Why casting a vote is such a vital freedom

Coun Sally Slade
Coun Sally Slade

CABINET CALL: By South Holland District Councillor Sally Slade

Having loved History in school, particularly the Tudors, moving on to study Victorian Social History for O level gave me a seriously rude awakening.

Learning the details of the endless Reform, Education and Factory Acts was mind-numbingly boring.

But what did make an impact on my teenage brain was how few people could vote 200 years ago.

At the start of the 19th century, our democratic 
system was desperately undemocratic. Ancient towns had shrunk but retained their members of parliament, whilst newer cities had grown out of recognition.

Old Sarum had been important back in the 12th century before the cathedral fell down and was rebuilt elsewhere.

It still elected two MPS, even though it was now a sparsely-inhabited hill with only seven voters.

Manchester, meanwhile, had more than 60,000 inhabitants but not a single MP!

So who could actually vote? Generally only wealthy men, and they had to do so publicly. Imagine going to cast your vote in the market place, and literally putting your hand up to show which candidate you preferred!

What if one of them was your boss? There are no prizes for guessing who you would be waving your hand for and unsurprisingly, bribery was rife.

Spalding was in the county seat of Lincolnshire, returning two MPs from 1.4% of the population.

Spalding men had to travel to Lincoln to vote. The candidate for whom they voted would meet their travel expenses, so candidates’ costs were substantial.

Elections were rare and candidates only insisted on a vote if they knew they would win. Lincolnshire’s two MPs were elected unopposed at all but four of the 29 general elections between 1701 and 1832.

There were no votes for women or inhabitants of modern cities and there was no secret ballot.

There was a higher chance of being represented if you lived in the South or West, than in the industrial Midlands or North.

Eventually a fair system came, via the aforementioned Reform acts, but it took until 1928 for all men and women over the age of 21 to be enfranchised, and 1969 for 18 year olds.

When I think back to the past, I am reminded how far our democracy has come, how hard-won our vote was, and how important it is to make your cross on that ballot paper.

The Lincolnshire Police and Crime Commissioner and EU Referendum elections take place in May/June - you can register to vote at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote.