This article takes a fresh look at the long-running debate on whether the Unionist party owed its electoral success between the Third Reform Act and the Great War predominantly to ‘negative’ factors: principally, low turnout; poor Liberal organization; and a reliable and consistent middle-class vote. Taking advantage of recently digitized election datasets, it conducts the most extensive statistical study thus far attempted, to argue that recent revisionist historians have dismissed too readily the traditional ‘negative Unionism’ thesis associated with J. P. Cornford. It conducts an extensive analysis of the relationship between turnout and Unionist support on national, constituency, and regional levels, and finds that the much-disputed traditional interpretation that Conservatives benefited from low polls in the late Victorian period is broadly borne out in England. Additionally, this article also investigates the wider impact of uncontested constituencies in this period, arguing that the large number of seats left unfought by the Liberals was even more electorally grievous than the raw numbers imply. Both these findings suggest that the Unionists benefited from a still more substantial structural advantage in the late Victorian period than historians have previously assumed. While important aspects of Unionist language and strategy were undoubtedly positive, they were nonetheless underpinned by negative electoral foundations.
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