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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 May, 2003, 16:41 GMT 17:41 UK
Elections and democracy

Unit 1: People and Politics
by Hugh Berrington
The Professor Emeritus at the School of Geography, Politics and Sociology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne writes for BBC Parliament

ballot box
How much does your vote really count for?

The first question to ask is whether voters are able to cast their ballots without intimidation, bribery or coercion. And are the votes, once cast, counted fairly? Not always, is the honest answer.

The Third World provides numerous accusations that elections have been 'rigged'.

Even where votes are cast freely and counted fairly, however, there are questions to raise about electoral procedures.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION: Unit 1 - People and Politics

The biggest source of controversy lies in the electoral system. For Westminster elections, Britain employs the Single Member Constituency with the First Past the Post formula for finding the winner.

The candidate with the most votes is elected irrespective of whether he or she has an overall majority of votes cast.

Thus, in 2001, 333 MPs were elected on a minority vote, leading, some argue, to a distortion of representation.

Many MPs are chosen despite not being supported by a majority of those who voted.

Unit 1: People and Politics

That complaint is of minor importance compared with distortions that can occur on a national scale.

Governments usually have a majority in the Commons but none in the country at large: not since 1935 has a party (or alliance of parties) won an overall majority of the votes cast.

The winner's bonus?

The normal tendency of the electoral system is to exaggerate the Commons majority of the winning party.

Thus in 1997, and again in 2002 Labour won a huge majority of seats despite polling well under half the votes in the country at large. Some defend this winner's bonus but problems remain.

First, it is possible for a party to become the largest single party, or even to win an overall majority of seats, despite polling fewer votes than another party - as in February 1974 or 1951.

Secondly, some minorities are often heavily penalised, winning far fewer seats than their strength in the country entitles them to.

However narrow the electoral base of their majority in Parliament, governments will claim that they have a mandate to enact those policies promised in their election manifesto.

The claim is hallowed by tradition but hardly stands up. We have seen that governments rarely, if ever, win a majority over all other parties.

More people will have voted against a government than for them. It is also unrealistic to suppose that everybody who votes for a particular party endorses every item in that party's manifesto. Some people vote for a party, in spite of, not because of, a key policy proposal.

Steps have been taken to try and meet some of these problems when setting up new elected authorities.

Thus in the elections for Mayors the votes of candidates who, after the first round of voting clearly stand no chance of election, are redistributed according to the voters' second choice.

Proportional representation

In the new territorial assemblies - in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - different forms of proportional representation are used to prevent a single party, which lacks an overall majority of votes, from taking an overall majority of seats.

In Scotland, for instance, the Single Member Constituency is kept and a candidate winning the most votes is elected.

However, Additional Members are then allotted to the parties to ensure that the overall outcome is roughly proportional.

Northern Ireland uses multi-member constituencies with the Single Transferable Vote (STV).

This gives ordinary voters considerable power, not only over the party make-up of the Assembly, but over which individuals are elected. In both countries, the Executive is a coalition, although the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive have been suspended for some months.

Parliamentary sovereignty

One of the keystones of the British Constitution is the sovereignty of Parliament. Under this doctrine, all power is vested in the Queen in Parliament - the monarch, the House of Lords and the House of Commons acting together.

The only role of the elector is to vote for the members of the House of Commons; if he is dissatisfied with the measures passed by parliament he can vote against his MP at the next election.

Some regard the power of Parliament as excessive and look to the Referendum as a way of giving ordinary people the power to decide what policies are introduced.

With the Referendum, citizens are invited to vote on a particular measure. Thus, in June 1975, a referendum was held to decide whether Britain should stay in the European Economic Community (now the European Union) which she had joined in 1973.

A big majority voted in favour of staying in. In 1979, referendums in Scoland and Wales were held on proposals for devolution in those countries.

More recently, in 1998, referendums on devolution were held again in Scotland and Wales.

This time the proposals were endorsed by the electors, albeit narrowly in Wales. Likewise, the present government has pledged that if it decides to recommend that Britain should adopt the euro as its currency, the electorate will be given the last word at a referendum.

What is striking, however, is how little the referendum is used in Britain. Indeed, apart from local polls to decide whether a town has an elective Mayor, all the questions put to the people in recent years have involved major constitutional issues.

One school of thought believes that such an approach is right; others argue that the referendum should be used more widely, on a broader range of proposals.

Prof Hugh Berrington 2004
School of Geography, Politics and Sociology
University of Newcastle upon Tyne


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