The 1867 Reform Act was the second major attempt to reform Britain’s electoral process – the first being the 1832 Reform Act. The 1867 Reform Act is properly titled the Representation of the People Act 1867.
There had been moves towards electoral reform in the early 1860’s via Lord John Russell. However, his attempts were thwarted by Britain’s most powerful politician of the time – Lord Palmerston who was against any form of change.
The death of Palmerston in 1865 gave Russell the opportunity he needed as he became Prime Minister. Russell wanted to give the vote to “respectable working men” but would have excluded unskilled workers and the poor. To this ends, the middle class would still have had the major clout in an election.
Russell’s bill split the Liberal Party. There were those who favoured his bill as the right move ahead. But there were some Liberals – the Adullamites – who were more conservative and sided with the Conservative Party to defeat the bill.
Parliament’s lack of enthusiasm for change led to Russell’s resignation in June 1866.
Russell was replaced as the leader of the Liberal Party by William Gladstone who made it clear that he favoured extending the franchise.
The new Prime Minister was Lord Derby, a Conservative. His Chancellor of the Exchequer was Benjamin Disraeli. Ironically Gladstone was supported by Disraeli in his desire to extend the franchise. Disraeli was concerned that the Conservative Party might be seen as a party that did not favour reform. He feared that the accolade that would be associated with reform might go to the Liberal Party. If the Conservative Party introduced said reform, they would get the credit for it, so Disraeli believed.
In an effort to out-Gladstone Gladstone, the Conservatives introduced a bill that was more far-reaching that many politicians had expected. Russell’s desire to enfranchise the “respectable working men” was expanded to effectively include most men who lived in urban areas. Disraeli believed that the newly enfranchised men would thank the Conservatives for their new found political status and would vote for the party. In this he was correct as the Conservatives won the 1874 election – though whether this was solely due to the new voters expressing their thanks to the Conservatives is doubtful.
The 1867 Reform Act enfranchised 1,500,000 men. All male urban householders and male lodgers paying £10 rent a year for unfurnished accommodation got the right to vote. The act all but doubled the electorate. 52 seats were redistributed from small towns (less than a population of 10,000 such as Chichester, Harwich and Windsor) to the growing industrial towns or counties. Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Manchester saw their representation increase from 2 MP’s to 3 MP’s. The University of London was also given a seat. The counties of Cheshire, Kent, Norfolk, Somerset, Staffordshire and Surrey were all given 6 MP’s instead of 4.
In 1868, Scotland was given seven new MP’s as some new constituencies were created or existing constituencies were expanded. The representation in Ireland remained the same.