After the passing of the 1867 Reform Act working class males now formed the majority in most borough constituencies. However, employers were still able to use their influence in some constituencies because of the open system of voting. In parliamentary elections people still had to mount a platform and announce their choice of candidate to the officer who then recorded it in the poll book. Employers and local landlords therefore knew how people voted and could punish them if they did not support their preferred candidate. (1)
In the 1868 General Election the new working class electorate overwhelming supported the Liberal Party. More than a million votes were cast. This was nearly three times the number of people who voted in the previous election. The Liberals won 387 seats against the 271 of the Conservatives. Robert Blake, the author of The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (1970) believes the substantial gains in the large cities was an important factor in Gladstone's victory. (2)
In his first speech as Prime Minister, William Gladstone told the audience that he intended to introduce legislation that would allow secret voting to take place. "I have at all times given my vote in favour of open voting, but I have done so before, and I do so now, with an important reservation, namely, that whether by open voting or by whatsoever means, free voting must be secured." (3)
Michael Partridge, the author of Gladstone (2003) has argued that John Bright only accepted office in the cabinet as President of the Board of Trade, on the understanding that Gladstone would introduce a bill bringing in secret ballot for elections. In 1871 the Ballot Bill by William Forster. It was passed by the House of Commons on 8th August, only for it to be defeated in the House of Lords two days later. (4)
Benjamin Disraeli, the leader of the Conservative Party, made it clear that he was totally opposed to the measure. He argued that the country had experienced too much parliamentary reform over the last few years and that it had encouraged public disorder: "This arrangement about the ballot is part of the, same system, a system which would dislocate all the machinery of the state, and disturb and agitate the public mind." (5)
Gladstone was determined not to give up and the Secret Ballot bill was reintroduced in 1872. It was passed by the House of Commons and when it was sent to the House of Lords the peers were warned that the government would call a general election if they rejected it a second time. As a result the act was passed on 18th July 1872. The first secret-ballot by-election took place as early as 15th August. (6)
Paul Foot points out that in the 1874 General Election, none of Disraeli's terrible prophecies came true and it was a much more fairer contest: "At once, the hooliganism, drunkenness and blatant bribery which had marred all previous elections vanished. employers' and landlords' influence was still brought to bear on elections, but politely, lawfully, beneath the surface." (7)
New systems of government, new principles of property, every subject that can agitate the minds of nations have been promulgated and patronized with more effect by sections of the people, especially during the last six months, than hitherto; and it is at this very time when the principles of, government, the principles of property, all those things on which liberty and order alike depend, are called in question that the Prime Minister of England seizes the opportunity of intimating to the Parliament of this country that there are questions that must occupy their attention which must greatly affect the distribution of power, which must affect even the distribution of property... This arrangement about the ballot is part of the, same system, a system which would dislocate all the machinery of the state, and disturb and agitate the public mind.
The secret ballot was passed by the Commons, postponed and then flung out by the Lords... The secret ballot became law in 1872. At once, the hooliganism, drunkenness and blatant bribery which had marred all previous elections vanished. employers' and landlords' influence was still brought to bear on elections, but politely, lawfully, beneath the surface.