- Party, State and Society: Electorial Behaviour in Britain since 1820
This collection of essays on electors and electoral behaviour in England from the Reform Act of 1832 to 1960s reexamines the standard assumptions and prevailing historiography about the ever expanding English political national and the culture of what some have called ‘public politics’. Challenging the explanations of political ‘deference’, the existence of a ‘natural’ two-party system, an increasing class-based electorate, structural changes within political institutions, and increasing political partisanship, the seven essays systematically examine voting patterns and the ever-expanding English electorate in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, their underlying social forces and the culture of popular politics. Together, it is the hope of the editors, they will “examine critically ‘electoral sociology”’(2) The volume succeeds on that level and far more. A marvelous introductory essay by Lawrence and Taylor take the reader through an essential review of all the important studies—historical, sociological, political, and anecdotal—which [End Page 221] have helped to form the prevailing notions about voter preference, party allegiance, national and local political cultures, and ‘ecological’ patterns in electoral behaviour. It also makes clear that there is no prevailing orthodoxy, at the moment, which successfully explains electoral behaviour, past or present. Instead, they offer analysis of specific chronological themes from younger scholars, from the social and political perspectives, to suggest new approaches to old questions.
David Eastwood’s essay argues that D.C. Moore’s argument for a deferential rural electorate does not find support in his reading of rural pollbooks. He demonstrates that most rural communities exhibited political plurality, even after 1832, and while the landed classes retained much influence and political authority, the electorate directly participated in its own governance. Miles Taylor also criticizes the use of pollbooks in analyzing the Victorian electorate, arguing that demographic changes had a larger an impact than previously shown on local government if not the parliamentary electorate. In addition, voters reflected greater self-interest and individualism and less deference, partisanship or socio-economic unity than demonstrated in earlier studies. In short, Taylor contends that pollbooks tell us much more about parliamentary representation than they do about electoral behaviour.
Jon Lawrence examines the second half of the nineteenth century, testing the connections between the rise of urban and class politics, political partisanship, and a new ‘national’ politics. He rejects the conventional wisdom that after 1867, political parties were able to co-opt popular politics and draw it into the national model of politics. It was, he argues, the nationalization of purpose and identity, prompted by World War I, not urban or class associations, which achieved the end of Victorian popular political activity as we have grown to understand it. Continuing on this theme of politics during the Great War and the rise of the Labour Party, Duncan Tanner argues that Labour’s electoral success in the early decades of this century was not due to ‘class’ politics, but the result of the party’s own steady and deliberate expansion, carefully calculated to represent the changing needs of the diversifying English electorate. Changes in the electoral system following the war merely enabled Labour to capitalize on its growing appeal with electors who objected to the new breed of Liberal coalition parliamentary candidates and their murky public platforms. David Jarvis contributes a chapter on the Conservative electorate in the same period, showing that the traditional Tory characterization of the vote as a ‘public function’ changed slightly, but ultimately remained the key to understanding popular politics even after mass democratization following World War I and despite internal conflict within the national party and at the constituency party level. The party adapted to a new electorate and reconstructed social and political allegiances as their political rivals struggled to keep up. But the new political allegiance was temporary, as Stephen Brooke demonstrates in his essay on the Labour party and the nation after World War II. He too questions ‘class’ politics and assumptions about electoral behaviour. The creation of the National...