there was some support and defence of the system stemming through the country’s social situation and that of neighbouring nations. First of all, the misrepresentation of the electorate was a main criticism; it meant that there was a large uneven distribution of constituencies throughout the country, which could have been seen as now useless.
The divisions originally occurred before industrialisation and the urban sprawl, therefore the original parliamentary divisions were based on tradition and thus were not based on the growing urban trends. An example of this was the towns such as Birmingham and Manchester, which were growing rapidly due to the influx of working class, labour and therefore deserved a greater representation. This trend was evident throughout the Midlands and North-east England, with many cities such as Leeds and Newcastle having insufficient representation despite becoming new industrially influential areas.
In contrast to this Old Sarum (a previously prestigious town) continued to have two MPs in parliament, whereas Manchester had no representatives whatsoever. This system also geographically left the North extremely underrepresented with 128 representatives and the South extremely overrepresented with 158 representatives. Also it is estimated that in the South out of 405 elected MPs, 293 were chosen by less that 500 voters, moreover 45% represented southern constituencies whereas only 20% northern constituencies.
The middle classes manufacturers felt that their lack of political influence was damaging their economic interest due to this lack of representation. Secondly, The emergence of proprietary boroughs also received a large amount of criticism; they were able to be dominated by aristocrats due to their small size. They then nominated who would sit in government or in some cases a less powerful landowner would represent themselves. This was known as extreme patronage and was very common and possible due to the lack of secret ballots and the smaller size of constituencies in the south.
Many took advantage of this with many young politicians seeing it as an opportunity to be propelled into parliament by gaining the backing of the patron, which almost took advantage of the system and upset many of the middle classes as it lead to many uncontested seats. At one point it was thought that there was at least two thirds under extreme patronage, only taking into account the view of the landowning class. This patronage also meant that many families would maintain control of a borough for many years; an example being the Bridgnorth family whose constituency remained in their control for over two hundred years.
Lastly, there was also a key problem with bribery and treating. This was most common in larger constituencies. Bribery was used to sabotage the ballot box or voting process and also directly win support, whereas treating consisted of supplying the voters with food, drink and accommodation in order to gain support. With the lack of secret ballot it meant that many of the bribed targets could be checked up on with the voting register being made readily available. This made sure of the success of the two methods and therefore increased their impact and therefore also the costs in which had to be incurred.
Although there are a number of criticisms, the electoral system also had its supporters. For example, the argument of virtual representation. Despite the lower classes being unable to vote, it is argued that there views were represented fairly in parliament by their constituencies. With the elections being open with may of the public showing their support or opposition through civil debate or riots. Many MP’s also saw it I their best interest to keep their electorates happy. Another key point is the political support of the Pocket and Rotten Boroughs from the Tories.
Their argument was that the system aimed to represent people in terms of economic power and not in terms of population distribution. The upper classes felt that the political system should be dominated by those who were seen to have a stake in the country. The felt the representatives should have some ownership in land and saw the working class and middle classes as a liability as they felt that they were not responsible enough as they saw them as having no real interest in the country’s economic state.
This dilemma had been previously debated with the lower classes in the Putney Debates in of 1647. The fear of revolution however was real threat, with the upper classes feeling if the vote was given to the lower classes it could spark a revolt for change, similar to that of the French Revolution from 1789-1794. The upper classes also argued that the Rotten boroughs and Pocket boroughs actually contributed to a stable political system and the removal of them would therefore lead to the collapse of this long traditional system.
In conclusion, it is true to say that the electoral system was not always fairly represented both locally and nationally, with many constituencies being decided due to tradition, landed power or bribery, however the counter argument was that the more radical lower classes could not be trusted with any real political power due to the fear of a revolt similar to that seen in the French revolution. However it is most likely that that the upper class was against any change mainly in their own interests in order to keep large amount of power it held of the country.