The unreformed British parliamentary system was undemocratic, it excluded the majority of the population from voting including all women most working class men, many middle class men and all the poor. Its distribution of seats was inadequately representative and excluded important towns. It included rotten boroughs, the occasional sale of seats, corruption, bribery, intimidation, violence and plural voting. The system was dominated by the aristocracy and gentry, and many seats were uncontested. Lang, (1999). The purpose of this essay is to identify the factors that led to the nineteenth century parliamentary reform and go on to assess the impact that the reform made.
Around the middle of the nineteenth century an extensive debate took place in Britain on the nature and desirability of ‘democracy.’ Who should be allowed to vote in general elections? Should the franchise be limited, as in the past, to those who had special qualifications, such as the ownership of property, which the rental value had to be at least at least 40 shillings per annum, and those who had an economic stake in the country? Property owners argued that the old system had worked in the past so surely it would continue to do so – and that the wealthy were naturally superior to the poor. Pearce, Stern, (1994).
Others believed that the franchise was restricted and haphazard and that the qualifications for voting were outdated and illogical in their view every man had the right to vote, all men had been created equally and therefore all were entitled to a say in the way they were governed.
A small but growing number also believed that women should have the vote on precisely the same terms as men.
The population of England and Wales doubled between 1801-1851 many parishes began to burst at the seams. Towns like Birmingham, Manchester, Bradford and Leeds were seeing large population increases due to industrial growth. Earl Grey proposed such towns needed representation in the House of Commons, this would lead to large increase in the voting population if the proposal was successful. On the other hand rotten boroughs were parliamentary constituencies that had over the years declined in size, but still had the right to elect members of the House of Commons. Most of the constituencies were under the control and influence of just one man, the patron. As there were only a few individuals with the vote and no fair voting method (secret ballot) which encouraged bribery and corruption as it was easy for potential candidates to buy their way to victory.