Friday, April 18, 2008

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The Representation of the People Act 1918 was an Act of Parliament passed to reform the electoral system in the United Kingdom. It is sometimes known as the Fourth Reform Act.
Following the horrors of World War I, millions of returning soldiers were still not 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.
The Representation of the People Act 1918 widened suffrage 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 Act 1928.
These changes saw the size of the electorate triple from 7.7 million to 21.4 million. 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.
The first election held under the new system was the 1918 general election.
According to Eric J. Evans, a renowned parliamentary historian, "Britain was jerked into democracy by the horrendous discontinuity of the First World War."
However 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 in the 1918 election: mostly middle-class men who had an extra vote due to a university constituency (this act increased the university vote by creating the Combined English Universities 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
Representation of the People Act 1918 a ) a local government elector through property qualification or
b ) married to a husband who was so enfranchised, or
c ) entitled to vote for a university constituency.

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