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Class and the Vote Before the First World War

  • Kenneth D. Wald

Pulzer's dictum – ‘Class is the basis of British party politics, all else is embellishment and detail’ – expresses a consensus about the social basis of partisan conflict in contemporary Britain. Although there are exceptions and important qualifications, recent research confirms the conclusion that social class is the foremost influence on partisan loyalties and a potent factor in electoral behaviour.

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1 Pulzer, Peter G. J., Political Representation and Elections in Britain, 3rd edn. (London: Allen and Unwin, 1975), p. 102. Early studies which led to this conclusion include Milne, R. S. and McKenzie, H. C., Straight Fight (London: Hansard Society, 1954) and Benney, Mark, Grey, A. P. and Pear, R. H., How People Vote (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1956).

2 For some of these qualifications, see Rose, Richard, ‘Britain: Simple Abstractions and Complex Realities’, in Rose, Richard, ed., Electoral Behaviour: A Comparative Handbook (New York: Free Press, 1974), pp. 481542 and Rasmussen, Jorgen, ‘The Impact of Constituency Structural Characteristics Upon Political Preferences in Britain’, Comparative Politics, VI (1973), 123–45.

3 For a fuller review of the historical literature, see Wald, Kenneth D., ‘Patterns of English Voter Alignment Since 1885’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Washington University, 1976).

4 The difficulties faced by the Liberals as class assumed a larger role on the political agenda are discussed generally by Ostrogorski, M., Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties, trans. Clarke, F. (Garden City, New York: Doubleday-Anchor, 1964, reprint of 1902 edn.), pp. 153–7; and in electoral terms by McKibbin, Ross I., Evolution of the Labour Party, 1910–1924 (London: Oxford University Press, 1974), esp. Chap. 3.

5 Trevelyan, G. M., History of England (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday-Anchor, 1953, reprint of 1926 edn.), Vol. III, pp. 255–6.

6 Blewett, Neal, ‘The Franchise in the United Kingdom, 1885–1918’, Past and Present, XXXII (1965), 2756, and Matthews, H. C. G., McKibbin, R. I. and Kay, J. A., ‘The Franchise Factor in the Rise of the Labour Party’, English Historical Review, XCI (1976), 723–52.

7 The major empirical studies are Cornford, James, ‘The Transformation of Conservatism in the Late Nineteenth Century’, Victorian Studies, VII (1963), 3566; Pelling, Henry, Social Geography of British Elections, 1885–1910 (London: Macmillan, 1967); Thompson, Paul, Socialists, Liberals and Labour: The Struggle for London (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967); and Blewett, Neal, The Peers, the Parties and the People (London: Macmillan, 1972). An early study, which emphasized the class-base of pre-war voting, is Krehbiel, Edward, ‘Geographic Influences in British Elections’, Geographical Review, 1 (1916), 419–32.

8 Clarke's major works on this theme include Lancashire and the New Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971); ‘Electoral Sociology of Modern Britain’, History, LVII (1972), 3155; ‘The Progressive Movement in England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5th series, XXIV (1974); and ‘Liberals, Labour and the Franchise’, English Historical Review, XCII (1977), 582–9.

9 The impact of the war on Liberal fortunes has been investigated by Wilson, Trevor, The Decline of the Liberal Party, 1914–1935 (London: Collins, 1966) and Kinnear, Michael, The Fall of Lloyd George: The Political Crisis of 1922 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1973).

10 ‘The World War has brought a wholesale transference of the working class vote from Liberalism to Labour.’ Trevelyan, Charles, From Liberalism to Labour (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1921), p. 22.

11 Lowell, A. Lawrence, The Government of England, rev. edn. (New York: Macmillan, 1920), Vol. I, pp. 125, 533–5. For a similar argument, see Hardie, J. Keir, Labour Leader, 28 11 1896, in Hughes, Emrys, ed., Keir Hardie's Speeches and Writings (Glasgow: ‘Forward’ Publishing Co., 1949), pp. 5960

12 Strachey, St Loe, ‘Infringing a Political Patent’, Nineteenth Century, XXXVII (1895), 206–14.

13 Butler, David and Stokes, Donald, Political Change in Britain (New York: St Martin's Press, 1969), pp. 129–30, 254–63.

14 Clarke, , ‘Electoral Sociology’, p. 52.

15 The data were made available to Washington University by the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, which bears no responsibility for the analysis presented here. The table corresponds to Table 6.6 in Butler and Stokes in the coding of all variables. It differs in that (1) female respondents have been purged and (2) the dependent variable measures the respondent's first remembered partisan preference. The dependent variable was created by using variable 490 in the Butler and Stokes data set. For more specific information, see Study of Political Change in Britain 1963–1970 (Ann Arbor, Michigan: Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, 1972), Vol. I.

16 On London's religious life, see McCleod, Hugh, Class and Religion in the Late Victorian City (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1974). Residential segregation was discussed by Masterman, C. F. G. in Heart of the Empire (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1901), pp. VI, 11.

17 The constituencies were grouped as predominantly working-class or middle-class according to the classification scheme in Blewett, , The Peers, the Parties and the People, Appendix A.

18 The index was first presented in Alford, Robert, Party and Society (Chicago: Rand McNally, 1963), Chap. 5, and was discussed further by Alford, Robert, ‘Class-Voting in the Anglo-American Political Systems’, in DiPalma, Giuseppi, ed., Mass Politics in Industrial Societies (Chicago: Markham, 1972), 166–99, and Korpi, Walter, ‘Some Problems in the Measurement of Class Voting’, American Journal of Sociology, LXXVIII (1972), 627–42. A fuller description of the process of modifying it for areal analysis, along with an example of its use in analysing London election data, is presented in Wald, Kenneth D., ‘The Rise of Class-Based Voting in London’, Comparative Politics, IX (1977), 219–28. The London figures in that article differ from the figures presented here because the constituencies were classified for the article according to the scheme devised by Paul Thompson; in the present analysis, we have used Blewett's classifications which include both London and the provinces.

19 For a particularly gloomy assessment, see Butler, David, ‘The Study of Political Behaviour in Britain’ in Ranney, Austin, ed., Essays on the Behavioral Study of Politics (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1962), p. 211. Using considerable ingenuity, William Miller has managed to overcome many of these problems for the period after the war. See Miller, W. L., Raab, Gillian and Britto, R., ‘Voting Research and the Population Census, 1918–1971: Surrogate Data for Constituency Analysis’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A, CXXXVII (1974), 384411, and Miller's forthcoming book Electoral Dynamics.

20 Bradford Observer, 26 10 1886, p. 4; Eastern Daily Press, 3 11 1889, p. 8.

21 Letter, Alfred A. Bird to Charles Marston, 10 October 1912. The letter, which is in the possession of Dr G. W. Jones, is partially reprinted in his Borough Politics (London: Macmillan, 1969). I am grateful to Dr Jones for making it available to me.

22 Sussex Evening Times, 22 10 1890, p. 4.

23 Lloyd, J. Seymour, Municipal Elections and How to Fight Them, revised edn. (London: Vacher, 1909), p. 32.

24 Keith-Lucas, Brian, The English Local Government Franchise (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1952); Commons, John R. and Sullivan, J. W., ‘Labor and Politics’, Municipal and Private Operation of Public Utilities (New York: National Civic Federation Commission on Public Ownership and Operation, 1907), Vol. II, p. 11.

25 Keith-Lucas, , The English Local Government Franchise, pp. 159–60; Seymour, Charles and Frary, Donald Paige, How the World Votes (Springfield, Mass.: C. A. Nichols, 1918), Vol. II, p. 156.

26 The method of classifying candidates in local elections is described in Wald, , ‘Patterns of English Voter Alignment’, pp. 323–5.

27 For a detailed comparison of the five cities, see Wald, , ‘Patterns of English Voter Alignment’, pp. 1856.

28 Kammeyer, Kenneth C. W., An Introduction to Population (San Francisco: Chandler, 1971), pp. 80–1. See also the discussion in Cornford, , ‘The Transformation of Conservatism in the Late Nineteenth Century’, pp. 38–9.

29 Innes, John W., Class Fertility Trends in England and Wales (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1938). For a more detailed discussion of the procedure, see Wald, , ‘Patterns of English Voter Alignment’, pp. 111–28 and also ‘The Development of Social Indicators for Historical Election Research’ (paper presented to the European Studies Conference at the University of Nebraska – Omaha, 10, 1976).

30 The use of 0·5 as a cut-off mark was arbitrary but reasonable. Since a particular variable might meet that figure in its relationship to four other measures but fall below it in one other case, the standard was sometimes relaxed.

31 Sussex Evening Times, 29 04 1890, p. 4, and 18 04 1890, p. 3; Brighton Gazette, 2 11 1907, p. 5.

32 Brighton Gazette, 28 09 1905, p. 5.

33 Brighton Gazette, 19 10 1905, p. 4; 3 November 1906, p. 5; 5 October 1900, p. 5; 1 November 1902, p. 5; 26 October 1905, p. 5.

34 For the classification scheme, see Wald, , ‘Patterns of English Voter Alignment’, pp. 323–5.

35 The belief that working-class voters were converted from Liberalism to the Labour party is expressed in Bulmer-Thomas, Ivor, The Party System in Great Britain (London: Phoenix House, 1953), pp. 42–3; Gillespie, Frances E., Labour and Politics in England, 1850–1867 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1927), p. 290; Maccoby, S., English Radicalism, 1886–1914 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1953), p. 511; Rockow, Lewis, ‘The Political Ideas of Contemporary Social Democracy’, American Political Science Review, XXI (1927), p. 12; Siegfried, André, Post-War Britain, trans. Hemming, H. H. (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1924), p. 268; Wearmouth, Robert F., The Social and Political Influence of Methodism in the Twentieth Century (London: Epworth Press, 1957), p. 26. See also fn. 10.

36 Cowling, Maurice, The Impact of Labour (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971).

37 Pelling, Henry, Popular Politics and Society in Late Victorian Britain (London: Macmillan, 1968), p. 17.

38 Douglas, Roy, ‘Labour in Decline, 1910–14’, in Brown, Kenneth D., ed., Essays in Anti-Labour History (London: Macmillan, 1974), 105–25.

39 Hardie, James Keir, ‘The Independent Labour Party’, Nineteenth Century, XXXVII (1895), 114.

40 In his Origins of the Labour Party, 2nd edn. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965), Henry Pelling attributed the quiescence of working-class voters between the second and third Reform Acts to ‘the prosperity of the country under laissez-faire conditions’ which had ‘eliminated the immediate risk of serious social discontent among the workers’ (p. 4). That surely implies that worker militancy would be strongest during periods of economic distress. Yet on the next page, Pelling writes that ‘In the later seventies, the activities of the labour movement were curtailed by the severe trade depression.’

41 Hutchison, Keith, Decline and Fall of British Capitalism (New York: William Morrow, 1950), pp. 2531, 101–13.

42 Rose, Richard and Urwin, Derek, ‘Social Cohesion, Political Parties and Strains in Regimes’, Comparative Political Studies, II (1969), 367.

* Department of Political Science, Memphis State University, Tennessee.

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