In our latest Blog post, Dr Nick Mansfield looks at the profound and far reaching aspects of the Representation of the People Act, 1918, outside that of women’s right to vote.
This blog explores often overlooked aspects and consequences of the Representation of the People Act, of 1918. The centenary of this important legislation is rightly being celebrated for its effect on womens’ suffrage. However, in laying the foundations of British democracy in the twentieth century, the act had a profound influence on voting, elections and political parties. Male working-class householders had been included in the franchise from 1884, but younger men, especially those living at home, rarely qualified. Even if they were paying rent as lodgers, most young single men, unless interested in politics, rarely bothered to register. These same young men were those most likely to volunteer for the forces between 1914 and 1916. Many, perhaps most, of those who fought did not have the vote. This point was capitalised on later by the anti-war movement after the introduction of conscription in 1916. In addition, as no women had the vote, females who served in the forces or staffed the munitions factories were likewise excluded from the electoral process.
Construction of the Act
Before 1914 pressures already existed for a new parliamentary reform act, with a move towards the universal male suffrage becoming the norm in Europe. Wartime saw mass mobilisation of British citizens – both men and women – and (from 1916), the conscription of men who had no vote. This resulted in most politicians agreeing that the existing franchise should be widened. Critics pointed out that Britain even lagged behind autocratic belligerents like Austria, Germany, and Russia. A Speakers’ Conference in 1916 proposed changes, with Liberals inclined towards a proportional alternative vote system, and Conservatives pressing for additional business votes as a counterweight to mass democracy. The Conference’s recommendations were drafted into a bill by lawyer Sir Hugh Fraser and were accompanied by a redesign of constituencies from a Boundary Commission.
Representation of the People Act, 1918, passed February 1918
This gave voting rights in parliamentary elections to men over 21 and women over 30 if they (or their husbands) qualified as voters in local elections (for which a property qualification as a householder still existed). Ex-servicemen could vote at 19 (the age at which they could be posted overseas) and those on poor relief were now enfranchised. Conscientious objectors were stigmatised by being formally denied the right to vote for five years between 1921 and 1926.
Parliamentary seats were redistributed on the basis of population, creating a preponderance of urban seats but with vast new rural consistencies. University graduates received a second vote for special university constituencies. Extra votes also went to those who owned property in constituencies where they did not live and the City of London retained two MPs appointed by members of the livery companies. Overall, the number of people entitled to vote tripled overnight, from 7.7m to 21.4m, with women accounting for 43% of voters. The registration of voters was simplified and all votes were now to be cast on a single day.
How were the armed forces affected by the Act?
The wartime coalition government seems not to have consulted servicemen in its deliberations on widening the franchise. The extent to which members of the wartime armed forces – officers and men, franchised and unfranchised – were aware of the proposed reform is largely unknown. Traditionally the pre-war regular army had discouraged participation in politics amongst the rank and file. Only 10,250 serving rank and file soldiers (mainly NCOs) were registered as voters in 1913, when the army mustered nearly 250,000. There was no restriction on serving officers participating and as late as 1898 there were still 38 officer MPs.
There seems to have been no citizenship education for troops similar to the widespread discussion of the Beveridge Report and reconstruction during the Second World War. Though returning officers in the UK were supposed to include servicemen in Absent Voters lists, its organisation was patchy. There is no evidence of systematic registration of soldiers and encouragement of participation when the election came.
Even after the Armistice and cessation of hostilities in November 1918, as the citizen army awaited demobilisation, the military authorities appeared to view democracy as incompatible with military discipline. Alf Stubbs, a farmworkers’ union organiser was adopted as the parliamentary candidate for the newly formed Labour Party in Cambridgeshire.
Already known as a campaigner for servicemens’ rights, Stubbs was contacted by several soldiers waiting for demobilisation who complained that they had been deliberately omitted from voters’ lists or been intimidated: ‘The present government is worse than Jerry’ and ‘we are following the elections very closely here and can observe the ‘twisting’ going on … Please do not divulge my name as it would be a shooting case for me.’ Ex-servicemen became Stubbs’ firm supporters: ‘You ought to secure the solid backing and support of the Discharged Sailors and Soldiers, for have you not proved – not by words but by deeds – on the Cambridgeshire Pension Committee, how you can champion their cause’. This support for Stubbs eventually resulted in his being elected the first Labour MP for Cambridgeshire, but not until the 1945 General Election. There is clearly a need for further research, to establish whether, as widely supposed, soldiers and sailors simply failed to vote, and if so, how did this figured with the ‘homes fit for heroes to live in’ rhetoric of the coalition politicians.
The majority of supporters of the pre-war womens’ suffrage campaign wholeheartedly threw their weight behind the war effort. In particular, leaders Christabel and Emily Pankhurst militantly advocated for the right of women to work with equal pay and full citizenship, in support of the conflict. These issues had particular resonance amongst working class women in northern England, where thousands of women had been employed in cotton and textiles prior to 1914 and were in the process of developing their own trade union organisations. Alison Ronan’s recent work highlights how these skills were transferred to new munitions industries and emphasises the role of the Women’s War Interest Committee in Manchester and Salford. Though disappointed by the relatively modest female franchise, Christabel and Emily Pankhurst supported the Conservative part of the coalition during the 1918 election and thereby helped to secure the right of women to stand for Parliament.
It is possible that some servicewomen under the age of 30 may fortuitously have been enfranchised for the 1918 election. In the Imperial War Museum collection, the Admiralty Weekly Orders contain pamphlets on voting and registration forms for distribution to members of a Women’s Royal Naval Service establishment on the North Sea coast. It is not known whether any such women under 30 filled them in or voted in 1918. Samantha Phil-Gill, in her The Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in France, 1917-1921, (Pen and Sword, 2017), estimates that only about 3,700 WAACs voted in the 1918 Election and that all were over 30.
The Patriotic Left
The majority of Labour Party and trade union members had actively supported the war effort as recounted in David Swift’s For Class and Country – The Patriotic Left and the First World War (LUP, 2017).
There was a widespread feeling in the labour movement that their wartime comradeship and ‘blood sacrifice’ must not be in vain and should result in a better post war world. This view was widely shared throughout British society. Arthur Henderson and other Labour MPs had served in the wartime coalition government, with the party leader Ramsay MacDonald and anti-war Labour supporters temporarily marginalised. However, during the summer of 1918 the Labour Party reunited and adopted a new constitution, which created constituency Labour Parties and through Clause IV commited Labour to a socialist programme, advocating common ownership of the means of production.
From 1917 onwards, radical ex-service organisations developed and started campaigning for better conditions for wounded soldiers and improved post service pensions. Some were linked to trade unions and the Labour Party. To counter these organisations, the Comrades of Great War was created by the Conservative Party and enjoyed government support. The Russian Revolution of 1917, caused great fear amongst allied governments, especially after the Bolshevik takeover in October 1917. Though a very small minority of soldiers were involved in some left-wing activities alongside British workers, there was never any real threat of a similar revolution in the UK. The various soldiers’ riots, strikes and demonstrations, documented from the last year of the war, were mainly prompted by delays in demobilisation from soldiers desperate to get home rather the dreams of revolutionaries.
Nonetheless, the government were sufficiently worried to raise disability pensions and provide the profits from wartime Western Front canteens to pay for the formation of a united British Legion in 1921. This brought together the radical ex-servicemen with the Comrades of the Great War. The ex-service organisations were active during the 1918 General Election with the largest group, the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors, unsuccessfully putting up its own candidates. The fear of revolution also contributed to the growth of the ultra-patriotic and mainly working class National Democratic and Labour Party. The NDLP ran 26 candidates in 1918, of which 10 were elected, though they rapidly became part of Lloyd George’s coalition.
Results of the 1918 General Election
Taking advantage of the Armistice, Prime Minister David Lloyd George called a General Election for 14th December 1918. This first test of this new system became known as the ‘Khaki’ or ‘Coupon’ election. (Lloyd George gave ‘coupons’ of his official support to candidates prepared to back the continuation of his wartime coalition.)
The contest was a travesty of democracy. It resulted in only a 57% turnout of voters, the lowest of any general election of the twentieth century. The previous election in 1910 had an 81.6% turnout and in the following general election in 1922, 73% of electors voted. The Lloyd George coalition won convincingly with 127 Liberals MPs and 332 ‘couponed’ Conservatives. There were 50 other Conservatives returned but only 36 Liberals supported the ex- Liberal leader, Asquith. Lloyd George’s coalition was thus heavily dependent on the Conservatives. Labour’s result was somewhat disappointing for them, with only 57 seats, but it grew thereafter and was able to form its first government in 1924, with a corresponding growth in local government strength. The 1918 General Election also returned 73 Sinn Fein MPs who gained 82% of the vote in Ireland, accelerating moves towards civil war and independence. The Sinn Fein presence extended to several ‘Irish’ seats in North West England, with parts of Liverpool being strongholds of Irish nationalism.
The Lloyd George coalition only lasted until in 1922, when the Tories decided they could govern alone. The Labour Party formed governments in 1924 and 1929, with their latter victory aided by the enfranchisement of women over 21. But the huge economic depression following the Wall Street Crash swept Labour away and led to a Conservative political hegemony for the rest of the inter-war period and the dispersal of political extremism of both left and right.
The punitive legislation against wartime conscientious objectors seems not to have been enforced after the war. Aled Eurig’s recent Cardiff PhD on the Anti-War movement in Wales (shortly to be published by the University of Wales Press), identified several South Wales Labour MPs who had formerly been active in war resistance, including being COs themselves. This is also confirmed by many of the interesting findings made by the Lancaster based Documenting Dissent community history project, (www.documentingdissent.org.uk), with former COs being active in the vast League of Nations Associations.
Commemorating in 2018
Many of these themes will be pursued in a forthcoming exhibition at the People’s History Museum, in Manchester. Represent! Voices 100 Years On runs from 2 June 2018 to 3 February 2019 and includes a programme of activities and events. http://www.phm.org.uk/
Reappraising the Representation of the People Act, 1918, an associated day conference, is being held on Friday 14th September, 2018, at Livesey Building, Room 013, UCLan, Preston, PR1 2HE, 10.00-5.00. Speakers who are currently involved in the debate will present to an audience comprising both academics and the interested public. The confirmed speakers, including both early career researchers and established scholars are, Julie Gottlieb (Sheffield), Karen Hunt (Keele), Michael Reeve (Hull), Jack Southern (UCLan), David Swift (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) and Dan Weinbren (Open). For any queries or further information, please view the poster via the link below or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Nick Mansfield is Co-Investigator of Every Day Lives in War, an Arts and Humanities Research Council Funded First World War Engagement Centre and Senior Research Fellow in History at UCLan, Preston.