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516 British Government and the Constitution


The FPTP system may, then, be credited, no doubt in combination with other
factors, with the continuation until the 1970s of stable, single-party govern-
ment enjoying broad popular support. On the other hand critics of the system
observed that parties were not fairly represented in Parliament in proportion to
votes cast for them, and that the Liberal Party, with substantial but dispersed
support among voters, was invariably excluded from a share in government.
A party could achieve power having won less than 50 per cent of the total vote,
and indeed this had become the normal case.
In the two general elections of 1974 the distorting e¬ects of FPTP on parlia-
mentary representation became more apparent. In each of these elections the
Liberals, with over 18 per cent of the total vote, won only 2 per cent of the seats,
and it was observed that more than ten times as many votes were needed to elect
a Liberal MP as to elect a Labour or Conservative MP. Mirroring the 1951 result,
the February 1974 election was won by the Labour Party with a smaller share
of the total vote than the Conservatives, and Labour took o¬ce as the ¬rst
government since the Second World War not to have an absolute majority in the
House of Commons.
Since then general elections have again produced majority government, but
have also demonstrated the disproportionality that may result from the FPTP
system.

The 1992 General Election
Electorate: 43,249,721
Votes cast: 33,612,693 (77.7% turnout)
Party Votes % of total vote Seats won
Conservative 14,092,891 41.9 336
Labour 11,559,735 34.4 271
Liberal Democrats 5,999,384 17.8 20
Welsh and Scottish Nationalists 783,991 2.3 7
Others (Northern Ireland 1,176,692 3.5 17
and minor parties)


The 1997 General Election
Electorate: 43,757,478
Votes cast: 31,286,597 (71.5% turnout)
Party Votes % of total vote Seats won
Conservative 9,602,857 30.7 165
Labour 13,516,632 43.2 418
Liberal Democrats 5,242,894 16.8 46
Welsh and Scottish Nationalists 782,570 2.5 10
Others (Northern Ireland 2,141,644 6.8 20
and minor parties)
517 Parties, groups and the people


The 2001 General Election
Electorate: 44,403,238
Votes cast: 26,368,798 (59.4% turnout)
Party Votes % of total vote Seats won
Conservative 8,357,622 31.7 166
Labour 10,724,895 40.7 412
Liberal Democrats 4,812,833 18.3 52
Welsh and Scottish Nationalists 660,197 2.5 9
Others (Northern Ireland 1,813,251 6.8 20
and minor parties)


The 2005 General Election
Electorate: 44,261,545
Votes cast: 27,123,652 (61.3% turnout)
Party Votes % of total vote Seats won
Conservative 8,772,473 32.3 197
Labour 9,547,944 35.2 356
Liberal Democrats 5,981,847 22.1 62
Welsh and Scottish Nationalists 587,105 2.2 9
Others (Northern Ireland 2,234,256 8.2 22
and minor parties)


(Principal sources for the ¬gures are D Kavanagh and D Butler, The British
General Election of 2005 (2005), Appendix 1, Table A1.1 and The Times Guide to
the House of Commons (2005).)
The Conservative Government elected in 1992, with 42 per cent of the total
vote, enjoyed an absolute majority in the House; yet on a principle of strict
proportionality the Conservatives would have been entitled to no more than
274 seats (out of 651) “ not enough for the formation of a majority govern-
ment. In 1997, 2001 and 2005 the Labour Party bene¬ted from the ˜bonus™ that
may accrue to the winning party under FPTP and from other distorting fea-
tures of the electoral system (see further Appendix 2 to Kavanagh and Butler
(above, pp 250“2)). In these three elections Labour achieved absolute majori-
ties respectively of 179 (63 per cent of the seats) with 43 per cent of the vote;
166 (again 63 per cent of the seats) with 41 per cent of the vote; and (in 2005)
66 (55 per cent of the seats) with 35 per cent of the vote. Mrs Thatcher™s
Conservative Party likewise enjoyed three-¬gure majorities in the House of
Commons with about 40 per cent of the votes cast in the general elections
of 1983 and 1987.
The Liberal Democrats have been strikingly penalised by the dispersion of
their support over the country. In 1992, with 18 per cent of the vote, they won
only 3 per cent of the seats. They did somewhat better in subsequent general
518 British Government and the Constitution


elections by concentrating their e¬ort on winnable seats, and in 2005 their
22 per cent of the vote gave them 62 seats (9.6 per cent of the seats). Extreme
disproportionality was displayed in the general election of 1983, when the
Liberal/SDP Alliance with 25 per cent of the vote won only 23 seats (3.5 per
cent), while Labour with 28 per cent of the vote, concentrated to better advan-
tage, won 209 seats (32 per cent). A strictly proportional representation for the
Alliance would have been 165 seats and for Labour 179 seats.
These results show that FPTP may discriminate severely against third
parties, which naturally regard their underrepresentation in the House of
Commons as unfair. It is also objected against this system that a party can be
put in power with much less than a majority of votes and may govern without
having to accommodate its policies to the interests of a majority of voters
represented by the other parties in Parliament (the argument of ˜elective
dictatorship™). Other questionable features of the FPTP system were demon-
strated in the general elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005, in each of which
most MPs were elected with the support of a minority of the voters in
their constituencies; in extreme instances, in 2001, seats were won with no
more than 30 per cent of the vote. General elections have commonly dis-
torted the regional representation of parties, yielding a substantial under-
representation of Labour voters in southern shires and of Conservative
voters in northern cities. In 1997 the Conservatives failed to win any seats in
Scotland with 17.5 per cent of the vote or in Wales with 19.6 per cent. An
increase in their Welsh vote to 21 per cent in 2001 still brought them no seats
there but almost exactly the same share of the Welsh vote in 2005 gave them
three seats.
As the disproportionality of the FPTP system became increasingly evident,
many advocated its replacement by one or other system of proportional rep-
resentation (PR). It was argued that FPTP was undemocratic in failing to
re¬‚ect the preferences of voters and, in e¬ect, disenfranchising the numerous
class of voters who, in casting their votes for others than the winning candi-
date in a constituency, make no contribution to the national election result.
(See R Blackburn, The Electoral System in Britain (1995), pp 362“4.) Critics of
FPTP have often condemned not only what they see as its unfairness, but also
the ˜adversary politics™ of alternating single-party governments which it
fosters. Proportional representation would be likely to bring about coalition
governments and a more consensual style of politics, parties of the left or right
having to temper their policies and reach accommodations with parties of the
centre. It is said that a new politics of this kind would accord with a broad
consensus which exists in society at large and is arti¬cially polarised by a two-
party system. (See, eg, SE Finer (ed), Adversary Politics and Electoral Reform
(1975), pp 30“31; V Bogdanor, The People and the Party System (1981), p 205;
and Wright, ˜British decline: political or economic?™ (1987) 40 Parliamentary
A¬airs 41.)
519 Parties, groups and the people

It must not be supposed that the FPTP or plurality system is universally dis-
favoured. The rationale for plurality elections, as Sanford Lako¬ explains
(Democracy: History, Theory, Practice (1996), p 178):


is that voters should be encouraged to form and support large amalgamated parties so as to
reduce the prospect that minority parties can exercise vetoes over majorities and to improve
the chance that elected governments will not be composed of coalitions not chosen by the
voters but arranged among the parties.


Coalition governments resulting from proportional representation are not nec-
essarily more representative of the views and interests of the electorate than a
single party government elected by a minority of votes. As JA Chandler remarks,
˜it is by no means evident that a coalition will fully represent the interests of all
those who voted for one of the members of that coalition™ (˜The plurality vote:
a reappraisal™ (1982) 30 Political Studies 87, 88; see his development of this argu-
ment at pp 88“91). Chandler argues further that the FPTP system is more likely
than proportional representation to produce governments that are responsive
to public opinion throughout their tenure of o¬ce (p 92):


Within a plurality system a relatively small loss of votes will result in a disproportionately
large loss of seats for the largest parliamentary parties and will be likely to threaten
their ability to form part of a government. Any party operating under such conditions must
take great care not to alienate many of their supporters at the time of the last election
unless they can be replaced by new converts to their cause. In comparison a party operat-
ing under a system of PR could afford to alienate a much larger number of voters before
suffering a correspondingly large loss of seats and a threat to its chances of holding or
obtaining power.


The objection to FPTP that it encourages ˜adversary politics™ is countered by
those who say that proportional representation induces a ˜coalition politics™
which disregards real divisions of interest in society and suppresses the pro-
ductive confrontation of ideas. It is said too that proportional representation
would reduce the power of voters to dismiss governments. As Tony Benn has
remarked: ˜In countries that have proportional representation the electorate can
only stir the mixture of political parties forming the governing coalition, but
can rarely get rid of the whole bunch and replace them with others™ (Industry,
Technology and Democracy, IWC Pamphlet No 60 (1978), p 7). Karl Popper, too,
has decried the e¬ect of proportional representation on the ˜decisive issue™ of
getting rid of a government by voting it out of o¬ce, and sees coalition gov-
ernment as leading to a ˜decay of responsibility™ (˜The open society and its
enemies revisited™, The Economist, 23 April 1988, p 25). In similar vein, the
following passage focuses on the role of elections in a democracy.
520 British Government and the Constitution


Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, ˜Send the rascals packing™ (1999) 36
Representation 117, 118
Elections and representation in the legislature are not ends in themselves. They produce
democracy only if they provide the means by which the populace can hope to exercise direct
and effective control over the government. Not all elections are ˜democratic™. In order to
qualify as such, they need to affect the composition of a government. In short, democratic
elections are not principally about membership of the legislature. The key condition of people
power is that the voters should have a direct effect on the selection and “ even more
important “ on the expulsion of Prime Ministers and cabinets.

In PR systems, it has been noted, ˜small parties often have excessive power in
creating or dissolving coalitions and/or in making decisions within the legisla-
ture or coalition™: consequently ˜fairness in translating votes to seats may lead to
unfairness in translating seats to power™ (Adrian Blau, ˜Fairness and electoral
reform™ (2004) 6 British Journal of Politics and International Relations 165, 173).

G Bingham Powell, Jr, Elections as Instruments of Democracy
(2000), p 26

[T]he majoritarian [eg the present Westminster] and proportional approaches to democracy
envision rather different roles for elections in connecting the preferences of citizens and the
formation of policy-making coalitions. The majoritarian vision sees elections as enabling cit-
izens directly to choose between alternative governments (incumbent or prospective or
both), with the winner taking office and making the policies after the election. The propor-
tional vision sees elections as choosing representatives who can bargain for their voters™
interests in postelection policy making. Although all national elections aggregate the desires
of thousands of voters into a much smaller number of representative policymakers, the
majoritarian view favors much greater aggregation, while the propotional view emphasizes
the importance of equitable reflection of all points of view into the legislature.

A powerful defence of plurality voting in a two-party system is presented
by Brian Harrison, The Transformation of British Politics 1860“1995 (1996),
pp 212“17; but compare the exposure of its de¬ciencies by Stuart Weir and
David Beetham, Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain (1999), ch 3.
The case for FPTP becomes less compelling if support for the two main
parties drains away and political debate is transformed by multi-party politics.
It is therefore discomforting to defenders of FPTP that in the 2005 general elec-
tion the two main parties together took less than 70 per cent of the votes cast,
while Labour™s share at 35.2 per cent was the smallest ever received by a party
enabled to form a majority government in the United Kingdom. If a sense of the
unfairness of the electoral system should become widespread, with electors
retreating into apathy and non-participation, the legitimacy of the whole polity
would be impaired. It may be, on the other hand, that with the emergence of
521 Parties, groups and the people


alternative electoral systems (for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh
Assembly, the Greater London Assembly and the European Parliament: see
below), the United Kingdom ˜is already in the process of a prolonged transition
to PR, marked by the “coexistence” of PR and plurality rule elections systems,
within which there has been a gradual transition to proportional systems™
(Dunleavy and Margetts, ˜The impact of UK electoral systems™ (2005) 58
Parliamentary A¬airs 854, 854“5).
For further discussion of the electoral system see G Smyth (ed), Refreshing the
Parts (1992); Norton, ˜Does Britain need proportional representation?™ in
R Blackburn (ed), Constitutional Studies (1992); R Blackburn, The Electoral
System in Britain (1995); M Dummett, Principles of Electoral Reform (1997);
V Bogdanor, Power and the People (1997), ch 3; Report of the Independent
Commission on the Voting System (Jenkins Report) (Cm 4090-I/1998)
R Johnston et al, From Votes to Seats (2001); D Farrell, Electoral Systems (2001);
Curtice, ˜The electoral system™ in V Bogdanor (ed), The British Constitution in
the Twentieth Century (2003).

(i) Some varieties of proportional representation
The single transferable vote (STV) version of proportional representation has
many advocates in the United Kingdom. Although not used on the continent
of Europe or in many countries elsewhere, it applies in the Republic of Ireland
and for elections to the upper house of the Australian Parliament (the Senate).
STV was in use in Northern Ireland from 1920 to 1929 and was re-introduced
in 1973 for local government elections in the province and for elections to the
Northern Ireland Assembly. The Assembly reconstituted in 1998 following the
Belfast Agreement is elected by the single transferable vote in six-member con-
stituencies (see the Northern Ireland (Elections) Act 1998 and the Northern
Ireland Act 1998, sections 33“4). STV is also used for the election of Northern
Ireland™s representatives in the European Parliament and it was introduced for
local government elections in Scotland by the Local Governance (Scotland)
Act 2004. The Liberal Democrats have favoured the adoption of the single
transferable vote in Britain. In recommending the introduction of a new elec-
toral system for the House of Commons, the House of Lords and local gov-
ernment in England and Wales, the Power Report expresses a tentative

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. 98
( 155 .)



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