Development of Suffrage in the UK


The franchise refers to those people who can vote in elections

Suffrage refers to the right to vote

Widening the Franchise

Development of Suffrage in the UK, figure 1

1832 Great Reform Act: addressed the issue of ‘rotten boroughs’; constituencies where very few voters (sometimes single figures) returned MPs. The Act disenfranchised 56 boroughs in England and Wales and reduced another 31 to only one MP. It also created 67 new constituencies, broadened the property qualification (so including smaller landowners) and gave the vote to householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more. This was in response to growing demands for greater representation, following the ideas of the French Revolution. However, following this Act, the majority of working men still could not vote.

1867 Representation of the People Act (Second Reform Act): this gave the vote to working-class men for the first time, in response to the Chartists’ campaigning

1918 Representation of the People Act: following pressure from the Suffragettes, and the success of working women during World War One, the right to vote was granted to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification, and all men over the age of 21.

1928 Representation of the People Act (Equal Franchise Act): this granted, for the first time, equal voting rights to women and men. As a result, both men and women could vote at the age of 21.

1969 Representation of the People Act: this extended the franchise to men and women over the age of 18.

Who has the right to vote in the UK?

Currently, all males and females who are citizens of Britain, Ireland and some Commonwealth countries, are over the age of 18, are resident in the UK (or a British citizen living abroad who has been registered to vote in the UK in the last 15 years) can vote in general elections in the UK. The exceptions to this are prisoners and mental health patients who have committed a criminal offence.

Why was extending the franchise important?

Extending the right to vote was important because it increases representation amongst the people. Prior to this, elected politicians were chosen by a very small group of landed gentry, and as a result, these politicians only considered the interests of this very small group. Being elected by everyone over the age of 18 means that representatives have to take the concerns of (nearly) all adults into account, regardless of gender, class background, ethnicity and so on. It also has educational benefits as people may be encouraged to take an interest in politics if they know they can choose their MP, for example. It enhances the UK’s democratic character and helps to make politicians accountable for their actions. The idea of ‘no taxation without representation’ was also relevant- if people are made to give away some of their income to the government, it was only fair that they had a say in how this money was spent.

“No taxation without representation.”

Female Suffrage

Female suffrage was achieved in 1918, and on an equal basis to men in 1928, following years of campaigning by figures such as Emmeline Pankhurst to gain the right to vote. It was thought that women did not need the right to vote as they were naturally uninterested in politics (politics being a ‘public’ activity and women being largely confined to the domestic sphere), and their husbands would vote in their best interests anyway (the wife being seen as the ‘property’ of the husband). Women’s rights campaigners recognised that this was an injustice and put forward arguments in favour of female suffrage on the basis of equal rights. Early campaigners relied on peaceful protest, for examples marches and demonstrations, and were known as the suffragists. When it became clear that their methods were not attracting the necessary attention, campaigners turned to more extreme, sometimes violent methods, the most famous being Emily Davison throwing herself in front of the King’s horse at the 1916 Derby and subsequently dying of her injuries. The campaigners became known as the suffragettes, and risked imprisonment, where they would go on hunger strike and were force-fed. Public support for women’s suffrage started to grow, and, following the work done by women in the First World War (where they proved just as capable of doing ‘men’s jobs’) women over 30 were granted the right to vote in 1918. Once this was achieved, efforts turned to increasing the representation of women in politics, efforts which continue to this day (for example, the 2015 election returned 191 women MPs, or 29% of the total).