The Representation of the People Act, 1918: A radical reform measure bill

This is the second in our blog series, women and parliament in this, the centenary year of the Representation of the People Act 1918. Here at the History of Parliament we are closely involved in celebrations, commemorations and projects relating to this anniversary. So today, on the actual anniversary that this Act became law it seemed pertinent to honour its passage. To that end, our Assistant Director, Dr Emma Peplow, explains not only what this Act meant for women, but for men and the whole electoral system…

One hundred years ago today George V gave his assent to the Representation of the People Act. Throughout the country we are celebrating this centenary, particularly because it gave the parliamentary vote to some women for the first time as well as to millions of previously excluded working men. The number of registered voters franchise rose dramatically, from 7.9 million to 21.4 million; yet this is not the only reason that the Act was a truly radical shake-up of the UK’s electoral system.

Most famously, and after a long-fought campaign , under the Act some women were able to vote in parliamentary elections. This was a major achievement for the suffrage campaigners, and will be celebrated widely throughout the year, including with the UK Parliament’s Vote 100 project launched officially today. Historians have suggested various reasons why women gained the vote, such as women’s contribution to the First World War and the postponement of divisive militant campaigning – both of which made it easier for many previous opponents to give way. During the 1916 Speaker’s Conference set up to consider electoral reform, the principle that women should be able to vote was accepted with little resistance.

However, opposition to women being included in the franchise was also soothed by the compromises the Speaker’s Conference agreed on the issue. By the end of the war women outnumbered men, and changes were included in order to avoid ‘swamping’ the electorate with ‘inexperienced’ women voters. Women needed to be 30 or over, rather than 21, and local government electors or married to one (essentially they, or their husbands, had to own or rent property) in order to vote. This excluded an estimated 22% of women over 30 or over, for example those who lived as domestic servants or with their parents. The head of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, Millicent Fawcett, accepted the measure as an ‘imperfect scheme that can pass’, but soon began campaigning to equalise the terms of the franchise. Ironically, this part of the bill also disenfranchised war workers who were often single women under 30 – the very people whose war-time efforts had supposedly won the argument.

As we can see from these provisions, the motivations for electoral reform were much wider than that of the women’s franchise. The key reason that united all parties behind the need for electoral reform was the impact of the First World War, and particularly the millions of men who were away from home fighting it. Before 1918, to register to vote men had to own or rent property (which for some types of franchise had to be of a certain value), and furthermore they had to be resident in that property for a twelve month period. Men who lived with their parents, had moved in the past year, or (crucially in 1918) lived in army barracks would not have been eligible. This group was disparate and so, unlike the women’s suffrage movement, had never organised a campaign to win the franchise. Importantly in 1918, the sheer number of men away fighting or who had moved around the country in vital war work meant that an election under the old system was increasingly seen as unjust and even unpatriotic.

Therefore the 1918 Act removed, for men, the property qualifications needed to register, replacing them with a simple residence qualification, giving almost universal male suffrage. This was based on six months’ residence, rather than twelve, and, crucially for those men still serving oversees, provisions for absentee voting (such as by post or by proxy) were introduced. The priority of enfranchising men who had fought for their country was also clear as the Act lowered the voting age to 19 for servicemen, rather than 21, and specifically denied the franchise for five years to Conscientious Objectors who had refused to undertake war work.

The 1918 Act did not, however, completely fulfil the principle of ‘one man, one vote’ (even if we only consider men), since some could still vote in more than one constituency (known as ‘plural voting’). For example, some graduates who could vote for MPs representing their former University. However, plural votes were limited to just one per person, and disappeared altogether after the Second World War.

This fundamental change in the principle of who was eligible to vote led to other, practical changes, and in essence introduced the system we operate under today. By limiting plural voting elections could, for the first time, take place in every constituency on the same day rather than holding polls over a period of several weeks: December 1918 was the first truly ‘General’ election. Registration to vote was much easier and the basic expenses of holding an election (such as printing ballot papers or organising the poll) were now paid by government, not the candidates. There were stricter limits on how much each candidate could spend during an election campaign to ensure that those with greater resources would not have an unfair advantage reaching the wider electorate. Candidates could also have one free postal delivery of leaflets to everyone in the constituency, and use schoolrooms to hold meetings free of charge. To avoid high numbers of unlikely candidates standing, the deposit system was introduced; set at £150, it would be returned if the candidate gained 1/8th of the vote.

Finally, and also significantly, constituencies were redistributed to allow for one MP for around 70,000 electors in Britain (around 43,000 for Ireland). The principle that constituencies should be in proportion to the size of the electorate had been introduced in the 1885 Redistribution of Seats Act, but there had been significant movement in population since then. The number of seats increased from 670 to 707, and many of the larger cities gained more MPs.

At the time, Frederic Ogg wrote in the American Political Science Review that this was ‘a measure which history may pronounce more momentous than any other passed by the British Parliament since the beginning of the present war.’ Given today’s celebrations and the long-lasting impact of the entire bill, not just the changes it made to the franchise, this remains a compelling argument.


With thanks to Dr Kathryn Rix of the Victorian Commons for her contribution to this blog.

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