The constituency contains a large minority of students, researchers and academics at the early 19th century founded University of Durham,[n 3] that has a claim towards being the third oldest in England and has elected Labour MPs since 1935, although there have been strong SDP–Liberal Alliance and Liberal Democrat challenges to Labour since the 1980s.
The City of Durham was first given the right to return Members to Parliament by an Act of Parliament in 1678, the last new borough but one to be enfranchised before the Great Reform Act of 1832. It was the only borough in County Durham, the county also having been unrepresented until the same Act of Parliament, which created two MPs for the county and two for the city. Both constituencies were frequently referred to simply as Durham, which can make for some confusion.
The constituency as constituted in 1678 consisted only of the city of Durham itself, though this included its suburbs which were within the municipal boundary. The right to vote was held by the corporation and the freemen of the city, many of whom were not resident within the boundaries. Unlike the situation in many small rotten boroughs, the corporation had no jurisdiction over the creation of freemen: freemen were generally created by connection with companies of trade, either by apprenticeship or by birth (by being the son of an existing freeman), though the common council of the city had a power to create honorary freemen.
The creation of honorary freemen with the specific intention of swaying elections was a common abuse in a number of boroughs in the 18th century, and at the Durham election of 1762 became sufficiently controversial to force a change in the law. The election was disputed because 215 new freemen, most of them not resident in the city, had been made after the writ for the election was issued. The existing freemen petitioned against this dilution of their voting rights, the candidate who had been declared elected was unseated by the Commons committee which heard the case, and the following year an Act of Parliament was passed to prevent any honorary freeman from voting in a borough election within twelve months of their being accorded that status.
Through having a freeman franchise the electorate was comparatively numerous for the period, though comprising only a small fraction of the city’s population; at the time of the Reform Act there were between 1,100 and 1,200 freemen in total, of whom 427 were resident and 558 lived within seven miles, while the total population of the borough was 9,269. The Lambton and Tempest families were influential, and were generally able to secure election, but fell far short of the sort of control common in pocket boroughs.
The city retained both its MPs under the 1832 Reform Act, with its boundaries adjusted only very slightly, although as elsewhere the franchise was reformed. The Reform Act 1867 extended the boundaries to include part of Framwellgate parish which had previously been excluded. Under the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885, the borough’s representation was reduced from the 1885 general election to a single MP. In the boundary changes of 1918, the borough was abolished, but a division of County Durham was named after the city.