In terms of coverage for specific parliamentary acts relating to the expansion of democracy, it is clear that the heavy focus is placed on The Representation of the People Acts of 1918 and 1928. This is, of course, natural, because these are the acts that finally expanded the franchise to all people in the country, both men and women (although women had to wait until 1928 until achieving the same voting rights as men). Then, after these acts, comes the 1969 act that lowered the voting age to 18 (from 21). But what about the little covered 1948 act?
It is so little covered that I completely ignored it whilst covered it in an A-level Politics class recently. I covered the Great Reform Act of 1832 (also covered in a recent post) and the 20th Century acts mentioned above, but not that from 1948. In terms of comparison, the 1948 pales significantly, but yet it retains importance in terms of the long march of British democracy; as shall we be explained in this short post.
Prior to 1948, it was possible for some people in Britain to vote twice. This was applied to business owners, who could vote in their constituency of residence as well as the constituency where their business was located. Perhaps more undemocratic was the role of university constituencies: graduates of certain universities voted for specific parliamentary representation for their university, as well as the vote in their home constituency.
These odd university constituencies dated back hundreds of years, with the arrival of James I in 1603 transferring a Scottish practice to the English political system. The universities of Cambridge and Oxford were given two seats apiece, and this arrangement continued into the industrial age. Although the 1832 Great Reform Act removed most of the rotten boroughs, it kept the places of the universities intact; rather than face fire for removal, the actual arrangement was expanded in the 1860s with the addition of three new seats (for the universities of London, Glasgow/Aberdeen, and St Andrews/Edinburgh).
The 1918 act was clearly transformative, however, the influence of the universities increased even further: Queen’s University of Belfast and the University of Wales obtained seats, and other English universities combined for an additional slot (Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield). All of which, in many ways, was completely against the grain of the democratisation trend of society.
However, these constituencies were attacked by others, notably the growing power of the Labour Party. Naturally, Labour were hostile to such seats due to the inclination of universities to elect Conservatives. In 1945, the Labour Party won its first outright majority, in one of the election upsets of the century in which war-winning PM Churchill was turfed out of office. The Labour government under Clement Attlee set about making great changes to British society, notably with the creation of the National Health Service, and along the way he found time for the 1948 act that abolished university constituencies.
This 1948 act brought an end to the practice of plural voting and, in many ways, finally updating a rather old and misplaced discrepancy. Of course, the number of university MPs was always too low to actually upset the balance of power; however, how could such a practice remain in a true democracy? But, if we are to continue to untangle that thread of logic it would also see us question the place of a House of Lords and a monarchy in a true democratic system!