Parties, Agents and Electoral Culture in England, 1880-1910
Royal Historical Society Studies in History Series
Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2016.
Hardcover. xi+278 p. ISBN 978-0861933402. £50
Reviewed by Mark Klobas
Scottsdale Community College (Arizona)
During the mid-1880s, electoral politics in Britain underwent a profound transformation. Central to this was the Third Reform Act, which expanded the franchise to include over half the adult males in Britain and created what can be regarded as the first ‘mass electorate’ in British history. For both the Liberal and Conservative parties, this new electoral landscape posed challenges that required adaptation in order to win office. How the parties adapted is the subject of Kathryn Dix’s book, which looks at the development of a new electoral culture in England over the three decades between the passage of the electoral legislation in William Gladstone’s third government and the onset of the First World War.
At the centre of her analysis is the professional party agent, a figure new to British electoral politics in the 1880s. Prior to then, party organisation at the local level was mostly an irregular matter often entrusted to solicitors, who regarded such work as a valuable part of their income. While the Third Reform Act increased the amount of work they were required to do, Rix sees the 1883 Corrupt Practices Act as the main factor in the switch to a professional agent. The combination of the limits on election expenditures, coupled with the growing complexity of the restrictions on campaign activities, necessitated employing someone familiar with election law and its application in order to avoid penalisation under its statutes. Thus was born the full-time salaried agent who, while not completely superseding the solicitor agent, became an increasingly commonplace figure in boroughs and counties throughout England in the last two decades of the 19th century and ‘played a vital part in responding to many of the changes which shaped electoral politics in the decades after 1880’.
The focus on the professionalisation of political work is a key theme of Rix’s book. As the ranks of agents grew they formed professional bodies, with the Liberal Secretaries and Agents’ Association (known as the National Association of Liberal Secretaries and Agents, or NALSA, by 1887) formed as early as 1882 and the National Society of Conservative Agents (NCSA) established in 1891. The creation of the breakaway Society of Certified and Associated Liberal Agents (SCALA) in 1893 was another example of this, as the issue which led to their split from NALSA was their preference for credentialisation through a process of examination and certification in emulation of other professions. This mattered greatly to the agents, both as a means of improving their image in society and because for many agents from working-class backgrounds employment offered a pathway into the middle class.
While these organisations provided opportunities for agents to confer on the most effective practices for their jobs and while these agents relied upon the central organisation to provide support for educational campaigns, Rix stresses the continuing importance of local differences and identities in the election process throughout this period. Though professional agents often demonstrated considerable mobility, local connections remained the single most important factor in selecting candidates to stand for parliamentary elections. National leaders were increasingly visible in many elections as they participated in speechmaking tours and other electioneering activities, but the majority of the campaigning within a borough continued to be undertaken by the candidate himself, who was expected to be familiar with local concerns and to address them in his speeches. This helped emphasise the importance of agents in the political process, as they served as the crucial link between the national parties to which they belonged and the local constituencies in which they worked year-round to register voters and maintain support through educational and social activities.
Rix draws upon an impressive amount of archival research to support her arguments, which she supplements with a range of published sources such as newspapers, diaries, memoirs, and the recent secondary source literature on her subject. By focusing on a group usually addressed by other historians only in passing, she offers readers a new perspective on the emergence of the modern electorate and the response of the two main political parties to it. It makes for a book that is necessary reading for anyone interested in the evolution of electoral politics in the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras, as well as the professionalisation of party activism and the role these professionals played in the electoral process during that time.
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