Bath was one of the cities summoned to send members in 1295 and represented ever since, although Parliaments in early years were sporadic. Like almost all English constituencies before the Great Reform Act of 1832, it originally returned two members to each Parliament.
The precise way in which its MPs were chosen in medieval times is unknown. It is recorded that "election was by the Mayor and three citizens being sent from thence to the county court who in the name of the whole community, and by the assent of the community, returned their representatives"; but what form the "assent of the community" took is unrecorded, even assuming it was not a complete dead letter. By the 17th century elections had become more competitive, and the means of election in Bath had been formalised to a franchise restricted to the Mayor, Aldermen and members of the Common Council (the City Corporation), a total of thirty voters. The freemen of the city challenged this state of affairs in 1661 and again in 1705 claiming the right to vote and petitioning against the election of the candidates chosen by the corporation, but on both occasions the House of Commons, which at the time was still the final arbiter of such disputes, decided against them. The Commons resolution of 27 January 1708, "That the right of election of citizens to serve in Parliament for this city is in the mayor, aldermen and common-council only", settled the matter until 1832.
Bath was the biggest of the English boroughs where the right to vote was restricted to the corporation (at the time of the 1801 census it was one of the ten largest towns or cities in England by population), and almost unique in that the voters generally exercised their powers responsibly and independently. As was the case elsewhere, the Common Council was not popularly elected, all vacancies being filled by co-option by the remaining members, so that once a united interest gained majority control it was easy to retain it. Most corporation boroughs quickly became pocket boroughs in this way, the nomination of their MPs being entirely under the influence of a patron who may have given some large benefaction to the area or simply used bribery to ensure only supporters or croneys became members of the corporation. But in Bath, the Common Council retained its independence in most periods and took pride in electing suitable MPs who either had strong local connections or a national reputation. Nor was there any suggestion of bribery or other corruption, prolific in other "independent" constituencies. Pitt the Elder wrote to the corporation in 1761, on the occasion of his re-election as Bath's MP, to pay tribute to "a city ranked among the most ancient and most considerable in the kingdom, and justly famed for its integrity, independence, and zeal for the public good".
But even in Bath the limited electorate who voted for the MP in question expected that MP to work to procure favours for their constituents and enterprises to a degree that would be considered utterly corrupt today. By exercising efforts successfully in this direction, MPs could in return expect a degree of control over the voters that differed little from patronage in pocket boroughs except that its duration was limited. Thus the lawyer Robert Henley, MP from 1747 and Recorder of Bath from 1751, seems to have been assumed to have had control over both seats while he remained Bath's MP and immediately after; yet when he was transferred to the House of Lords, Pitt replaced him on the understanding of being independently chosen. Pitt himself then acquired similar influence: the Council vetoed Viscount Ligonier's suggestion that he should be succeeded by his nephew when he was elevated the Lords in 1763, but instead allowed Pitt to nominate a candidate to be his new colleague, and voted overwhelmingly for him when he was opposed by a local man. But Pitt's influence also waned when he fell out with the Council over the Treaty of Paris.
In the final years before the Reform Act, however, local magnates exerted more control-like influence in Bath. Oldfield, writing early in the 19th century, stated that at that time the Marquess of Bath nominated one member and John Palmer the other; both were former MPs for the City (the Marquess having sat under the title Viscount Weymouth), but neither was still in the Commons – each had a family member sitting in their stead as MP for Bath. Palmer had succeeded as MP Earl Camden[n 4] who held one of the nominations before 1802. At the time of the Reform Act, the Marquess of Bath was still being listed as influencing one of the seats, though the second was considered independent once more.
The Great Reform Act opened up the franchise to all resident (male) householders whose houses were valued at least £10 a year and imposed uniform voting provisions for boroughs. Reflecting not just the city's medium size but its general property values, this multiplied Bath's electorate by a factor of almost 100[n 5], and created a competitive and generally marginal constituency which swung between Whig and Conservative control. The constituency boundaries were also slightly extended, but only to take in those areas where the city proper had filled. Bath's most notable MP during this period was probably the Conservative social reformer Lord Ashley, better remembered under his eventual title of 7th Earl of Shaftesbury for the Factory Acts, the first of which came into effect while he was MP for Bath.
The franchise was further reformed in 1867 and 1885 with only minor boundary changes. Bath was lucky to retain double-member representation in the 1885 reforms – its electorate of under 7,000 was near the lower limit, a situation that lasted until 1918 reforms. The continued Liberal strength was unusual for a prosperous and predominantly middle-class town, and the seats could until 1918 not be considered safe for the Conservatives.
The modern single-member constituency (since 1918)
Bath's representation was reduced to a single member in 1918. The Conservatives held the seat continuously until 1992 except in the 1923 Parliament, and until World War II generally won comfortably – Liberals retained strength so that the non-Conservative vote was split and Labour could not rise above third place until the landslide of 1945, when the Conservative James Pitman achieved a very marginal majority. From 1945 to 1975 Bath Labour presented the main challengers came within 800 votes of taking the seat in 1966.
The Liberal revival in the 1970s saw the two more left-wing parties swap places, helped by the adoption of a nationally known candidate, Christopher Mayhew who had defected from the Labour Party. The formation of the SDP–Liberal Alliance made Bath a realistic target. The SDP came 1500 votes from winning in 1987 under Malcolm Dean. In 1992, Conservative Chris Patten was ousted by Liberal Democrat Don Foster in a narrow defeat widely blamed on Patten's strategising, campaign leading and communicating as Conservative Party chairman rather than canvassing his own constituents. At each election since 1992 a different [Conservative candidate has taken second place.
The boundary changes implemented in 1997 took Bathampton, Batheaston, Bathford, Charlcombe and Freshford from the Wansdyke district, containing about 7,000 voters – these were given elsewhere in 2010. Nominally this had slightly higher tendency to prefer a Conservative candidate but, the national government suffering from sleaze, in 1997 Don Foster more than doubled his almost 4,000 vote majority to over 9,000 votes. After winning two intervening elections, in 2010 Foster achieved his highest majority to date of 11,883 votes. This result followed the trend in the south-west led by the election performance of Nick Clegg and reflects a loss of the villages mentioned.
Bath is one of only two UK Parliament constituencies to be surrounded by another constituency. Bath is entirely surrounded by the North East Somerset constituency. The other constituency, York Central, is entirely surrounded by York Outer.
Another General Election was required to take place before the end of 1940. The political parties had been making preparations for an election to take place and by the Autumn of 1939, the following candidates had been selected;
A minority of Bath Conservatives, led by the town Mayor, Adrian Hopkins objected to Ronaldshay who had no link with the town. Hopkins was considering running as an Independent. Desmond was under pressure to withdraw in favour of the Liberal candidate fighting on a Popular Front programme.
Another General Election was required to take place before the end of 1915. The political parties had been making preparations for an election to take place and by July 1914, the following candidates had been selected;