Electoral Firsts in the 1918 Election: Event Review

Today we hear from our undergraduate intern from the History department at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Matthew Anderson. For those of you who were unable to attend our recent event in Parliament, below he outlines our three papers…

On Wednesday 16th January, amidst a significant week for Brexit and the government, the History of Parliament Trust and the Co-operative party hosted an event in Parliament to discuss electoral firsts in the election of 1918. The division bells rang out momentarily interrupting the third paper of the evening and MPs dashed off to cast their vote of confidence (or not) in Her Majesty’s Government. This event rounded off a year of centenary celebrations of important legislative reform in 1918, most notably The Representative of the People Act, which extended the franchise in parliamentary elections to women for the first time and The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act that enabled women to stand for election. The December election of 1918 was the first following the implementation of both Acts and the end of the First World War, and consequently a number of electoral firsts occurred. Our event featured three papers each discussing the significance of the election as well as touching on a particular electoral first.

History of Parliament Chair, Gordon Marsden giving the opening address

The first paper was given by Angela Whitecross, who wrote her doctoral thesis on the history of the Co-operative party. Angela discussed the party and its first elected MP, Alfred Waterson. She began with an outline of the party’s origins in the Co-operative movement of the early nineteenth century. The initial movement, although not directly involved in politics, held a political purpose and was rooted in democratic traditions. She explained that their main political interests centered on business, a desire to experience a fair and equal society and it advocated for changes such as one member one vote. Angela noted the influence of the movement, and later party, on local participation and representation including their encouragement of women to become politically engaged and involved in local councils. During the First World War issues such as excess profits tax, food control and its impact on local businesses concerned members of the movement.

Due to a lack of parliamentary representation Co-operatives were unable to express these concerns to affect change and this contributed to the creation of the political party. Lastly, Angela focused on the 1918 election and the election of the Co-operative party’s first MP, Alfred Waterson. He was the candidate for Kettering and one of ten Co-operative candidates who stood for election in 1918. He was the only one elected. Describing Waterson as ‘Up to his eyes in trade unionism and co-operation’ Angela expressed the magnitude of this landmark moment for the party and movement, noting that prior to 1918 the Co-operatives were even refused a meeting with David Lloyd George. Ultimately Waterson’s success in the election gave the Co-operatives a voice inside Parliament and paved the way for further Co-operative candidates.

Our second speaker, Edward Madigan, Lecturer in Public History and First World War studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, spoke about Sinn Fein and Constance Markievicz. Edward initially focused on the significance of the 1918 Election to Sinn Fein and the wider Republican movement. Referring to the election as ‘the greatest exercise in mass democracy [seen up to that point]’. He explained the influence of the election on the Irish revolution and the subsequent British Army withdrawal from four fifths of Ireland, which essentially ushered in a new era of Irish independence.

Attention then switched to the story of Constance Markievicz, member of Sinn Fein and first female elected as an MP. Edward discussed her transformation from a privileged Victorian countess to a militant anti-establishment revolutionary before concentrating on her election success. Markievicz, who was in prison at the time of the election, was one of seventeen female candidates who stood in 1918 following The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act. Due to being a member of abstentionist party, Sinn Fein, Markievicz did not take her seat in the House of Commons.  She did, however, take her place in the Irish Parliament and later became the first Irish female cabinet member. Edward concluded by summarising Markievicz’ significance, describing her as a woman who was prepared to endure great hardship in pursuit of justice and who laid the foundations for women to further involve themselves in the political sphere.    

The final paper of the evening was delivered by Krista Cowman, Professor of History at the University of Lincoln. Krista discussed the experience of women first time voters in the 1918 election. The paper predominantly focused on the uniqueness of the first time voters’ experiences and the fascination this phenomenon provoked in the media. She shared examples of unusual activity witnessed at polling booths from prams outside stations to husbands and wives attempting to vote together! Older female voters were also mentioned, women of 94, 90, 86 and 85 were all recorded to have voted for the first time. Krista ended by explaining how as the decades passed and more elections came and went the novelty of female voters drew less of a focus, and journalists began to turn their attention towards the attempts of parties to attract female voters.

Once each of the three speakers had presented their work there was an opportunity for the audience to ask questions. With a wide variety of attendees, including members of local Co-operatives, other political party affiliates and history enthusiasts the questions asked incited a fascinating discussion on topics ranging from abstentionism to how Alfred Waterson’s political beliefs were shaped.


Angela Whitecross’ and Edward Madigan’s papers are now available on the BBC iplayer thanks to BBC Parliament.

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