History of capitalisms’ reforms that benefit ordinary people in Britain

This post lists the reforms that have benefited ordinary people in Britain.

I’m interested in what role reforms can play in moving in a revolutionary direction. I want to understand the reforms that have been achieved – what was the context, how were they won, why have many been rolled back and not defended by the left, why do some on the left argue that reforms are a distraction and un-revolutionary.

The period from the mid-1700s until the end of the 1800s is known as the Age of Reforms. Stephen Tough describes this as a “period of reform that gradually increased political democracy and improved economic and social conditions for all.” He groups the reforms up to 1914 into four categories: parliamentary reform, worker’s rights, education, and social welfare. [1]

Parliamentary reform

The 1832 Reform Act “abolished tiny districts, gave representation to cities, gave the vote to small landowners, tenant farmers, shopkeepers, householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more, and some lodgers. Only qualifying men were able to vote; the Act introduced the first explicit statutory bar to women voting, by defining a voter as a male person.”

The 1867 Reform Act “gave the vote to every male adult householder living in the towns. Male lodgers paying £10 were also granted the vote. The Act gave the vote to about 1,500,000 men. In effect the Act had given the vote to the working classes in the towns. Several industrial towns that were previously unrepresented were given MPs. A Conservative government led by Benjamin Disraeli had introduced this measure with the support of the Liberals.”

The 1872 Secret Ballot Act made voting secret and significantly reduced the power of Landlords in determining the outcome of elections.

The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883 aimed to “make voters free from the intimidation of landowners and politicians. It criminalised attempts to bribe voters and standardised the amount that could be spent on election expenses.”

The 1884 Reform Act “gave the vote to the poor farmers and labourers in the countryside and greatly reorganised electoral areas to reflect the move in population from the countryside to the larger towns. This act tripled the electorate and established the principle of “one man, one vote” (males over 25).”

The 1885 Redistribution of Seats Act “redrew boundaries to make electoral districts equal. As a result of this Act, most areas returned only one Member to Parliament, although 23 seats, including the City of London and Bath, continued to return two Members until 1910.”

The 1911 Parliament Act ended the veto of the House of Lords over government and House of Common legislation and only allowed the House of Lords to delay bills for two years. The Act also introduced an MPs salary.

Votes for women was achieved through the 1918 Representation of the People Act and the 1928 Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act. The 1918 Act enfranchised all men over 21 and women over 30 who met minimum property qualifications. The 1928 act equalised the franchise to everyone over the age of 21 on equal terms. [2]

Worker’s Rights

The Factory Acts were a series of Acts brought in between 1802 and 1961 to regulate the conditions of industrial employment. The gradually improved the conditions in workplaces increased the age children could be sent to work and reduced the hours of the working day.

The Trade Union Act 1871 legalised Trade Unions for the first time in the UK.

The Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 permitted workers to peacefully picket their workplace when on strike.

The Trade Disputes Act 1906 stated that unions could not be sued for damages incurred during a strike.

The Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906 meant workers were compensated for injuries at work

The Old-Age Pensions Act 1908 introduced a pension for those over 70.

The Trade Boards Act 1909 and 1918 set minimum wages for workers. It “set minimum wages in certain trades with the history of low wages, because of surplus of available workers, the presence of women workers, or the lack of skills.”

The National Insurance Act 1911 created National Insurance, “a system of health insurance for industrial workers in Great Britain based on contributions from employers, the government, and the workers themselves. It was one of the foundations of the modern welfare state. It also provided unemployment insurance for designated cyclical industries.”

The Widows, Orphans, and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act of 1925 introduced pensions for widows between 45 and 65, orphans and all those from 65 to 70.

The Contracts of Employment Act 1963 introduced requirements that reasonable notice is given before dismissal and that employers provide a written contract of employment.

The Redundancy Payments Act 1965 introduced “the principle that after a qualifying period of work, people would have a right to a severance payment in the event of their jobs becoming economically unnecessary to the employer.”

The Equal Pay Act 1970 introduced requirements that men and women are treated equally by employers in terms of pay and conditions of employment. We’re still waiting for this to be enforced.

The Trade Union and Labour Relations Act 1974 “contains rules on the functioning and legal status of trade unions, the presumption that a collective agreement is not binding, and immunity of unions who take strike action.”

The Employment Protection Act 1975 “established the employment tribunal system as a separate entity from the previous, formal court system.”

The Employment Rights Act 1996 brought together existing worker rights in on Act include unfair dismissal, reasonable notice before dismissal, time off rights for parenting, redundancy.

The National Minimum Wage Act 1998 established a country-wide minimum wage for those over 18, which has increased gradually over the years. A minimum wage has also been expanded to apprentices and those 16-17.

The Working Time Regulations 1998 “create a basic set of rights for the time people work, particularly 28 days paid holidays, a right to 20 minute paid breaks for each 6 hours worked, a right to weekly rest of at least one full 24 hour period, and the right to limit the working week to 48 hours”

An eight hour limit to the working day has never been achieved in the UK. [3]

The Employment Relations Act 1999 requires employers to compulsorily recognise and negotiate with a union that has support among workers.


The 1870 Education Act “required partially state-funded board schools to be set up to provide elementary (primary, in modern parlance) education in areas where existing provision was inadequate. Board schools were managed by elected school boards. The schools remained fee-charging, but poor parents could be exempted.”

The Elementary Education Act 1880 “required school boards to enforce compulsory attendance from 5 to 10 years, and permitted them to set a standard which children were required to reach before they could be employed”

The Elementary Education Act 1891 made primary school free. Elementary Education (School Attendance) Act 1893 made the school leaving age to be 11. Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf Children) Act 1893 “extended compulsory education to blind and deaf children, and made provision for the creation of special schools.” The Elementary Education (School Attendance) Act 1893 raised the school leaving age to 11 years. [4]

The Education (Provision of Meals) Act 1906, provided free school meals. The Education (Administrative Provisions) Act 1907 provided medical inspections of children and medical treatment after 1912. The Children’s Act (The Children’s Charter) 1908 had several improvements: children were banned from begging, penalties were given to shops for selling tobacco or alcohol to children, juvenile courts and borstals were established to separate adult and child offenders, and the death sentence was abolished for children. [5]

The Fisher Education Act 1918 “made secondary education compulsory up to age 14 and gave responsibility for secondary schools to the state.”

This was raised to 15 in 1944, 16 in 1972, 17 in 2013 and 18 in 2015. [6]

The Education Reform Act 1988 introduced the National Curriculum with the aim of all students receiving the same teaching on the same subjects.

Social Welfare

The Industrial Revolution and increasing urbanisation resulted in social and health problems.

The Public Health Act of 1872 “established sanitary authorities in both urban and rural areas. These were to provide public health services and appoint medical officers of health. The medical officers had a significant role in planning for the prevention of infectious diseases and in the campaign for action to improve health.”

The Public Health Act 1875 aimed to tackle health threats including the spread of diseases. It did this by making it compulsory for localities to regulated sewers, water supplies, housing, and by controlling new streets and buildings.

The Artisans’ and Labourers’ Dwellings Improvement Act 1875 allowed local councils to buy up areas of slum dwellings to clear and then rebuild them.

The Local Government Act 1888 and 1894 established local government in England and Wales with elected councils and the district and parish level to manage local affairs. [7]

The Liberal governments of 1905-15 introduced several social reforms listed above in the worker’s rights section:

  • The Workmen’s Compensation Act 1906 meant workers were compensated for injuries at work
  • The Old-Age Pensions Act 1908 introduced a pension for those over 70
  • The trade Boards Act 1909 and 1918 set minimum wages for workers.
  • The National Insurance Act 1911 created National Insurance, which was health insurance for workers based on contributions from employers, the government and workers.
  • The Widows, Orphans, and Old Age Contributory Pensions Act of 1925 introduced pensions for widows between 45 and 65, orphans and all those from 65 to 70.

The Labour Government of 1945-51 brought in several reforms to tackle the ‘Five Giants’ of disease, want, squalor, ignorance and idleness. [8] The National Health Service Act 1948 gave free access to doctors, dentists, opticians and hospitalss. [9] The National Insurance Act 1946 gave financial support for those unemployed and sick, pensions for the elderly, financial help with funeral arrangement, and set standard minimal living conditions for the employed. The Industrial Injuries Act 1946 provided financial assistance for those temporarily off work due to an injury or those off work long-term. The National Assistance Act 1948 provided financial support for those that had not paid enough contributions into the National Insurance scheme such as the unemployed and elderly. It also established standard minimum living conditions for the unemployed. [10] The New Towns Act 1946 resulted in twelve new towns being planned to reduce overcrowding. [11] The Education Act 1944 was implemented in 1947 and required that all local authorities provide primary, secondary and further education. [12] The Labour Government nationalised (brought under Government control) several industries: steel, iron, gas, coal, electricity and railways. [13] This resulted in low unemployment as unprofitable industries were supported with government money to keep them operating and providing jobs.


  1. http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/politics/reform.htm
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women%27s_suffrage_in_the_United_Kingdom
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eight-hour_day#United_Kingdom
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_education_in_England
  5. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z8c99j6/revision/3
  6. https://leavershoodiescompany.co.uk/2018/04/2018-school-leavers-englands-history-of-the-school-leaving-age/
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Local_Government_Act_1888, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Local_Government_Act_1894
  8. https://www.thoughtco.com/creation-of-britains-welfare-state-1221967
  9. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zt4hvcw/revision/3.
  10. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zt4hvcw/revision/4
  11. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zt4hvcw/revision/5
  12. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zt4hvcw/revision/6
  13. https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/zt4hvcw/revision/6 and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Attlee_ministry#Nationalisation_projects