The End of Britain’s Weeks-Long General Elections
General elections in Britain were once weeks-long affairs of corruption and chaos. The shift to one-day polling was slow.
‘When it comes to the point’, wrote Roy Jenkins, ‘one of the clearest prerogatives of a Prime Minister is that of choosing the date of an election.’ Prime ministers agonise over the decision. But before 1918, the government only set the date of dissolution: the responsibility for choosing the nomination and polling days in each constituency was left to individual returning officers.
General elections in the 18th century could take up to two months to complete. Not only did each constituency work to its own timetable, but before 1785 there was no practical limit on the number of days the poll could be open for. A limit of 15 days was finally imposed after the 1784 election in the constituency of Westminster, which took 47 days. In an era when candidates had to pay all the costs of the election, longer polling was a recognised way for wealthier candidates to bankrupt their opponents into submission.
Politicians eventually had enough and by the 1850s the election timetable had been significantly tightened. Virtually all constituencies were reduced to a single polling day, which in turn reduced the length of time between the opening of the first poll and the closing of the last. Nevertheless the power of returning officers remained an important factor, especially as there were no such things as postal or proxy votes. Mayors were often pressured to pick Saturdays or market days, for example, when the working classes were more likely to be available and in town.
Elections in this period were notoriously corrupt, and this corruption extended to the timetable. Returning officers were not neutral civil servants, but usually the local mayor or sheriff with their own interests and loyalties. Having control of the timetable allowed them to affect the result. They might hold the election as quickly as possible, to deny the chance of one side organising their voters, or they might invent reasons for delay to push up costs. They could manage the polling places so that the votes in areas sympathetic to their friends might be tallied faster, or even change the date of the election without informing all the candidates.
With the development of national campaigns and new technology during the later 19th century, the chronology of the election attained a heightened psychological importance. The telegraph allowed declarations to be followed in real time, and it was common for newspapers to use light projectors to display live election results to waiting crowds each evening. In the bigger cities, newspapers sometimes announced new results with coloured signal rockets fired from the rooftops. In this way the drama of the national struggle unfolded before the public in twists and turns as exciting as any serialised novel.
In this context, momentum and early victories were seen as crucial. Here the Liberals had a small advantage because the law ensured that urban ‘boroughs’ always polled before rural ‘county’ constituencies. Party leaders sometimes contested more than one seat, scoring an early morale-boosting victory in a borough before going on to take a more prestigious county. The two Liberal leaders, Gladstone and Hartington, both managed this in 1880. Of course, the opposite could also happen. The most dramatic example of this was the 1906 election, which saw the Conservative leader Arthur Balfour lose his seat in Manchester on the second day, seriously demoralising his party with the vast majority of constituencies still to vote. Inspired by this experience, the Liberal prime minister Herbert Asquith’s announcement of the following election, in January 1910, was delayed on the advice of his chancellor, David Lloyd George, who cabled:
‘All agree as to prime importance of securing first polls on Saturday. Mayors in Liberal boroughs would choose that day … therefore the first results would favour us and have good effect on country.’
That it took until 1918 for general elections to move to a single day was due largely to the ‘plural voter’, wealthy men who held votes in multiple constituencies. Because they could not vote by post, these voters required staggered polling days if they wished to fully exploit their privileges. Holding the poll open for days in each constituency ensured that they could cast all their votes, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the reduction of the number of polling days coincided with improvements in transport. By the time multi-day elections were abolished, the motorcar had almost rendered them unnecessary – in January 1910, one septuagenarian was said to have cast six ballots in a single day using his car.
By the end of the 19th century weeks-long elections were becoming unpopular; the disruption to business, trade and government was resented. The Liberals and Labour fastened on one-day elections as a method of reducing the effect of plural voters without needing to face up to the difficult task of abolishing them completely. The British were conscious, too, that theirs was the only major democracy unable to complete an election in a single day. ‘That it is possible for a great country to be polled on the same day is evident from the examples of Germany and France’, wrote the Liberal journalist Alfred Robbins in 1888: ‘It is only adherence to worn-out forms which prevents its accomplishment here.’
Single-day polling eventually came to the UK as part of the 1918 Representation of the People Act. The general election of that year, Saturday 14 December, was widely regarded as the quietest and most orderly in living memory. The swarms of election workers traipsing from constituency to constituency, the weeks of disruption, excitement and exhaustion, were all gone for good. ‘The professional politicians and the political hacks were consequently deprived of a considerable portion of their customary employment’, reflected the Southern Reporter: ‘Nobody very much regretted it.’
Peter Keeling holds a PhD in modern British history from the University of Kent.