Another Election?

In 2015 we had a General Election. In 2016 we had the Referendum. And guess what, in 2017 we’re back for another General Election.

A lot of us are fed up with voting and get cynical about the point of it. After all, whoever we vote for, we end up with the Government. If a third of the eligible population doesn’t bother to vote, that’s considered a high turnout.

There was recently a presidential election in Iran — not a country known for its strong tradition of democracy. They ended up having to keep the polling stations open for an extra five hours, because there were such long queues of people desperate to vote that they couldn’t all be processed in time.

We take it the right to vote for granted, but that hasn’t really been the case for very long. There are people alive today (the Queen, for instance) who were born into a Britain where not all adults were allowed to vote.

Parliamentary elections have been held since 1295 (before that, a “parliament” was simply an advisory assembly summoned by the king), but the only people eligible to vote were male householders with substantial property, which made most men and all women ineligible.

This was occasionally challenged. In the 1640s, the Levellers, a movement particularly strong in the Parliamentary army during the Civil Wars, argued for all adult males to be given the vote — and there was a minority group in the Levellers that wanted that extended to adult females.

It’s unlikely their demands would have been met in the short term, but Cromwell was willing at least to hold discussions. If the Commonwealth had survived as a stable system, some of these reforms may have eased in eventually.

As it was, it took till the 19th century before the issue was seriously addressed. This followed several outbreaks of serious unrest, notably the Chartist movement in the middle of the century. It was only in 1867 that all male householders got the vote, and not till 1918 for men who weren’t householders.

During the years before and after the turn of the century, the heroic efforts of the Women’s Suffrage Movement really got going, leading (also in 1918) to women over thirty being granted the right to vote. In 1928, it was established that all adults over twenty-one should be able to vote, regardless of gender. Though this has since been reduced to eighteen, and there are proposals to reduce it further, this is a change in the definition of being adult, rather than a change in the principle of the franchise.

This means we’ve actually only enjoyed fully democratic elections for eighty-nine years. In the USA, for all its proud self-image, this only date back to 1964, when it became illegal for states to deny the vote on the basis of race, which had been common in the South.

It’s worth remembering that a great many people have struggled and suffered for your right to vote — particularly if you’re a woman, but also for most men. It doesn’t matter who you’re going to vote for (well, it does, of course, but we all have our own views on that) but the important thing is that you exercise your right. It’s a valuable possession, which many people in the world don’t share.

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