Electoral System Reform in the United Kingdom

By Reynolds, Andrew | Inroads: A Journal of Opinion, Annual 1998 | Go to article overview

Electoral System Reform in the United Kingdom


Reynolds, Andrew, Inroads: A Journal of Opinion


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.

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