Representation of the People Act 1918

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Representation of the People Act 1918
Long title An Act to Amend the Law with respect to Parliamentary and Local Government Franchises, and the Registration of Parliamentary and Local Government Electors, and the conduct of elections, and to provide for the Redistribution of Seats at Parliamentary Elections, and for other purposes connected therewith.
Territorial extent
Royal assent 6 February 1918
Status: Repealed

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, this act was the first to include all men over 21 years old in the political system, but only women over 30 who held £5 of property, or had husbands who did. It extended the franchise by 5.6 million men[1] and 8.4 million women,[2] and legislated a number of new practices in elections, including making residency in a specific constituency the basis of the right to vote, institutionalising the first-past-the-post method of election and rejecting proportional representation.[3]


After the passing of the Third Reform Act in 1884, 60%[4] of male householders over the age of 21 had the vote. Following the horrors of the First World War, millions of returning soldiers would still not have been entitled to vote in the long overdue general election. (The previous election had been in December 1910. The Parliament Act 1911 had set the maximum term of a Parliament at five years, but an amendment to the Act postponed the general election to after the war's conclusion.)[citation needed]

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 educated women who were barred from higher education, met at the Kensington home of Indian scholar Charlotte Manning. 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 written on this subject by a male author.[citation needed] In The Subjection of Women, Mill attempts to make a case for perfect equality.[5][6] He talks about the role of women in marriage and how it needed to be changed. There, Mill comments on three major facets of women's lives that he felt are 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.[7][8] He agreed to present the petition to Parliament provided it could get at least 100 signatures, and the first version was drafted by his step-daughter, Helen Taylor.[9]

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 the friends of women's suffrage wanted to maintain a male majority.[10]

The debates in both Houses of Parliament saw majority cross-party unanimity, the Home Secretary, George Cave (Con) within the governing coalition introduced the Act:

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.[11]

Terms of the Act[edit]

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.

The terms of the Act were:[12][13]

  1. All men over 21 gained the vote in the constituency where they were resident. Men who had turned 19 during service in connection with the First World War 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.
  2. Women over 30 years old received the vote, but only if they were a registered property occupier (or married to a registered property occupier) of land or buildings with a rateable value greater than £5 (in reality the vast majority of dwellings) and not subject to any legal incapacity, or a graduate voting in a University constituency.
  3. Some seats redistributed to industrial towns.
  4. All polls for an election to be held on a specified date, rather than over several days in different constituencies as previously.[14]

The Act added 8.4 million women to the electorate as well as 5.6 million men. It is 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.[citation needed]

Political changes[edit]

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, this may explain why the age of 30 was settled on.[15]

In addition to the suffrage changes, the Act also instituted the present system of holding general elections 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),[16] and brought in the annual electoral register.[citation needed]


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,[17] 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.[18] 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.[19]


The first election held under the new system was the 1918 general election. Polling took place on 14 December 1918, but vote-counting did not start until 28 December 1918.[20]

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.[21] 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 Dáil Éireann (the First Dáil) in Dublin.[22] The first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons was Nancy Astor on 1 December 1919, having been elected as a Coalition Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton on 28 November 1919.[citation needed]

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 who was Minister of Labour from 1929 to 1931.[23]

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 were over 30, this was by design[citation needed] and to compensate for the diminished male population following the first world war.

See also[edit]




  1. ^ Harold L. Smith (12 May 2014). The British Women's Suffrage Campaign 1866–1928: Revised 2nd Edition. Routledge. p. 95. ISBN 978-1-317-86225-3. 
  2. ^ Martin Roberts (2001). Britain, 1846–1964: The Challenge of Change. Oxford University Press. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-19-913373-4. 
  3. ^ Blackburn (2011).
  4. ^ Cook, Chris, The Routledge Companion to Britain in the Nineteenth Century, 1815–1914, p. 68
  5. ^ Mill, J.S. (1869) The Subjection of Women, Chapter 1
  6. ^ John Stuart Mill: critical assessments, Volume 4, By John Cunningham Wood
  7. ^ Mill, J.S. (1869) The Subjection of Women, Chapter 1
  8. ^ Mill, John Stuart (2005), "The subjection of women", in Cudd, Ann E.; Andreasen, Robin O., Feminist theory: a philosophical anthology, Oxford, UK Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 17–26, ISBN 9781405116619.
  9. ^ Anon. "John Stuart Mill and the 1866 petition". Retrieved 5 February 2018. 
  10. ^ Fawcett, Millicent Garrett (1920). The Women's Victory and after - reminiscences 1911-1918. London: Sidgwick & Jackson. pp. 138–142. 
  11. ^ Hansard HC Debs (22 May 1917) vol 93, C 2135:, Accessed 17 February 2017.
  12. ^ Fraser, Sir Hugh. "The Representation of the People Act, 1918 with explanatory notes". Internet Archive. Retrieved 28 January 2009. 
  13. ^ Fraser, Sir Hugh. "The Representation of the People Act, 1918". Retrieved 7 January 2018. 
  14. ^ Syddique, E. M. "Why are British elections always held on Thursdays?". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 April 2017. 
  15. ^ "Electoral Registers Through The Years", on website. Accessed 27 July 2015
  16. ^ Syddique, E. M. "Why are British elections always held on Thursdays?". The Guardian. Retrieved 10 April 2017. 
  17. ^ "CLAUSE 4.—(Franchises (Women).) (Hansard, 19 June 1917)". Retrieved 8 June 2016. 
  18. ^ Martin Pugh, "Politicians and the Women's vote, 1914–1918", History, 59, no. 197 (1974): 358–74,, p. 373
  19. ^ "History Learning Site: The 1918 Representation of the People Act". History Learning Site. Retrieved 28 January 2009. 
  20. ^ White, Isobel; Durkin, Mary (15 November 2007). "General Election Dates 1832-2005" (PDF). House of Commons Library. 
  21. ^ Fawcett, Millicent Garrett. "The Women's Victory – and After". p.170. Cambridge University Press
  22. ^ "1918 Qualification of Women Act". Spartacus Educational. Retrieved 28 January 2009. 
  23. ^ Heater, Derek (2006). Citizenship in Britain: A History. Edinburgh University Press. p. 145. ISBN 9780748626724. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Blackburn, Robert. "Laying the foundations of the modern voting system: The Representation of the People Act 1918." Parliamentary History 30.1 (2011): 33–52.
  • The text of the act.