chapter  4
35 Pages

CONSERVATISM AND THE PROPERTYLESS

In 1884 Britain entered the age of the mass electorate. The Third’ Reform Act enfranchised approximately 1.76 million new voters, and after 1884 two out of three adult males were, in theory at least, entitled to vote.2 The social composition and geographical location of the new voters were significant. Extensions of the franchise in 1832 and 1867 had been mostly concentrated in urban areas: in the first instance the vote had been given to Macaulay’s ‘good shopkeeper’ and in the second to a large segment of the urban working class. The 1884 act introduced household enfranchisement in the counties, ensuring that the bulk of those newly enfranchised were agricultural workers. For the first time town and country enjoyed equal levels of enfranchisement, and the electorate as a whole was dominated by the labouring classes. The general reaction to this expansion of the electorate was that it would cause difficulties for the Conservatives. To begin with the new voters were concentrated in the Conservative electoral heartland-English counties. In addition, the Redistribution Act of 1885 destroyed many of the old electoral communities in the counties which had been vital to Conservative Honoratiorenpolitik in those districts throughout the nineteenth century.3 The

problem of defending the party’s strongholds was, however, regarded as a subset of a more general Conservative dilemma produced by the changed electoral system. How was the party of property and privilege to survive in a political world in which the votes of the propertyless had become the ultimate arbiters?