1994 British Elections to the European Parliament

Contrasting Plurality and PR        

Paul Wilder

        Looking at the results of the British elections to the European Parliament in detail, as set out in the table on the next page, one notices that the overall results in terms of seats won by each party give a highly distorted impression of party support. With 44% of the total vote Labour managed to win three-quarters of the 84 British seats.
        This means that Labour is now easily the largest single party represented in the European Parliament (the German Christian Democrats are the second largest group with 47 seats) which probably helped influence the election of British MEP, Pauline Green, as leader of the European Parliament's Socialist Group. Depending on the precise details of the system, Labour would probably have won 40 seats or so under a proportional representation system.
        It is particularly striking that Labor won 52% of the vote across Scotland, Wales and the northern half of England, but won 94% (44) of the 48 seats; the Conservatives with 23% of the vote in the same region won just 4% (2) of the seats. Only in the southern half of England was there something approaching balance between the two main parties' votes and seats; but even here party representation in some regions was heavily distorted in favor of the largest party: London in favor of Labour and the southern Home Counties towards the Conservatives.
        Overall the Conservatives with 18 elected MEPs were left under-represented in the European Parliament in comparison with their share of the vote. This was the first time since 1966 that this had happened to the Conservatives in any nationwide election. Under any sensible system of proportional representation (PR), they might have expected to win about 24 seats, six more than they actually won.
        The Liberal Democrats, despite picking up their first seats in the European Parliament, were also left under-represented once again. Under a PR system, they might have won 12-15 seats. In addition the nationalist parties, both the SNP and Plaid Cymru, might have won an extra seat each in Scotland and Wales under a PR system. The percentages of votes and seats for each party by nation and English region, are set out in the table on page 190.

PR and What Might Have Been

        Any system of PR would provide representation to political parties in line with their votes, and obviously the most proportional systems would link directly the number of seats won by each party to the national total of votes polled by the party.
        However, it seems much more likely that if Britain decided to elect all its 84 MEPs on a proportional basis, then it would probably involve the election of English, Scottish and Welsh MEPs in regional constituencies based on the standard planning regions. The precise system adopted might logically be the single transferable vote (e.g., preference voting), which is already used to elect Northern Ireland's three MEPs, or perhaps a regional list system as tentatively endorsed recently by Labour's Plant Committee on electoral reform.
        Either way it can be demonstrated that there is not much to choose between preference voting and a regional list system in terms of delivering party proportionality assuming, that is, the same regional constituencies are used and that the same number of votes are cast for each party under either PR system as under plurality voting.
        The qualitative difference between preference voting and the regional list system is that preference voting would offer the voters much more choice and discretion among candidates. It would also bring at least some of the one million votes cast for the Green Party and the minor parties into play through the transfer of votes according to lower preferences. A regional list system would waste them.
        A proportional voting system based on regional multi-member constituencies might also assist the election of more women MEPs. The United Kingdom now has 16 female MEPs or 18% of its delegation. Of these, 13 are Labour and one SNP, but only two are Conservatives. Overall this is an increase of four women MEPs on the 1989 result, but it is still less than the European Parliament average female membership of 26%. Only Greece, Italy and Portugal elected smaller proportions of women to the European Parliaments.
        The Euro-election partisan results would have been much fairer had they been determined by preference voting or party list PR. A regional list system would probably have been slightly more favorable, perhaps by a seat or two, to the largest party and therefore less proportional than preference voting overall.

Results in the Nation of Britain
  Conservative Labour Lib. Dem. Nationalist Green
Nation no. of seats votes % seats % votes % seats % votes % seats % votes % seats % votes %
England 71 30.5 25.4 43.5 71.8 18.4 2.8 0.0 0.0 3.5
Scotland 8 14.5 0.0 42.5 75.0 7.2 0.0 32.6 25.0 1.5
Wales 5 14.6 0.0 55.9 100.0 8.7 0.0 17.1 0.0 2.0
Britain 84 27.9 21.4 44.2 73.8 16.7 2.4 4.3 2.4 3.2

Plurality Wasting a Majority of Votes

        Leaving the numeric question of party proportionality aside, the other key difference between plurality and proportional systems is that only the votes of the majority candidates are effective -- i.e. help elect a candidate or candidates of the voter's choice. Votes for minority candidates are ineffective, i.e. "wasted" in the sense that they do not directly contribute to the election of a candidate, although they add to a party's overall support.
        In first-past-the-post elections in Britain, roughly half of all votes cast are regularly wasted in this way. In the European election of 1989 52.9% of votes cast failed to elect a candidate of the voters' choice. In 1994 the figure was slightly lower, but still a majority at 52.0% or 7.94 million votes were ineffective out of 15.29 million cast.
        A majority of British MEPs, 47 out of 84, were also elected with less than 50% of the vote in their constituencies. Of these, 19 were elected with less than 40% of the vote, including 15 of the 18 polled by any successful candidate was the achieved by the Conservative MEP for Devon and Plymouth East at 31.7%; the highest was 74.4% won by the Labour MEP for Tyne and Wear.
        Overall the outcome of the 1994 European election was the most distorted and least representative election result in recent British electoral history. One serious consequence of the British result, which tipped the balance in the new Parliament too far tot he left, was that the Parliament as its first act, (and initiated by British Labour MEPs), attempted to block the appointment of Luxembourg's prime minister, Jacques Santer, as president of the European Commission. As the Independent editorial writer commented:

There would have been no prospect of the move being successful had not Labour MEPs been grossly disproportionately numerous, thanks to Britain's sole use of distorting [plurality] electoral system.

        Nor may the lesson of the election have been entirely lost on some Conservatives, not least those Tory MEPs who lost their seats (including their group leader Christopher Prout) that a PR system would guarantee both main parties and respectable minimum number of seats below which, in normal circumstances, they would no expect to fall.
        Given this fact and Labour's broad acceptance of PR for European elections, it is by no means certain that first-past-the-post will be used to elect British MEPs in 1999. The next step would then be to choose the system which allows the voters the opportunity to express their Euro-preferences most effectively.

        Paul Wilder is Executive Secretary of the Arthur McDougall Fund. This article is excerpted from a longer article in the Winter/Spring 1995 issue of the Fund's journal Representation. For information, contact the Fund at: 6 Chancel Street, London SE1 0UU.

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