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British Election Analysis

The 2001 British General Election and New Labourís Record on Electoral Reform: Prospects for House of Commons change go from bleak to virtually non-existentÖ for now

By Thomas Lundberg, PhD Candidate, Department of Government, University of Notre Dame

The June 2001 general election in Britain resulted in another huge Labour landslide victory on the scale of its 1997 performance. While the campaign focused on reform of Britainís ailing public services, with constitutional issues almost entirely absent, the question of whether Labour will continue to move Britain along the path of constitutional reform remains. Perhaps the most significant action of the previous Labour government, at least as far as constitutional change goes, was the devolution of power from Westminster to new regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Greater London, with radically new proportional electoral systems used to elect these bodies. However, while the 1997 Labour party manifesto promised a referendum on changing the electoral system for the House of Commons, no referendum was ever held, and the 2001 manifesto simply stated that the electoral systems used for the regional assemblies will be ìreviewedî after elections scheduled for 2003. Despite, or perhaps because of its large parliamentary seat majority, most commentators here in Britain doubt that Labour will pursue anything comparable to its prior agenda of constitutional reforms. Many in the cabinet are hostile to electoral reform, so it is highly unlikely that any change will occur in the new parliament. The ìforces of conservatism,î to use Tony Blairís words, are alive and well (and calling the shots) in the Labour party, and this conservatism at Westminster is all the more disappointing when one considers the apparent success of the experiments with regional assemblies and proportional electoral systems.

After four years in power, Labour obtained another mandate to govern, overcoming the ìcurseî that has prevented past Labour governments from governing alone in a second successive full term. This so-called mandate, however, was tainted due to a voter turnout of just over 59%, the lowest in the rather brief history of British democracy (a lower poll took place in 1918, but on a restricted franchise). Yet a seat majority almost as large as that of 1997 was won by Labouró62.7% of House of Commons seats on only 40.7% of the vote (for full election results, see http://news.bbc.co.uk/vote2001). The main opposition Conservatives had a net gain of only one seat since the last election, obtaining only 25.2% of the seats on 31.7% of the vote. The big winners this time were the Liberal Democrats, whose net gain of six constituencies, mainly at the expense of the Conservatives, brought them only 7.9% of the total seats on 18.3% of the vote. Such lopsided results are, of course, due to Britainís first-past-the-post (plurality) electoral system, which once again manufactured a landslide majority of seats for Labour when the majority of voters actually voted against them. Furthermore, when taking account of the low turnout, Blairís government only has the electoral support of about 25% of eligible voters, the smallest popular vote ìmandateî in British democratic history.

In the context of a landslide re-election, there is little reason for the Labour party to support a change in the electoral system in the direction of proportional representation (PR). Many in the party believe they have nothing to gain when the current first-past-the-post system appears to be delivering parliamentary seats for them, despite their 18 long years in the political wilderness. Why should they share power with the centrist Liberal Democrats, as would probably be required after a PR election, when they can govern alone under the current system? Any form of PR would have cost Labour seats in the last two elections, and a future reform would necessitate major constituency boundary revisions that could threaten safe Labour seats now taken for granted. This loss of Labour seats, inevitable under PR, is arguably the real reason for Labour opposition to change, despite the often-raised fears of coalition government and the frequently-cited notion that the multi-member constituencies required by PR will somehow break the ìsacredî link between members of Parliament (MPs) and the voters.

Back in 1998, the so-called Independent Commission on the Voting System (whose title was ìa joke to be enjoyed by those who knew the truth,î according to Andrew Rawnsley, in his book Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour) recommended a new electoral system for Westminster elections. Chaired by Lord Jenkins, the commission deliberately designed his ìAlternative Vote Plusî (AV+) system to facilitate the one-party government desired by Labour after not-so-secret meetings with Tony Blair. AV+ would accomplish Blairís goal by being one of the least proportional electoral systems that scholars could (very technically) label a form of PR. The vast majority of members would remain elected in single-member constituencies (using the Australian form of preferential voting the British call the ìalternative vote,î in which voters rank candidates in order of preference), with only 10-15% of the total MPs elected from party lists. The compensatory regions would consist of very small multi-member clusters formed from a group of constituencies and one or two additional list seats. The latter trait of the proposed system was meant to overcome concerns that party list members might be seen as ìsecond classî due to their election through a party list system. Critics would argue, however (as did the Royal Commission on the Electoral System in New Zealand), that having so few list members simply exacerbates the problem. The tiny number of list members, allocated in such small compensatory clusters, also reduces the proportionality of AV+ to such an extent that it should more appropriately be called a ìdiluted majoritarianî system than genuinely proportional.

Jenkinsís proposal disappointed many supporters of electoral reform, some of whom wrote highly critical responses. Opponents of change, on the other hand, were not placated by Jenkinsís compromise effort and vowed to kick the report into the proverbial long grass. Among the few people not alienated by Jenkins appeared to be the Electoral Reform Society, long-time British PR advocates who, while disappointed with AV+, have publicly called it ìthe next step forward.î They apparently hope that Jenkinsís hybrid might be a transitional phase in the journey towards their cherished goal of the single transferable vote (STV), the Irish PR system that uses preferential voting. The Liberal Democrats, also supporters of STV, offered a cool welcome for AV+ as well, perhaps because alternate electoral system models showed that this system (or even undiluted AV) would offer them far more seats than first-past-the-post.

While the AV+ proposal, despite its complexity, promises results that would differ little in proportionality from those of the current electoral system, genuine PR along German and New Zealand lines was the model for regional assemblies in Scotland, Wales, and Greater London. Called the additional member system in Britain (or ìMixed Member Proportionalî in New Zealand), legislators are elected by plurality in single-member constituencies, with additional members elected from closed party lists in electoral regions in Scotland and Wales, and city-wide in Greater London, in such a way that the final outcome (adding constituency and list seats together) is roughly proportional on a partisan basis. With deviations from proportionality (using the Gallagher index) of 7.51% in the Scottish Parliament, 8.58% in the Welsh Assembly, and 7.48% in the Greater London Assembly, election results for Britainís devolved assemblies have much more in common with the PR elections seen for the parliaments of Britainís European neighbours than at Westminster, where the deviation from proportionality was a staggering 16.57% in 1997 and even worse in the June 2001 election at 17.86% (the author can e-mail a summary of these election results on request).

Results from the 1999 Scottish Parliament election gave Labour most of the 73 constituency seats, with the Liberal Democrats taking the bulk of its seats in constituency form, but party list seats comprised most of those won by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and all of those for the Scottish Conservatives. The leaders of the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party also won list seats. Soon after the Scottish election, a coalition cabinet was formed with the participation of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties. While there were fears that the Liberal Democrat junior coalition partner would lose its identity, followed by electoral support, results from Scotlandís Westminster seats in June 2001 actually showed a gain in the LibDem popular vote share in Scotland, enough to put the party (which held all its Scottish seats) in third place and ahead of the Conservatives. Clearly coalition government has not hurt the LibDems, particularly since they could claim credit for abolishing up-front university fees introduced by Labour UK-wide and promising a future programme of free home care for the elderly, two policies popular south of the border but opposed by Labour at Westminster. In Wales, Labour has most of the 40 constituency seats, while the nationalist Plaid Cymru delegation is composed of roughly equal proportions of list and constituency members, as is the case for the Liberal Democrats, while the Conservatives have only one constituency seat. Labour was surprised by the strength of Plaid Cymru (which won over 30% of the party vote) and its own failure to win a majority of seats, despite the electoral system designed to be less proportional than its Scottish counterpart. Initially a minority Labour government was formed in Wales, but it was replaced by a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in autumn 2000.

While much attention has been paid to how well (or poorly) coalition and minority government have worked in Scotland and Wales, and whether these examples are models for future co-operation between Labour and the Liberal Democrats at Westminster, attention has also focused upon the two types of representative created by the mixed-member systems used to elect the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. Articles in the press, particularly in Scotland, revealed early on the battle over funding levels for members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) and how they differ between list and constituency members. Only the first list MSP from a partyís regional allocation receives an allowance comparable to that of constituency MSPs; any other list MSPs from that party in the region receive only 30% of the full office allowance, which is meant to discourage the establishment of separate offices. Because the vast majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat MSPs are constituency members, while most opposition MSPs are list members, critics charged that partisan motivations were at work. The allowances situation in Wales is different, however. All Welsh Assembly members (AMs) receive the same allowances; it has been noted that Alun Michael, the First Minister until Rhodri Morgan took over, was himself a Labour list member. The row over MSP allowances in Scotland was an early indication not only of political expediency, however, but also of how little thought had been given to the constituency role that might be assumed by regional list MSPs. In order to live up to the expectations most party list MSPs seemed to have of playing some kind of constituency service role, they needed government fundingóa lot of fundingóto cover the large regions from which they were elected. Labour constituency MSP Andy Kerr revealed in his contribution to the parliamentary debate what many believedóthat ìList MSPs were elected to achieve proportionality. They are equal in the job, but in a different jobÖList MSPs and constituency MSPs play different roles in the community.î

There can be little argument that much confusion surrounds the roles that list members in Scotland and Wales are expected to play. Legally both constituency and list members are equal in status, and the list members may claim that they too are ìconstituencyî members representing the vastly larger electoral regions as constituencies in their own right. Over time, voters who failed to elect candidates from the party of their choice may come to regard regional list members from their preferred party as constituency advocates, approaching them for advice and help instead of the member for their smaller local constituency. Indeed, it could be argued that voters benefit from having a number of potential advocates, and from the competition among them to help constituents. As this process evolves, however, there is little specific guidance from the government on how members should behave in their constituency dealings, and existing guidelines can be confusing (like the code of conduct for both types of members introduced by the Scottish Parliament), or simply ignored.

Early indications from my own research are that both constituency and regional list members are assuming constituency service roles in Scotland and Wales, but with list members somewhat more oriented towards organised interests than individual voters. There is also evidence that list members have a stronger partisan role than constituency members, as might be expected when taking into account how they were elected. Both types of members appear to accept that the new electoral system is providing groups of equally representative legislators, but Labour members in particular resent what they consider intrusions by list members (mainly from the SNP, the largest opposition party in Scotland) into the casework of previously safe Labour single-member constituencies. Indeed, one SNP list member was taken to the Standards Committee recently over his use of the phrase ìlocal MSPî in posters which the committee found to be in breach of the code of conduct because the term ìlocal MSPî might mislead people into thinking that the list member was the local constituency MSP. The list member in question, Andrew Wilson, agreed to change his advertising, and was not punished.

It appears that the Labour party at Westminster has had enough of the turf battles between constituency and list members north of the border, and plans to alter the electoral system for future Scottish Parliament elections were leaked to the media in mid-June. The MSPs I spoke to about this story, however, think the leak was a ìkiteî flown to assess reactions and that the plan is unlikely to be implemented. Nevertheless, the proposal is provocative. With the reduction in Scottish Westminster constituencies from 72 to about 58 in the next boundary revision, agreed to by Labour as part of the price of devolution (both Scotland and Wales are now over-represented at Westminster), the Scottish Parliamentís single-member constituencies would be reduced from 73 to about 58 if it follows the Scotland Actís guidelines (although this could be changed to allow retention of all 73 constituencies). The eight electoral regions in which party list members are elected would be abolished, but the present number of party list members, 56, would be retained and allocated to Scotland as a whole on the basis of the second (party list) ballot, compensating for the results in constituency races. This ìnational listî approach would increase the proportionality of the system, benefiting small parties like the Greens and the Scottish Socialist Party, and could potentially hurt Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Perhaps the Labour party feels that it will continue to dominate the single-member constituencies, which its members seem to feel are more ìlegitimate,î and that it will be more difficult for list members to shadow them. It should be noted, however, that in New Zealand, which uses national lists for its Mixed Member Proportional system, parties actually assign list members to clusters of geographical constituencies (essentially ìshadowingî constituency members), and there is no reason why Scottish parties would not do the same thing. Alternatively, Labour might believe that a more proportional electoral system could make a future surge in popularity by the SNP less threatening. In any case, there is a strong sense that the regional list system is important for rural areas, which might otherwise be ignored, as well as for regional accountability, as national lists would increase central party control. Some MSPs, however, might prefer national lists if they wish to focus more on party policy than on constituency service.

Back at Westminster, however, Tony Blair appears more opposed to PR than ever for the House of Commons. In one of the few comments on PR during the election campaign, he complained about PR giving ìtoo much power to small partiesî in coalition arrangements. It is clear that a referendum on electoral reform is unlikely unless the next election, in 2005 or 2006, results in a hung parliament or a small Labour majority. In such circumstances the Liberal Democrats would be in a position to extract some kind of concession on electoral reform, probably the promise of a referendum and public support for a change; it is hard to see how a coalition could manage if it were divided over such an important issue, although individual Labour MPs could (and would!) speak out on their own positions. How the government could justify a referendum when AV+ is so similar in proportionality to the current electoral system, and real, working models of PR exist in Britainís own regional assemblies would certainly become an issue. Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be accused of ganging up on the Conservatives, a charge that might gain sympathy from a public wary of seeing politicians tampering with fundamental institutional rules for partisan gain. Furthermore, it is unlikely that AV+ would be merely an interim system, as hoped by the Electoral Reform Society; it would probably become entrenched and difficult to change later.

Indeed, it is more likely that the highly majoritarian, undiluted AV, rather than AV+, will emerge as the likely ìreformî option put before British voters in a future referendum, according to many observers of British politics. Before his demotion from the cabinet, Peter Mandelson renounced his previous support for PR and called for AV to be introduced, again invoking the ìhorrorsî of coalition government. Many in the Labour party (including rising star Peter Hain, author of anti-PR tract Proportional Mis-representation) support AV or are warming up to the system. Journalist John Morrison concludes in his recent book Reforming Britain: New Labour, New Constitution? that with Liberal Democrat compliance, ìthe choice will be between first-past-the-post and AV, while the prospect of a more substantial change in the voting system for Westminster floats back to the bottom of the seabedóthe reform that got away.î With reasonably well functioning executives and PR systems in its regional assemblies, and the strong possibility of the introduction of STV for local council elections in Scotland and Wales (as in Northern Ireland now), unreconstructed majoritarianism at Westminster will look increasingly out of place in Britain, as well as disappointing to the reform-minded community.

 
 
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