The forgotten victory: votes for working-class men

Centenary celebrations have removed the 1918 Act from its historical context.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Editor-at-large

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Topics Politics UK

It’s 100 years since the Representation of the People Act 1918 gave women in Britain and Ireland the right to vote for the first time – providing they were aged over 30 and a property owner or a graduate from a top university.

There has been much justified celebration this week of that historic enfranchisement of around 8.4million mainly middle-class women. Far less attention has been paid to the other victory for democracy in the 1918 Act – the granting of the vote to virtually all males aged over 21, which enfranchised some 5.6million working-class men for the first time.

That side of the Act does not fit the fashionable script, which depicts the democratic victory of February 1918 as a triumph for modern feminism. To listen to much of the media discussion this week you might imagine the struggle over the franchise was simply part of an ongoing gender war between men and women. The Suffragette movement led by Emmeline Pankhurst has been talked about as if it were a prototype of the #MeToo campaign, with long skirts and hats rather than hashtags, which somehow won the vote for middle-class women by staging publicity stunts.

The extension of the right to vote was indeed a landmark in the fight for women’s equality. Yet to remove the 1918 Act from its proper historical context in this way only serves to distort and diminish the real meaning of these events.

The granting of the vote to some women and all men was not an act of largesse by a government sympathetic to the pleas of respectable feminists. Like every previous step forward on the road to representative democracy, these rights had to be wrung from the cold hands of a long-reluctant ruling class. The conflict which shaped the 1918 Representation of the People Act was less some timeless gender war than the era of world war, class warfare and revolution in which it was finally conceded by the UK’s unrepresentative parliament.

The modern idea of mass democracy only really entered British political discourse less than 250 years ago, having been forced on to the agenda by the popular revolutions in America and France at the end of the 18th century. From the first the aim of the British establishment was to concede just enough democracy to stave off similar revolts, but not so much as to hand real kratos – power – to the demos – the people.

That meant trying to restrict the right to vote to the respectable, property-owning class of males, well away from the revolting lower orders and the equally untrustworthy ‘weaker sex’. As the struggle for greater democracy advanced through the 19th century, parliament was forced to pass three Reform Acts in 1832, 1867 and 1884, each one preceded by mass agitation and riots.

These reforms gradually lowered the property qualifications for men, extending the franchise to many more. Yet even after the third reform act of 1884, only around 60 per cent of men had the vote.

Thus it was that in the First World War, which began in 1914, millions of British men were sent to fight and possibly die in the trenches in defence of a ‘democracy’ which denied them the most basic democratic right. As the war neared its end, it was clear to Britain’s beleaguered ruling elites that such a system was no longer sustainable.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 struck terror into the heart of a British establishment that, even away from the battlefields of Europe, faced threats on several fronts: from a feared revival of the pre-war wave of industrial strikes and Suffragette agitation, to a new war for independence in Ireland and anti-colonial protests around the Empire.

Set in this historical context, the 1918 Act looks like part of a ruling-class strategy to contain the unrest and incorporate wider sections of the population into the parliamentary system, by making the status quo appear more democratic and responsive to their demands.

Introducing the proposed new law to parliament on behalf of the wartime coalition government, Conservative home secretary George Cave even claimed that ‘war by all classes of our countrymen has brought us nearer together’ and put an end to ‘the old class feeling which was responsible for so much’, including ‘the exclusion for a period of so many of our population from the class of electors. I think I need say no more to justify this extension of the franchise.’ No mention of feminism or gender equality there.

The home secretary’s speech was of course part wishful thinking, part wilful deception. ‘The period’ for which ‘so many of our population’ had been denied the right to vote was the entirety of British history. And ‘the old class feeling’ was really as strong as ever within an establishment preparing for a new round of class warfare on the homefront. But faced with a more organised and vocal working-class movement, the elites no longer felt able to maintain that attitude openly in public and political life. They sought instead to contain the masses within the system by extending the vote to all males aged over 21. And while it would have been deemed a step too far to allow ‘emotional, unstable’ working-class women to vote, it was hoped that extending the franchise to property-owning and educated middle-class women could even help to offset the influence of proletarian men and bring onside Mrs Pankhurst’s respectable wing of the Suffragette movement.

Against the background of the historical struggle for democracy, it is possible to see the extension of the franchise to working-class men in 1918 as perhaps even more momentous than the historic granting of the vote to middle-class women. After all, it was the ‘common people’ against whom the elites had sought to immunise their system, by keeping their version of democracy free of the demos. Being forced to give up the vote to working-class men in 1918 effectively risked allowing the enemy inside the gates of the British state.

Indeed, that fear and loathing which the establishment felt towards the masses had long been shared by prominent supporters of female emancipation. Take that great Victorian liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill and his wife Harriet Taylor, champions of female suffrage. Mill conceded that they both had growing doubts about extending democracy because they ‘dreaded the ignorance and especially the selfishness and brutality of the mass’. He later argued for a system whereby everybody, including all women, would have one vote, but the educated classes would have more than one. This middle-class ‘superiority of weight’ in votes would be justified by their ‘superiority of knowledge’ rather than property.

Even as the Suffragettes themselves launched militant protests before the war, enduring terrible punishments, their leaders sought to contrast their campaigns with those of troublemaking proles. When Emmeline Pankhurst was arrested in 1912 for throwing stones at 10 Downing Street, she complained that her actions were a ‘fleabite’ compared to the striking miners then ‘paralysing’ the country. ‘If we had the vote’, she insisted, ‘we would be constitutional’. It was as if the Suffragette leadership had internalised the argument against universal suffrage and accepted that the vote was best suited to property owners of a respectable temperament of either sex. Critics said their slogan should be not ‘Votes for Women’ but ‘Votes for Ladies’.

On the other side were those who saw votes for women, not as an end in itself or a gender issue, but as a crucial part of the wider struggle for democracy and social change. The key question was not the vote itself, but what women would do with it. Sylvia Pankhurst, the radical wing of the Suffragette family, fought for universal suffrage, for workers’ rights and against the First World War, changing the name of her newspaper from Women’s Dreadnought to Workers’ Dreadnought in the era of revolution. When the first UK General Election for eight years was held in 1918, after the passage of the Act, Sylvia wrote an article suggesting that women should not use their new vote to endorse any of the parliamentary parties spouting ‘empty political balderdash’. (She was even taken to task for her refusal to get involved in election campaigns by Lenin, leader of the Russian Revolution; see ‘Left-Wing’ Communism: An Infantile Disorder.)

Meanwhile in Germany, in 1912, the revolutionary leader Rosa Luxemburg spelt out that ‘Women’s suffrage is the goal. But the mass movement to bring it about is not a job for women alone, but is a common class concern for women and men of the proletariat.’ For Luxemburg, it was only proletarian women whom the German ruling classes really wanted to disenfranchise, since bourgeois women could be the most ardent defenders of the capitalist status quo: ‘If it were a matter of bourgeois ladies voting, the capitalist state could expect nothing but effective support for the reaction. Most of those bourgeois women who act like lionesses in the struggle against “male prerogatives” would trot like docile lambs in the camp of conservative and clerical reaction if they had suffrage.’ She concluded that, ‘The current mass struggle for women’s political rights is only an expression and a part of the proletariat’s general struggle for liberation. In this lies its strength and its future.’ It would take another 10 years of struggle before working-class women in Britain finally won the right to vote in 1928, with the establishment of universal adult suffrage.

Amid all the celebrations of the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, we should remind ourselves of some forgotten lessons of 1918. Real democracy is not a gift to be granted by a beneficent state to those deemed respectable enough to deserve it. It is a universal right that has to be fought for and taken by the demos, the people. Without such a continuing struggle, as we have seen since the Second World War, a system of representative democracy can become increasingly unrepresentative, with more power invested in unelected, unaccountable bodies from the European Commission to the High Court.

Now, in response to the historic outburst of popular democracy that is the Brexit revolt, we are witnessing the resurgence of all ‘the old class feelings’ of disdain and disgust towards the revolting masses. And as Brendan O’Neill argues elsewhere on spiked, many of those middle-class feminists of all genders who are celebrating the centenary of the 1918 Act are on the wrong side in the living struggle for popular democracy today – the battle for Brexit. The ‘strength and future’ of the fight for individual political rights remains a part of the masses’ ‘general struggle for liberation’ from rule by the demosphobic elites.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book, Revolting! How the Establishment is Undermining Democracy – and What They’re Afraid of, is published by William Collins. Buy it here.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Topics Politics UK