Implications of electoral reform in the UK
Discuss the implications of electoral reform in the UK. Illustrate your argument with reference to alternative electoral systems. In what ways might the introduction of proportional representation help to challenge the elective dictatorship critique?
In 1976 Lord Hailsham described Britain as an elective dictatorship by which he meant that a party elected into government with a dominant majority can essentially rule Britain as if it were a dictatorship, albeit an elected one. The subject is a recurrent debate in British politics as the existing electoral system of first-past-the-past rewards the ability to achieve a majority in constituencies and is not a reflection of a party’s national representation. A system of proportional representation would represent national political will more fairly and in doing so reduce the possibility of one party dominating government. However, the direction of this question places undue emphasis on the problem of an elective dictatorship. The debate over electoral systems is far more nuanced and alternative electoral systems also introduce inherent drawbacks into the debate and it is these implications that form the basis of this debate. Perhaps the most telling aspect of the debate is that only a party in power can effectively introduce and pass legislation to bring about electoral reform. Once in power the incentive to remove the means by which power was achieved is greatly reduced, thus the discussion of electoral reform is most vocal from the forums of political opposition.
The discussion over electoral reform in Britain is a longstanding one and not restricted simply to the voting system. Writing in 1945 John Perkins discussed the changes introduced during the Second World War that ensured fair representation and the equal distribution of seats. However, the nature of the voting system has been the most consistent and on-going issue and is the topic for discussion herein. The current electoral system is that of first-past-the-post (Hereafter FPTP) or more specifically the single member constituency with a simple majority. In essence a constituency candidate only has to gain more votes than an opponent to be elected. There is no demand for the victor to gain a majority of the votes cast, which leads critics to suggest the system is not truly representative. The public may end up with a Member of Parliament (Hereafter MP) that the majority of people did not vote for, thus leading many people to believe their vote has been wasted. On the positive side the system ensures an MP is directly linked to a constituency and as such he or she is tied in directly with the public that elected them. The system also has the benefit of being relatively straightforward, swift and easy for the electorate to understand. As most politicians represent a political party the majority of MPs from a political party can then form a majority in parliament and dominate the voting. As it is essentially a ‘winner-takes-all’ scenario a large majority for any one party can appear enhanced and the party go on to dominate proceedings in the style of an elected dictatorship. However, proponents could argue that the system often results in decisive government able to make and enact decisions. A political party finding itself in power as a result of this system is less likely to reform the process by flexing its political majority. It is no surprise that in opposition the Labour Party set up a commission to investigate electoral reform yet the situation remains the same under the current Labour government.
Opponents of the current voting system promote the benefits of a proportional method of electing parliament and highlight the deficiencies of the FPTP system. The existing method results in second-placed parties winning very few seats, in 1992 the Liberals won 18% of the vote but just 3% of the actual seats. Furthermore, a party can be elected by a minority of the public, undermining its claims to hold an elected and legitimate mandate, a situation that occurred in 1951 and February 1974. Thus in a system that rewards victors with all the spoils and often represents a minority of the voting public it is no wonder that the allegation of the FPTP method resulting in an elective dictatorship is raised.
Dwelling on the deficiencies of the current system can promote the belief that the current system needs to be overhauled yet the alternatives are by no means perfect either. Peter Gill and Geoffrey Ponton have simplified the categorisation of electoral systems into FPTP, proportional representation (Hereafter PR) and a combination of the two. There are numerous variations of alternate electoral systems and this essay will consider the most popular formulas currently debate. The method of PR is the clear opponent to the existing system and as the name suggests the emphasis is fundamentally on reflecting the proportion of votes for a particular party in the parliament. The FPTP system has an in-built bias towards major parties and those parties that can concentrate their vote in geographical areas. A system of PR would see the Liberal Party gaining greater representation in the British Parliament, reflecting the number of votes it gains and not penalising it for its support across the country rather than in specific regions.
As Perkins has noted, opponents of the PR system argue that the main purpose of an election is not proportionality but the creation of a strong government with a majority that enables it to implement policies that it was mandated to introduce. In contrast, one can argue, that proportional systems, such as that seen in Italy, produce weak, coalition governments, unable to govern effectively, in essence this is the opposite to an elective dictatorship. The necessity to form alliances to achieve a majority can lead to smaller parties gaining undue influence that is not proportionally representative of the voting. As Andrew Heywood notes, the politics of proportional governments often takes the form of a series of political trade-offs to achieve agreement. Furthermore, where a PR system introduces a list, often in conjunction with a FPTP system, the list may be chosen by the party and thereby increase their input on the individuals elected.
This essay has focused on UK general elections and one should not ignore the fact that other voting systems are used in the regional assemblies of Scotland and Wales and for European elections. These provide relevant case studies for understanding the implications of different voting systems within our own borders. They also demonstrate the drawbacks of all political systems. European elections, for example, employ a closed list system whereby the electorate vote for a specific party and the members chosen from a pre-ordained list. The problems here ran counter to the benefits of the FPTP method. The list is drawn up by the party with the party deciding the order and hence the likelihood of individuals being elected. Furthermore, the elected members are not tied directly to a region and hence have less direct linkage with individual communities.
Lord Hailsham’s comments certainly provide a starting point for a wider discussion of electoral reform in Great Britain. The current system has inherent weaknesses and advantages, one of which has undoubtedly been its ability to withstand the discussion of it deficiencies and still provide the system by which the most important elections in the country are decided. The alternatives, if viewed by way of selective analysis, can appear to overcome the current deficiencies. However, the alternative systems also have inherent weaknesses, thus while they may overcome the potential single problem of an elective dictatorship they bring with them other issues not raised by Lord Hailsham’s comments. The more important debate would seem to focus upon the public and political will to change the current system, without a sustained will by a party able to achieve the mandate to implement reform the current system will continue to dominate, despite its inherent flaws. It is a debate that has the potential longevity to match that of the electoral system around which it revolves.
- BBC News, ‘First Past the Post’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/vote2001/hi/english/voting_system/newsid_1173000/1173697.stm (Accessed 28th April 2005).
- Perkins, John, ‘Steps Toward Electoral Reform in Great Britain’, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 1, March 1945, pp. 65-78.
- Gill, Peter and Ponton, Geoffrey, Introduction to Politics, Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.
- Heywood, Andrew, Political Ideas and Concepts. An Introduction, London: Macmillan, 1994.
- Lee, Stephen, Aspects of British Political History 1815-1914, London: Routledge, 1994.
- Lenman, Bruce, The Eclipse of Parliament. Appearance and Reality in British Politics since 1914, London: Edward Arnold, 1992.
-  In 1943 a Parliamentary bill introduced a system of continuous registration while a further act in 1944 redistributed seats to reflect demographic changes. For a full discussion see Perkins, John, ‘Steps Toward Electoral Reform in Great Britain’, Political Science Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 1, March 1945, pp. 65-78.
-  For a brief discussion of this system see BBC News, ‘First Past the Post’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/vote2001/hi/english/voting_system/newsid_1173000/1173697.stm (Accessed 28th April 2005).
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Gill, Peter and Ponton, Geoffrey, Introduction to Politics, Oxford: Blackwell, 1993, p. 290.
-  Perkins, op. cit. p. 76.
-  Heywood, Andrew, Political Ideas and Concepts. An Introduction, London: Macmillan, 1994, p. 182.