Extension of the franchise

Between the 1867 Reform Act and the 1928 Representation of the People Act, democratic reform grew at a faster pace than at any other time.

The electoral system had remained the same since it was put in place by the 1832 Reform Act.

But it came under increasing pressure throughout the 1840s and 50s from the reformist movements. By the mid-1860s, Parliament was in the process of extending the vote to the working class.

Second Reform Act, 1867

In 1866, all voters had to be male adults over 21 years of age. The right to vote was still based upon a property qualification.

By the early 1860s around 1.43 million could vote out of a total population of 30 million.

In 1867, the Conservative government introduced the Parliamentary Reform Act. This increased the electorate to almost 2.5 million.

The most important change was the granting of the vote to occupiers in the boroughs (people who rented properties rather than owning them) and, as a result, the electorate in some of the newer towns in England and Scotland increased dramatically.

However, the Act did not alter the balance of political power in Britain. The middle classes still dominated the electorate in both towns and boroughs.

Third Reform Act, 1884

By the 1880s it was widely recognised that voters in counties deserved the same political rights as those in the boroughs. This led to the 1884 Parliamentary Reform Act:

  • the Act created a uniform franchise for both county and borough
  • it applied to the United Kingdom as a whole
  • it enfranchised a significant number of voters
  • approximately two in three men now had the vote - almost 18 per cent of the total population
  • however, plural voting was permitted (whereby a man could have more than one vote in certain circumstances)

Representation of the People Act, 1918

In June 1917 the House of Commons passed the Representation of the People Act. The following year the Act was approved by the House of Lords and became law.

By 1918 there was a general feeling that the horrors of World War One had to be for something positive. Many men returning from war would not be able to vote under the 1884 laws.

The Representation of the People Act gave the vote to all men over 21, whether they owned property or not.

The act gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification, or whose husband did. This represented 8.5 million women - two thirds of the total population of women in the UK.

Representation of the People Act, 1928

In 1928 women were finally given the franchise on the same terms as men. All adults over 21 could vote.