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Reform Acts

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The Reform Acts (or Reform Bills, before they were passed) are legislation enacted in the United Kingdom in the 19th and 20th century to enfranchise new groups of voters and to redistribute seats in the House of Commons of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. When short titles were introduced for these acts, they were usually Representation of the People Act.

These began with the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884, to increase the electorate for the House of Commons and remove certain inequalities in representation. The bill of 1832 disfranchised many boroughs which enjoyed undue representation and increased that of the large towns, at the same time extending the franchise. It was put through Parliament by the Whigs. The bill of 1867 was passed by the Conservatives under the urging of the Liberals, while that of 1882 was introduced by the Liberals and passed in 1884. These latter two bills provided for a more democratic representation.

Following the First World War, the Reform Act 1918 was enacted with cross-party unanimity. It enfranchised all men over the age of 21 and women over the age of 30. Ten years later, the Reform Act 1928, passed by the Conservatives, resulted in universal suffrage with a voting age of 21. In 1969, the United Kingdom became the first major democratic country to lower its age of franchise to 18 in the Reform Act 1969 passed by the Labour government.

Internationally, the Parliament of the United Kingdom and its Westminster system played a "vanguard role" with worldwide influence on the spread of democracy, thus it is often known as "The mother of parliaments".


UK parliamentary franchise (1832-2010)
Percentage of the population of the United Kingdom registered to vote at general elections, 1832–2010

In the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, before 1832, fewer than one adult male in ten was eligible to vote in parliamentary elections.[1] Moreover, the franchise varied a great deal between England (which included Wales), where it was wider, and Scotland and Ireland, where it was narrower.[2][3] A few boroughs gave the vote to all male householders, but many parliamentary seats were under the control of a small group or sometimes a single rich aristocrat. Reforms had been proposed in the 18th century, both by radicals such as John Wilkes and by more conservative politicians such as William Pitt the Younger. However, there was strong opposition to reform, especially after the outbreak of the French Revolution (1789–1799). The cause was continued after 1792 by the London Corresponding Society.

Eventually, the parliamentary franchise was expanded and made more uniform through a series of Reform Acts beginning with the Great Reform Act in 1832.[4] These acts extended voting rights to previously disenfranchised citizens. Sources refer to up to six "Reform Acts",[5][6][7] although the earlier three in 1832, 1867/68 and 1884, are better known by this name.[note 1] Some other acts related to electoral matters also became known as Reform Acts.[12][13][note 2]

The following Acts of Parliament are known as Reform Acts:

There are many other electoral reform Acts that changed the electoral system in the United Kingdom.[note 3] Such legislation typically used "Representation of the People Act" as the short title, by which name the 1918, 1928 and other acts in the 20th century are better known.[21][22][23] The title Representation of the People Act was adopted in other countries of, or formerly part of, the British Empire through the spread of the Westminster parliamentary system.[24][25][26] The Parliament of the United Kingdom played a "vanguard role" with worldwide influence on the spread of democracy, thus it is often known as "the mother of parliaments".[27]

1832 Reform Act[edit]

The 1832 Reform Act for England and Wales was the most controversial of the electoral reform acts passed by the Parliament. Similar Acts were passed the same year for Scotland, and Ireland. They were put through Parliament by the Whigs. The Acts reapportioned Parliament in a way fairer to the cities of the old industrial north, which had experienced tremendous growth. The Act also did away with most of the "rotten" and "pocket" boroughs such as Old Sarum, which with only seven voters, all controlled by the local squire, was still sending two members to Parliament. This act not only re-apportioned representation in Parliament, thus making that body more accurately represent the citizens of the country, but also gave the power of voting to those lower in the social and economic scale, for the act extended the right to vote (in the boroughs) to any long-term holders of tenements of at least £10 annual value, adding 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000. Annual value here refers to the income that the land could be expected to earn if let, in a year.[28] As many as one man in five, though by some estimates still only one in seven, now had the right to vote.[1]

The agitation preceding and following the First Reform Act made many people consider fundamental issues of society and politics. The bill allowed the middle classes to share power with the upper classes; for many conservatives, this was revolutionary. Some historians argue that this transfer of power achieved in Britain and Ireland what the French Revolution of 1848 eventually achieved in France.

Charles Dickens observed these events at first hand as a shorthand Parliamentary reporter. The novel Middlemarch, by Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) is set in the 1830s and mentions the struggle over the Reform Bills, though not as a major topic. Eliot's Felix Holt, the Radical, set in 1832, is a novel explicitly about the Great Reform Act.

1867 Reform Act[edit]

The Chartists campaigned from 1838 for a wider reform. The movement petered out in the 1850s, but achieved most of its demands in the longer run. Legislative bills were introduced by the Conservatives under the urging of the Liberals. The 1867/8 Acts for England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland extended the right to vote still further down the class ladder. In England and Wales, the reforms added just short of a million voters, including many workingmen, which doubled the electorate to almost two million.[1]

Like the Great Reform Act before it, the Second Reform Act also created major shock waves in contemporary British culture. In works such as Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy and John Ruskin's The Crown of Wild Olive, contemporary authors debated whether the shift of power would create democracy that would, in turn, destroy high culture.

1884 Reform Act[edit]

A further Reform Bill was introduced in 1882 by the Liberals. It was passed by the Conservatives in 1884 becoming the Third Reform Act. It was the first electoral reform act to apply to the United Kingdom as a whole. Only with this Act did a majority of adult males gain the right to vote in parliamentary elections. Along with the 1885 Redistribution Act, this tripled the electorate again, giving the vote to most agricultural laborers.[1]

1918, 1928 and 1969 Reform Acts[edit]

By the end of the 19th century and in they early 20th century, voting was coming to be regarded as a right rather than the property of the privileged but the First World War delayed further reforms. After the War, women were granted voting rights with cross-party unanimity in the Act of 1918, the Fourth Reform Act, which enfranchised all men aged over 21 and women over 30. This last piece of gender discrimination was eliminated 10 years later by the Equal Franchise Act 1928, the Fifth Reform Act, passed by the Conservatives.[1]

The voting age was lowered in 1969 by the Labour government in the Sixth Reform Act, making Britain the first major democratic nation to extend voting rights to all adults aged 18 or over.[29][30][31]

Modern usage[edit]

The periodic redrawing of constituency boundaries is now dealt with by a permanent Boundary Commission in each part of the United Kingdom, rather than a Reform Act.[32]

Some people in Britain, mostly associated with the Liberal Democrats political party, have called for a new "Great Reform Act" to introduce electoral changes they favour. These would include lowering the minimum voting age to 16 and introducing proportional representation, which are also supported by the Green Party of England and Wales.[27][33][34][35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Various sources, books and texts commonly use this description.[8][9][10][11]
  2. ^ For the narrative history see Llewellan Woodward (1961), The Age of Reform, 1815–1870, 2nd ed.; Asa Briggs (1959), The Age of Improvement 1783–1867.
  3. ^ See the information box at the bottom of the article.


  1. ^ a b c d e Johnston, Neil (2013), The History of the Parliamentary Franchise, House of Commons Library, retrieved 16 March 2016
  2. ^ Hoppen, K. Theodore (1985). "The Franchise And Electoral Politics in England And Ireland 1832-1885". History. 70 (229): 202–217. doi:10.1111/j.1468-229X.1985.tb01434.x. ISSN 0018-2648. JSTOR 24416034.
  3. ^ History, Scottish; read, Archaeology 10 min. "Franchise reform in nineteenth century Scotland". National Museums Scotland. Retrieved 1 January 2023.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ Bedarida, Francois (17 June 2013). A Social History of England 1851–1990. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-136-09732-4.
  5. ^ a b Kitching, Paula. "Political Reform: Lesson Plan 6: Overview" (PDF). The History of Parliament. p. 3. Create one of the following charts for each of the six Reform Acts
  6. ^ a b "1969 Representation of the People Act". www.parliament.uk. Retrieved 2 January 2021. 1969-sixth-reform-act
  7. ^ a b "Members of Parliament Chadderton". Chadderton Historical Society. Retrieved 2 January 2021. Act of 1969 (also known as the Sixth Reform Act)
  8. ^ Scott-Baumann, Michael (22 February 2016). Protest, Agitation and Parliamentary Reform in Britain 1780–1928. Hodder Education. ISBN 978-1-4718-3848-4.
  9. ^ Reekes, Andrew (19 September 2015). Speeches that Changed Britain: Oratory in Birmingham. History West Midlands. ISBN 978-1-905036-26-4.
  10. ^ Doogan, John; Girvan, Edith (2004). Changing life in Scotland and Britain: 1830s–1930s. Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-435-32692-0.
  11. ^ Wilson, Christopher (5 December 2003). Understanding A/S Level Government Politics. Manchester University Press. ISBN 978-0-7190-6081-6.
  12. ^ a b Wright, D. G. (2014). Democracy and Reform 1815–1885. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-88325-8.
  13. ^ a b Reid, Andrew (1887). We must fight it out! – And why?. pp. 16–17.
  14. ^ Evans, Eric J. (28 January 2008). The Great Reform Act of 1832. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-81603-3.
  15. ^ Barrymore Smith, Francis (1966). The Making of the Second Reform Bill. Cambridge University Press.
  16. ^ Hayes, William A. (1982). The Background and Passage of the Third Reform Act. Garland Pub. ISBN 978-0-8240-5156-3.
  17. ^ Dawson, Michael (25 March 2010). "Money and the real impact of the Fourth Reform Act". The Historical Journal. 35 (2): 369–381. doi:10.1017/S0018246X0002584X. S2CID 155070834.
  18. ^ Tanner, Duncan (1983). The Parliamentary Electoral System, the Fourth Reform Act and the Rise of Labour in England and Wales.
  19. ^ Albjerg, Victor Lincoln; Albjerg, Esther Marguerite Hall; Albjerg, Marguerite Hall (1951). Europe from 1914 to the Present. McGraw-Hill. p. 257.
  20. ^ Cole, G. D. H. (7 December 2018). British Working Class Politics, 1832-1914. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-429-82018-2.
  21. ^ Alder and Syrett (2017). Constitutional and Administrative Law. 11th ed. Palgrave Law Masters. p. 294.
  22. ^ Birch (1998). The British System of Government. 10th ed. Routledge. Taylor & Francis e-Library. 2006. p. 17.
  23. ^ See, for example, the definition in section 8(1) of the Representation of the People Act 1884, read with the definition of the Registration Acts in section 8(2).
  24. ^ "How the Westminster parliamentary system was exported around the world". University of Cambridge. 2 December 2013. Retrieved 30 December 2022.
  25. ^ Julian Go (2007). "A Globalizing Constitutionalism?, Views from the Postcolony, 1945–2000". In Arjomand, Saïd Amir (ed.). Constitutionalism and political reconstruction. Brill. pp. 92–94. ISBN 978-9004151741.
  26. ^ Johnston, Douglas M.; Reisman, W. Michael (2008). The Historical Foundations of World Order. Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff. p. 571. ISBN 978-9047423935.
  27. ^ a b Stone, Greg (30 July 2009). "It's time for the next Great Reform Act". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2 January 2021.
  28. ^ "The Reform Act of 1832". www.historyhome.co.uk. Retrieved 19 January 2024.
  29. ^ Loughran, Thomas; Mycock, Andrew; Tonge, Jonathan (3 April 2021). "A coming of age: how and why the UK became the first democracy to allow votes for 18-year-olds". Contemporary British History. 35 (2): 284–313. doi:10.1080/13619462.2021.1890589. ISSN 1361-9462. S2CID 233956982. Our starting point is placement of the 1969 Act within the context of previous reforms of the age of enfranchisement since the Great Reform Act of 1832.
  30. ^ Loughran, Thomas; Mycock, Andrew; Tonge, Jonathan (3 November 2021). "Lowering the voting age: three lessons from the 1969 Representation of the People's Act". British Politics and Policy at LSE. Retrieved 31 December 2022. 'Votes at 18' was the last major extension of the UK franchise and is therefore an important element of the history of UK democracy from the 1832 Great Reform Act onwards.
  31. ^ Bingham, Adrian (25 June 2019). "'The last milestone' on the journey to full adult suffrage? 50 years of debates about the voting age". History & Policy. Retrieved 31 December 2022.
  32. ^ Johnston, Neil (1 February 2021). "Constituency boundary reviews and the number of MPs". {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  33. ^ Toynbee, Polly (31 January 2014). "Giving 16-year-olds the vote can be Labour's Great Reform Act". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2 January 2021.
  34. ^ "A new Great Reform Act is needed to limit the absurdities of our constitution". The Independent. 6 May 2015. Retrieved 2 January 2021.
  35. ^ "Electoral Reform: Is Proportional Representation The Solution?". Green Party of England and Wales. 3 February 2023. Retrieved 29 April 2023.

Further reading[edit]

  • Acemoglu, Daron, and James A. Robinson. "Why did the West extend the franchise? Democracy, inequality, and growth in historical perspective." Quarterly Journal of Economics 115.4 (2000): 1167-1199. online
  • Aidt, Toke S., and Raphaël Franck. "How to get the snowball rolling and extend the franchise: voting on the Great Reform Act of 1832." Public Choice 155 (2013): 229-250. online
  • Berlinski, Samuel, and Torun Dewan. "The political consequences of franchise extension: Evidence from the second reform act." Quarterly Journal of Political Science 6.34 (2011): 329-376. online
  • Brown, Richard. "The Reform Acts". in Church and State in Modern Britain 1700-1850 (Routledge. 1991). Pages 220 to 227.
  • Briggs, Asa England in The Age of Improvement, 1783-1867 (2nd ed. 1979) online
  • Cannon, John. Parliamentary Reform 1640-1832 (Cambridge University Press, 1973) online.
  • Conacher. The Emergence of British Parliamentary Democracy in the Nineteenth Century: The Passing of the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867, and 1884-1885. (Major Issues in History). (John Wiley and Sons. 1971) online also at Google Books.
  • Evans, Eric J. Parliamentary reform in Britain, c. 1770-1918 (Longman, 1999)
  • Himmelfarb, Gertrude. "The politics of democracy: the English Reform Act of 1867." Journal of British Studies 6.1 (1966): 97-138. doi:10.1086/38552
  • Pugh, Martin. The evolution of the British electoral system, 1832-1987 (Historical Association, 1988) online
  • Vernon, James. Politics and the people : a study in English political culture, c. 1815-1867 (Cambridge University Press, 1993) onine
  • Whitfield, Bob. The Extension of the franchise, 1832-1931 (Heinemann, 2001) online .
  • Woodward, Llewellan. The Age of Reform, 1815–1870 (2nd ed. 1962) online

External links[edit]