January 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of the Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17, which first sat in October 1916 and reported on 27 January 1917. Dr Mari Takayanagi, Joint Project Manager for the Vote 100 Exhibition Project, discusses the significance of the Conference for women’s suffrage.
The Speaker’s Conference on Electoral Reform 1916-17 was the brainchild of Walter Long MP, President of the Local Government Board. By mid-1916, the House of Commons had been considering electoral reform for some time, without agreement. It was clear that some kind of franchise reform was necessary in order to allow men on military or naval service to vote at the next election. Many MPs were keen that men working in other militarily-useful industries should also be able to vote, and given the importance of women’s contribution to the war effort, it became necessary to at least consider whether some women should be included too. But the Commons could not agree, and Long suggested a cross-party, cross-House body to make recommendations. The Speaker was asked to chair it, which he agreed to with some reluctance, writing to Prime Minister H. H. Asquith,
I cannot pretend that I look forward to it with enthusiasm. I fear that the number and complexity of the issues, which will be raised as we proceed, will overwhelm us and it will be almost impossible to obtain anything approaching unanimity upon the more important topics which will come up for discussion. [Quoted in Rolf, p43]
Despite the Speaker’s misgivings, the Conference went on to meet successfully over 26 sittings throughout Parliament’s recess and through a change of government in December 1916. It was made up of 32 MPs and Peers, chosen by the Speaker to ensure party balance and also a balance of opinion on controversial issues such as women’s suffrage and proportional representation. As well as franchise reform, the Conference was asked to make recommendations on redistribution of seats, electoral registration, and method and cost of elections. Women’s suffrage campaigners including Millicent Fawcett lobbied the Conference members throughout, to ensure their cause was given proper consideration.
Although no formal record was made of the Conference discussions, the Speaker explained in his memoirs that he took less controversial issues first on which it was easier to get consensus, and then moved to more controversial ones, including women’s suffrage. It is also noticeable that when certain Conference members resigned who were known to be anti-suffrage (Frederick Banbury, Lord Salisbury and Robert Finlay) he appointed pro-suffragists.
A few Conference members wrote accounts afterwards, which give a flavour of the proceedings. These included Alexander MacCallum Scott MP, who gave much credit to the Speaker for his approach:
He told the Conference plainly that it was not a Parliamentary Debating Society… the Government had asked us to find a way, and we had got to find a way… From that moment he took the Conference in hand. When the two sides sat and stared blankly at each other he took the initiative and put proposals for their discussions… He had no political axe of his own to grind… and he succeeded in dominating the Conference. He created the atmosphere of conciliation. [Quoted in Pugh, p76]
One of the most dedicated women’s suffrage supporters at the Conference was Willoughby Dickinson MP. Dickinson was the only one of the Conference members with a perfect record of both attending and voting in favour in Parliamentary divisions on women’s suffrage [listed in Fair, pp294-5]. Dickinson recorded that on 10 and 11 January 1917 the Conference agreed to consider the question of women suffrage by 18 votes to 4; agreed there should be some measure of women’s suffrage by 15 votes to 6; but a motion was lost that this should be on the same terms as men, by 10 votes to 12. From his scribbled notes it also appears that they voted on motions that women should have the franchise at age 25 (no figures given), 30 (11 for, 8 against); and age 35 (12 for, 3 against). Then, by his own account:
I made my proposition that vote should go to occupiers or wives of occupiers, and this carried 9 to 8. Thus by a majority of one, suffrage clause went forward! [‘A veteran recalls the passage of the Franchise Act’, Willoughby Dickinson papers, London Metropolitan Archives F/DCK/027/28 & 29]
The Speaker duly reported that the Conference decided by a majority to recommend that the franchise be conferred on all woman who were on the local government register, or whose husbands were, provided they had reached a specified age ‘of which 30 and 35 received most favour’ [Conference report]. William Bull MP later remembered how age 30, rather than 35, was inserted during the drafting of the Representation of the People Bill in 1917:
As Parliamentary Private Secretary to Mr. Walter Long (now Lord Long), who was President of the Local Government Board at the time, I attended the meeting of the Drafting Committee. Lord Long took the Chair, and there were also present the Home Secretary and the draftsman. When we came to the question of the age, Lord Long said, “This is rubbish,” and he struck out 35, and put in 30. The Committee agreed to that. [William Bull, House of Commons Debates, 29 Feb 1924]
There was still opposition in both the House of Commons and House of Lords to women’s suffrage, but the Bill passed on a free vote in both Houses. The Act as passed gave the vote to all men aged 21 years or older and to men on military or naval service from the age of 19. Women aged 30 or older who qualified for the local government franchise, or whose husbands did, were also given the vote. It was thought during debate that this would give the vote to about six million women, although the eventual figure was approximately 8.4 million women. The Speaker explained later in the House of Commons that:
It was thought desirable that women and men should be somewhere about on a parity and we took the age of thirty which was the nearest we could get to make the number of women voters equal to the number of men. [The Speaker, House of Commons Debates, 4 April 1919]
The accounts of the Conference and the debates during the passage of the Act make it clear that it was not possible for Parliament to agree equal franchise in 1918 – that had to wait another ten years, until the Equal Franchise Act 1928. But despite the age and property restrictions on women, the 1918 Act was a huge concession of principle. Gender alone was no longer a barrier to voting. As we move towards celebrating the centenary of the vote for all men and some women in 2018, we should also remember the crucial role of the Speaker’s Conference of 1916/17, which is not well remembered today, but without which the Act could never have happened. In particular credit is due to Conference members such as Willoughby Dickinson MP, and to Speaker Lowther.
This blogpost came from research for an article for a future edition of Parliamentary History, which will mark the 100th anniversary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 in February 2018; and in work done for a Vote 100 display, which can be viewed online here: www.parliament.uk/1917speakersconference
- Neal Blewitt, ‘The franchise in the United Kingdom, 1885-1918’, Past and Present, 32 (1965), 27-56
- David Close, ‘The Collapse of Resistance to Democracy: Conservatives, Adult Suffrage and Second Chamber Reform, 1911-1928’, Historical Journal 20:4 (1977)
- Conference on electoral reform: letter from Mr Speaker to the prime minister. Cd. 8463, 1917-1918
- Hope Costley-White, Willoughby Hyett Dickinson 1859-1943: A Memoir (1956)
- John D Fair, ‘The Political Aspects of Women’s Suffrage during the First World War,’ Albion, 8:3 (1976), 274-295
- Millicent Garrett Fawcett, What I Remember (1924; reprinted 2004)
- Nicoletta F. Gullace, “The Blood of our Sons”: Men, Women and the Renegotiation of British Citizenship during the Great War (Basingstoke, 2002)
- House of Commons Library, ‘Speaker’s Conferences’, Standard Note SN/PC/04426 (2009)
- James William Lowther, A Speaker’s Commentaries (1925)
- Homer Lawrence Morris, ‘Parliamentary Franchise Reform in England From 1885 to 1918’, no 2 vol XCVI in Studies in History, Economics and Public Law (New York, 1921), chapter ix
- Martin Pugh, Electoral Reform in War and Peace 1906-18 (1978)
- David Rolf, ‘Origins of Mr. Speaker’s Conference during the First World War’, History, 64:210, (1979) 36-46