“I’m not going to vote, they’re all as bad as each other. My vote won’t make any difference. Nothing changes. I’m not going to waste my time“.
It’s not my view, but it’s something I frequently hear.
We take for granted the right to vote for those aged 18 and over. But this right was only achieved after a hard-fought struggle over many years. Through my family history research I’ve learned about the efforts and sacrifices made in the 19th and 20th century to achieve universal suffrage.
Voting was not the right of all, but a privilege for the wealthiest class of society. The belief was only those who paid taxes and held property should participate in politics. Ordinary people, like the poor and the working classes, had no Parliamentary voice.
Pressure for change built at the end of the 18th century, with ideas of democracy emanating from the French Revolution. In the 19th century industrialisation, urbanisation and rapid population increase provided impetus to the demands for wider voting rights. These factors, combined with press expansion and improved transport, led to the spread of political ideas and pressure for reform.
The 1832 Great Reform Act was the first landmark in the changes. This broadened the property qualifications in counties, extending the vote to small landholders, tenant farmers and shopkeepers. In boroughs, the vote was given to all male householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more. However it still meant that the franchise was limited to less than 8 per cent of the adult population aged 21 and over (the age of majority for voting in this period). It was the right of only (some) men. Power was still the province of the male aristocracy, landed gentry and property-owning classes.
The disappointment that voting remained limited led to the rise of the working-class driven Chartist Movement of the 1830s and 1840s. The London Working Men’s Association 1838 People’s Charter contained six demands, which may seem very familiar today, but at the time were extremely radical. These were:
- All men to have the vote;
- Voting by secret ballot;
- Annual general elections, not once every five years;
- Constituencies of equal size;
- Paid Members of Parliament; and
- Abolition of the property qualification for becoming a Member of Parliament
The legacy of the Chartist Movement, combined with the pressure of the Reform League, led to the Second Reform Act of 1867. This applied to England and Wales. A separate Act applied to Scotland and Ireland.
The 1867 Act granted the vote to all borough householders and lodgers who paid rent of £10 a year or more. County voting property thresholds for men were also reduced, meaning agricultural landowners and tenants with small amounts of land were enfranchised. However those in receipt of poor relief were excluded from voting, as were women. In fact the proportion of the adult population who could vote as a result of these changes was still only around 16 per cent.
In 1872 the secret ballot was introduced to try to eliminate bribery and intimidation.
By the 1880s, with increasing urbanisation, recognisation took hold that county and borough voters deserved equal voting rights. This led to the 1884 Parliamentary Reform Act. Creating a uniform franchise, the Act applied to the United Kingdom as a whole. However, at a time when general elections still took place over many days, plural voting was permitted. So a man could vote in more than one place if he met qualifications in more than one seat. Under these changes almost 29 per cent of the adult population were eligible to vote.
Women though remained excluded. This sense of injustice led them to form groups to campaign for a change. From the mid-19th century onwards groups of women joined together at a local and regional level to campaign for the vote. Known as suffragists, their aim was to achieve this through peaceful means, lobbying Parliament and getting the issue debated there. A national suffragist movement, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), was established in 1897 under the auspices of Millicent Garrett Fawcett.
Some though felt that peaceful campaigning was not achieving results. This led in 1903 to the foundation by Emmeline Pankhurst of the militant, and possibly better known organisation, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). Their “Deeds not Words” motto was backed up by publicity-grabbing direct and violent acts ranging from civil disobedience to attacks on property and acts of domestic terrorism. Subsequent imprisonment and hunger-strikes led to the controversial policy of force-feeding – the authorities didn’t want a dead suffragette, the term given to these more militant campaigners.
Some did die, most famously Emily Wilding Davison. She was knocked down by King George V’s horse “Anmer” at the Epsom Derby on 4 June 1913. It is debatable whether her aim was to pin a suffragette banner to the horse, or if it was a deliberate attempt to throw herself under the animal. Whatever her purpose, her injuries proved fatal and she died on 8 June 1913. Ironically the anniversary of her death coincides with the 2017 General Election.
A third national women’s group existed. Born from a split in the WSPU, the Women’s Freedom League was founded in 1907 by Teresa Billington-Greig and Charlotte Despard. They too advocated direct, but non-violent action, such as passive resistance to taxation and non-cooperation with the census, rather than attacks on people and property.
The 1911 census provides an interesting snapshot of non-cooperation. Many listed their occupations as variations of suffragist or suffragette. Miss Goldstone of Chelsea left the Registrar to annotate the form with “particulars unobtainable” “refused” “Suffragette Stayed out all night“. A.M. Binnie of West Wittering wrote “no vote no census. Till women have the rights and privileges of citizenship, I for one decline to fulfil the duties“. Again the Registrar was left to complete the form on the “best information available after careful inquiries“. Needless to say the form contained any blanks and not knowns.
Famously Emily Wilding Davison (of the Derby death fate) hid in a broom cupboard in the chapel of St Mary Undercroft, at Westminster Hall, on census night. She was discovered. The household schedule of the census records she was “Found Hiding in Crypt of Westminster Hall Westminster“. Her surname is incorrectly spelled as “Davidson“. In around 1991 Tony Benn MP erected a plaque in the broom cupboard commemorating this stand for women’s democratic rights.
The Great War halted the protests, with women’s suffrage organisations suspending activities in order to support the war effort.
The next major electoral reform came in 1918, with the Representation of the People Act which came into force in time for the December 1918 general election. One of the drivers for this electoral reform included the fact only men who had been resident in the country for 12 months prior to a general election were entitled to vote. This residential qualification, combined with the property ones, meant many serving King and Country overseas were effectively disenfranchised. The Act abolished these restrictions and extended the vote to all men over the age of 21. Additionally, men who had served in the war could vote from the age of 19. However Conscientious Objectors were disenfranchised for five years. The Act also gave the vote to women over the age of 30 who met a property qualification, wives who were over 30 of all husbands who were entitled to vote in local government elections and also to those who were university graduates. The 1918 general election was the first which took place on one day.
It was not until 1928 with the passing of the Representation of the People (Equal Representation) Act that universal suffrage at the age of 21 was granted, equalising the voting age of men and women. 18 year olds had to wait until 1969 before they got the vote.
The road to the universal vote has been a long one. So many people over the years have been excluded, including almost all my 19th century ancestors. So many have campaigned to gain it.
My vote on 8 June 2017 will not be lost. Even if I did not support any candidate I would vote, even if it was a protest spoiling of my ballot paper. On the 104th anniversary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison I couldn’t in all conscience not vote.
Your vote does count, even if it is a spoilt vote showing you don’t agree with the political system. Not voting implies you accept whatever happens.
But, yes, it’s a choice. Though I do feel those who choose not to vote cannot then complain at the outcome. And as we have seen in various votes of late, your “X” can make a difference.