A historical feature of British politics that still exists in a different form
The term “pocket borough” was used by 19th-century reformers in Great Britain to describe the situation whereby democracy was held to ransom by the rich and powerful, such that the election of some Members of Parliament was “in the pocket” of certain people. Perhaps the concept still applies today.
The development of Britain’s Parliamentary system
The House of Commons was instituted in 1265 when Simon de Montfort, the rebellious Earl of Leicester, called for an assembly to be elected that constituted “two knights from every (English) shire and two burgesses from every borough”. The procedure for electing the shire members was clear enough, and consistent across the country, but the boroughs were given much more freedom to decide for themselves how their representatives should be chosen.
Over time, the number of boroughs entitled to send members to Parliament grew, but the expense of so doing fell upon local councils, and many declined to do so. Others set such severe restrictions on who could vote, based mainly on property qualifications, that the number of voters was reduced to a handful. When this happened, the possibility of manipulating the election, so that the result fell into someone’s pocket, was greatly increased.
Among the more extreme cases of limited franchise were those boroughs that limited the vote to members of the borough council, and others where it was only the owners or tenants of certain pieces of land within the borough who could vote.
Pocket and rotten boroughs
A distinction needs to be made between “pocket” and “rotten” boroughs, because although they were often one and the same, this was not necessarily the case. A rotten borough was one in which the original population had all but disappeared, leaving very few voters behind. For example, when the city of Sarum in Wiltshire abandoned its windswept hilltop site and moved to the valley below to build the new Salisbury, the old city retained the right to send members to Parliament even though there was no-one there.
Even more bizarre was the borough of Dunwich in Suffolk, which had fallen victim to coastal erosion and was mostly under the waters of the North Sea by the time of the 1832 Reform Act.
However, a borough did not need to be rotten to be in a pocket. Even some quite large and thriving boroughs could be pocket boroughs, depending on local circumstances.
In whose pocket?
One factor that helped to create pocket boroughs was the lack of a secret ballot, which did not enter British politics until the Ballot Act of 1872. Under the previous system, electors had to declare their voting choice to a clerk who sat in a public place, such as a temporary stand in a market place, in full view and hearing of anyone who wished to witness the voting. What this meant was that voters could be intimidated or bribed into voting one way or the other, and the candidate with the deepest pockets could easily buy his seat in the Commons.
The owners of the pockets were often rich and wealthy landowners who, if peers of the realm, had a permanent seat in Parliament’s House of Lords and wished to ensure that their tenants were represented by their “placemen” in the House of Commons. It was an excellent way of maintaining the status quo.
In effect, what often happened was that elections at a local level were uncontested, because there was little point in standing for a seat which one had absolutely no hope of winning because all the votes had been bought in advance.
The 1832 Reform Act ended some of the abuses but by no means all. It is true that the rotten boroughs were removed from the system, and the more bizarre franchise qualifications disappeared, but many pocket boroughs remained for various reasons, including the lack of secret ballots noted above.
Are there still pocket boroughs today?
Indeed, a strong argument could be made to the effect that pocket boroughs (or their equivalent) are still part of the British political system.
It is still the case that many constituencies in the United Kingdom never change hands at election time because the majorities for a particular political party are so large that they can never be overturned. For example, the seat of Hemsworth in West Yorkshire was such a safe one for Labour throughout the 20th century that the joke ran that the votes were weighed rather than counted. (However, it should be noted that this is less true than it once was – many northern Labour constituencies did indeed change hands at the 2019 General Election, and even the majority in Hemsworth was slashed to close to 1,000 votes).
Likewise, there are Conservative seats in south-east England and elsewhere where it is impossible to imagine anyone other than a Conservative having any chance of winning.
Under these circumstances, the choice of who becomes the MP depends not on the electors but the party machine that selects the candidate. Traditionally this is the local party committee, which can easily be swayed by a few powerful people, but increasingly the central offices of the main parties influence who the local party will choose. Candidates are known to have been “parachuted” into safe seats, often against local wishes but with it being made very clear that the constituency committee has to do what it is told. In other words, these seats are in the pockets of the political parties.
Sometimes a local party can resist the central diktat because of the sponsorship it gets from an outside organisation such as a trade union or large business. Many Labour MPs are union sponsored, and many Conservative MPs have the backing of powerful businessmen who have put large sums of money into local party coffers. It would be difficult to imagine the respective parties, either locally or nationally, turning down these contributions, even though they must appreciate that the interests in question hope to gain some political advantage from their efforts.
One must therefore wonder whether pocket boroughs ever went away, or if they are still alive and well in the British political system in the 21st century.