The Reform Act of 1832, enacted under the Whig administration of the 2d Earl Grey, redistributed seats in the interest of larger communities; it also extended the franchise in the boroughs to those who occupied premises of an annual value of £10 and in the counties to similar leaseholders—to the advantage of shopkeepers and other middle-class men—and it simplified registration and voting procedure. The bill was passed in the House of Lords only as a result of the government's threat to overcome opposition by creating enough Whig peers to ensure passage. The electorate was increased by about 50%, but the new distribution of seats still allowed the rural areas to retain their supremacy.
Agitation by the advocates of Chartism and others for further reform produced no results until Benjamin Disraeli made a bid for the support of the working classes by enacting the Reform Act of 1867. This act, which further redistributed the seats and more than doubled the electorate, gave the vote to many workingmen in the towns. The Reform Act of 1884, passed during the administration of William Gladstone, removed the distinction between county and borough franchises and, by the reduction of rural qualifications, added about 2,000,000 more men to the electorate. A redistribution act in 1885 rendered representation nearly proportional to population. It was not, however, until the passage of the Representation of the People Acts in the 20th cent. that the British Parliament adopted universal male and female suffrage.
See studies of electoral reform by C. Seymour (1915, repr. 1970) and H. L. Morris (1921, repr. 1971); N. Gash, Politics in the Age of Peel (1953); F. B. Smith, The Making of the Second Reform Bill (1966); see more general studies by A. Jones (1972), J. Cannon (1973), M. Barker (1975), and T. A. Jenkins (1988).
For many conservatives, this effect of the bill, which allowed the middle classes to share power with the upper classes, was revolutionary. Some historians argue that this transfer of power achieved in England what the French Revolution achieved eventually in France. The agitation preceding and following the first Reform Act (which Dickens observed at first hand as a shorthand Parliamentary reporter) made many people consider fundamental issues of society and politics.
The novel Middlemarch, by Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) is set in the 1830s and mentions the struggle over the Reform Bills, though not as a major topic. Eliot's Felix Holt, the Radical, set in 1832, is a novel explicitly about the Great Reform Act.
The opposite case had been argued by the Chartists, who campaigned from 1838 for a wider reform. The movement petered out in the 1850s, but achieved most of its demands in the longer run.
By this time, voting was becoming a right rather than the property of the privileged. However, women were not granted voting rights until the Act of 1918, which enfranchised all men over 21 and women over thirty. This last bit of discrimination was eliminated 10 years later (in 1928) by the Equal Franchise Act.