By Tess Woolfenden.
This year marks 100 years since Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act – the act that extended the vote to women in Britain for the first time in history.
While this marked an historic and important shift towards electoral equality in Britain, many women continued to be denied the vote after 1918. The act stated that only women over the age of 30, with a University education or with certain property rights could participate in elections. Only 40% of women were able to vote based on this eligibility criteria. It was not until ten years later, following the 1928 Representation of the People Act, where the right to vote was extended to all women over the age of 21.
In order to learn more about the women who were denied the vote 1918, and to explore the parallels they have with our political system today, WebRoots Democracy held a panel discussion in the House of Commons on 20th February 2018.
The discussion was held in Committee Room 12, and had a fantastic all-female panel with Dawn Butler MP (Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities), Councillor Abena Oppong Asare (London Borough of Bexley and Labour Women’s Network), Neema Begum (PhD Researcher in Ethnicity and Voting Behaviour, University of Bristol) and Rachael Gibbons (Programme Lead, Working Class Heroes, RECLAIM Project) all participating. It was chaired by Fahmida Rahman (WebRoots Democracy).
Fahmida opened the panel by welcoming everyone present, then provided a brief history of the 1918 Representation of the People Act. Each panelist then spoke for a short time about key issues of under-representation in our political system today. Dawn and Abena discussed the issues they experience and witness as political representatives as an MP and Councillor respectively, Neema provided an overview of her research which demonstrates how marginalised groups in Britain were less politically engaged in the Brexit vote than other groups, and Rachael spoke about the importance of one of RECLAIM’s outreach projects which aims to politically empower young working class people in Manchester. The room was then opened up to questions from the audience.
One of the clear messages that emerged from the panel was that despite nearly 100 years passing since the 1918 Representation of the People Act, the continued exclusion of many women from voting in 1918 resonates strongly with our society today, where many people find themselves marginalised from the act of voting across multiple intersections such as gender, ethnicity and class.
Councillor Abena Oppong Asare highlighted that “many voters with disabilities are still unable to vote today” and that “60,000 homeless women are not able to vote.”
But it is not just the act of voting that many are marginalised from, it is also political representation. This was captured by Rachael Gibbons who said that “working class women who were excluded from the vote in 1918, still feel excluded from parliamentary democracy today.”
Dawn Butler stressed the need for Parliament to reflect the people saying that “to engage different groups, we need a Parliament that looks like the people that it wants to represent.”
Abena also shared similar experiences with the room explaining the difficulties and prejudices she has faced in her position as Councillor for the London Borough of Bexley based on her gender and ethnicity.
“I’ve been in the position where people can’t tell the difference between me and other black councillors”-@abenaopp #webroots
— WebRoots Democracy (@WebRootsUK) February 20, 2018
It was very clear from the discussions that just like 60% of women in 1918, many groups remain marginalised and excluded from political decision making processes and representation today.
However, a second and very important message also emerged throughout the course of the event; that a political system in the UK where all groups are able to equally access political decision making processes and representation is possible. Fahmida closed the event stating that the voices of under-represented groups “must be valued in our democracy.”
Many suggestions of how this change can be brought about were discussed by the panel and the audience, but two overriding themes stood out. The first was the importance of political education. This was discussed in depth by Rachael and Neema. Neema argued that “it serves establishment interests if people stay uninterested and disengaged.”
While many in the room recognised that political education in schools was vital, there was consensus that education outside of schools was also necessary when the schooling system fails to deliver on such education – often because of limited resources. There was also some concern expressed by a member of the audience about the type of political education provided and the importance of political neutrality.
A second key message in how to achieve lasting and meaningful change in our current political system came from Dawn Butler, who encouraged us all to recognise the importance and potential power of our actions in pushing for change.
“Make sure you get involved, stay involved and make a change”-@DawnButlerBrent #webroots
— WebRoots Democracy (@WebRootsUK) February 20, 2018
A powerful message and an important take-away for us all from the event.
Tess Woolfenden is a Research Assistant at WebRoots Democracy.