Why are brits’ elections so weird?

Arman Basurto.

Yesterday, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland faced its third election night in two years, being its inhabitants forced to remain awaken until six in the morning in some cases. During the night, parcial results were announced in Town Halls, with candidates for each seat delivering speeches and being proclaimed winners. For people from continental Europe not very much into politics, this may appear to be weird. Vote count in Spain, for example, goes extremely fast. Final results are available just two hours after voting centres close, and the map resulting from the election is at least comprehensible as compared to the British one. Well, that does not mean necessarily that the continental way of voting is better than the one held by Anglo-Saxons for centuries, but it certainly shows us that there are extremely relevant differences which have to be acknowledge, as they have a strong influence in both the electoral result and political culture.

The element which creates those differences is, as you may have presumed, the voting system. To put it bluntly, in Europe (with exceptions, I know) we rely on the share of vote each party had, while ‘old fashioned britons’ (pardon me) choose one man to ride his horse and defend his county before Parliament. The Continental way is called proportionality and the British one is the majority (and, more precisely, First-Past-the-Post).

I. How does the majoritarian system work in Britain:

In order to address efficiently how the British system operates, three concepts have to be correctly explained. First, what is exactly a majoritarian system? It just means that the most voted forces are the one that make it to the Parliament. If there are two seats in a constituency, the two candidates with the highest number of votes will be elected. There is no attention for proportionality.

This is what happens in Britain, but it must also be acknowledged that elections are held in single-member constituencies. So (and this brings us to the second concept), what is a constituency? Well, it is just the area which elects a seat of parliament. It could be a town, a borough, or a county. In the UK, each constituency chooses one Member of Parliament.

Who designs the constituencies is also important, as the outcome and seat distribution may depend from that. In the United Kingdom, it is the UK Parliament the one that determines the size and composition of each constituency. As a consequence, there is a single procedure for designing constituencies in the whole State (exceptions: Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland). In the US (another majoritarian system), each State has to redistrict its territory with regard to the number of constituencies they are assigned after each census, due to the federal structure of the Union.

The key factor, as I have already stated, is that each constituency only elects one Member of Parliament. This has a direct (and pretty obvious) consequence: only the candidate who has the biggest share of votes makes it to Westminster Hall.

And the last of the three concepts is First-Past-The-Post. It’s quite simple to explain, as well. Under a first-past-the-post system (which is a kind of majoritarian system), there is no need of an absolute majority (in France, for example, they make a second round with the two most voted candidates to make one of them reach 50% of the votes + 1 vote). In Britain, you only need to be the most voted candidate, even if you don’t reach 30% of the votes. This, as we will see later, favors members of strong parties, which are perceived as the only viable candidates by electors.

So this is how the system works. Nothing to do with the Spanish one, which aims to reflect the plurality of the nation instead of focusing on choosing representatives for each area. But, where does the origin of the First-Past-The-Post system lay?

II. Context & background

British parliament is arguably the oldest representative chamber in history, being set up officially in 1215, when King John was forced by nobility to sign the Magna Carta, a document which would become one of the most admired and studied historical sources in Western history. Nonetheless, British parliament was not an institution with a sudden appearance, but a result of the evolution Anglo-Saxon assemblies (an old German tribal remembrance at that time) experienced after the Normand conquest made by King William in 1066. The establishment of British Parliament (not a specialty of the islands, as many other representative bodies were established near the year 1200) was the result of the pressure native Saxon elites made with the aim of resisting Normand pre-eminence in the Court.

As French thinker André Maurois states in his book History of England, “the origin of House of Lords is a Court of Justice; while the origin of the House of Commons is that of a clandestine committee.” This proves an evidence of why the chambers (being the House of Commons the lower chamber and the House of Lords the Higher one) have experienced such a different evolution. Let’s focus on the House of Commons, which is the chamber where fencing takes place.

Two main questions arise while addressing the composition of House of Commons by analyzing the history of England. First, was the First-Past-The-Post system a legacy of this medieval assembly? And second, why did the British parliament survive throughout the centuries, standing against absolute power by the monarchs (unlike its peers in continental Europe)?

Regarding the electoral system in medieval times, few sources can be found on this topic. Notwithstanding this lack of legal documents, it appears to be a consuetudinary rule that allowed two knights per shire and two bourgeois per city to follow the call of Parliament. This, obviously, reflects the composition of Parliament during the medieval period. However, single member districts appeared much later than what is thought.

“In reality, it was only in 1885 that the SMP system single member districts became the norm, and in 1948 that they became the only type of district. Before 1885 the typical pattern in England was for each constituency to elect two members, though there were also some constituencies with districts magnitudes of three and four”. As we can see, the costume that started in low Middle Ages with knight and bourgeois persisted until the 19th century, and in some places until the end of World War Two. It is important to precise that, although there were more than one member in a single constituency, the system differed from the common one in continental Europe, where the idea of cumulative vote is unknown. Traditionally, each voter was provided with a number of votes equal to one less than the district magnitude. If they were to choose three knights (I love to use these medieval terms), they could only vote for two candidates. If only two bourgeois were elected in their constituency, electors could only cast one nominal vote. Nowadays, this system has disappeared with the establishment of single member constituencies, though it still persists in some other aspects of British political life, like the election of Labour Party Leader.

The other question is why the British Parliament resisted the stress of absolutism. There seems to be no clear answer to this question. According to André Maurois, two key factors were responsible of this decisive difference. First, the division in two different bodies: House of Commons and House of Lords. And second, the mixture of nobility and bourgeoisie (unlike France). In England, only the head of the family was called for the House of Lords, but other members of the family had to go their own way (due to legislation of Edward I). As a consequence of this, the length of nobility was uncertain, and they quickly mixed themselves with rich members of the third state. As a consequence of this, many second sons of noble men began to represent their shiring in the House of Commons. The legitimacy of their sit lay not in blood, but in the assembly that chose them as representatives. This, together with the voluntary separation of clergymen from Parliament, made the House of Commons become a Chamber composed by members of the 3rd State mixed with noblemen. A unified body of individuals sharing common interests. In France, les États Généraux where a body with representation of the three states and one equal vote for each state (this in fact, drowned third state aspirations for centuries). In England, however, civil society got control of the low chamber more than three centuries prior to French bourgeoisie. When Tudors reached power and attempted to establish an absolute power in the British realms, the Parliament had concluded the evolution which was started with Edward I and Simon of Monfort, and was ready to stand against tyranny.

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Events in the 17th century (Civil War, British Republic, the Bill of Rights from 1689…) proved the strength of Parliament, but they did not produce any relevant effect concerning the field of this research. Thus, we should focus on the electoral reform of 1832 in order to conclude our historical approach (as 1885 reform followed the path of 1832 reform). Following the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte, revolutionary mutinies spread across Europe. Britannia was not an exception (Peterloo massacre, appearance of Chartist Movement), though its old political system proved to be flexible enough to conduct these demonstrations to the institutions. Apart from this revolutionary menace, the public excuse that motivated the reform of 1832 was the existence of rotten boroughs.

Rotten boroughs (“burgos podridos”, in spanish) were constituencies which were established back in the Middle Ages, and since then had experienced demographic decline. As a consequence of the process of industrialization Britain suffered since the end of the 18th century, population equilibrium among different constituencies was then broken, and cities had few representation and larger populations living on them. This statu quo clearly benefited tories, as well as the seventy families that controlled those rotten boroughs. As a consequence of this, tories had governed for more than fifty years, a period on which a reform that was seen a necessity had been deterred.

But, surprisingly, whigs returned to power in 1830, and proposed a reform as a mean of containing revolutionary movements. This reform was seen as a way of balancing the importance of constituencies that had gained population, but at the same time it also extended vote in the cities to little bourgeoisie. The families that controlled the rotten boroughs stood against the reform, as well as tories. But nothing could be done against it. Liberals won a new election, gaining enough support for passing the Reform Act in 1832. The final vote in the House of Lords (with an almost empty chamber, a chamber which knew the reform was necessary to stop popular anger but was strongly opposed to it) took place in July 4th, 1832.

The industrial north of England won pre-eminence over the south. In the cities, every proprietor of a house whose rent was over ten pounds won the right to vote. The reform did not bring full democracy to the British Parliament, but it opened political participation to little bourgeois. It was the Reform of 1832 the one that adapted an old feudal system of representation, making the House of Commons become a modern representative chamber. The way for democracy (with the 1918 Reform Act) had been set from then on.

III. The legal framework

The special configuration of British legal structures (there is not a written constitution) makes difficult to identify all the sources of law, as they are varied and very disperse. Regarding British law on elections, it is essential to point out that the different acts enacted by the legislator among the centuries can be divided in two basic groups: primary and secondary sources of law. I’ll mainly focus on primary legislation, as it is specially relevant with regard to the electoral system.

The huge number of sources of law regulating British electoral process poses a major problem, as it generates uncertainty for electors and poll officers. Actually, “the UK system gives considerable discretion to Returning Officers in deciding how to deliver certain aspects of an election”. Most of British election legislation is confuse and disperse, with many of its principles written in acts enacted in the 18th or in the 19th century. In fact, the oldest piece of electoral legislation in force seems to be dated in 1695.

On its 2012 report Electoral legislation, principles and practice: a comparative analysis, the Electoral Commission states that “Although there have been relatively frequent changes to legislation, especially over the past ten years, no concerted effort has been made in recent yeas to review the entire legal framework for elections”. The lack of constitutional structure make legislative advances rely exclusively on the Parliament, and this leads to the appearance of new acts which may introduce amendments and new legal procedures (for example, the European Parliamentary Elections Act of 1978) while there is an increasing absence of systematic order. The OSCE has demanded a reform in order to simplify that confusing legal framework.

First, I will analyze the two oldest acts which still regulate elections in the United Kingdom. Then, I will focus on the Representation of the Peoples Acts of 1981, 1983, 1985 and 2000 (specially of the Act of 1983, the most important one). To conclude, a short reference will be made to both the House of Commons disqualification Act and to the Parliamentary Constituencies Act of 1986.

With regard to 18th century enactments, the Act of Settlement (1701) stands as one of the most important legal documents in British History, setting the basis for the Union of the different kingdoms. Most of the Act focuses in preventing abuse of power from the monarch, as well as ensuring no roman catholic can reach the throne of England. It also regulates relations between different political bodies, trying to eliminate abuse of power. Regarding elections, the only provisions introduced by this act affect eligibility of individuals. As an example, no person who has an office under the monarch or receives a pension from the crown can be elected a Member of Parliament. This provision is still in force, though some exceptions to it have been introduced. It is difficult to modify the provisions contained in this Act, as any amendment regulating monarchy has to be agreed with the different realms which share the British Monarch, like Canada or Australia. The other key pieces of legislation are the Acts of Union from 1707, unified the Kingdom of England (including Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain. English and Scottish parliaments became one single Parliament, located in Westminster. As a consequence, the Acts of Union established the introduction of Scottish Peers in the Chambers. This Union led also to the incorporation of Scottish constituencies to the Parliament in Westminster. This Acts did not introduce a greater difference in the inner mechanisms of the English parliament, though they make it become a new House of Representatives (Parliament of the United Kingdom) from a broader territory.

In the 19th century, two big reforms with similar aim and objects were carried out, the Reform Act of 1832 and the one of 1885.

Modern Acts enacted in the 20th century usually regulate minor aspects. The Representation of the People Act of 1981 regulates disqualification from membership of the House of Commons for detained people, but it does not introduce major reforms. However, it amended the House of Commons Disqualification Act, from 1975. This continuous total amendment of rules by new rules passed by parliament with no need of a revision of an act from a higher hierarchy is the basis of British constitutional system. The same thing happens with the Representation of the People Act of 1985 (which regulates constituencies for “overseas electors”) and the Representation of the People Act of 2000 (accepting psychiatric hospital as polling stations). As we said before, Parliament has absolute sovereign power (as there is a lack of written constitution), so it establishes new regulations (no matter their relevance) with new Acts (primary or secondary, depending on the issue), which do not fall under the scope of a chapter from a conventional constitution. Nonetheless, the Representation of the People Act of 1983 is quite different from those other Acts it shares its name with.

“The UK follows the approach of the sample countries in placing a large part of its electoral law in one primary legislative vehicle, namely the Representation of the People Act 1983”. This act is part of primary legislation, and regulates key aspects of British election system. It sets out important matters, but it does not constitute a core legislation setting the basic principles conducting general elections. This approach clearly differs with American law, where Constitution establishes some basic rules and principles. Representation of the People Act is the closest rule the United Kingdom has to a general law on elections, but there is a lack of systematic organization.

Regarding secondary legislation, it is formed by all the legislation which intends to regulate the working of all the different elections (local, etc.) except of parliamentary elections. As a consequence, we will not focus on this aspect of British legislation, as it is not part of the subject of this essay. There are many regulations that constitute secondary legislation, like the Parliamentary constituencies (Wales) Order from 1995 or the Holders of Hereditary Peerages Order from 2001, among many others.

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IV. The effects of the British system

I personally consider that the worst effect the system has is that it exaggerates disparities between territories. It is obvious that in most countries parties gain pre-eminence in certain regions and have few support in others. But it is clear in Britain (and in America) this has been exaggerated; due to the fact that only one member represents a region. As a consequence, only one political option is represented in each constituency. This has led to vast regions where a single party has every representative or MP. This can pose a threat to the democratic system in the future, as it seems there is an increasing fracture among North and South of both the United Kingdom and the United States. Besides, there are huge masses of voters who live in constituencies were a party has a stable and everlasting majority which have few incentives for political participation, as their vote will not be represented in Westminster. A LibDem vote in Sunderland constituencies, for example, appears to be a wasted vote.

Another shortcoming is the divergences it may introduce between the popular vote and the actual distribution of seat. There is a bias introduced by single member constituencies. There can be a party with more votes and fewer seats, as votes to the second largest party in each constituency does not get any profit from those votes. As a consequence, the system favors stability by giving “extra” seats (not directly, like in Greece, but in an indirect way) to the party which wins in most districts, but this can lead to a paradox. With the aim of winning stability, the system can bring to majority (or even power in Britain) a party who is second in number of votes throughout the country. This implies a lack of legitimacy, as people feel their votes share different value.

How can the system be improved without ending historical tradition? Well, I would introduce some representative elements, as many votes are wasted in safe constituencies. This is another consequence of the first-past-the-post system. In areas were a party is too dominant, vote for different parties has proved to be absolutely useless during decades or even centuries, as I have stated previously. Thus, many electors may become disengaged from politics, believing their participation is not important. To my mind, the solution would be to respect single member constituencies and districts, but to introduce a secondary vote, establishing a national list of representatives. Therefore, there would be the usual voting plus one voting in a single-national constituency. That would mean that a certain number of representatives of MPs would be elected in a full proportional system. This would lead to the perception that every single vote counts.

That would not be a perfect solution, obviously. But it would help engaging people who are not likely to turn out to vote (even if it appears young vote has dramatically increased in yesterday’s General Election). Besides, the British legal framework has a clear advantage: the lack of a written constitution makes electoral reforms easier to adopt. In this regard, an electoral reform proposal by LidDems was rejected by referendum in 2011. Election laws are always a dangerous issue, as the core of democracy lies within besides their words, and that is the reason why both the public and MPs in most countries are generally skeptical when it comes to amend them.

In conclusion, the British electoral system is key for ensuring ‘strong and stable’ governments (sorry, I just couldn’t help typing it) by ensuring majority rule in Parliament. However, no fair electoral system (like the British) can avoid situations of uncertainty, like the one the United Kingdom is facing after britons chose to deprive tories from their majority and go back to a hung parliament two years after Cameron’s big win. Two years, uh. It seems it has been a lifetime.

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