2018 sees several important centenaries in the UK: The end of WW1, the extension of the franchise to some women, and all men gaining the vote for the first time. 100 years on from the Representation of the People Act, Parliament is celebrating with the Vote 100 Programme. Here we look at the struggle for universal suffrage and how some women, and all men, finally gained the right to vote.

Most British soldiers fighting in WW1 didn’t have the vote

Before 1918, 2 in 5 men were unable to vote. This meant that many of the British men who fought for their country from 1914-18 did not have any say in the election of their government. This situation became increasingly difficult to defend politically.  As the Prime Minister of the day, David Lloyd George, argued, “The man who has fought must have the right to determine how the fruits of his peril are going to be dealt with”.  Voters were also required to have been resident in the UK for 12 months prior to an election, which was a problem. There hadn’t been a General Election since 1910 and many men had been stationed abroad during the war.

Although there was little appetite for an election, the fragile nature of the wartime coalition initially continued to make one a possibility. However, dealing with the issue of out of date electoral registers without raising more fundamental questions of the franchise was difficult. This led to the novel suggestion by Walter Long MP of establishing the Speaker’s Conference of 1917, which led to the Representation of the People Act 1918.

The importance of wealth as a qualification for the vote before 1918

The first Reform Act of 1832 had explicitly disenfranchised women, though they did gain some local government voting rights later in the nineteenth century. Amongst men, entitlement to the vote before 1918 was complicated. The franchise was limited to men over 21 who owned property or ‘paid rates’.  Plural voting (one person having more than one vote) was also permitted in some cases on grounds of higher education or business ownership. Men who received poor relief were disqualified.

The Representation of the People Act in 1918 removed, for men, the property qualifications needed to register and replaced it with a simple residence qualification. Disqualification of men in receipt of poor relief was retained in the original Bill but was removed during the passage of the legislation. This granted universal male suffrage.

The RPA 1918 also introduced votes for some women aged 30 and over but with a property qualification. To qualify for the Parliamentary franchise a woman, as well as being at least 30, had to own or rent property of a yearly value of £5 or more, or be married to a man who qualified for the local government franchise.

The Act also introduced a system of absent ballots to allow soldiers still stationed across the Channel to vote. Service voters had to be 19 years or older.

The first general election under universal suffrage in the UK was held in 1929

The Conservative government of Stanley Baldwin oversaw the final extension to universal adult suffrage through the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act of 1928.  Baldwin summed up, saying “I used to vote against women’s suffrage. I was taught by the War, which taught me many things.”  Across Great Britain approximately 5.2 million extra women could now register and join the 9.5 million already registered. This meant that women now formed the majority of the British electorate.

It was not, therefore, until the General Election of 1929 that a UK Parliament was elected on the basis of complete adult suffrage, with adult defined as over 21.

Democracy after 1929

The history of the franchise does not end in 1928. Plural voting was abolished in 1948, although it continued until 1969 in Northern Ireland local elections. In 1969 the age of eligibility to vote was lowered from 21 to 18.

There is a longstanding campaign for the voting age to be lowered again to 16. The 2014 referendum in Scotland was the first major poll in the UK to enfranchise 16 and 17 year olds and there are plans for a similar extension of the vote in Welsh local elections.

Similarly, debates continue on votes for prisoners and overseas voters. Linked to ‘equal voting rights’ are questions around equal-sized constituencies and proportional voting systems. And recent events have cast a spotlight on the relationship between representative democracy (Parliament) and ‘direct’ democracy (referendums).

More broadly, concern has turned to who does and doesn’t turn out to vote, and why. One hundred years after the extension of the vote, engaging voters presents a separate challenge.

Further reading from the Library 

The History of the Parliamentary Franchise,

Different styles, difference publics: a typology of political engagement

More information about the Vote 100 celebrations in Parliament is available on Parliament’s website 

With thanks to Dr Philip Salmon of the History of Parliament Trust, and Oonagh Gay, formerly head of the House of Commons Library Parliament and Constitution Centre and current advisor to Vote 100.

Image credit: Peterloo-1819-R-Carlile (partial).jpg