The Representation of the People Act 1918 was an Act of Parliament passed to reform the electoral system in Great Britain and Ireland. It is sometimes known as the Fourth Reform Act. The Act extended the franchise in parliamentary elections, also known as the right to vote, to men aged 21 and over, whether or not they owned property, and to women aged 30 and over who resided in the constituency or occupied land or premises with a rateable value above £5, or whose husbands did. At the same time, it extended the local government franchise to include women aged 21 and over on the same terms as men.
As a result of the Act, the male electorate was extended by 5.2 million to 12.9 million.The female electorate was 8.5 million. The Act also created new electoral arrangements, including making residence in a specific constituency the basis of the right to vote, institutionalising the first-past-the-post method of election, and rejecting proportional representation.
It was not until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 that women gained electoral equality. The 1928 Act gave the vote to women at age 21 regardless of any property qualification, which added another five million women to the electorate.
After the Third Reform Act in 1884, 60% of male householders over the age of 21 had the vote. But 40% did not. So millions of soldiers returning from World War I would still not have been entitled to vote in the long overdue general election. (The last election had been in December 1910. An election had been scheduled for 1916, but was postponed to a time after the war.)
The issue of a female right to vote first gathered momentum during the latter half of the nineteenth century. In 1865 the Kensington Society, a discussion group for middle-class women who were barred from higher education, met at the home of Indian scholar Charlotte Manning in Kensington. Following a discussion on suffrage, a small informal committee was formed to draft a petition and gather signatures, led by women including Barbara Bodichon, Emily Davies, and Elizabeth Garrett. In 1869, John Stuart Mill, published The Subjection of Women (1861, published 1869), one of the earliest works on this subject by a male author. In the book, Mill attempts to make a case for perfect equality. He talks about the role of women in marriage and how it needed to be changed, and comments on three major facets of women’s lives that he felt were hindering them: society and gender construction, education, and marriage. He argued that the oppression of women was one of the few remaining relics from ancient times, a set of prejudices that severely impeded the progress of humanity. He agreed to present a petition to Parliament, provided it had at least 100 signatures, and the first version was drafted by his step-daughter, Helen Taylor.
The Suffragettes and Suffragists had pushed for their right to be represented prior to the war, but felt too little had changed, despite violent agitation by the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women’s Social and Political Union.
The suffragist Millicent Fawcett suggests that the women’s right to vote issue was the main reason for the Speaker’s Conference in 1917. She protested at the resultant age limits while accepting that there were at the time one and a half million more women than men in the country and that even the friends of women’s suffrage wanted to maintain a male majority.
War by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together, has opened men’s eyes, and removed misunderstandings on all sides. It has made it, I think, impossible that ever again, at all events in the lifetime of the present generation, there should be a revival of the old class feeling which was responsible for so much, and, among other things, for the exclusion for a period, of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.
Terms of the Act
The Representation of the People Act 1918 widened suffrage by abolishing practically all property qualifications for men and by enfranchising women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The enfranchisement of this latter group was accepted as recognition of the contribution made by women defence workers. However, women were still not politically equal to men (who could vote from the age of 21); full electoral equality was achieved in Ireland in 1922, but did not occur in Britain until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928.
- All men over 21 gained the vote in the constituency where they were resident. Men who had turned 19 during service in connection with World War I could also vote even if they were under 21, although there was some confusion over whether they could do so after being discharged from service. The Representation of the People Act 1920 clarified this in the affirmative, albeit after the 1918 general election.
- Women over 30 years old received the vote, but only if they were registered property occupiers (or married to a registered property occupier) of land or premises with a rateable value greater than £5 or of a dwelling-house and not subject to any legal incapacity, or were graduates voting in a University constituency.
- Some seats were redistributed to industrial towns.
- All polls for an election to be held on a specified date, rather than over several days in different constituencies as previously.
The Act added 8.4 million women to the electorate as well as 5.6 million men. It was therefore the greatest of all the Reform Acts in terms of electorate addition.
The costs incurred by returning officers were for the first time to be paid by the Treasury. Prior to the 1918 general election, the administrative costs were passed on to the candidates to pay, in addition to their personal expenses.
The size of the electorate tripled from the 7.7 million who had been entitled to vote in 1912 to 21.4 million by the end of 1918. Women now accounted for about 43% of the electorate. Had women been enfranchised based upon the same requirements as men, they would have been in the majority because of the loss of men in the war.
The age of 30 was chosen because it was all that was politically possible at the time. Any attempt to make it lower would have failed.
As a minister explained shortly after the Act was passed:
„[T]he reason why the age limit of thirty was introduced [was] in order to avoid extending the franchise to a very large number of women, for fear they might be in a majority in the electorate of this country. It was for that reason only, and it had nothing to do with their qualifications at all. No one would seriously suggest that a woman of twenty-five is less capable of giving a vote than a woman of thirty-five.”
In addition to the suffrage changes, the Act also instituted the present system of holding all voting in a general election on one day, as opposed to being staggered over a period of weeks (although the polling itself would only take place on a single day in each constituency), and brought in the annual electoral register.
The bill for the Representation of the People Act was passed by a majority of 385 to 55 in the House of Commons on 19 June 1917.The bill still had to pass through the House of Lords, but Lord Curzon, the president of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage did not want to clash with the Commons and so did not oppose the bill. Many other opponents of the Bill in the Lords lost heart when he refused to act as their spokesman. The bill passed by 134 to 71 votes.
After this Act gave about 8.4 million women the vote, the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918 was passed in November 1918, allowing women to be elected to Parliament. Several women stood for election to the House of Commons in 1918, but only one, the Sinn Féin candidate for Dublin St. Patrick’s, Constance Markievicz, was elected; however she followed her party’s abstentionist policy and did not take her seat at Westminster and instead sat in the Dáil Éireann (the First Dáil) in Dublin. The first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons was Nancy Astor on 1 December 1919, who was elected as a Coalition Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton on 28 November 1919.
As Members of Parliament, women also gained the right to become government ministers. The first women cabinet minister and Privy Council member was Margaret Bondfield, Minister of Labour from 1929 to 1931.
There were some limitations to the Representation of the People Act: it did not create a complete system of one person, one vote. 7% of the population enjoyed a plural vote in the 1918 election: mostly middle-class men who had an extra vote due to a university constituency(this Act increased the university vote by creating the Combined English Universities seats) or a spreading of business into other constituencies. There was also a significant inequality between the voting rights of men and women: women could only vote if they had attained the age of 30.