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Tuesday, 27 March, 2001, 15:24 GMT
Electoral reform

Should British voters be content with the first-past-the-post electoral system or is it time for a change?


BACKGROUND

If a candidate wins a Westminster seat with a majority of just one vote over the only rival, is that fair for the 49.9% of voters who did not choose that party?

Or are the opinions of a substantial number of voters less important than seeking to deliver stable government with a working majority?


We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons - an independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system

1997 Labour manifesto
Those are the questions that have dominated the debate over electoral reform in the UK for decades.

The current system for Westminster elections, first-past-the-post, excels in simplicity and ensures that every MP is linked to his or her constituency.

But it has a major flaw - the number of seats a party holds in Parliament is not proportionate to its share of the vote.

No government since 1935 has had the support of a majority of voters, according to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS).

In 1929, 1951 and February 1974, the party with the most votes actually lost the election.

At a constituency level, many MPs are elected with the support of less than half the total votes cast.

It also means that in parts of the UK, a major party can go unrepresented despite having significant numbers of supporters.

The Conservatives, for example, were electorally wiped off the map in Scotland in the 1997 general election.


HISTORY OF REFORM

Attempts to change the voting system began in the 1930s.

But the then Labour government was unable to find a system on which both the House of Commons and the Lords could agree.

In 1973, Northern Ireland became the first part of the UK to experience proportional representation of some kind when it adopted the "single transferable vote" for local elections.

During the Labour Party's long opposition years of the 1980s and 1990s, pressure for a more proportional system began to grow - not least because research suggested that Margaret Thatcher could have been kept out of power by a centre-left coalition under a European voting system.

In 1997, Labour's manifesto promised an independent body to investigate - saying there was a strong argument for modernising the electoral system.

The party said it was "committed to a referendum on the voting system" before any proposals were put forward.

This was music to the ears of the Liberal Democrats - the staunchest supporters of electoral reform.


JENKINS COMMISSION

Labour established an independent commission under the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Jenkins, to find a new voting system which would:

  • Achieve broad proportionality
  • Maintain a link between MPs and constituencies
  • Ensure stable government
  • Give voters more choice

    The Jenkins Commission report, published in 1998, recommended a hybrid of two existing systems, alternative-vote top-up, a method not currently used anywhere in the world.

    AV-Plus, as it is more commonly called, would give the electorate two votes each:

  • One for a candidate in the constituency
  • One for a party.

    The voter would rank the candidates in order of preference.

    If any candidate failed to get more than 50% of the vote in the first round of counting, the least popular would be eliminated and the votes reallocated to the other candidates on the basis of the voter's stated preference.

    This process would continue until there was a winning candidate.

    Lord Jenkins recommended that up to 85% of MPs should be elected this way.

    The remainder would be chosen from a party list, depending on the second or top-up votes.

    If this system had been in place for the last general election, says the Electoral Reform Society, the Conservatives would have gained seats in Scotland and Wales.

    Labour would have lost some seats overall, but gained some in the English Home Counties. For the purposes of the comparison below, the calculations discount the single independent seat won in 1997 by Martin Bell in Tatton:


    The biggest winners would have been the Liberal Democrats, who would have doubled their representation to about 90 MPs.

    The results for other recent general elections would have been even more interesting, according to research carried out by Essex University and the London School of Economics.

    AV-Plus would have led to a hung parliament in 1992 and possibly in 1979.

    In 1992, the Conservatives would have been 17 seats short of a majority. But Labour would have been in a worse position - needing the support of the Liberal Democrats and the national parties to form a majority.


    What the research appears to show is that in almost every election under an AV-Plus system with a 20% top-up list, the Liberal Democrats could hold the balance of power.


    CHANGES INTRODUCED

    Labour has appeared lukewarm to the idea.

    Its National Policy Forum report to the party's 2000 conference concluded that there were "serious concerns about the acceptability of AV-Plus".

    It did not reject the system. But it did not endorse it, either.

    Nevertheless, the Labour government has already implemented proportional representation away from Westminster.

    Northern Ireland's assembly is elected through the mathematically complicated but highly proportional "d'Hondt system" that aims to guarantee power-sharing arrangements.

    Elections to the European Parliament now use regional lists to inject a note of proportionality, while the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and Greater London assemblies all use an additional-member system - also in use in New Zealand and Germany.

    London's mayor is elected through a supplementary vote, a simpler version of AV-Plus, where the voter can make only two choices.

    The most noticeable effect of proportionality has been, as predicted, the emergence of coalitions in Scotland and Wales.

    Labour has been unable to form a stable government without the support of the Liberal Democrats.

    Additionally, the Conservatives - the party most opposed to proportional representation - took heart from the MS system in Scotland, which delivered them 18 seats in Edinburgh, almost exactly proportionate to their 16% share of the vote.


    CAMPAIGN FOR CHANGE

    The Electoral Reform Society remains one of the strongest supporters of the Jenkins' recommendations.

    It argues that AV-Plus would treat the parties more fairly - and that voters would know they were not wasting their time when they marked their ballot papers.

    Crucially, say campaigners, it would also mean that an election would be more likely to be fought across a larger spread of constituencies than at present - because far more marginal seats would emerge.

    Charter 88, the constitutional reform pressure group, backs AV-Plus for the same reasons.

    Make Votes Count is also campaigning for a referendum on voting reform. It commissioned a phone poll of 1,000 people earlier this year, which suggested that 67% of voters wanted a referendum.

    Make Votes Count said that abandoning the referendum pledge would make a fifth of voters less likely to trust Tony Blair on future promises.

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