Westminster parliaments and elections: a short history

Those sent to the House of Commons owed the people ‘devotion to their interests’ rather than ‘submission to their will’. 

Philip Norton
23 February 2016

Edward I presiding over parliament in c.1278, as illustrated in Sir Thomas Wriothesley's Garter Book of c.1524. Wikicommons. Public domain.Parliament in England developed rather than being created. In the thirteenth century, the king had a royal court and the court would be complemented on occasion by the presence of his leading tenants-in-chief (usually earls and barons) and prelates, summoned to offer their counsel. 

In 1254 two knights from each county were summoned to court to give their assent to the king’s demand for more taxes.  Ten years later, Simon de Montfort – the leading baron in the kingdom – issued writs in the king’s name to summon four knights from each shire.  The following year he also issued writs for two burgesses from each borough.  The attendance of knights and burgesses is often seen as the origins of ‘Parliament’. 

In 1275 Edward I held his first ‘general parliament’ and held some thirty parliaments during his reign.  However, there was no permanence to the gathering – it was at the king’s pleasure – and long periods could go when no parliament was called.  There was, though, some degree of institutionalisation.  In the fourteenth century, the knights and burgesses variously met separately from the nobles and churchmen and so there developed two chambers, the Commons and the Lords.

Enduring features

From its origins, there were two features of the House of Commons that were to prove enduring.  The first was a territorial link.  Each member was drawn from a particular shire or borough. 

The second was a membership that was there to speak for a particular body. There was a form of representation, but it was not of individuals, but of the different estates of the realm. Until the nineteenth century, the concept of virtual representation held sway. Members may be sent to the Commons on the basis of election, but the franchise was highly restricted, and those chosen did not have to be selected by members of a particular community in order to understand its interests.  According to the eighteenth century philosopher and politician, Edmund Burke, those sent to the House of Commons owed the people ‘devotion to their interests’ rather than ‘submission to their will’. 

Those who were sent to Parliament by the counties and boroughs nonetheless were selected by electors and not by the king.  The franchise was limited.  From 1430, the county franchise was held by freeholders whose tenements had an annual value of 40 shillings.  In the boroughs, it varied widely.   Some boroughs constituted ‘rotten boroughs’, with only a handful of electors, often under the control of the local lord.  Electors were amenable to patronage and bribery.   Polling was by open ballot: how people voted was published. 

Murmurs of revolution

By the start of the nineteenth century, this collective view of representation was giving way to a more liberal conception. The country had resisted revolution seen across the English Channel, but the growth of radical movements and later demands for a political voice began to be heard from artisans and a growing middle class as industrialisation produced a more urban and differentiated society. The demands for change were resisted by a Tory government under the Duke of Wellington, but were conceded by a Whig government in 1832. The 1832 Reform Act constituted the first of several major steps to a representative democracy. By the end of the nineteenth century, MPs were elected by a majority of the male population who were aged 21 and over. By the end of the twentieth century, they were elected by all citizens (with a small number of exceptions) aged 18 and over.

The 1832 Reform Act was a major step, more for its symbolism that its substance.  It enlarged the electorate by 49 per cent.  This was, though, from a low base.  Continuing demands for change led to the 1867 Reform Act.  This enlarged the electorate by 88 per cent and in combination with the Representation of the People Act 1884 transformed British politics. 

Mass political parties

The growth in the size of the electorate generated by the 1867 Act induced the emergence of mass membership political parties.  Organisation was necessary to contact and mobilise the new electors.   The Act also resulted in fundamental changes in the relationship between the Crown and the House of Commons and between the two chambers of Parliament.  The government came to rely on the confidence of the House of Commons – it became a convention of the constitution that a government defeated on a confidence motion in the House had to resign or request a general election – and the elected chamber came to enjoy primacy over the unelected House of Lords.  That primacy was to be confirmed early in the twentieth century, with the passage of the Parliament Act (1911) limiting the capacity of the Lords to veto a measure passed by the House of Commons. 

The enlargement of the electorate was accompanied by changes in constituency boundaries, ensuring greater equity between constituencies, and by legislation to outlaw corrupt practices. Open voting was replaced by a secret ballot. Single-member constituencies also became the norm, as did voting by the first-past-the-post method of election. (There were exceptions in both cases. Some two-member constituencies survived until 1950. Some MPs returned for university seats – which also survived until 1950 – were elected by the single transferable vote.) By the end of the nineteenth century, electoral politics in Britain were dominated by a mass, but male, electorate and not by a political elite influenced by the monarch.

Turmoil and paradox

The first two decades of the twentieth century were marked by significant political turmoil, including demands for the political enfranchisement of women. Following the work of women in maintaining home industries in the First World War, the case was conceded, the franchise being extended in 1918 to women aged 30 and over.  Under a separate Act of 1918 women aged 21 and over were made eligible to be elected to the House of Commons. 

The first woman to take her seat, Nancy Astor, did so following a by-election in 1919.  Ten years after the 1918 Act, the franchise was extended to women aged 21 and over, bringing them into line with male voters.  In 1969, the voting age was lowered to eighteen years. Under the Electoral Administration Act 2006, the qualifying age for election to office was reduced to eighteen. In the 2010 general election, one MP was returned at the age of 20, becoming the youngest MP since 1832 and the youngest MP ever to be elected legally. 

Before 1832, it was not uncommon for MPs to be elected under age, even though formally one had to be 21 years of age. Charles James Fox, one of the outstanding parliamentary orators of the eighteenth century, had been elected at the age of 19.  One MP was elected in 1832 shortly after his eighteenth birthday.

The move from a highly restricted franchise, based on a distinctive view of representation, to one of a mass franchise was neither quick nor certain. The 1832 Act was different to the more radical reform measure introduced initially by the Whig government. The 1867 Act was designed by the Conservative leader in the Commons, Benjamin Disraeli, to outwit his Whig opponents, having earlier engineered a defeat of their reform proposals. 

Both Acts nonetheless were the result of demands from a changing society, industrialisation and a growing population generating what may seem a paradox: greater collective action by citizens led to conceding an electoral system based on the votes of individuals.

Westminster abroad

The electoral system that developed in the nineteenth century was variously bequeathed to other parts of the world, principally those within the British Empire and one still sees the impact in many nations. The Westminster form of government, as we shall see, is to be found in different parts of the globe, in many cases still resting on the first-past-the-post method of election. The constituency link – a single member returned to speak for citizens in a defined geographical area – has become a core feature of the Westminster tradition. 

The House of Commons, though, is the only legislature in the UK to be elected by such a method of election and the method is contested, as it has been for many years. Demands for electoral reform have been a feature of British politics throughout the era of modern politics. 

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData