Representational democracy is at the heart of the UK’s political constitution, and the electoral system is central to achieving it. But is the first-past-the-post system used to elect the UK parliament truly representative? To answer that question requires an understanding of several factors: debates over the nature of representation; the evolution of the current electoral system; how first-past-the-post distorts electoral politics; and how else elections might be conducted. Running through all these debates are issues over the representation not only of people but also of places. The book examines all of these issues and focuses on the effect of geography on the operation of the electoral system.
Chapter 1 introduces the main focus of the book – on the background to, and operation of, the UK's first-past-the-post electoral system and what it means for representation in Britain – and outlines the structure of the detailed argument to be taken up in subsequent chapters.
A central task of any electoral system is to achieve representation. But representation of what, and for who – and how do voters want to be represented? The chapter looks at some key issues. Should MPs be independent decision makers, simple delegate for local preferences, or primarily agents of their parties? Do voters feel their MPs understand them – and what sorts of people do they think should be MPs?
The chapter examines the development of the UK's electoral system from the Great Reform Act of 1832 to the enfranchisement of women voters in 1918. The politics of electoral reform throughout the period focused on the extension of the franchise from a small number of male property owners at the start of the period to almost all adults by the end. But side by side with the growth came debates about the definition of parliamentary constituencies, and periodic moves to change the constituency map as the electorate itself changed, The chapter describes these parallel political movements and their consequences for representative politics in the UK.
With the achievement of the universal adult franchise, it became increasingly important to find an agreed mechanism for periodically redrawing the map of parliamentary constituencies to take account of the countries’ changing population geography. The 'British solution' – periodic redistricting carried out by impartial Boundary Commissions – emerged from debates before 1945, and was codified in legislation passed immediately after the Second World War, That legislation, adapted in various ways down the years, is the focus of this chapter, which examines how the rules evolved and how the redistricting process operated (and with what effect). The rules required the Boundary Commissions to balance two principles: the organic (the representation of distinct communities) and the arithmetic (ensuring, as far as possible, that constituencies contained near-identical electorates). But the relative balance to be achieved between these two imperative was not clear in the legislation.
Legislation enacted in 2011 introduced major changes to the rules governing British parliamentary boundary reviews. The new legislation, examined in this chapter, clearly established the priority of the arithmetic (equal electorates) principle over the organic; set relatively tight constraints on how far individual seats' electorate could deviate from the national average; and required that parliamentary boundaries be redrawn on a much more frequent basis than in the past. By 2019, the new legislation had guided two redistricting processes, though (for reasons discussed in the chapter) neither produced a new constituency map. However, the likely effects of both (incomplete) reviews are reviewed, and the strengths, weaknesses and operation of the new rules are discussed.
Under first-past-the-post rules, election results are the outcome of an interaction between the geography of party support and the geography of parliamentary constituencies. But in translating votes into seats, first-past-the-post elections can be inconsistent and arbitrary in their operation. Results are generally disproportional (with some parties receiving a higher share of the seats, and others a lower share, than their vote shares might suggest). And they are often biased (consistently favouring one party more than another). The chapter examines both features of first-past-the-post elections and shows how they have changed over time to affect how representative the UK's electoral system really is.
As shown in the previous chapters the UK's first-past-the-post electoral system produces a relatively arbitrary relationship between a party's vote share and its share of seats in Parliament. Beginning in the nineteenth century, critics of first-past-the-post have therefore regularly called for electoral reform. The chapter examines the history of Britain's electoral reform debate and looks at alternative electoral systems which are already in use for elections to some bodies in the UK. How do they work, and how do they perform compared to first-part-the-post?
In the final chapter, we draw the argument to its conclusion. Almost 200 years of reform have improved the representativeness of the UK's electoral system. But so long as first-past-the-post remains in place there are real limits to just how representative it can be, as disproportional and biased election results will continue to be the norm. Further electoral reform (barring relatively small-scale alterations to the rules for boundary reviews) seems unlikely at present. But it cannot be ruled out in future. But meaningful debate over reform needs to take into account deeper debates over the very nature of representation. We do not offer a solution (there is no universally applicable solution), but we hope to have clarified some of the terms on which the debate needs to be conducted.