Great Britain Under Pressure

Simon Osborn

Interest in Uniform Election Procedures
        Great Britain faces serious pressure from its European Union neighbors and from its own population to change Britain's winner-take-all method of electing its members to the European Parliament. 1994 may be the last time Britain elects its members to the European Parliament using winner-take-all.
        Since 1958, the European Parliament has been obliged to come forward with proposals for a "uniform procedure" for elections. The Treaty of Rome and the Maastricht Treaty ratified most recently call upon the Parliament to propose uniform voting procedures for European elections. And in 1976, the nine members of the old European Economic Community (the "Common Market") agreed that Europe's citizens should elect directly Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). It was the first stage on the road towards the goal of "uniform procedures" set out in the Treaty of Rome eighteen years earlier. Each of the nine would choose the voting system for the first elections in 1979 as a transitional arrangement.

Requirement for PR Passes European Parliament
        Fifteen years later, Great Britain continues to elect its members by the winner-take-all, First-Past-the-Post (FPP) voting system. The rest of Europe elects their members by some form of proportional representation (PR). However, the days of British insistence on the old voting system are numbered. On March 10, on a wet afternoon in Strasbourg, the home of the European Parliament's debating chamber, the MEPs voted for a new voting system based on PR for elections to the European Parliament. The proposals brought to the Parliament by the Belgian Liberal MEP Karel De Gucht said that, in future, elections of country delegations should be on the basis of PR.
        De Gucht's report, passed by 207-79, will allow member states a large degree of choice. So long as the voting system is based on the principle of PR, the Governments of Europe can pick and choose which system they want. Most of the member states use some form of PR party list system, although some, like Ireland, allow the voters to choose among candidates using the preference voting form of PR. However, Britain's winner-take-all system is ruled out.

Growing Impatience with British Resistance
        The proposals have yet to be discussed by the Council of Ministers, the executive body. However, Britain's Minister for elections at the Home Office, the Conservative MP Peter Lloyd, has been cautious. "We shall, of course," said Mr. Lloyd last April, "study these proposals with great care." The Minister is fairly skeptical about PR, and balks at the idea of greater uniformity in the voting system for European Parliament elections.
        It may be that Mr. Lloyd will veto the Parliament's proposals, as the Treaty says that the Council of Ministers must act "unanimously." However, further pressure is mounting. In a speech to a British audience in April, Mr. De Gucht commented, "If Great Britain continues until 1999 to block any decision in the Council of Ministers, this could be a breach of the Treaty of Maastricht. I think we [the European parliament] should seriously consider bringing Britain to court [the European Court of Justice]."
        This is no empty threat. Earlier this year, the Advocate General of the Court of Justice declared that the Parliament and the Council of Ministers had failed to act on their Treaty commitments. However, Britain's Liberal Democrat Party, which had brought the action to court, could not proceed with the case as the ruling also declared that only member states or EC institutions could take action on this matter.
        Further pressure comes on Britain as a result of the German Constitutional Court's declaration on the Maastricht Treaty. Their ruling urges the German Government to make greater strides towards democratizing the European Union. In particular, it urges the Germans to push the issue of greater uniformity in the voting system. They will be a powerful ally for Mr. De Gucht.
        Even the British Conservative Party's allies in the European Parliament have grown impatient with British intransigence. They see the British system creating instability in the European Parliament. At present, the winner-take-all system massively over-represents the Labour Party and consequently gives the left in the European Parliament an overall majority. (This current distortion in its favor has not kept Labour from calling for adopting PR for future elections to the European Parliament.) The Conservatives' allies on the right believe that a fair, proportional result would bring the Parliament back into balance, and the right back into power.

PR Very Popular with British Electorate
        Among the British electorate, PR remains popular in general and overwhelmingly popular for elections to the European parliament in particular. Earlier in 1993, the Electoral Reform Society published an opinion poll by MORI on voters' attitudes to PR for European elections. The survey showed that PR was backed by over three-to-one, including a nearly two-to-one margin among supporters of the Conservative party. The survey showed Major's approval ratings would rise 7% if he backed PR for European elections -- not unimpressive, given that he remains one of Britain's most unpopular prime ministers since polling began in Britain.
        Although the British will vote for the European parliament by FPP in 1994, Britons in 1999 may well be casting their votes by PR, as they already do in Northern Ireland.

        Simon Osborn is an officer of the Electoral Reform Society of Great Britain, one of the world's oldest organizations promoting proportional representation.

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