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Electoral Reform In Britain

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Published: Tue, 09 Jan 2018

Electoral reform in britain was initiated by the reform act of 1867 and consequently first past the post was chosen as the best solution. This essay is trying to establish whether this voting system is still fit-for-purpose and whether there is a chance that it may be changed to a more proportional electoral system. It defines purposes and foundations of the existing voting system and tries to deduce how it works in reality. To do so it assess levels of third party support, their seats in the parliament and the general bias of the electoral system. Based on these explanations it focuses on the reasons for and against change, especially from the point of view of the conservatives and labour, and concludes that although reform is possible it is very unlikely to happen in the short-term.

Is the UK’s First Past the Post electoral system still fit-for-purpose ‘ and is there much chance it will be changed, if not in the short-term, in the medium- to long-term?

First Past the Post (FPTP) or simple plurality, as this alternative name suggests, is one of the simplest and earliest mechanisms for voting and is widely adopted around the world including the largest democracies, India and the USA (S’berg Shugart, 2008, p. 7). In the UK, it came about from amalgamation of different ‘mixed’ voting systems in 1866 and was adopted for all constituencies in the Reform Act of 1884 (Ahmed, 2010, pp. 1069-1074).

This essay examines whether the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system is suitable for Britain’s current political environment and whether there is a chance of reform in the future. In particular, it focuses on successes and failures of FPTP and contrasts it with the functions and foundations of elections. It then considers the debate in Britain about electoral reform, a debate that looks set to be put to the political archives once again after the Alternative Vote (AV) referendum in 2011. Finally, it argues that although FPTP has particular shortcomings in handling third party votes and is biased against the Conservatives; in the presence of political will, electoral reform is only likely to take place in the long-term.

This author tries to define ‘fit-for-purpose’ from the foundations of FPTP rather than based on democratic ideals such as fairness and proportionality. As far as this essay is concerned, the purpose of an electoral system is to elect Members of Parliament (MPs) and in turn, the government and not proportional representation, as the latter is one of many functions that any electoral system may perform. To assess whether FPTP electoral system is fit-for-purpose, effects of it on the membership of the House of Commons should first be examined. The desirability of these effects ‘ or absence of some desired outcomes of a preferred electoral system ‘ would therefore define the need for reform.

Firstly, defining the function of General elections would help to decide whether reform is indeed necessary. The arguments could broadly be divided into two opposing ideas: one that seeks to make the parliament a fully representative body of public opinion and the other that puts the emphasis on the ability of the electorate to determine the next government. The former prefers to leave government formation in the hands of the negotiating parties after the elections and the latter is willing to sacrifice proportionality to provide the electorate with this choice. This latter argument is one that has promoted FPTP and a system of single-party government, giving the choice between the governing party and the opposition to the electorate by using an electoral system that ‘more or less guarantees an overall majority to whichever party comes first in votes’ (Curtice, 2010, pp. 624-626). This, in other words, facilitates a system where two largest parties alternate between government and opposition, the system that has mostly governed Britain in the post-war era. There seems to be a desire to keep with this latter function, both historically and at present, whilst attempting to add a degree of proportionality (Ahmed, 2010, pp. 1072-1074; Jenkins Commission, 1998, ‘ 9).

Whether FPTP is fit for purpose or otherwise depends solely on what is expected from it, and how far these expectations are met. Curtice (2010, p. 625) identifies ‘four crucial foundations’ to the argument expanded in the previous paragraph based on ‘Duverger’s Law’ and ‘cube law’. The former states that FPTP favours a two-party system, making life difficult for third parties ; the latter tries to formulate how FPTP can discriminate against the second party by disproportionate awarding of seats to the party that has won the elections even if by a very narrow margin (Cox, 1997, pp. 13-15, 72-74). Curtice (2010, p. 625; 1986, pp. 210-211) argues that a simple majority electoral system hinders support for third parties by discouraging voters and awarding those parties with smaller proportions of seats; allocates more seats to the winning party to facilitate a majority government; and at the same time awards this majority without bias to the two largest parties in different elections. These are features of an ideal electoral system in Britain conducted under the rules of FPTP. The question is whether influence of other parameters have changed the outcome of the elections to circumvent results predicted by Duverger’s Law and cube law (Curtice, 2010, pp. 624-626; Curtice & Steed, 1986, pp. 209-213; Jenkins Commission, 1998, ” 3.19-3.32).

Let us first consider the effects of FPTP on third party votes and allocation of seats. Curtice (2010, pp. 626-629) utilises data compiled by Rallings and Thrasher (2007) and shows that although until 1974 share of third party votes in General elections was compatible with predictions of Duverger’s Law, since then it has gone up from an average of less than 10% in previous years to an all-time high 34.9% of the vote . Moreover, the number of seats won by third parties in general elections has also increased from less than a dozen before 1974 to almost 90 in 2010 (BBC News, 2010; Rallings et al., 2007). It is fair to consider that this outcome is still compatible with Duverger’s Law in that their share of seats are far less than their share of votes. However, this discrimination against third parties depends on geographical concentration of their voters (Curtice, 2010, p. 629; Jenkins Commission, 1998, ‘ 3.30). A similar share of votes in 1983 only awarded them 27 seats. This change is likely to make a hung parliament more possible.

Secondly, FPTP should award more seats to the winning party than its lead in the polls. If cube law is to operate, a 1% swing to the winning party should result in as much as 3% of seats changing hands between the winning and second parties (Duverger, 1963, p. 322). This exaggerated effect that gives an easy majority in the House of Commons to the party in government is shown to be dependent on the number of marginal seats (Curtice, 2010, pp. 629-631; Curtice & Steed, 1986, pp. 209-213). Ever since 1974 general election, the number of marginal seats that have changed hands between Labour and the Conservatives has come down from over 27% to 15% at the last general election, due to a trend towards geographical concentration of the Conservative and Labour support (Curtice & Steed, 1986, pp. 209-228). Another factor that skews this further is to do with the last foundation described above; that the cube law operates without bias towards any parties. Curtice (2010, pp. 633-635) demonstrates that FPTP has been treating Labour more favourably when awarding exaggerated majorities in the recent years. This bias towards Labour adds to an already reduced number of marginal seats to fail FPTP in its main goal of providing two main alternatives to the electorate.

Whether there is need for reforming the electoral system for the General elections in the UK, this reform may well happen or its chances become limited based on political calculations of the party/parties in power. Under the then Labour government, The Independent Commission on the Voting System (Jenkins Commission) was setup in 1997 with a remit to find an alternative electoral system to conform to a list of requirements that are broadly based on an extension of FPTP. These requirements were ‘(i) broad proportionality; (ii) the need for stable government; (iii) an extension of voter choice; and (iv) the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies’ (Jenkins Commission, 1998, ‘ 1.1). Comparing these requirements to the foundations of FPTP discussed above ‘ and as the requirements were not ‘absolute’ ‘ one could argue that the need for a majority government would demand an exaggerated number of seats allocated to the winning party, something FPTP is already trying to achieve, and still be considered ‘broadly’ proportional (Jenkins Commission, 1998, ‘ 9.18). The Jenkins Commission therefore proposed Alternative Vote (AV), another plurality voting system, plus a number of top-up seats to make it more proportional. Since AV is the best option put forward and has already been rejected by the electorate, it is hard to imagine that an electoral reform based on AV could happen anytime in the short- or medium-term.

The reasons that hinder the change to the electoral system are not as numerous as they used to be over most of the twentieth century. FPTP does not provide the full extent of the exaggerative qualities it once did. Although, all major parties have mentioned reform of one kind or another in their latest manifestos (“2010 Party Manifestos,” 2010), the level of acceptance for reform amongst political parties also depends on whether they are in government or in opposition. Political parties in opposition tend to favour electoral reform, but when a party comes to power under FPTP, they are less likely to adopt changes (S’berg Shugart, 2008, p. 47). They appreciate the advantages, namely a strong mandate and one-party majority government that are less likely to exist if a more proportionally representative electoral system were to be adopted (Dunt & Stevenson, 2013). In addition to this, there are also conflicting arguments as to who is the beneficiary of reform. There is no doubt that all third parties will gain more seats under any electoral system that is more proportionally representative than FPTP. The question is which large party is going to lose. The majority of literature claims that if nothing changes apart from the voting system, e.g. number of MPs, constituency boundaries, etc., the Conservatives are going to lose the most seats (Blau, 2008, pp. 864-866; Payne & Quilty-Harper, 2011). This can partly be eliminated by redrawing boundaries and reducing the number of MPs ‘ both proposed by the coalition government ‘ but they are unlikely to have an enormous effect in addressing the discrimination towards the Conservatives (Curtice, 2010, p. 637).

Besides, this same dependence of an exaggerated majority in parliament to such a small swing in votes brings government public policy to the ideological centre and encourages legislation by consensus based on logical explanations by Chandler and Downs (cited in Curtice & Steed, 1986, p. 211). This affects public satisfaction with the government in a positive way, since every party favours staying in power as long as possible. Because of this, public support for reform of the voting system is unlikely to be substantial.

However, apart from pressure groups and minority parties ‘ who mainly favour proportional representation ‘ there are several reasons why larger governing parties ‘ mainly the Conservatives and Labour ‘ may favour electoral system reform. The most important and often forgotten reason being their attempt to defend their share of vote by adopting a more proportional system to prevent losing out to growing support of the third parties (Dunleavy & Margetts, 2005, pp. 854-855). Moreover, Blau (2008, pp. 61-63) considers three other reasons for a change from within: proposing a popular reform and gaining votes as a result; as a concession to a coalition partner ; and the prospect of more votes and seats owing to an electoral reform . Blau (2008, p. 63) emphasises that the first reason ‘is the most likely way for a reform process to start’, but it also needs to be self-promoting to the party to gain traction. This could be one of the reasons why electoral reform did not happen in the current government after the 2010 General elections, as Dunleavy and Margetts (2005, pp. 864-866) show the Conservatives are the least likely to gain any seats from a move to a more proportional electoral system.

In considering reasons for this change, there are many other arguments that could not be expanded in this short essay. Such arguments include among many, under-representation of women and ethnic minorities due to the great emphasis on party affiliation; a great number of MPs being elected by plurality rather than majority of votes, prevalence of ‘safe-seats’ limiting the choice for some voters, and as a result producing lower turnouts, and also no choice in electing a government and local representatives separately (Curtice, 2010; Dunleavy & Margetts, 2005; Jenkins Commission, 1998, ” 3,4b).

In addition, one should also consider the historic context where electoral system reform has been considered. As already mentioned in the beginning of this essay, many debates were held in the parliament in the latter half of the nineteenth century, for and against adoption of proportional representation in which FPTP has always been the outcome (Ahmed, 2010, pp. 1069-1074). This continuation of reform initiatives shows that there is a prospect of change only if it comes in the right time. This author believes that such reform is highly unlikely to take place in the short-term due to the recent AV referendum. It is also unlikely in the medium-term, as no other alternatives to AV have been proposed and large parties have little incentive to implement changes. However, this situation can only improve in the long-term. Change to proportional representation has been discussed for almost 150 years and is most likely to happen when favourable conditions exist.

In conclusion, change seems possible if not likely, considering that we extrapolate current voting trends into the future (Blau, 2008, pp. 85-87). Most literature discussed above is of the belief that change will happen if third parties continue winning more seats and pose a threat to the duopoly (Ahmed, 2010; Curtice, 2010, 2012; Dunleavy, 2013; Dunleavy & Margetts, 2004). It may result in a swap between the Liberal Democrats and one of the two largest parties, as happened in first half of the twentieth century. On the other hand, the prospect of a hung parliament in itself is not enough to make this change take place. Interests of large parties and MPs should also be aligned with it.


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