Votes for women (and men): the Representation of the People Act 1918

Published in 20th Century Social Perspectives, 20th-century / Contemporary History, Features, Issue 3 (May/June 2018), Volume 26

While recent attention has naturally focused on the significance of the Act for the extension of the franchise to women, this was only one of its provisions.

By Brian Walker

The Representation of the People Act brought in a number of changes to electoral laws that had an important effect on the 1918 general election. There are some outstanding questions about these electoral reforms. Why did the changes happen in 1918 when they had been stoutly resisted in 1914? Why was the age of 30 chosen for the enfranchisement of women? Who was the former Irish party leader who initiated the process that led to the new laws? As we will see, the war was a vital factor in these matters, but its consequences for electoral reform were more nuanced than is commonly assumed.

Before 1914 there had been considerable concern at Westminster about the electoral laws. Female suffrage, proportional representation and the over-representation of Ireland in the UK parliament were some of the issues of debate. With the outbreak of the war, such matters were pushed to the background.

By 1916, however, parliament faced two serious problems: first, it had been five years since the last general election and another was due, a problem solved by legislation extending the life of the parliament; second, if a general election should occur in the near future, the register of electors was hopelessly inadequate and out of date. Owing to the war there had been great displacement of the population, in particular the deployment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the war front. Franchise registration law included a residency requirement, which meant that large numbers were technically disqualified. The problem proved impossible to solve because of party squabbling.

Above: The Last General Absolution of the Munsters at Rue du Bois, by Fortunino Matania. Owing to residency requirements, the hundreds of thousands deployed to the war front were effectively disenfranchised. (NMI)

Walter Long’s proposal

Above: Walter Long MP, president of the Local Government Board—in August 1916 he proposed the convening of a representative Speaker’s conference on electoral reform. (Alamy)

In the House of Commons on 16 August 1916, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith discussed the need for parliament to deal with this dire situation. In response, Walter Long, president of the Local Government Board, proposed the establishment of a representative conference that ‘would produce an agreed system of electoral reform upon which the great mass of opinion of the people of this country could come together’. This proposal, which included not only registration but also electoral reform, gained considerable favour. Asquith, apparently at Long’s suggestion, then invited James Lowther, Speaker of the Commons, to convene and chair such a conference. The idea of a Speaker’s conference with its neutral chairman was, as historian Jenifer Hart has pointed out, ‘entirely novel’ and provided a good opportunity to tackle these controversial issues in a constructive cross-party way.

Walter Long was born in England to an Irish mother. He was elected as a Conservative MP for several English constituencies, before becoming Irish chief secretary in 1905. The next year he lost his Bristol seat but was returned as a Unionist MP for Dublin County South. He served as leader of the Irish Unionists at Westminster (1906–10) and chairman of the Ulster Unionist Council (1907–10). He gave up his Dublin seat in 1910 and then won an English seat.

Lowther invited to the conference 32 members of the two houses of parliament, their selection, he wrote, ‘as nearly as possible proportionate to the strength of pre-war parties in the House of Commons’. On the question of women’s suffrage he sought an equal division of opinion, although ‘obvious difficulties presented themselves in discovering the views of gentlemen upon that important topic’.

The Irish Unionist members included Capt. James Craig, MP for East Down. Among the Irish Parliamentary Party members, probably the best known was journalist Thomas Power O’Connor, MP for a Liverpool seat from 1885 to 1929. The conference met regularly in private session from October 1916 until mid-January 1917. There are no formal records of the discussions, but memoirs and later comments of some of those involved give an insight into what happened.

Above: T.P. O’Connor—probably the best known of the Irish Parliamentary Party MPs to participate in the Speaker’s conference.

Female suffrage

Speaker Lowther sought agreement on all the main issues before turning to the question of female suffrage in early January. In his memoirs he recalled: ‘I endeavoured to push off the burning question of women’s suffrage as long as I could’. Before the war Lowther had been opposed to the enfranchisement of women, but by 1916 he had changed his mind on the matter. He took advantage of the resignation in December of three members opposed to women’s suffrage to replace them with three who were in favour.

On 10 and 11 January 1917 the matter was discussed and voted on. The first motion to place women on an equal footing with men in the franchise was defeated by twelve votes to ten. A second motion to open the vote to women who were householders or wives of householders was carried by nine votes to eight. Another vote then confirmed this measure for women, provided that they had attained a specified age, ‘of which 30 and 35 received most favour’. Why did they insist on such restrictions for women voters? The reason was the widely held fear among MPs that, without these steps being taken, there would be more female than male voters on the electoral register, something that was now certain because of the death of so many men during the war.

Recommendations

On 27 January 1917 a final report from the conference was issued in the form of an eight-page statement from Lowther addressed to the new prime minister, David Lloyd George. He acknowledged the role of Walter Long in suggesting the conference and then outlined their recommended changes.

The main recommendations were reform of the system of registration of electors to include all serving soldiers, universal adult male suffrage, suffrage for female householders or wives of householders aged over 30 or 35, proportional representation in some constituencies, new university seats, all polls to be held on one day and redistribution of seats to create constituencies of equal size.

From the end of January 1917 there was great discussion in parliament and among the public about these proposals. On 29 March 1917 a deputation of over 80 women representing 33 suffrage societies and women’s organisations, including the Irishwomen’s Suffrage Federation, visited 10 Downing Street to encourage Lloyd George to back the proposals for female suffrage. A Representation of the People Bill incorporating the recommendations was drawn up and debated at Westminster. A Redistribution of Seats Bill was also introduced.

Walter Long continued to be involved in electoral reform. On 2 February 1917 he issued to the cabinet a memorandum which began by stating his responsibility for the Speaker’s conference and then proceeded to urge that the government introduce the report’s recommendations as a bill, emphasising the need for a new electoral register. He also chaired meetings of the drafting committee responsible for the Representation of the People Bill. William Bull MP was parliamentary private secretary to Long. In parliament in 1924 he recalled the intervention of Long (by then Lord Long) on the question of female suffrage at a meeting of this committee under his chairmanship: ‘When we came to the question of the age, Lord Long said “This is rubbish” and he struck out 35, and put in 30. The committee agreed to that.’

Proposals to introduce proportional representation in some urban areas were supported by the House of Lords but rejected by the House of Commons. In the end the idea was postponed for future discussion. An essential feature of these electoral reforms was a redistribution of seats. Lowther’s conference report recommended that the standard unit of population for a constituency should be 70,000, and a commission was established to draw up the new boundaries.

Irish over-representation

The report noted, however, that these proposals related to Great Britain and not to Ireland. Ireland was greatly over-represented in the House of Commons. The number of MPs for Ireland had been fixed at 101 at the Act of Union, and later increased to 105 in 1832 and reduced to 103 in 1885. Since 1800 there had been a decline in the population of Ireland and a growth in the population of Great Britain. In 1917 one calculation was that, under a fair system, Ireland should only have had some 60 MPs. Within Ireland there were inequalities in size and distribution of constituencies, partly owing to population growth in the north-east. The Belfast population had increased from 208,122 in 1881 to 386,947 twenty years later. In 1911 East Belfast with 135,788 people returned one MP, while Newry with 12,841, Galway with 15,944 and Kilkenny with 13,269 also returned one MP each. To deal with Irish redistribution the government instructed the boundary commissioners to draw up new boundaries for Ireland to provide equitable representation with regard to population.

In December 1917 Speaker Lowther called a new conference consisting of two nationalist and two unionist MPs, chosen by their party leaders, to confer on these proposals. The new constituencies were accepted. They agreed on an extra MP each for Queen’s University, Belfast, and the National University of Ireland, but disagreed on proportional representation. The outcome was that the smaller cities or towns lost their MPs, while some smaller counties lost one MP. The number of Belfast seats increased from four to nine, while Dublin seats went from four to seven.

As regards the over-representation of Ireland at Westminster, no change occurred. The feeling seems to have been that the current number of MPs was part of an original contract. It was understood that the Irish quota of seats would be changed when the Home Rule question was finally settled. Thanks to the two new university seats the number actually increased from 103 to 105.

The Representation of the People Bill was subject to considerable parliamentary debate and amendments, but the main recommendations of the conference report were accepted. For men at least the principle was accepted that ‘suffrage is a personal right inherent in the individual, rather than a property right’, as for a householder. One change was a reduction of the voting age for those who served in the war from 21 to nineteen. On 19 June 1917 the clause on women’s franchise was passed in the Commons by 385 votes to 55. On 6 February 1918 the bill received royal assent.

Consequences for Ireland

Above: An illustration by Fortunino Matania of a woman casting her vote in the December 1918 general election. Only women over 30 who were householders or wives of householders could vote. (LIFE)

These reforms had important consequences for Ireland. In 1915 the Irish electorate numbered 697,337, while in 1918 it numbered 1,936,673. In 1911 electors in Ireland were 15.7% of the population, but in 1918 they were 44.1%. It has been reckoned that some 70% of Irish electors who voted in December 1918 did so for the first time. The gender, class and age profile of the electorate changed with the admission to the franchise of female voters and more young and socially diverse electors.

Polling for the general election took place on 14 December 1918, but counting of the votes began only on 28 December, to allow votes cast by soldiers abroad to be posted back to their home constituencies. When the results came in, they showed a changed political world in Ireland. Sinn Féin had achieved a major victory, winning 73 seats. Northern Unionists, including labour Unionists, had also won a major victory, taking 24 seats compared to seventeen in 1910. Partly owing to the existing first-past-the-post system of voting and the failure to introduce proportional representation, the IPP won only six seats and southern Unionists two.

How do we account for these important changes to the electoral laws, especially the enfranchisement of women? There was, many contemporaries argued, ‘a very real determination in the country to give those men and women who have served their country, whether in trenches, or in the factories or in dockyards, a voice in its development and reconstruction’. In the past, however, efforts to change the franchise had failed, usually owing to party rivalries.

What precipitated the reforms on this occasion was the threatened collapse of the electoral system caused by the war. This necessitated a major revision of the system, which brought various issues to the table, including female suffrage. In the making of the Representation of the People Act 1918, the work of the Speaker’s conference with its unique structure and approach played a vital part. The important role in these matters of the former Unionist MP for Dublin County South and the former leader of Irish Unionists, Walter Long, should be recalled.

 

Brian Walker is Professor Emeritus of Irish Studies, Queen’s University, Belfast.

 

FURTHER READING

Representation of the People Act, 1918, www.parliament.uk.

  • D. Rolf, ‘Origins of Mr Speaker’s conference during the First World War’, History 64 (210) (1979), 36–46.
  • B.M. Walker, ‘Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, 1801–1918’, in T.W. Moody, F.X. Martin and F.J. Byrne (eds), A new history of Ireland, vol. ix. Maps, genealogies, lists: a companion to Irish history, part II (Oxford, 2011), 633–41.
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