1920s >> 1927 >> no-273-may-1927

Is the franchise a fraud?

Below we print a letter from a correspondent. The points contained in it are dealt with in our reply which follows. For convenience we have numbered the different sections of the letter.

To the Editorial Committee :

(1) While as yet my investigations are incomplete, I have established the fact that a person can exercise two Parliamentary votes provided that he or she possesses property in two divisions or holds a University degree or rank in the army or navy.

(2) Evidence points in the direction that the privilege goes beyond two votes, taking into consideration the multiplicity of the headings which qualify the capitalist class to exercise the vote and the many disqualifications that attend that of the working class, it is exceedingly doubtful if a candidate could be returned in any division to whom the Capitalist Class seriously objected. The object of this letter is to make the above public knowledge, as I have found that the common impression is that we have a franchise based upon one man one vote. The issue at stake vitally affects working class representation, and I am raising the question for discussion.

(3) I forgot to add that a person may vote by proxy, another revelation. These things make our Electoral system smell. Just imagine to yourself a large concern with multiple shops, etc., and the chance to put in votes for each one by proxy, provided that they are in separate divisions. A handful of Directors with their dependents, could exercise thousands of votes under such circumstances.

4) I know one local instance of a family in Leicester who qualify in the three Leicester divisions for twelve votes. Now I see the reason for the Redistribution Act of 1918.



Our correspondent has raised again a matter which has been dealt with in these columns before. It is important, not because of any so-called “democratic principle” it involves, but because of its bearing on the question of the use of the vote in order to obtain working class political control. There are anomalies in the existing franchise, but we are not concerned with them as such. We are not busybodies nobly searching for “injustices” to put right. We want Socialism and are interested in the franchise as a means to that end. If the anomalies prevent or materially hinder the workers in gaining power, then it is necessary to expose them and work for their removal. If, on the other hand, the anomalies have no practical importance, it is contrary to working class interests to waste time on them and divert valuable energy which might more profitably be given to Socialist propaganda.

(1) Taking Mr. Rimington’s first paragraph, we find that his information is not quite correct. The position is that a man, 21 years of age, may be registered as a voter on three grounds (a) 6 months’ residence in a constituency whether as householder or lodger ; (b) 6 months’ occupation of business premises or land of which the annual value is not less than £10; (c) possession of a university degree.

A woman of 30 may be registered (a) by virtue of her husband’s qualification; or (b) by 6 months’ residence as a householder; or (c) by 6 months’ occupation of a shop or workroom or other business premises of not less than £5 annual value ; or (d) by possession of a university qualification.

In a general election a man may vote in two, but not more than two constituencies. If he is registered in more than two constituencies he may vote in all of them in bye-elections. A woman can only have two votes in a general election, if one of them is a university vote. In bye-elections she can vote wherever registered. Rank in the army or navy does not give two votes. It enables the voter, however, to vote once only by post as an “absent voter.”

(2) Mr. Rimington says that “evidence points in the direction that the privilege goes beyond two votes …” This is true only of bye-elections, as shown above. He speaks of the “many disqualifications that attend . . . the working class,” but does not specify these many disqualifications, or show their importance. As will be illustrated below, the overwhelming majority of the workers are, in fact, not disqualified from voting. His further surmise that a candidate could be prevented from being returned as a result of these “disqualifications” is incompatible with the facts. This also is dealt with below.

(3) Mr. Rimington evidently misunderstands the proxy vote. Only those persons may vote by proxy who (a) are already on the absent voters’ list and (b) make a statement in the prescribed form that they will be at sea or out of the United Kingdom at the time of the election. The proxy must be named in the statement. The provisions for the absent voter and for proxy voting enable seamen and other persons whose work compels them to be away from home, to register their votes. Mr. Rimington’s hypothesis of “the handful of directors and their dependents” is nonsense. The proxy would enable a director, if he had two votes, to use both of them in a general election, but, as he could vote twice in any event, the position is not changed by that special provision for absent voters.

(4) Mr. Rimington instances a family who qualify for 12 votes in the three Leicester divisions. Unfortunately he does not say how many members there are in the family, but, as I have already pointed out, each could only vote at most twice in a general election, and at most three times in the unlikely event of three successive bye-elections in the three divisions.

Let us now examine the actual figures and see what these anomalies amount to.

In 1921 the number of males of 21 and over in England and Wales was approximately 10,500,000, and the number of females of 30 and over was 9,500,000. (See statistical abstract of Board of Trade, 69th number, 1926. Page 244). This gives a total of roughly 20,000,000 persons entitled to qualify in respect of age. To obtain a similar figure for 1925 it is necessary to add l/40th, which represents the approximate estimated increase in population during the interval. (See Registrar General’s Statistical Review, 1925. Page 80.) The total for 1925 is then 20,500,000.

In 1925, the total number of voters registered in England and Wales, excluding university voters and voters with the business premises qualification, was 18,898,409. Thus we find that including inmates of prisons, lunatic asylums, workhouses, etc., and those persons omitted from the voters’ list, and those who fail to qualify for any other reason, only a little over 1,500,000 persons out of the 20,500,000 of qualifying age are not registered as voters. The bulk are women who fail to qualify as householders. This disposes of the greater part of Mr. Rimington’s case.

We next come to the question of university votes and business premises votes. The total of men registered for business premises qualification in 1925 was only 217,509 for the whole of England and Wales (Registrar General Statistical Review, Page 81), and the number of university voters, men and women, only 51,357.

Our correspondent mentioned the three Leicester Divisions. Out of a total for the three of 120,596 voters, there are only 1,995 men registered on the business premises qualification (Page 86).

We have thus shown that the anomalies are of quite negligible effect. Only in a handful of exceptional areas like the City of London, is the business premises vote considerable. (22,769 out of 43,891).

We now come to the much more important question of the distribution of votes between members of the capitalist class and the working class respectively.

The population of voting age amounts to 20,500,000. How many of these are members of the capitalist class? It is impossible to obtain any very precise estimate, but an approximate idea can be obtained in a slightly roundabout way.

In “Fabian Tract,” number 5 (13th Edition, 1926. Page 18), it is estimated that the proportion of the population with incomes over £250 per annum, together with their dependents, amounts to about 13 1/3 per cent. of the whole population. (This estimate is adapted and brought up to date from that made by Chiozza Money in “Riches and Poverty.”)

It is true that below the £250 line are many shopkeepers and small property owners, but against these may be set many persons in the better paid technical and managerial positions, who earn more than £250, but are none the less members of the working class, in that they must sell their services to an employer and are wholly or mainly dependent on their earnings.

Let us further assume, in order to be on the safe side, that all members of the capitalist class of voting age are actually registered, and that all of the persons of voting age without votes are workers.

13 1/3 per cent. of 20,500,000 gives us 2,730,000, add to 2,730,000 capitalist voters, 270,000 business premises and university votes. This gives us approximately 3,000,000 capitalist votes in England and Wales, out of the total of 19,167,275 on the voters’ list in 1925. We find then that there are more than 16,000,000 working class votes to 3,000,000 capitalist votes in England and Wales. We can afford to make ample allowance for any possible margin of error in the assumptions on which we have worked, and yet be certain that the working class have an overwhelming majority of the votes in this country. They are not prevented from registering their wishes by electoral anomalies. When they want Socialism they can vote for it. If at present defenders of capitalism are returned it is due only to the fact that the mass of the workers want capitalism and either vote for capitalist candidates or do not use their votes at all.

In these circumstances, there is no need to waste time on red-herrings like the demand for proportional representation, or the abolition of electoral anomalies. The work of getting Socialism is impeded only by the lack of Socialists, not by the existence of a handful of double votes.

It is interesting to notice in passing that the present Government has pledged itself to give the vote to women of 21 and to remove the chief barriers which at present debar many women over 30 from possessing votes. It is estimated that the proposed measure will add 5,000,000 women voters to the electoral register of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (Note that the calculations given earlier in this article refer to England and Wales only.) Of these 5,000,000 it is stated that about 2,000,000 will be women of 30 and over at present unable to qualify. The great majority of the 5,000,000 will be members of the working class, although, of course, they may be expected, like their brothers and husbands, to vote for some form of capitalism.


(Socialist Standard, May 1927)

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