The six points of the People’s Charter set out the Chartists’ main demands. This page sets out how and when they were eventually won.
1. A vote for every man over the age of 21
Representation of the People Act 1918
Strictly speaking this was achieved as a result of the Representation of the People Act 1918, which extended the vote to all men over the age of 21 and to women over 30. However, it took another decade before the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928 gave the vote to women on the same basis, and it was not until the Representation of the People Act 1969 that the age qualification was dropped to 18. As the franchise had already been extended to larger numbers of working men in 1867 and 1884, the 1918 Act is best seen as one step on a journey to achieving the first point of the People’s Charter.
2. Secret ballots
Ballot Act in 1872
After skilled men won the right to vote in 1867, concerns were raised that they would be susceptible to undue pressure from employers and landlords. Many had opposed secrecy at the ballot box, claiming that it was “unmanly”, while the former Prime Minister Lord John Russell (by now Earl Russell) argued that such a move was “an obvious prelude from household to universal suffrage”. Nevertheless, there was sufficient support to pass the Ballot Act in 1872. The first secret ballot in a parliamentary election took place in a by-election for the Yorkshire seat of Pontefract on 15 August 1872. It did not go entirely without incident as the History of Parliament website reports.
3. No property qualification
Property Qualification for Members of Parliament Act 1858
The third point of the People’s Charter held particular resonance for Feargus O’Connor, who had been elected an MP in 1835 only to find himself disqualified because he did not own property of sufficient value. A second Chartist, Samuel Carter, was elected in Tavistock in the 1852 general election but disqualified weeks later for the same reason. Since 1711 membership of the Commons had been restricted to those with an income of £600 a year from land for county MPs, and £300 a year for borough MPs. The rules had been changed in 1838 to include income from personal property as well as land. By the 1850s several attempts had been made to overturn a requirement which, it had been suggested, many MPs met only through sleight of financial hand. The issue came to a head with the unseating and imprisonment of Edward Glover, the MP for Beverley in Yorkshire, who in 1857 was found to have deliberately lied about his situation. The unfortunate Glover, whose story is told on the History of Parliament website, was released from prison a month after the Property Qualification for Members of Parliament Act 1858 repealed the requirement for an MP to own property.
4. Payment of MPs
Parliament Act 1911
The idea of paying MPs was not especially radical. It had happened throughout the Middle Ages and been advocated from time to time since then. As the franchise widened during the 19th century the case to introduce payment was strengthened by the argument that it was necessary to ensure that working men could not simply vote but find their own voice in Parliament. Surprisingly, this was opposed by the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, who, despite pushing through the 1884 Representation of the People Act which massively expanded the electorate, believed that working class voters preferred wealthy MPs. Towards the end of the century, trade unions sometimes paid salaries to working class MPs, and the emergence of the Labour Party brought the subject to a head. Asquith’s Liberal government finally introduced parliamentary salaries for MPs through the Parliament Act 1911 as a means of shoring up support. The rate was set at £400 a year.
5. Constituencies of equal size
Redistribution of Seats Act 1885
The 1867 Reform Act had extended the franchise without fundamentally changing constituencies or the general practice of having two MPs for each constituency. By 1884 when Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone was attempting to push through a further extension of the vote, the Conservative opposition had concluded that such a move would mean the election of more Liberal MPs in the largely Conservative counties without a similar gain for them in the urban boroughs – leaving the Liberals with a permanent built-in majority. The “Arlington Street Compact” between the two parties agreed to redistribute parliamentary seats largely among single member constituencies and to introduce the principle that constituencies should have broadly equal numbers of electors. The Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 reorganised 160 English seats, gave an additional 12 to Scotland and left Irish representation unchanged, despite a dramatic decline in the population.
6. Annual Parliaments
The maximum lifetime of a Parliament has varied over the centuries. The Septennial Act 1715 set it at seven years and this was reduced to five by the Parliament Act 1911. But the case for annual parliaments was that it would make MPs more accountable by forcing them to face the electorate more often. A less radical version promoted by middle class reformers called for Parliaments of three years. Against this is the argument that governments need longer than a year to carry through any programme and that annual Parliaments would focus governments on short-term popularity at the expense of long-term decision making. In the past, prime ministers have held an advantage in being able to ask for a dissolution of Parliament at the time of their choosing, so that Parliaments seldom ran their full term. In theory at least this has been removed by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011.