The Representation of the People Act 1918 was an Act of Parliament passed to reform the electoral system in the United Kingdom. It is sometimes known as the Fourth Reform Act. This act was the first to include practically all men in the political system and began the inclusion of women, extending the franchise by 5.6 million men and 8.4 million women.
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 World War I, 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.)
British politicians thus faced a crisis when the overthrow of the centuries-old Romanov monarchy and the Russian nobility in March of the previous year, and the subsequent revolution of workers and soldiers in November, raised the possibility of a similar socialist revolution in Britain.
The issue of a female right to vote first gathered momentum during the later 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 World War I but very little was achieved before the war, despite criminally violent agitation by the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst and the WSPU.
The issue was raised by Suffragist Millicent Fawcett at the Speaker's Conference in 1916. She called for the age for voting to be lowered to 18 overthrowing the male majority. She also suggested that, if this would not be possible, women 30–35 years old should be enfranchised.
During the debates in Parliament, there was virtual cross party unanimity. The Home Secretary, George Cave (Con) 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.
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 did not occur until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928.
The terms of the Act were:
- 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.
- Women over 30 years old received the vote if they were either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register, a property owner, or a graduate voting in a University constituency.
- Some seats redistributed to industrial towns.
- Elections to be held on a decided day each year
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 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. This may explain why the age of 30 was settled on.
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), 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.
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.
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 chose not to take her seat at Westminster and instead sat in 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, having been 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 who was 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 were over 30.