February 6th 2018 is the centenary of the Representation of the People Act 1918 attaining Royal Assent. This Act is rightly celebrated for giving the Parliamentary vote to most women for the first time.
However, there is a danger that another, more fundamental, victory brought about by the Act is being forgotten: the final triumph of the principle of democracy. For the first time, the Parliamentary franchise became based on a citizen’s right, rather than upon property ownership or wealth. The Act therefore also gave the vote to all men over 21 for the first time.
Prior to the Act the bulk of working class men did not have the vote. Most of the men and boys who died or were maimed in the First World War therefore did not have the vote.
Indeed, this war was instrumental in bringing about the Act because the previous property/residency-based franchise was no longer workable under the conditions brought about by the war – the current residency of millions of men was a muddy trench in France or Belgium.
But, even more importantly, it was the slaughter of men in the trenches which caused a sea change in the previous class antagonism which had hitherto denied the working class the vote. “If they are fit to fight, they are fit to vote” had become the prevailing sentiment.
The 1918 Act marks a decisive victory in the working class struggle.
The woman’s campaign for the vote had become inextricably linked with the parallel campaign for the vote for working class men. This culminated in an alliance in which the Labour Party undertook to support only initiatives to enfranchise both sexes. In truth, there had been a majority of MPs in support of some form of enfranchisement of women for decades before 1918, but concern over the electoral prospects of the dominant Liberal and Conservative Parties prevented earlier success.
The disenfranchisement of working class men was the barrier to women’s enfranchisement. But that barrier was removed by the upwelling of democratic sentiment occasioned by the war. Consequently, the 1918 Act enfranchised both sexes.
And in 1928 women received the vote on the same basis as men, at age 21, thus bringing to an end the only period in history – just ten years long – in which all adult men had the vote and men were also the majority of voters.
You may enjoy this short film (which features a Backbencher writer):
Further historical facts available here.