Today marks one hundred years since some women were granted the vote for the first time in the UK, along with 5.6 million men from working-class backgrounds. The 1918 extension of the franchise is arguably the greatest milestone in British democratic history, and so this article explains what it meant for British people and how its effects can still be seen today.
Women’s and Working-Class Suffrage: 100 Years On
One hundred years ago today, Britain passed the Representation of the People Act, which gave the vote to all men over 21 and to all women over the age of 30 years. This extension of the franchise was undoubtedly one of the most significant moment in British democratic history.
The Act itself meant the enfranchisement of 8.4 million women and 5.6 million men. Women were able to vote for the first time in Britain, the voting system no longer excluded the working classes and 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.
Yes, it did have its limitations. Crucially, the political rights of men and women were still not equal, with women not able to vote until the age of thirty compared with the male voting age of 21. On top of this, Britain still did not have a complete system of one person, one vote, with 7% of the population enjoying a plural vote. However, the significance of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 lies not only in the immediate changes it brought about, but also its role in progressing the suffrage movement.
As a result of the changes made in 1918, there were further changes made to our voting system in 1928 when the Equal Franchise Act was passed. As the name suggests, this Act gave equal voting rights to both men and women. In other words, the voting age for women was reduced to 21. This of course meant a growth in the size of the electorate, and the principle of equality is still a cornerstone of our democracy today.
But the importance of the 1918 extension of the franchise is not just limited to the figures on how many people were granted civil rights. Indeed, the sheer increase in the number of people who were enabled to vote by this Act, and the subsequent 1928 Act, whether it be directly or indirectly, is hugely significant. But enfranchising women and the working classes went far beyond the principle of more people having the right to vote: these were the groups who had been ignored for too long by those at the top. Having had little to no political influence up until this point, these groups were finally given a say in who governed them.
We saw the huge impact of giving working class people the vote when Britain saw its first Labour Prime Minister in 1924. The rise of the party is accredited to the enfranchisement of this section of society, which goes to show how different the political landscape was when everyone was given a voice. Working-class people and their support for the Labour party had been silenced, but now there was more pressure on all parties to consider issues such as workers’ rights more seriously.
Similarly, where there had previously been a huge bias towards men in government policy, parties could no longer ignore women’s needs without losing the support of a significant portion of the vote. This made Britain more democratic because not only did it give all people over the age of 21 an equal opportunity for influence regardless of class or gender, but it also held representatives accountable for their actions because if by failing to serve the interests of a certain group they risked losing favour in the next election.
The Representation of the People Act forced the government and politicians to take the concerns of around 14 million individuals seriously and treat them with the same respect and understanding that was shown to their upper and middle class male peers. One hundred years on, we have seen huge democratic progress in the UK which would not have been possible without this turning point in our history.
But do we have more to do? Over 1.5 million 16 and 17-year olds in the UK are still denied the vote, despite being able to get married, pay taxes and join the army. What about having a say in their education? Healthcare? These young people are affected by government policy as much as their 18-year-old peers. Should they not enjoy the same rights?
By Lucy Higginbotham