Extending the franchise, then and now


The Labour Party is reportedly considering a change to its manifesto to include a commitment to reduce the voting age to sixteen. The aim of this action plan will be to inform members of the party of the historical background of franchise extension, in particular in relation to votes for women.

Key messages

  • Each attempt to extend the franchise in England has met both with strong approbation and opposition, both within and without Parliament.
  • Perhaps the lengthiest and most well known campaign was waged by those wishing to extend the vote to women. An equally fierce movement developed in opposition to women’s suffrage. The anti-suffrage campaign was one of the reasons why it took so long for women to be granted the vote in England. After more than fifty years of debate, in 1918, the vote was extended to women over the age of 30. In 1928, women were granted equal franchise.
  • Age and sex are, of course, not the same and a disqualification on the grounds of age is not the same as a restriction which prevents all women from having the vote. There are aspects of the debate over women’s suffrage, nonetheless, which provide useful context for any political party contemplating a change to the voting age.
  • Historical evidence suggests that most similarity between the current and historical debates over franchise extension lies in the opposition to each measure.
  • Many of the arguments used by those who opposed women’s suffrage have been used again in current debates regarding the lowering of the voting age to sixteen. For example, anti-suffragists suggested women lacked the maturity and political experience required of a voter, and suggested that a vote cast by a woman was more likely to be influenced by emotion rather than logic or subject to the persuasion of others.
  • In order to develop an informed opinion, members of the Labour Party considering their positions on the issue of votes at sixteen should reflect on the arguments used in opposition to women’s suffrage.

Policy Context

  • Until recently, lowering the voting age to sixteen has not been an issue which has attracted much attention.
  • Various Bills proposing a lowering of the franchise have been introduced to Parliament by MPs and Peers from all sides of politics most recently in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2010.
  • The debate has gathered momentum as a result of the Scottish National Party making a commitment to allow sixteen year olds to vote in the proposed referendum on Scottish independence, due to be held in 2014.
  • Since 2001, a commitment to votes at 16 has been included in the manifesto of the Liberal Democrats. No such commitment was, however, included in the Coalition Agreement of 2010. Both the Labour and Conservative parties are not, at this stage, in favour of a change although some individual MPs from both parties have registered their support for the cause.
  • Many MPs and political and historical commentators are in favour of a reduction in the voting age but object to the manner in which it may be achieved. That is, some fear that after the Scottish referendum, regardless of the result, all sixteen year olds in Great Britain will ‘inevitably’ get the vote, ‘through the back door.’ For example, constitutional expert Prof. Vernon Bogdanor argues that sixteen year olds should have the vote but that such a significant change to the constitution should only occur after ‘a full debate in the Parliament and the country,’ as was the case when the franchise was altered to include women.


  • 1. To organise at least two meetings between historians and members of the Labour Party executive between 1 February 2013 and 31 August 2013.
  • 2. To ensure that Labour Party MPs are informed of the historical background to the lowering of the franchise through leaflets and letters sent to their constituency and parliamentary offices.
  • 3. To stress to Labour MPs the importance of the method by which a lowering of the voting age might be achieved, as a part of party manifestos, official policy platforms and after an informed national debate, rather than ‘through the back door.’
  • 4. To secure a presentation slot for historians in the relevant policy development discussions at the Labour Party conference to be held in Brighton in September 2013.
  • 5. To publish at least one comprehensive policy paper in the lead up to conference season to generate informed discussion of the ‘votes at 16’ campaign.
  • 6. To secure evidence of the impact of historians' engagement in at least two policy or media publications during the conference season.


  • Labour Party MPs and Peers.
  • Other members of the Labour Party and all Labour Party conference delegates.
  • Members of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, who may be influenced to re-examine their own positions.


  • Work with members of the Labour Party executive to organise for historians to speak to the relevant policy development committee at the Labour party Conference in Brighton in September 2013.
  • Develop succinct and well researched presentation to present to conference delegates including key historical evidence and examples from the anti-suffrage and votes for women campaigns, thus highlighting the links between the past and present.
  • Arrange for political historians to write a detailed policy paper, and other newspaper opinion pieces, placing the current debate in its context.
  • Promote discussion of the votes at 16 campaign in political and historical fora, including in historical journals and on relevant online discussion groups and blogs.

Monitoring & evaluation

  • Gauge the reception from the Labour Party executive through informal feedback.
  • Evaluate the usefulness and effectiveness of the conference presentation using feedback forms to determine whether or not MPs and party members felt that it had been helpful or unhelpful in assisting them in informing their view on the issue.
  • Ultimately, monitor whether or not the Labour Party changes its platform and, if so, how, if at all, historical evidence was used


Sign up to receive announcements on events, the latest research and more!

We will never send spam and you can unsubscribe any time.

About Us

H&P is based at the Institute of Historical Research, Senate House, University of London.

We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of more than 500 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.

Read More