Representation of the People Act 1918
The Representation of the People Act 1918 was an Act of Parliament
Act of Parliament
An Act of Parliament is a statute enacted as primary legislation by a national or sub-national parliament. In the Republic of Ireland the term Act of the Oireachtas is used, and in the United States the term Act of Congress is used.In Commonwealth countries, the term is used both in a narrow...

 passed to reform the electoral system
Elections in the United Kingdom
There are five types of elections in the United Kingdom: United Kingdom general elections, elections to devolved parliaments and assemblies, elections to the European Parliament, local elections and mayoral elections. Elections are held on Election Day, which is conventionally a Thursday...

 in the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

. It is sometimes known as the Fourth Reform Act. This act was the first to practically include the majority of men in the political system and began the inclusion of women.


Following the horrors of World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

, millions of returning soldiers would, but for the passing of the Representation of the People Act in February 1918, still not have been entitled to vote. This posed a dilemma for politicians since they could not withhold the vote from the very men who were considered to have fought to preserve the British political system. By 1884 and the passing of the Third Reform Act, although 60% of male householders over the age of 21 had the vote. The issue of a female right to vote first gathered momentum during the early years of the 20th Century based on the work of liberal thinkers such as John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill
John Stuart Mill was a British philosopher, economist and civil servant. An influential contributor to social theory, political theory, and political economy, his conception of liberty justified the freedom of the individual in opposition to unlimited state control. He was a proponent of...

. 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.

The issue was raised by Suffragist Millicent Fawcett
Millicent Fawcett
Dame Millicent Garrett Fawcett, GBE was an English suffragist and an early feminist....

 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, then 30-35 year old women should be enfranchised.

Terms of the act

The Representation of the People Act 1918 widened suffrage
Suffrage, political franchise, or simply the franchise, distinct from mere voting rights, is the civil right to vote gained through the democratic process...

 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 wouldn't occur until the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928
Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928
The Representation of the People Act 1928 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. This act expanded on the Representation of the People Act 1918 which had given some women the vote in Parliamentary elections for the first time after World War I. It widened suffrage by giving women...


The terms of the act were:
  1. All adult males gain the vote, as long as they are over 21 years old and are resident householder
    A householder is a person who is the head of a household; see House.Householder is also a family name:*Alston Scott Householder, American mathematicianMathematical topics named after A.S...

  2. Women over 30 years old receive the vote but they have to be either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register
  3. Some seats redistributed to industrial towns
  4. Elections to be held on a decided day each year

Political changes

The size of the electorate tripled from the 7.7 million who had been entitled to in 1912 to 21.4 million by the end of 1918. Women now accounted for about 43% of the electorate. It is worth noting that had women been enfranchised based upon the same requirements as men, they would have been in the majority, due to 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), and brought in the annual electoral register
Electoral register
The electoral roll is a listing of all those registered to vote in a particular area. The register facilitates the process of voting, helps to prevent fraud and may also be used to select people for jury duty...



The bill for the Representation of the People Act was passed by a majority of 385 to 55 in the House of Commons in March 1918. This success surprised by the Suffragettes and Suffragists but it still had to pass through the House of Lords
House of Lords
The House of Lords is the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Like the House of Commons, it meets in the Palace of Westminster....

, the aristocratic
Aristocracy , is a form of government in which a few elite citizens rule. The term derives from the Greek aristokratia, meaning "rule of the best". In origin in Ancient Greece, it was conceived of as rule by the best qualified citizens, and contrasted with monarchy...

 part of the parliament who had traditionally opposed reform if they were able to. The Lords also had a reputation of being anti-Female Suffrage and it was therefore doubtful they would pass the bill. Lord Curzon, the president of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage
National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage
The National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage was founded in London in December 1910 to oppose the extension of the voting franchise to women in the United Kingdom. It was formed as an amalgamation of the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League and the Men's League for Opposing Woman Suffrage...

 did not want to clash with the commons and so failed to oppose the bill. Many other members of 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
United Kingdom general election, 1918
The United Kingdom general election of 1918 was the first to be held after the Representation of the People Act 1918, which meant it was the first United Kingdom general election in which nearly all adult men and some women could vote. Polling was held on 14 December 1918, although the count did...

. Polling took place on 14 December 1918, but vote-counting did not start until 28 December 1918.

Several women stood for election for a seat in the House of Commons in 1918. However, only one, the Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin
Sinn Féin is a left wing, Irish republican political party in Ireland. The name is Irish for "ourselves" or "we ourselves", although it is frequently mistranslated as "ourselves alone". Originating in the Sinn Féin organisation founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, it took its current form in 1970...

 candidate for the constituency of Dublin St. Patrick's, Constance Markievicz, was elected although she chose not to take her seat at Westminster
Parliament of the United Kingdom
The Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is the supreme legislative body in the United Kingdom, British Crown dependencies and British overseas territories, located in London...

 and instead sat in Dáil Éireann
Dáil Éireann
Dáil Éireann is the lower house, but principal chamber, of the Oireachtas , which also includes the President of Ireland and Seanad Éireann . It is directly elected at least once in every five years under the system of proportional representation by means of the single transferable vote...

 (the First Dáil
First Dáil
The First Dáil was Dáil Éireann as it convened from 1919–1921. In 1919 candidates who had been elected in the Westminster elections of 1918 refused to recognise the Parliament of the United Kingdom and instead assembled as a unicameral, revolutionary parliament called "Dáil Éireann"...

) 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.

There were serious limitations to this act that was meant to change the face of British democracy. The act still did not create a system of one person, one vote. 7% of the population enjoyed a plural vote
Plural voting
Plural voting is the practice whereby one person might be able to vote multiple times in an election. It is not to be confused with a plurality voting system which does not necessarily involve plural voting...

 in the 1918 election: mostly middle-class men who had an extra vote due to a university constituency
University constituency
A university constituency is a constituency, used in elections to a legislature, that represents a university rather than a geographical area. University constituencies may involve plural voting, in which eligible voters are permitted to vote in both a university constituency and a geographical...

 (this act increased the university vote by creating the Combined English Universities
Combined English Universities (UK Parliament constituency)
Combined English Universities was a university constituency represented in the United Kingdom Parliament . It was formed by enfranchising and combining all the English Universities, except for Cambridge, Oxford and London, which were already separately represented.-Boundaries:This University...

 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 and either a local government elector through property qualification, or married to a husband who was so enfranchised, or entitled to vote for a university constituency.

Historical assessment

According to Eric J. Evans
Eric J. Evans
Professor Eric J. Evans is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Lancaster. His first degree was from Oxford University and his PhD was from the University of Warwick...

, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Lancaster and parliamentary historian, "Britain was jerked into democracy by the horrendous discontinuity of the First World War."

See also

  • Reform Act
    Reform Act
    In the United Kingdom, Reform Act is a generic term used for legislation concerning electoral matters. It is most commonly used for laws passed to enfranchise new groups of voters and to redistribute seats in the British House of Commons...

  • Official names of United Kingdom Parliamentary constituencies
    Official names of United Kingdom Parliamentary Constituencies
    The official names of United Kingdom Parliamentary constituencies are those given in the legal instrument creating the constituency or re-defining it at a re-distribution of seats.The purpose of this article is to set out official names, taken from official sources wherever possible, to provide a...

     — for names of constituencies provided for by this Act
  • Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom
    Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom
    Women's suffrage in the United Kingdom as a national movement began in 1872. Women were not prohibited from voting in the United Kingdom until the 1832 Reform Act and the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act...

External links

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