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Before 1914, approximately 40% of men were not entitled to vote because of residential and property qualifications. By 1916 it was clear that the next general election could not use the pre-war electoral register, as many men on military service would not have been entitled to vote. Conservative MPs argued for a ‘soldier’s vote’; Liberal and Labour politicians argued this had to be extended to other workers on militarily-useful service, and following pressure from women’s suffrage campaigners, it became necessary to consider women too.
Attempts to agree reform in the Commons failed, and the President of the Local Government Board, Walter Long, suggested a cross-party conference. This was supported by Prime Minister Asquith and after some hesitation, the Speaker agreed to be Chairman. He wrote at the time, 'I cannot pretend that I look forward to it with enthusiasm.'
The Conference first met in October 1916 and reported in January 1917 after 26 sittings, including twice a week during recess and through a change of government. Its terms of reference were to examine, and if possible submit agreed resolutions, on franchise reform; redistribution of seats; electoral registration reform; and method and cost of elections.
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