A constitutional monarchy with one the world's longest lasting traditions of rule of government by consent of the governed, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland held a general election on Thursday, May 6, 2010. Unlike in other Western European nations, all members of the lower chamber of the U.K. Parliament, the House of Commons, are elected by the first-past-the-post system, whose functioning is described here.
Summary results compiled on the basis of constituency-level figures are available here for the following general elections:
2001 to 2010 general election statistics come from official reports published by the Electoral Commission, while 1983-97 general election results come from U.K. House of Commons Information Office Factsheets (which in turn use data from the Britain Votes series, originally compiled by the late F.W.S. Craig and subsequently by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher).
The Additional Member System (AMS) used in Scotland and Wales for elections to their devolved legislatures - which were held on Thursday, May 5, 2011 - is reviewed in Elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.
A referendum to replace the House of Commons' first-past-the-post electoral system with the Alternative Vote (AV) system - used to choose members of Australia's House of Representatives - was also held throughout the U.K. on May 5. The Electoral Commission has live referendum results here.
The United Kingdom Parliament is composed of the Crown, that is the monarch, the House of Lords, an appointive and hereditary upper chamber, and the popularly elected lower chamber, the House of Commons. The latter enjoys supremacy over the former: the House of Lords' powers, originally equal to those of the House of Commons, were drastically reduced in 1911 and 1949 to delay of nonmoney (non-fiscal) bills. Since 1999, most of the country's hereditary peers are excluded from membership in the House of Lords.
As it is well known, the parliamentary system of government originated in Great Britain, where it has gradually developed under an uncodified constitution defined by a vast body of laws, court decisions and diverse unwritten conventions. Under its present-day form, the leader of the party commanding a majority in the House of Commons heads the government as prime minister, with members of his (or her) Cabinet being likewise drawn from the majority. The prime minister is a member of the House of Commons, as are most members of the Cabinet. Governments require majority support in the House of Commons to remain in office: in the event a government loses a vote of confidence in the House of Commons, it must resign or request dissolution of Parliament.
Although formally an integral part of Parliament, the monarch - since 1952, Queen Elizabeth II - fulfills a primarily ceremonial role, in which the Crown represents the unity of the nation and stays above party politics. As such, the Queen does not exercise the royal right of veto over legislation approved by Parliament.
For general election purposes, the United Kingdom is currently divided into 650 constituencies, each of which returns one Member of Parliament (MP) to the House of Commons, elected for a maximum term of five years. Of these, 533 are in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales and 18 in Northern Ireland. Although these constituencies are for the most part approximately equal in population size, there are built-in imbalances. Wales is deliberately over-represented in the House of Commons, as was Scotland until recent times: the establishment in 1999 of a Scottish Parliament with devolved powers has led to a reduction of the number of Scottish constituencies. Additionally, some rural constituencies are allowed to have population sizes well below the national average; the option would be to create districts with very large geographical areas. As a result, the average number of electors per constituency for the 2001 election was 67,380, but the individual constituencies ranged from a low of 21,706 electors in the Western Isles (in Scotland's north-western coast) to a high of 104,431 in the Isle of Wight (located off the coast of southern England). In fact, a vote in the former constituency was almost five times as influential in the election of an MP than one in the latter.
Four boundary commissions - one each for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - are responsible for the continuous review of parliamentary constituency boundaries. These commissions are presided by the non-partisan Speaker of the House of Commons, and their recommendations, which are supposed to be free of political bias, have to be approved by the House of Commons. Nonetheless, boundary revisions in Britain have been rarely devoid of controversy.
From 1918 until 1985, parliamentary candidates were required to submit a £150 deposit, which was forfeited in the event the candidate failed to secure one-eight (12.5%) of all valid votes. Effective in 1985, the deposit was raised to £500 (about US $725 at May 2010 exchange rates), but the threshold for return of the deposit was lowered to one-twentieth (5%) of all valid votes. The government had the deposit raised supposedly to prevent the proliferation of extremist and/or frivolous candidacies, but the main beneficiaries of the change have been the major parties, as very few of their candidates have lost their deposits since then. Parliamentary candidates must also be endorsed by at least ten electors.
Each elector casts a vote for one of the candidates running for MP in his or her constituency, and the candidate with the largest number of votes is elected to office. This method is also known as the first-past-the-post (FPTP) or plurality system, for all that it is required is a simple majority of votes: an absolute majority is not a requisite for election.
Mass party politics in the U.K. developed with the expansion of the electoral franchise in the mid-19th century, when the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party emerged as the respective successors of the Whigs and the Tories, which had existed since the early 18th century. Liberal and Conservative governments alternated in power until World War I, but in the years following the end of the war the Labour Party gradually displaced the Liberals as the major challenger to the Conservatives.
Labour formed two short-lived minority governments in 1923-24 and 1929-31, and alternated in office with the Conservatives from 1945 until 1979, when the Conservative Party was returned to power and Margaret Thatcher became Great Britain's first (and to date only) female prime minister. Mrs. Thatcher held office until 1990, when she lost the confidence of Conservative MPs and was forced to resign. John Major, who succeeded Mrs. Thatcher as party leader and prime minister, led the Conservatives to a fourth consecutive victory in the 1992 general election, although with a reduced parliamentary majority. However, the events of "Black Wednesday", September 16, 1992 - when speculative attacks on the pound sterling forced the government to leave the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) and devalue the currency - dealt a fatal blow to the Conservatives' reputation for competent management of the economy. The Conservative majority in the House of Commons was gradually eroded by a number of defections and spectacular defeats in by-elections held to fill parliamentary vacancies, but the unpopular Major government clung to power and chose not to hold a general election until the very last possible moment, hoping that by then the economic recovery would turn public opinion around. It proved to be of no avail: the 1997 general election brought eighteen years of Conservative government to an end, and a rejuvenated Labour Party, running on a distinctly centrist platform under the leadership of Tony Blair, was returned to power in a landslide victory. In the 2001 general election, Labour scored a second landslide victory, while the Conservatives had a net gain of just one seat.
Labour went on to win an unprecedented third-term victory in the 2005 general election, albeit with a smaller (yet substantial) parliamentary majority and a significantly reduced popular vote lead over the Conservatives. Blair continued in office until June 2007, when he stepped down after ten years as head of government. Gordon Brown, who had served as chancellor of the Exchequer (minister of finance) since 1997, succeeded Blair as prime minister. However, in the 2010 general election, the Conservatives emerged once more as the largest party in terms of votes and seats, well ahead of Labour but twenty seats short of an overall majority.
There have been other parties represented in the House of Commons. Late in the 19th century and early in the 20th, the Irish Home Rule or Nationalist Party, which demanded the establishment of a devolved legislature for Ireland, held at times the balance of power between Liberals and Conservatives. In the second half of the 20th century, the Liberal Party, which had retained a handful of seats in the House of Commons, scored significant popular vote increases (but few seat gains) on a number of occasions, most notably in February 1974, and again in 1983, when it formed the Alliance with the Social Democratic Party (SDP), a breakaway from the Labour Party. However, in 1997 the Liberal Democrats - the successors of the Alliance - finally achieved a significant breakthrough in terms of parliamentary representation, and in the 2001 and 2005 general elections the party scored further gains both in terms of votes and seats.
Opinion polls suggested the Liberal Democrats would make significant advances in 2010, but these failed to materialize: instead, the party lost five seats in the House of Commons, although its share of the vote increased slightly. Nonetheless, the Liberal Democrats held the balance of power, and party leader Nick Clegg immediately began negotiations with Conservative leader David Cameron to form a new government. While a government of Labour with the Liberal Democrats and several smaller parties remained a possibility - as it turned out, the Liberal Democrats held parallel talks with Labour at the same time they were negotiating with the Conservatives - Gordon Brown resigned as head of government on May 11, 2010. David Cameron became the new prime minister that same day, heading a coalition cabinet of the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats - the U.K.'s first coalition government at the national level since 1940-45 - with Nick Clegg as deputy prime minister.
Besides the Liberal Democrats, both the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru (PC; Party of Wales), which advocate independence for their respective countries, have been continuously represented in the House of Commons since 1974. In Northern Ireland, Unionist and Nationalist parties supported by that province's Protestant and Roman Catholic communities, respectively, have been the dominant political forces. Labour and the Liberal Democrats do not organize in Northern Ireland, while Conservative candidates in the province have usually fared poorly. In 2001, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) lost considerable ground to the more extreme Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), while the militantly republican Sinn Fein (SF; We Ourselves) displaced the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as the largest Nationalist party in the province. The DUP emerged as the largest Unionist political force in the 2005 general election, while the UUP suffered a crushing defeat, losing all but one of its seats in Westminster; its sole remaining MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon, left the party in 2010 and subsequently won re-election as an independent candidate. Meanwhile, the Ulster Conservatives and Unionists - New Force, an electoral alliance of UUP with the Conservatives, won no seats in the 2010 general election. However, the liberal, non-sectarian Alliance Party won a seat in the U.K. House of Commons for the first time.
Nonetheless, it must be noted that despite significant changes in voting patterns over the course of the past three decades, British parliamentary politics continue to be dominated by two major parties, in no small measure due to the amplifying effects of the first-past-the-post electoral system.
The key characteristic of the British electoral system is not how many votes does a political party accumulate, but by how much it is ahead of the other parties, particularly in seats held with majorities of less than 10% of the vote, known as marginal constituencies. The outcome of a general election is actually decided in these seats, and political parties concentrate their efforts in retaining their own marginals, and capturing those held by their opponents.
Although Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats contest all (or nearly all) constituencies in Great Britain proper, with the SNP and PC fielding candidates for all seats in their respective countries as well, the vast majority of seats in the House of Commons are safe constituencies, usually won by the same party in every election with majorities of 15%-20% of the vote or more. On the basis of official election results for England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, and notional or estimated results for Scotland published in the Media Guide to the New Scottish Westminster Parliamentary Constituencies, compiled and edited by David Denver, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, the distribution of seats in the House of Commons by political party and percentage majority in the 2001 general election under the revised Scottish constituency boundaries would have been as follows:
(The notional distribution of seats in the 2005 general election under the revised English and Welsh constituency boundaries is available further below, under Bias in the Electoral System?)
Plurality voting works to the advantage of the larger parties, and in most circumstances the winning party in particular, which is usually over-represented at the expense of third parties, and often at the expense of its major challenger as well. Nonetheless, under first-past-the-post a major party may win more seats than its main competitor despite receiving fewer votes than the latter, as was the case of the British elections of 1929 and February 1974 (when Labour won more seats but fewer votes than the Conservatives) as well as 1951 (when the Conservatives won an overall majority despite having received fewer votes than Labour). However, the system usually amplifies the majority attained by the winning party: in all but one general election since the end of World War II (February 1974), a single party emerged with a clear legislative majority, and was able to subsequently form a government.
While the electoral system in Britain tends to over-represent the larger parties, it penalizes small and middle-sized parties. In fact, a relatively large party whose support is evenly spread throughout the country will accumulate far fewer seats than a comparable competitor whose support is geographically concentrated. The most dramatic example of this kind of situation occurred in the 1983 general election, when Labour, with 27.6% of the vote, won 209 out of 650 seats in the House of Commons, but the Liberal-SDP Alliance, with 25.4% of the vote, won just 23 seats. The problem for the Alliance was that, generally speaking, its share of the vote did not vary significantly from region to region: that is, most of its candidates obtained results within a few percentage points of the national average. Although the Alliance did score a much better than average performance in some areas of southern England - particularly the southwest, where it pushed Labour to a distant third place - these areas happened to be Conservative strongholds at the time, and therefore their votes failed to translate into seats. By contrast, the Labour vote was heavily concentrated in Scotland, Wales, and to a lesser extent in northern England. Only eleven Alliance candidates polled less than 12.5% of the vote and lost their deposits, but a record total of 119 Labour candidates (most of them in southern England) had their deposits forfeited.
If the first-past-the-post system presents considerable difficulties for a middle-sized party like the Liberal Democrats - as recently as 1992, the party could only manage to win 20 seats out of 651 in the House of Commons (3.1%) with 17.8% of the vote - it effectively shuts out much smaller political groups, such as the anti-European Union United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the far-right British National Party (BNP) or (before 2010) the environmentalist Green Party, whose support is usually below five percent in most constituencies. However, a small party whose support is concentrated in a specific area can not only survive but also thrive under the system. This is the case of Plaid Cymru in Wales. Within the British context, the PC is decidedly small, with only 0.7% of all votes in the 2001 election. Even in Wales, its share of the vote stood at just 14.3%. However, this vote is very unevenly spread throughout the principality, as it is highly concentrated in a few districts where Welsh speakers are in the majority. As a result, PC held 4 of the 40 Welsh seats in the House of Commons, a measure of representation that stands just slightly below their proportion of the vote. Incidentally, the case of the PC is not unique: in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats (who otherwise do not fare particularly well under the British electoral system) held 10 of the 72 Scottish seats, or 13.9% of the total, on a 16.3% share of the vote. This is so because unlike in England (or for that matter Wales), the Liberal Democrats' vote in Scotland is highly concentrated around some areas, most notably the Scottish Highlands and Islands. In addition, the presence of the SNP makes many parliamentary contests in Scotland four-way races, as opposed to the three-way races that are typical of England.
The results of the 2001 general election illustrate the typical behavior of the plurality system:
The clear beneficiary of the first-past-the-post system was Labour, which won 412 out of 659 seats (62.5%) with only 40.7% of the popular vote, largely at the expense of the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats and (in Scotland) the SNP, whose representation in the House of Commons remained substantially below their respective shares of the vote. At the same time, the Northern Ireland Unionist and Nationalist parties - who ran candidates solely in that province - attained representation roughly comparable to their electoral strength on a U.K.-wide basis, as did the Welsh nationalists.
Nonetheless, it should be noted that in the 1997 and 2001 general elections, the Liberal Democrats significantly narrowed the once-formidable gap between their share of the vote and their representation in the House of Commons by concentrating their resources in key marginal constituencies where the party (rather than Labour) stands as the main challenger to the Conservatives, and by appealing to Labour voters in these seats to cross party lines and cast a tactical vote in order to prevent the election of Conservative candidates. This strategy proved successful, all the more so given the sharp decline of the Conservatives' general election fortunes between 1997 and 2005. In the 2005 general election, the Liberal Democrats also scored a number of notable victories in several constituencies where the party stood as the main challenger to Labour.
Their advances from 1997 to 2005 notwithstanding, the Liberal Democrats have been among the strongest advocates of proportional representation (PR) in Britain. However, the two major parties (particularly the Conservatives) remain opposed to it, on the grounds that it would lead to a proliferation of small parties and that it would introduce difficulties in the formation of governments, since it would be expected that most of the times no single party could count with an overall parliamentary majority.
Before 1997, the only instance in which British governments had been willing to consider and even implement PR had been in the case of Northern Ireland, where the Protestant majority used the first-past-the-post system to perpetuate itself in power, at the expense of the Roman Catholic minority, which it had relegated to second-class status. Thus, PR was introduced in the province to insure that Catholic-based parties would be better represented in popularly elected bodies, and in good measure to coax the Protestant majority into power-sharing arrangements with the Catholic minority (although the first-past-the-post system has been retained for the election of the 18 MPs from the province). But whereas the first goal has been achieved, the second remains somewhat elusive, given the intransigence of some politicians on both sides of the religious divide. That the British government was willing to implement PR in Northern Ireland but not in Great Britain proper may have appeared to be a contradiction, but the rationale was that Northern Ireland is different, with a distinctively problematic situation requiring different solutions.
However, in December 1997 the Labour Party government elected the preceding May established an Independent Commission on the Voting System "to recommend the best alternative 'system or combination of systems' to the existing commonly-called 'First Past the Post' system of election to the Westminster Parliament", taking into account four requirements, namely broad proportionality; the need for stable government; an extension of voter choice; and the maintenance of a link between MPs and geographical constituencies.
In a report presented on October 1998, the Commission - known popularly as the Jenkins Commission after its chairman, the late Roy Jenkins, Baron Jenkins of Hillhead - recommended a complex, two-vote mixed system, described as "AV Top-up", under which the majority of MPs (80-85%) would be elected on a single-member constituency basis by the Alternative Vote (AV) system used in Australia to choose members of the House of Representatives. In order to "significantly reduce the disproportionality and the geographical divisiveness which are inherent in FPTP", the remaining members (15-20%) were to be elected on a corrective or "Top-up" basis from lists put forward in 65 multi-member areas by political parties. The Commission also recommended that these lists be open, thus allowing voters to either vote for a party or for an individual candidate within a list.
Although the Labour government went on to introduce PR in Great Britain proper both at the sub-national level - for elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the London Assembly - and at the supra-national level - for elections to the European Parliament - both the Labour Party and the Cabinet were deeply split on the matter of reforming the House of Commons' voting system. As a result, the Jenkins Commission report was shelved - the party's 1997 general election manifesto (platform) commitment to hold a referendum on the issue notwithstanding - and Labour's 2001 general election manifesto only included a pledge to "review the experience of the new systems and the Jenkins report to assess whether changes might be made to the electoral system for the House of Commons". As the Jenkins Commission report aptly put it, the political parties' "desire to improve the electoral system has tended to vary in inverse proportion to their ability to do anything about it"...
As it was, Labour had little incentive to switch to an electoral system which in all likelihood would have drastically reduced its large parliamentary majority, all the more so as the existing system appears to have placed the Conservatives at a distinct disadvantage: lower turnout rates in Labour-held constituencies, combined with Labour's better-than-average performance in Conservative-Labour marginals since 1992 - a shift partly driven by anti-Conservative tactical or cross-over voting by Liberal Democratic electors - have allowed the party to secure a larger number of seats than its share of the vote would otherwise allow. This apparent bias of the electoral system prevented the Conservatives from being over-represented at the expense of Labour in 1992 - atypically, the ratio of Conservative to Labour seats was almost identical to the proportion of Conservative to Labour votes - while in 1997 it contributed to amplify the Conservatives' losses, and in 2001 it prevented that party from scoring significant seat gains; in 2005, the Conservatives increased their parliamentary representation by a substantial number of seats (on a slightly larger share of the vote), but the electoral system continued to work to the advantage of Labour: in England proper, the Conservatives polled a marginally larger vote than Labour, but won considerably fewer seats than the latter.
Moreover, it appears the recent review of parliamentary constituency boundaries has not had much of an impact on this phenomenon. According to well-known British political scientists Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, editors of the Media Guide to the New Parliamentary Constituencies, if the 2005 general election had taken place under the new boundaries, Labour's 66-seat overall majority would have only been slightly reduced to 48 seats. In England, Labour would have won eight fewer seats, and the Conservatives would have captured an additional twelve, but Labour would have retained a commanding 72-seat lead over the Conservatives, despite polling slightly fewer votes than its main adversary.
The distribution of seats in the House of Commons by political party and percentage majority in the 2005 general election under the revised constituency boundaries would have been as follows:
Nonetheless, in the wake of a 2009 MPs expenses scandal which greatly damaged Parliament's reputation, Labour - by then trailing well behind the Conservatives in opinion polls - revived its committment to electoral reform. In February 2010 the House of Commons overwhelmingly approved a government-sponsored amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, under which voters would be asked in a referendum (scheduled to be held in October 2011) if they wanted to switch to the Alternative Vote (AV) system for elections to the U.K. Parliament, or retain the existing first-past-the-post system.
Initially, it was uncertain if the referendum would actually take place, given that the bill had yet to be approved by the House of Lords; more importantly, the Conservatives - who remain strongly in favor of first-past-the-post - originally were widely expected to repeal the legislation and scrap the referendum had they won an overall parliamentary majority in the 2010 general election. However, no single party won an absolute House of Commons majority in the election, and not surprisingly electoral reform emerged as a major issue in the negotiations between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to form a new government. In the end, the Conservatives made an about-face and agreed to hold a referendum on AV, in order to secure a coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats. Under the terms of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act passed by Parliament in February 2011, a referendum will be held next May 5 - on the same day as local elections in England, elections to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Northern Ireland Assembly - in which voters will be asked if they want the U.K. to adopt the Alternative Vote system instead of the existing first-past-the-post system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons.
However, the bill also includes provisions to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 seats (down from the current 650), while making parliamentary constituencies more equal in size: no constituency would have an electorate under 95% or over 105% of the U.K. average, except for constituencies with an area of more than 12,000 square kilometers (approximately 4,600 square miles), and the sparsely populated insular constituencies of Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (previously the Western Isles). In addition, there would be two constituencies in the Isle of Wight, which currently elects one MP.
Early estimates suggest Labour would have lost far more seats than the Conservatives (or for that matter the Liberal Democrats) had the bill's "reduce and equalise" provisions been in place for the 2010 general election (assuming an identical popular vote outcome under an otherwise unchanged electoral system), and not surprisingly the party opposed the bill in Parliament, its previous backing of AV notwithstanding. In fact, the existing electoral system continued to favor Labour, even in defeat: despite attaining both a slightly higher share of the vote and a substantially larger popular vote lead than Labour in 2005, the Conservatives still won fewer seats in 2010 than Labour in the preceding election.
Copyright © 2005-2011 Manuel
Álvarez-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.