Representation of the People Act 1918

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 and 8.4 million women, 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.

Even after the passing of the Third Reform Act in 1884, only 60% 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.)

The issue of a female right to vote first gathered momentum during the latter half of the nineteenth century based on the work of liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill. The Suffragettes and Suffragists had pushed for their own right to be represented prior to the war, but very little was achieved despite violent agitation by the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women's Social and Political Union.

The suffragist Millicent Fawcett suggests that all the same the women's 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.

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.

This page was last edited on 19 February 2018, at 01:22.
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