Wealth, status, and power: is the franchise the same as the vote?

By Carys Brown @HistoryCarys

Wealth and status were at the heart of eighteenth century politics, so much so that those with enough of both could have significant political influence even without enfranchisement. Such was the rather peculiar position of British Catholic gentlemen, who could not vote or hold political office until 1829 because of their religion. Although a great impediment to political power, this did not stop wealthy Catholics from involvement in politics, and for some this stretched to influence in elections themselves. Elections in the first half of the eighteenth century, when they were contested, would often involve economic incentive and social pressure, with ‘treats’ of ale and food bought for the electorate by the candidates’ supporters on the day (many of the electorate were extremely drunk when they finally voted), and favours for political ‘friends’ being bestowed on individuals throughout the year.[1] 

Although not all landowners appear to have had ultimate control of their tenants’ votes, there were also incidences of tenants being evicted from their farms following the use of their vote against the interest of their landlord. Cuthbert Constable, a Catholic gentlemen of Burton Constable Hall in the East Riding of Yorkshire, may have used such a technique. As a substantial landowner, he appears to have been able to use his economic influence over those of his tenants who were able to vote, despite being himself barred from the franchise. Of those of Constable’s tenants who voted, 85 per cent voted for the (country) Whig candidate, Cholmeley Turner, as compared with 63.4 per cent in the East Riding as a whole, and 53.2 per cent in all of Yorkshire.[2] Whilst there is of course a possibility that Constable’s voting tenants merely prefered Cholmeley Turner to the Tory candidate (George Fox), it seems more likely, particularly given Constable’s clear interest in elections in his correspondence, that Constable’s influence was the key. Despite the supposed impediment of his Catholicism, he appears to have been able to use his considerable wealth and influence over his tenants to secure a large vote for Turner’s interest. In his case, it was not enfranchisement, but wealth and status, which were the key to political power. 

Much of this is alien to twenty-first century politics. With less than a month until this year’s General Election, and the first ever seven-way TV election debate the subject of much discussion, each and every party is engaged in the hot pursuit of the precious votes of the electorate by force of policy and personality alone. Despite their best efforts, the 65.1 per cent turn-out of the last election suggests that at least 34.9 per cent of this electorate care rather less than the politicians. From an historical point of view this might seem rather sad, with the hard-won votes of middle-class men (1832), working-class men (1867), and eventually woman (1918 and 1928), left unused by reason of apathy. Nevertheless, we can safely say that a far greater proportion of the population casts their vote today than they did 300 years ago. On the whole, advocates of broad political participation could see this as a success.

However, in terms of access to political power in this country, the extent of the franchise was, and still is, only part of the picture. Quite apart from the fact that few people in the eighteenth century would have viewed a widened franchise as ‘progress’, a focus on enfranchisement can obscure the extent of real participation. Bribery and economic threats are, we would hope, a thing of the past when it comes to casting votes, much aided by the introduction of the secret ballot in 1872. We are no longer in a situation where those with wealth and status within communities are able to buy or force the votes of dependents. Wealth and status nevertheless retain influence over modern politics. Socioeconomic status remains a key factor in political participation in the UK. A report by the Electoral Commission in 2005 demonstrated that individuals who are socially or economically excluded are less likely to vote and less likely to participate in politics in other ways.  Research published in 2013 by the Institute for Public Policy Research shows that the socioeconomic gap in turnout is growing: a four-point gap in turnout rate between the highest income group and the poorest in the 1987 general election was at 23 points by 2010. The same report also indicates that this has a critical impact on the behaviour of the government in power, with recent spending cuts disproportionately affecting groups who are known to be non-voters.

Changes in the franchise have had an important impact on the nature of legislation, as the spate of Acts concerning education and living and working conditions following the 1867 Reform Act and the greater attention to women’s issues brought by many of the first female MPs demonstrated. Yet disenfranchisement has never been the only restriction on political participation. In 1741 Cuthbert Constable was not enfranchised, but was able to exercise enormous political influence because of his wealth and status. Today, despite the universal franchise, wealth and status continue to be determining factors in who participates in, and ultimately influences, the government of the UK in 2015.


[1] A. F. Mead., ‘The Wendover Election of 1741’, Records of Buckingham, 28 (1986), p. 123; Naomi Tadmor, Family and Friends in Eighteenth-Century England, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 222, 235-236.

[2] Based on the list of Cuthbert Constable’s tenants held at East Riding County Record Office, Beverley: DDCC 140/54 – Rent book of the Honourable Cuthbert Constable for estates in Holderness, 1744-1746 compared with the results of the 1741 Poll given in S.A. and M.J. Raymond, eds, The Yorkshire Poll Book 1741 (Exeter: Raymonds Original Pollbooks, 1997).

1 thought on “Wealth, status, and power: is the franchise the same as the vote?

  1. The media particularly the press could be said to be the modern day equivalent of the landowner, there political bias encouraging their readers to vote for the party that paper represents. Rupert Murdoch and the sun took a great deal of delight in claiming responsibility for a Tory election victory, with the headline “it was the sun wot done it”

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