Arguments against party reform: heeding lessons from 1832

Reform of the ALP has been raised by several key figures such as former leader Mark Latham, and implemented in some form by current prime minister Kevin Rudd. AAP/Alan Porritt

In his recent Quarterly Essay, Mark Latham compared Labor parliamentary representation to the rotten boroughs of the 18th century. Though union membership has fallen away, suggested Latham, union officials still exercise considerable influence over the selection of Labor parliamentarians, and retain a number of seats and Senate spots for themselves.

Since the Latham essay, reform of the Australian Labor Party has been raised in books by Chris Bowen and Kim Carr, and adopted by the parliamentary caucus. The issue will be considered by the national conference of the party after the 2013 federal election.

In calling the ALP undemocratic, in thrall to a privileged few, Latham evoked the British parliament before the Reform Act of 1832. So what lessons can would-be reformers draw from that experience? A new book by historian Antonia Fraser - Perilous Question: reform or revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832 - provides some clues.

In the early 19th century, reform was a new word in the political lexicon. The Terror remained potent in British minds, as did more recent upheavals in France and Belgium. Defenders of the realm could point to the demons unleashed where mob rule prevailed; with aristocracy marched to the guillotine just across the English Channel, the ruling caste had little patience for argument in favour of careful and measured adjustment to circumstance.

Yet by 1830, the long-standing Tory governing alliance was breaking up, riven in part by arguments about Catholic emancipation. A new king, William IV, ascended the throne, and a Whig administration, led by Earl Charles Grey, secured a majority in the House of Commons. It was a time of prolonged economic recession, dislocation caused by new machinery, the growth of large industrial cities without any voice in government, and regular riot in the countryside. Voices calling for change became harder to ignore. Grey, the new prime minister, confirmed his intention to pursue electoral reform, and Britain faced a constitutional crisis.

The heart of the issue was a clash between tradition and contemporary realities. The Parliament of England traced its origins to Magna Carta. Despite major changes, including union with Scotland in 1707 and the creation of Great Britain from 1801, electoral boundaries and voting eligibility remained haphazard and inconsistent. This led to famous anomalies such as Old Sarum, once a significant town but now an uninhabited hill in Wiltshire returning two members of parliament. Such a prize commanded high prices – the electorate of Gatton in Surry, with six houses, sold for £18 million. The village of Dunwick in Suffolk had long fallen into the sea, but still elected two MPs while the town of Birmingham, with more than 145,000 residents, had no voice in parliament.

These were the rotten boroughs evoked by Latham – guaranteed seats in parliament, usually the property of aristocrats who could return themselves, or their allies, to elected office. Even in electorates with more eligible voters, property requirements restricted the franchise, bribery was common, and an open ballot ensured the bought stayed bought. There were no votes for women, and no women in either parliamentary chamber, though a few brave women and men argued the case.

For readers of Perilous Question, the case for reform may seem obvious given such unfair rules of parliamentary selection. Yet in 1830 democracy was reviled as mob rule. The Parliament of Great Britain considered itself the finest body of gentlemen in the world; anything that might threaten that noble status would be resisted fiercely. Advocates of reform did not claim their proposals as the first step toward an egalitarian society. Their bill was modest, reforming boundaries and expanding cautiously the franchise to those with a household income of at least £10, or around one in six adult males.

In The Rhetoric of Reaction, published in 1991, American economist Albert Hirschman argued that opponents of major reform typically rely on three basic arguments – perversity, a claim that intervention will only make the problem worse, futility, the sense that no government action can make a difference, and jeopardy, an concern change in one area will only make things worse in other areas of public life.

Those who opposed the Reform Bill championed by prime minister Grey relied on a slightly broader range of objections, but perversity, futility and jeopardy all featured.

The most popular response was the perennial this is not the right time to be discussing this issue. There had been a palace coup in France in July 1830, revolt in Belgium, and signs of agitation across the United Kingdom. Critics of the Reform Bill claimed that even discussing change was stirring up discontent. There were more important issues to consider – better to leave the question of electoral reform for another, unspecified time.

In any case, the Reform Bill should be dismissed because it risked unintended consequences, which is a form of jeopardy. Britain was made great by the genius of its inherited institutions. Move away from the ancient constitution and all might be lost. Parliamentary debates around the Reform Bill were filled with apocalyptic prediction. As the Duke of Wellington, a fierce opponent of change, argued:

I cannot see what is to save the Church, or property, or colonies or union with Ireland, or eventually Monarchy if the Reform Bill passes.

A related argument is the thin edge of the wedge line of reasoning. Adopting one set of reforms would only lead to further demands. As Sir Robert Peel, leader of the Tories in the Commons, told parliament:

I have been uniformly opposed to reform upon principle, because I was unwilling to open a door which I saw no prospect of being able to close.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it is a contemporary version of an old claim about the futility of action. According to the Duke of Wellington, the present parliament was “a legislature which answered all the good purpose of legislation, and this by a ‘greater degree’ than any legislation ever had answered in any country whatever”. Such a parliament may be hard to justify in principle, but its fine record vindicated keeping everything untouched. Institutions should be judged by their results, not by the validity of their claims to authority.

Another opposition gambit was the silent majority – that despite noise and clamour, most people support the status quo. The Private Secretary to the King, Sir Herbert Taylor, wrote to the prime minister dismissing the large political gatherings around the nation calling for reform: “His Majesty cannot consider public meetings as a just criterion of the sentiments of the people”. Sensible Englishmen, at home in their beds, understood the merits of present arrangements and did not seek change.

There was also the secret agenda claim: while the proposal may look reasonable, it has a hidden aim. As the Earl of Dudley claimed: “the details of the bill were most ingeniously devised for the great objective of its framers, that Whig supremacy should be eternal”. To oppose the bill allowed Dudley to claim that Tories were “the true friends of order and liberty”.

Finally, those opposed to reform can always cite the risk to business confidence. Stocks fall sharply amid crisis. As one banker noted gloomily at the time, the French revolution of 1830 knocked some 30% of stock prices “and I hope to God this will not be repeated this time in England”. To even discuss reform is to put prosperity at risk.

These were the principal cases advanced to oppose the Reform Bill. When arguments fail, there was always strategic outrage over process. This objection takes many forms, but the essence is simple: while I do not object to your proposal, I’m so offended by the way the question has been raised I will vote against the measure. This allowed some parliamentarians, aware of strong feelings in their constituency, to oppose the reform measure without taking a position on its substance.

Former British PM Charles Grey was a key advocated of party reform almost two centuries ago. National Portrait Gallery, London

Concerns over process allowed the Tory party to hold together a coalition of opponents and waivers in the House of Lords, and block the legislation despite overwhelming support in the Commons. It required first an election, then the threat of new peers to secure a Lords majority, before the Duke of Wellington and his allies absented themselves from the Lords, so allowing the Reform Bill to pass.

There were celebrations all over Great Britain. The young poet Alfred Tennyson joined a local bonfire to mark the occasion. Though the Duke of Wellington declared in a private letter that “the government of England is destroyed”, stability endured. Britain avoided the European revolutions of the following decades.

Yet the Tory nobles were right about the great consequences to their way of life. As Fraser notes: “outwardly in the Whig world, it seemed that nothing had changed. Yet in reality nothing remained the same”. By expanding the franchise, the Great Reform Act set Britain on the path to democracy. It took nearly a century to arrive – universal suffrage for all adult women and men was not achieved until 1928 - but the spirit of reform was now abroad in the land.

By the end of the 19th century almost every public institution, from schools to courts had been reviewed, redesigned, made anew. Change even became the credo of the new Conservative Party – “to reform ills while conserving the good”, as Sir Robert Peel proclaimed in his Tamworth Manifesto of 1834. The Duke of Wellington was right to sense the threat to his familiar domain, even if the Bill itself was but a small part of a much larger transformation.

Those for and against the Reform Bill produced ingenious arguments but usually acted in predictable ways according to their interests – the excluded pushing for access, the powerful seeking to entrench control, the rich scared of the poor, the monarchy concerned above all with preserving its authority. The most interesting actors were nobles such as Charles Grey and John Russell who championed reform, or beneficiaries of a rotten borough such as Thomas Babington Macaulay who acknowledged the claims of a more equitable electoral system and voted for a bill that abolished his sinecure.

Mark Latham draws a parallel between rotten boroughs and union domination of some parliamentary posts. A good analogy draws attention to similarities and invites discussion. The argument over Australian Labor Party reform now underway is part of a wider global discussion about creating more democratic political institutions. In Britain and Canada, conservative parties led the way in internal reform. As the debate plays out locally, some of the arguments of 1832 may be heard again.

If Antonia Fraser’s reading proves a reliable guide, political institutions can reform from within, but only with the confluence of a simple proposal, determined leadership, a degree of selflessness, and lots of external noise so participants must justify their claims to a wider audience. For students of politics, there is a fascinating debate in prospect.