4. Parliamentary Elections for the City of Bristol, 1701-2000

As a large borough constituency with the country's second largest eighteenth-century borough electorate, the history of parliamentary elections in Bristol is particularly rich. Namier notes that by 1761 only 22 of the 203 English boroughs had an electorate of over 1,000 voters: Westminster was the largest with 9,000; Bristol had 5,000; Norwich had 3,000; and Leicester, Nottingham, York, Newcastle, Liverpool, Lancaster, and Worcester had about 2,000 each.33 By the end of the century Bristol's electorate was close to 8,000. One of the reasons for this large electorate was the city's liberal creation of freemen. As elsewhere freemen were admitted by purchase or by gift, the price being twelve guineas for yeomen and over fifty guineas for the more prosperous merchants.34 However, unlike half of the Corporations in England, Bristol also conferred the position of freeman on those born to a freeman or those marrying a freeman's widow or daughter. Apprentices who were over the age of twenty-one were also admitted, and the Corporation could confer the position of honorary freemen on those felt deserving.35 Lastly, the city's unusual 'county' status enfranchised all 40-shilling freeholders. As Phillips notes, the electorate in 1832 was 10,315, and that therefore 'the maximum number of voters in Bristol during the 1830s exceeded the maximum at later eighteenth-century elections by no more than 10 per cent'.36 As Table ii shows, even after the reforms associated with the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, the city's parliamentary franchise was over twice the size of the municipal franchise. This would have stayed the case until the extensions of the municipal franchise throughout the second half of the nineteenth century. The size of the parliamentary electorate stayed relatively stable until Disraeli's Second Reform Act of 1867 when there was an increase of approximately 12,000, bringing the total to 21,000 (see Table ii). The Third Reform Act of 1884 saw a further increase of a similar magnitude taking the electorate up to 36,549 in the election of 1885.

The eighteenth-century political terrain of Bristol was thus complex and highly structured. The electorate was relatively large, and political organisations such as the Steadfast Society and the Union Club maintained a high level of control over the political process. However this process was often more complex than previous narratives have emphasised. In a city where the daughters of freemen were able to confer freeman status on their husbands, the electoral history of Bristol was never a completely male event, with women regularly 'canvassed in person or in print by agents and candidates'.37

Yet despite this large electorate, and the presence of highly organised local political structures, political developments throughout the eighteenth century often maintained a strictly parochial aspect which appeared immune to national political developments in Westminster.

Thus caucus politics, even when successful, were not popular, while party politics on a national scale did not as yet prevail even in places such as Bristol, which in appearance was politically organised.38

Namier's wider comment that mid-eighteenth-century politics in Bristol was highly oligarchical has recently been questioned by Rogers who maintains that although Bristol was dominated by a merchant oligarchy which often inhibited 'the habit of civic service and electoral participation which gave the London citizenry a powerful voice in local politics', the overall volatility of Bristol politics could often fracture merchant dominance.39 This was partly a product of the high levels of nonconformity within the city which aggravated the political terrain, but also the relatively large electorate which occasionally forced the merchants to make greater political concessions than they would have liked.

Although, as Phillip has noted, the passing of the 1832 Reform Act did impact decisively on the voting habits of the constituents, before this date local issues were paramount in the minds of the electorate, and MPs tended to be judged solely on how they served the direct interests of the constituents. As Burke lamented in 1777, after becoming MP for Bristol in 1774:

Until I knew it, both by my own particular experience [in Bristol], and by my observation of what happened to others, I could not have believed how very little the local constituents attend to the general public line of conduct observed by their member. They judge of him soley by his merits as their special agent...40

In addition to pure self-interest, what concerned both parties in Bristol throughout much of the eighteenth century was the cost of elections. After 1756 this concern encouraged the Tories and Whigs to form an agreement whereby the agents of both parties would be supported by the other for three successive parliaments.41 This only broke down in the contentious election of 1774 in which the two Whig candidates, Burke and Cruger, were returned.

A similar agreement between the parties existed from the beginning of the nineteenth century until 1812; thereafter the only unopposed elections before the creation of four single-membered constituencies in 1885 were in the 1831 General Election when the two local Whigs, James Baillie and Edward Protheroe, were returned; and in 1857 when the two Liberals, Francis Henry Fitzhardinge and William Henry Gore Langton, were returned.

After 1832 polling for parliamentary elections in constituencies was conducted in just one day, although voting for the entire General Election still was spread out over several weeks, with the borough constituencies voting first. The implications for local political organisations were clear: 'electors had to be educated in the logistics of voting, and political associations had to organise accordingly'.42 Both the Liberal and Conservative Parties quickly established party associations which attempted to organise election strategy as well as oversee the registration of voters for the annually compiled parliamentary register. As Brett states, the fortunes of the Liberal Party before 1845 varied as the Tory's gained the upper hand in electoral management.43 Until the middle of the century, Liberal Party machinery was ineffectively run, leading not only to Tory successes at the 1835 General Election, but also poor results for the Liberals at the municipal elections, especially in 1840 and 1841 when the Liberals picked up just thirteen seats in each year, with just one aldermanic seat in 1840 and none in 1841.

Yet from the middle of the century the Liberal caucus became a highly effective party machine, successfully maintaining the dominance of the Liberal Party in parliamentary elections from 1852 until the First World War, creating an interesting contrast with continuing Conservative hold over the Town Council for the same period (see Table viii). The Liberal Francis Berkeley represented Bristol as MP for thirty-three years between 1837 and 1870 when he died, a record that has only come close to being broken by Tony Benn one-hundred years later. In fact between 1852 and 1885 the only Conservative returned to Parliament by Bristol was John William Miles at the by-election of 29th April, 1868. He fell at the following General Election of November that year.

In 1885 the single constituency of Bristol was divided into four single-membered constituencies: Bristol North, Bristol South, Bristol East and Bristol West. The political topography of the city was crudely highlighted as voting behaviour could be clearly differentiated between the four constituencies. Bristol West remained firmly Conservative, returning the popular and influential Michael Hicks Beach until 1906, and thereafter G. A. Gibbs until early 1928 when he was elevated to the Peerage. Thus from 1885 to 1928 Bristol West was represented by only these two men and, thereafter, the constituency always returned a Conservative candidate until the election of 1997 in which the Conservative candidate William Waldegrave was defeated by the Labour Party candidate Valerie Davey by 1,493 votes. Conversely, Bristol East and Bristol North remained firmly in the hands of the Liberals until the First World War, while Bristol South alternated between the Liberalism of Joseph Dodge Weston and William Howell Davies, and the Conservatism of Edward Hill and W. H. Long.

In 1918 the city's parliamentary boundaries were again rearranged, resulting in the creation of the city's fifth constituency - Bristol Central. This remained firmly Conservative until after the Second World War, when it became a solid socialist hold. Also in this year, female ratepayers or those married to ratepayers, and all women over the age of 30 were enfranchised, thereby pushing the electorate to approximately 140,000, an increase of 167 per cent. Parity with the male franchise did not appear until the Representation of the People Act in 1928. The first Labour MPs were returned in 1923 with W. J. Baker and Walter Henry Ayles for Bristol East and Bristol North respectively. Bristol East remained solidly Labour until its abolition in 1950; Bristol North alternated between Labour and Liberal. Bristol South returned four Liberal MPs, three Labour MPs and a single Conservative.

In 1918 the Combined English Universities constituency was formed for which the graduates of Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield Universities (and, after 1928, Reading University), returning two MPs. The constituency was abolished in 1950.

In 1950 the boundaries of the city's constituencies were again redrawn: Bristol Central, Bristol South and Bristol West survived in a revised form, while Bristol North and Bristol East were abolished. Three new constituencies were created: Bristol North-East, Bristol North-West, and Bristol South-East, giving the city six constituencies. The central, southern, and northern areas of the city remained particularly strong localities of Labour support; the west stayed solidly Conservative.

In 1969 the minimum age for the parliamentary franchise was lowered to 18; and in 1974 further changes were made to the boundaries when Bristol Central was abolished. In 1983 Bristol North-East and Bristol South-East were abolished and the constituency of Bristol East was created. From this date the City of Bristol has been represented by four constituencies: Bristol North-West, Bristol South, Bristol East and Bristol West, although it should be noted that two wards, Frome Vale and Hillfields, now fall within the constituency of Kingswood. Since 1935 at least half of the City of Bristol's parliamentary seats have been held by Labour MPs; at the General Election of 1997 the Labour Party won all of the city's seats for the first time.

In contrast to local Council elections, parliamentary representatives have often been selected from individuals who have lived outside the South West. Perhaps two of the more famous examples include Henry Cruger and Edmund Burke who both won the 1774 election. Yet the powerful West India interest was not averse to putting its own men forward, especially in the first years of the nineteenth century as the debate over the abolition of slavery intensified. Local merchants such as Henry Bright, Edward Protheroe and James Evan Baillie were returned on a pro-slavery ticket.

The middle of the nineteenth century saw a long period of relative stability in Bristol's parliamentary representation as Francis Henry Fitzhardinge Berkeley, Philip William Skynner Miles and William Henry Gore Langton dominated the political scene. However in the by-election of 1870 following the death of Berkeley, two new names appeared as candidates: the local printer and stationer Elisha Smith Robinson and the local paint and floorcloth manufacturer, Sholto Vere Hare. A clearer example of the growing dominance of the city's new, aspiring industrialists would be harder to find. After this date other local elites achieved success in parliamentary elections, including the iron and steel manufacturer K. D. Hodgson, the solicitor Lewis Fry, the colliery owner, Handel Cossham, the ironmonger J. D. Weston, the local shipowner E. S. Hill, and William Henry and Frederick Wills of W. H. & H. O. Wills. Yet one of the city's most successful politicians during the late nineteenth century was not a local man at all: Michael Hicks Beach, who represented Bristol West between 1885 and 1906. During his long career he was Irish Secretary between 1874-76 and 1886-87, Colonial Secretary 1871-80, President of the Board of Trade 1888-92, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1885-86 and 1895-1902, and Leader of the House 1885-86, becoming Viscount St. Aldwyn in 1906 and an Earl in 1915.

As the predominance of local industrial elites began to wane others began to come forward through local party organisations. Prominent amongst those successfully returned after the 1930s included Richard Stafford Cripps, Labour MP for Bristol East between 1931 and 1950, and for Bristol South-East in 1950 until his resignation in the same year. After being expelled from the Labour Party in 1939 for campaigning against Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, he was later to become Ambassador to Moscow 1940-42 and Minister of Aircraft Production 1942-45, becoming Bristol's second Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1947 and 1950. In the following by-election a young politician, Anthony Neil Wedgwood Benn, was returned, who kept his seat, with only a short break between 1961 and 1963, until the abolition of the constituency in 1983; thereafter he unsuccessfully contested Bristol East in 1983 which was won by the Conservative candidate, Jonathan Sayeed. During Benn's time as MP for Bristol East he became Minister of Technology between 1966 and 1970, and Minister of Industry between 1974 and 1975.

William Waldegrave held a number of important government positions after entering Parliament for Bristol West in 1979. Between 1981-83 he was Under-Secretary of State for the Department of Education and Science, before moving to the Department of the Environment between 1983-85. Then in 1985 he was made Minister of State for the Environment, holding the same position in the Planning (1986-88) and Housing (1987-88) Departments. Between 1988-90 he was Minister of State for the Foreign Office, becoming Secretary for Health in 1990, before finally becoming Chief Secretary to the Treasury in 1992 until his defeat in Bristol West in 1997.

More recently, Dawn Primarolo, a former member of Avon County Council and MP for Bristol South since 1987, has served as Financial Secretary to the Treasury from 1997 to 1999 and is now Paymaster General.