On the 100th anniversary of female (limited) suffrage Mary Southcott surveys the advances and limits of democracy in Britain
Two words we should love and cherish, though they are rather clunky, are enfranchisement and subsidiarity. The former as in Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’: “emancipate yourself” – so admit to citizenship, especially to the right of voting, to set free, liberate. See Martin Luther King, killed in 1968. Subsidiarity, inherited from the Roman Catholic church, is linked with sphere sovereignty, as in devolution where decisions are made at the most appropriate place nearest to the people and issues they affect. Some of us have never really worked out what pooled sovereignty is and live in a binary, zero sum world which negates cooperation and consensus seeking.
We need to add citizenship education, a crucial ingredient so people know how to access and influence decisions made in their name. All these are at the heart of our democracy. This year, 2018, the anniversary of the crucial decision to allow women, over 30 at least, to vote, we have a reason to look back, to celebrate these stepping stones in democracy through the Great Reform Act, the Chartists and Suffragettes to the current debate where some legislation seems designed to disenfranchise. We need also to project forward to the sort of society we wish to live in which reflects our values and vision of equality and ending poverty.
We have key moments we draw on to take us forward, starting in ancient Athens, remembering that it was only men that met at the agora to make decisions with their stone, psephos, the root of our word psephology. People who decided not to join in were individuals, idiotes, which became our word, idiots. Letting others decide our lives without our having a say is just idiotic.
Thirty years ago Charter 88 picked up on the Glorious Revolution in 1688, and the Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia. Unlock Democracy continues their work. The signing by King John at Runnymede was 800 before publication, by Graham Allen and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, of A New Magna Carta?
It was the Great Reform Act, The Representation of the People Act 1832, that inspired the Chartists in 1838. Their People’s Charter demands have, except annual parliaments, all been conceded. They did not even think of reversing the way the Reform Act had disenfranchised women. Before this women, without male relatives, could vote because property rather than gender defined the franchise. Voters were by definition men and the Chartists for all their positive contribution did not challenge this.
Ironically this led to the Suffragettes and Suffragists who with their supporters achieved one century ago votes for women, at least those aged 30. Looking back 100 years seems a short time in history, it is a very long time in politics. Things have not just changed, they have changed utterly. But the persistence of the 19th century voting system we use to elect MPs, the first past the post, and the centralised governance, in England at least, stands out. The emancipation of working class men moved the Labour Party into second place replacing the Liberals and also changed their attitude to electoral reform until the 1970s.
The 14 December 1918 general election was not just the first where women voted, but all men over 21 were enfranchised. It is salutary to think that this was before Ireland was partitioned given the soft or hard borders discussion in Brexit negotiations. Some things do not change. Sinn Fenn’s Constance Markievicz, did not take up her seat because of the policy still existing of abstention from Westminster. The DUP agreement on confidence and supply means that all voters in Northern Ireland are represented in the government rather than having any party working with the opposition under other voting systems. And first past the post is supported to avoid minority government.
Gender parity at 21 had to wait ten more years, 1928. But now no distinction is made, on gender grounds at least. There was an overlap between people who called for the vote for women and those arguing at that time for proportional representation. The Representation of the People’s Act in 1948 got rid of University seats and plural voting but not before Barbara Castle had been chosen the second Labour candidate in Blackburn.
By 1968, the year that changed everything, another key anniversary, it was realised that setting the voting age at 21 meant that some people did not have their first vote until they were 25 or 26. Votes at 18 was incorporated into the Representative of the People Act the following year. Now we are arguing for votes at 16, not because the age is magical but because usually 16 year olds are at home and at school, where ideally they can get registered, discuss politics and learn citizenship rights. The Scottish Independence Referendum showed that 16 year olds are great voters but many attainers, those approaching 18, do not even get on the register, thanks to individual registration. Should we be asking for automatic registration? There are countries which give their citizens one number which gives them access to health care, national insurance, income tax and voting. We need to look out for disenfranchisement, boundaries, registration and pilots on identification when voting.
There is equality of franchise for Irish and Commonwealth citizens who live in the UK. EU member countries outside the UK, Ireland, Malta and Cyprus could lose their right to vote in local elections, for elected mayors, in European parliamentary elections which come to an end with Brexit. Their vote might have affected the result in the 2016 EU referendum. The result produces the sort of crisis that might let us look at our unwritten constitution. Labour is offering a constitutional convention. The class of 2015 and 2017 MPs are more and more in favour of reforming our voting system. Constituencies which have always assumed to be safe, where most of the MPs supporting first past the post are, are waking up to the idea that they can be taken for granted. It is the reason housing has taken so long to appear on the agenda. We are witnessing the Bootle effect where people are engaging in the conversation we need to have before Labour agrees that we will go into government committed to changing the voting system.
So 2018 needs to be another emancipating moment. The magic 8 has resounded down the centuries. We need to be grateful to those who worked to let people decide by voting in the past and let that galvanise us to change our broken voting system. It polarises and divides, magnifies difference and undermines our ability to see our communality and ability to work together. The political culture needs to change. Equality and democracy are our values and vision. We need to change the centre of gravity of our politics. As Robin Cook said we can no longer support a system which allows us once in every two decades to seize power with minority support. “Our objective, our slogan, should be to achieve an electoral system which puts our democracy in the hands of the many voters, not the few voters who happen to be key in marginal seats.”