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Electoral system reform in the United Kingdom.

1. I am indebted to Paul Wilder of the Arthur McDougall Fund at the Electoral Reform Society for advice and fact checking, and to David Farrell's book Comparing Electoral Systems (1997) for its excellent historical overview. This article is an updated and revised version of the U.K. case study which appeared in the International IDEA Handbook of Electoral System Design by Andrew Reynolds and Ben Reilly (International IDEA: Stockholm, 1997).

Andrew Reynolds is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame and a fellow of the Helen Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

The first-past-the-post (FPTP), single-member constituency elections, so strongly associated with Great Britain, did not in fact come into widespread use for House of Commons elections until 1884-1885--a full 50 years after the First Reform Act of 1832, which marked the beginnings of representative democracy in the United Kingdom. Up until 1867, most members of the British House of Commons were elected from two-member districts by the Block Vote, which served to compound the seat bonuses given to the larger parties. In 1867, the Second Reform Act introduced the limited vote (in which electors had one fewer vote than the number of seats to be filled) for the election of 43 members of the Commons, chosen from 13 three-member districts and one four-member seat.

Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland

It was not until the Third Reform Act of 1884-1885, which abolished these limited vote seats, that FPTP became established as the dominant electoral system. Even today, and despite Westminster's reputation as the birthplace of FPTP, the system is not used throughout the U.K. The single transferable vote (STV) form of proportional representation (PR) was re-introduced in Northern Ireland, after a 50-year absence, for local government elections in 1973 in an attempt to allow for representation from the moderate segments of the Nationalist and Unionist communities and the non-sectarian middle, and ensure adequate representation of the minority Catholic community. In the same year, STV was used to elect the ill-fated Stormont Assembly--which had been created to give the people of Ulster a degree of self-government.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, in May 1996, a new body charged with finding solutions to the province's troubles, the Northern Irish Peace Forum, was elected by a different type of PR in order to bring the most representative body possible to the table. Ninety members were elected from 18 list PR districts of five members in size, while the top 10 parties in overall popular vote were awarded two additional seats in the assembly. Since 1979, Northern Ireland's three members of the European Parliament (EP) have been elected by STV, unlike the 84 English, Scottish and Welsh members who are elected by FPTP.

This is about to change however. In July 1997, the new Labour government, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, announced that it would present legislation so that, beginning with the 1999 elections, EP members would be elected through a form of regional list PR in England, Scotland and Wales, while leaving unaltered the PR STV system in Northern Ireland. This reform met with immediate hostility from four Labour EP members who were unhappy especially with the centralized candidate selection control that the new list PR system would give to the party leadership. However, as part of Blair's "get tough" policy for dealing with dissidents, two of these anti-PR EP members were first suspended from the Labour Party and later expelled.

PR was also included in a key element of the new government's constitutional reform package, the devolution of a degree of legislative power to Scotland and Wales. The new Scottish and Welsh assemblies, endorsed by the Scottish and Welsh peoples in September 1997 referenda, are to be elected by mixed member proportional (MMP) systems. MMP retains Westminster single-member districts, but includes PR list seats which compensate (at least in part) for overall disproportionality. The Welsh Assembly will have 40 FPTP single-member seats and 20 list PR seats, while the Scottish Assembly will have 73 FPTP seats and 56 list PR seats. The draft electoral law does not envision any imposed threshold for representation but the numbers mean that the Welsh Assembly will have an effective threshold of just under 5 percent for a party to win a list seat while in Scotland parties will need probably closer to 1.5 percent of the total vote.

Storming the gates of Westminster

Nevertheless, the overwhelming focus of electoral reform remains the House of Commons and, in 1998, Britain appears closer to changing her FPTP system than at any time since 1917. In that year a proposal to introduce the laternative vote (AV) for two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, and the single transferable vote for the remaining one-third of seats, was narrowly defeated after a stalemate between the House of Lords and House of Commons. A second attempt to move to AV was rejected by Parliament in 1931, and it was not until the 1970s that electoral reform muscled its way back on to the British political agenda. In 1976, the Hansard Commission on Electoral Reform, chaired by the former Conservative Cabinet minister Lord Blake, recommended MMP for parliamentary elections, with three-quarters of the members being elected by FPTP and one-quarter from regional PR lists to compensate for disproportionality in the overall results of the single-member district seats.

After four consecutive defeats for the Labour Party (1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992), the previously solid Labour support for FPTP began to fracture and in 1990 the leadership set up a commission, chaired by Professor Raymond Plant, to investigate electoral system reform options. The Plant Report (1993) recommended a switch to a sibling of the alternative vote (as used in Australia) which they called the supplementary vote--the system used to elect the Sri Lankan president. While this proposal was never officially adopted by Labour, they did nonetheless adopt a policy that, when returned to office, they would hold a national referendum on electoral system reform for the House of Commons. This policy was given teeth in a joint agreement on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats (who have historically advocated a switch to PR), announced on the eve of the 1997 British general election.

The first step in the referendum process was the setting up of an independent commission in December 1997 to recommend which system should be pitted against FPTP on the ballot paper. The pre-electoral promise had been for a "proportional representation system" alternative to the current system, but it remains unclear if that automatically excludes the consideration of majoritarian alternatives such as the alternative vote and supplementary Vote (even though there is a scholarly consensus that these are not PR electoral systems).

The independent commission set up in December 1997 was heavily skewed towards prominent generalists without specific expertise--or obvious biases--in the area of electoral system design. The commission is chaired by Roy Jenkins, the well respected former Labour Party Foreign Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, in 1981, was one of the "Gang of Four" who defected from the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). He is now a senior Liberal Democrat sitting in the House of Lords. The remaining four members of the commission are Baroness Joyce Gould (a former Labour Party advisor), Lord Weedon (the former head of the Nat West Bank), Sir John Chilcott (a former senior civil servant in the Northern Irish office) and David Lipsey (the political editor of the Economist). The commissioners are reviewing submissions and are expected to present their findings by the time Parliament re-opens in October 1998. Under this time frame it is possible, though unlikely, that a referendum could be held by 1999, in order to allow time to introduce a new electoral system, if chosen, for general elections in 2001 or 2002.

It is likely that the debate over reforming the way members of the House of Commons are elected will reflect the FPTP versus PR debate which has underlain much of the discussion of British constitutional practice throughout this century. The criticisms of the current FPTP electoral system have been restated many times. First, FPTP in the U.K. has led to some highly disproportional results where minority parties received far fewer seats than their percentage vote might have indicated, and, second, it has led to situations where the "losing" party, in terms of votes won, became the winning party in term of seats won and thus formed the government. This latter anomaly has happened twice in the post-war period. In 1951 the Labour Party won more votes but the Conservatives won most seats and formed the government, while in February 1974 the indignity was reversed with Labour forming the government after the Conservatives had polled most votes.

The Liberal Party, then Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance, then Liberal Democrats, have been the most victimized. In 1983 the Liberal-SDP Alliance won 25.4 percent of the vote but only 3.5 percent of the seats. In 1987 the Alliance won 22.6 percent and 3.4 percent of the seats. In 1992 the newly formed Liberal Democrats won 17.8 percent of the votes and 3.1 percent of the seats, but in 1997, using more sophisticated targeting techniques and benefiting from the tide of anti-Conservative feeling, the Liberal Democrats were able to win 6.5 percent of the seats with 16.7 percent of the popular vote. The uphill struggle that new parties face under FPTP was dramatically illustrated in the 1989 U.K. European elections when the U.K. Green Party won 15 percent of the vote but not a single seat.

Another criticism leveled at the British FPTP system has been its inability to adequately represent the nation along lines of gender and ethnicity. Up until 1997 fewer than 10 percent of British MPs were women, although Labour's vigorous promotion of women parliamentary candidates and their subsequent landslide victory did nearly double the number of women MPs to 18.1 percent in the current Parliament. Ethnic minorities in Britain have been similarly under-represented. Most parliaments preceding the 1987 election were all white, and the four Black and Indian-English MPs elected in that year represented less than 0.5 percent of the total. While Black and Asian representation has increased over the last three elections, their numbers in Parliament remain substantially below their proportion of the U.K. population as a whole.

Opponents of FPTP have also cited destabilizing swings in economic policy which arose from the alternation of Conservative and Labour governments between 1945-1979, but the Conservatives' 18 unbroken years in office (1979-1997) and Labour's drift toward the fiscally moderate centre has tended to weaken this argument. Finally, some PR advocates have disputed the fact that FPTP creates a strong geographical link between elector and representative in the U.K., arguing that many safe Conservative and Labour seats are effectively "rotten boroughs" where the parties send in candidates at will and MPs have little incentive to make themselves accessible; moreover, the urban centres of the U.K. are now so totally dominated by Labour MPs that all other party supporters are effectively disenfranchised.

Despite this, FPTP in Britain is defended because of its single-member constituencies as well as its encouragement of a "dominant two-party system." Supporters of the status quo hold the single-constituency member sacrosanct and argue that this relationship of accountability between a voter and his or her MP is the bedrock of British democracy. They add that every U.K. government except one in the post-war period has been a single-party government and predict that coalition governments, which would most likely result from a PR system, would be destabilizing to the country as a whole. They argue, too, that FPTP serves as a barrier against the fragmentation of the party system which might lead to the breakup of the major parties (for example, a split in the Conservative Party between "pro-" and "anti-" European wings). Finally, FPTP is praised for denying a platform to extremist parties such as the National Front and British National Party.

AV: muddying the waters

The FPTP versus PR debate has become muddied by the recent emergence of the alternative vote form of preference voting in single-member constituencies as the front runner for second option on the referendum ballot. As noted earlier, while AV does retain the single-member constituency link and ensure that the elected MP has the tacit support of over 50 percent of the voters in their constituency, this system does not give proportional results. In fact, it disadvantages minority parties and still gives large "seat bonuses" to the larger parties. AV (or a variation thereof) appears to be the favoured alternative to FPTP in British government circles. A Minister of State in the Welsh Office, Peter Hain, made the case for AV in the Times in October 1997 and he was backed up by veteran political commentator Sir Robin Day and some other Labour members.

However, the Liberal Democrats, the constitutional campaign Charter 88, and the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform received Hain's remarks with rather less enthusiasm as they see AV as a half-hearted attempt at reform which would not dramatically alter the balance of power within the Commons and might well preclude subsequent reforms towards a more proportional system. A compromise position might lead the commission to recommend that the system be a mixture combining AV and list PR seats. Such a hybrid system could have two-thirds (or three-quarters) of the seats elected from constituencies, with the remainder of Commons seats being used to "top-up" party representation from the PR lists to make the overall result more proportional. There would be both a national and a constituency vote as in New Zealand and Germany.

At the time of writing, the prospects for reform of Britain's FPTP system remain uncertain. While it seems increasingly likely that a referendum will be held, it is unclear whether the referendum will be between two majoritarian systems (FPTP and AV) or between FPTP and a PR alternative. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the British electorate would support a switch to PR if it was offered to them. Opinion polls between 1992 and 1997 have been inconsistent. At times they have shown great support for change (in May 1997 a poll in the Economist showed a four-to-one majority in favour of a switch to PR) while at other times a majority of voters have expressed a desire to keep FPTP. A switch to AV might stand more chance of winning in a national referendum.

If a referendum is held between FPTP and a PR system then the stance taken by the Labour government is likely to be key. A vigorous campaign against change (joined by the Conservatives) would probably condemn the PR alternative to failure, while a strong Labour campaign for change (in harness with the Liberal Democrats) might ensure that electoral reform carried the day. By the end of this century, British citizens might very well find themselves voting under new--and different--electoral systems in electing representatives to the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, the European Parliament, and even the House of Commons.
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Author:Reynolds, Andrew
Publication:Inroads: A Journal of Opinion
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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