Today, people from across the UK are voting in the 2017 general election. What makes this election unique is the fact that it’s occurring only two years after the last one, a result of the snap election called in April by British Prime Minister Theresa May. 650 MPs will be elected to the House of Commons, with about 46.9 million people registered to vote. Recent elections are a world apart from those held when they first began, and today’s events have inspired me to explore the history of the general election and how it has changed over the years.
The first elections for the parliament of the United Kingdom were held on 22nd July 1802. Before this date, elections took place for two separate parliaments, those of Great Britain and Ireland. It’s worth noting several key aspects of the electoral process in the early 19th century; for example, universal suffrage was far from achieved, with women prohibited from voting. Men were restricted too, with only those owning a certain type of property being able to vote. The voting period was also much longer than the twenty-four hours we are accustomed to today, with the 1802 election lasting nearly two months! Parliamentary terms were longer too, allowing for up to seven years. Furthermore, the concept of a parliamentary majority was unheard of, allowing the Tory party to unfairly hold onto power until the system was reformed in 1832.
Of course, the general election process underwent numerous modifications after 1802. The Reform Act 1832 extended voting rights to 1 in 7 adult males. The Representation of the People Act 1884 was the culmination of this reform, increasing the electorate to 5.5 million men. 20th century reform brought about even greater changes, with the Parliament Act 1911 reducing the parliamentary term from seven years to the five years we know today. Following on from this, the Representation of the People Act 1918 granted suffrage to women, as well as increasing the number of men who could vote; all men over 21 and women over 30 could now have their say in general elections. Additional legislation in 1928 extended this right to the entire adult population over 21. The minimum voting age was lowered to 18 years of age in 1969 under the Labour party. The most recent major reform came in the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011, which ruled that general elections must be held every five years with no exceptions.
There are also several aspects of general elections which seem normal today yet weren’t always so. The proportion of the population who take part, known as the turnout, was only measured from 1918. This was also the year in which postal and proxy voting were first introduced, although it was intended only for members of the armed forces still serving overseas. Media coverage of the vote is today seen as a natural part of the political process, yet the BBC only aired its first television programme covering a general election in 1950.
I hope this article has provided a greater insight into the history of the general election in the UK. The numerous reforms show how lucky we are to have the ability to vote today, so I urge you to use your democratic right and have your say in all elections to come!