Redistribution of Seats Act 1885

Redistribution of Seats Act 1885

The Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 (48 & 49 Vict., c. 23) was a piece of British electoral reform legislation that redistributed the seats in the House of Commons, introducing the concept of equally-populated constituencies, in an attempt to equalize representation across the UK. It was associated with, but not part of, the Reform Act 1884.

The Act made the following changes:
* Seventy-nine towns with populations smaller than 15,000 lost their right to elect an MP;
* Thirty-six towns with populations between 15,000 and 50,000 lost one of their MPs and became single member constituencies;
* Towns with populations between 50,000 and 165,000 were given two seats;
* Larger towns and the county constituencies were divided into single member constituencies

As support of the Irish members was needed by both major parties, the representation of Ireland in Parliament was not reduced, even though it had suffered a relative loss of population compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, due to emigration and famine.


Faced with the prospect of a Liberal Bill extending the vote in the counties, Lord Salisbury, the Conservative leader, had agreed to the Bill in order to preserve the old order of the aristocracy and the church and in particular, their roles in government and the House of Lords. Reform seemed inevitable and he wanted to have a say and gain as much advantage for the Conservatives as possible in seat redistribution, so agreed to the 1884 Act on the condition that urban constituencies could be drawn up along class lines, so that the Conservatives would win middle class seats.

Key provisions

In total, 160 seats were redistributed and in England and Wales, 79 boroughs of less than 15,000 inhabitants lost one seat each. London increased its number of seats from 22 to 62 and most constituencies became single member, to the benefit of the Conservatives in the towns.


Old historic communities were broken up when new single-member constituencies were created and the redistribution finally ended the under-representation of London and the industrial north and the predominance of the rural south. The division of formerly two member constituencies had important political consequences. It hastened the decline of the aristocracy and the landed class domination of Parliament – however the aristocracy continued to dominate the Cabinet and the political power of the landed classes was evident in the power of the Lords to veto legislation until 1911. After 1885, for the first time, the number of Members of Parliament connected to industry and commerce outnumbered the number connected to the gentry – a trend accelerated by the agricultural depression of 1870s into the 20th Century.

There was a growing radicalisation of parties. In the Liberal party, in two member constituencies a Whig had been paired with a Radical, but with only one MP to be returned the Whigs lost out as the Radicals gained support from the new rural voters. Joseph Chamberlain, encouraged by the growing radicalisation of the Liberals, mounted his assault on the Whigs firmly entrenched in power with his 'Unauthorised Programme' of 1885 or proposed radical reforms (although Gladstone was able to ignore it). The expansion of the working class electorate meant that the number of 'Lib/Lab' MPs rose from 2 in 1874 to 13 in 1885.

There was also a Conservative resurgence, as they gained massively from the constitutional changes they had helped to engineer. The majority of the 132 seats taken from small boroughs to be redistributed had been Liberal and in many of the new single member constituencies, particularly the suburban ones, the Conservatives were triumphant – the electorate were discouraged by Chamberlain’s radicalism and not appeased by Gladstone’s Home Rule crusade. The Liberals won the 1885 General Election, but the Conservatives dominated the final years of the 19th century and most of the 20th century, which owed much to Lord Salisbury’s shrewdness in 1885.

ee also

* The Parliamentary Franchise in the United Kingdom 1885-1918
* Official names of United Kingdom Parliamentary constituencies "for names of constituencies provided for by this Act"

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