Do We Need Electoral Reform?

by Anna Sykes

Did the Conservatives "steal" the election in 1951?
After having gained the most votes in British history in the 1951 election, many would question why in fact Labour did not come to power. There are various additional reasons as to why the Conservatives won, having secured a 4.5% increase in votes. This can be attributed to their re-emergence as fresh-faced, youthful party or even the changes to constituency boundaries and Representation of the Peoples Acts of 1948 and 1949. The Spectator even declared ‘that the Tories of 1950 are not the Tories of 1935’. However, this is not a discussion as to what the most important factors were for Labour’s loss of the 1951 election but a critical look at the failed British electoral system.

There have been various complaints and attempts to rejuvenate the ‘First-Past-The-Post’ electoral system currently used for UK General Elections to Westminster. Surely there is a reason that this is the only form of election left in the country to use this ‘flawed’ simple plurality simple, which provides a ‘winners bonus’ and a discouragement of turnout. Previous attempts of reform in recent years have been seemingly unsuccessful, with New Labour failure to implement the suggestion of the AV+ system made in the ‘Jenkins Report’ established under the Independent Commission on Electoral Reform. Following this, after the LibDems had managed to negotiate their proposed referendum on the implementation of AV, they too failed with an emphatic 70:30 rejection in the referendum that later followed in May 2011. Despite the fact that this was argued to be a referendum on Nick Clegg, as opposed to a legitimate referendum on the prospects of a new Westminster electoral system- there is clearly an air of debate with regards to FPTP. On the surface it seems to be flawed at every cornerstone. It promises ‘strong and stable government’ yet in 2010 the Conservatives were forced into coalition with the Liberal Democrats, meaning both parties have had to make considerable concessions on their proposed policies i.e. House of Lords Reform and constituency boundaries. Furthermore, many argue a key strength is that it marginalises extremist parties but this cannot be seen as strength when we are renowned for boasting the seemingly ‘pluralist democracy’ in which we live. This is also highly debatable with parties such as UKIP enjoying unprecedented levels of support since 2012, now enforcing its status having been the third most popular party in the polls for a significant amount of time.

Despite all this, the 1951 general election is a clear example of FPTP’s fundamental flaw. This is, that it strongly distorts the translation of votes to seats and this is clearly evident with regards to the figures produced back in 1951 but also 1983 where FPTP exaggerated the Conservatives performance, giving them a landslide victory. Under the current electoral system, a small lead over the second placed party is often translated into a substantial lead. However, with regards to the 1951 election- Labour won not only a greater number of votes but also a greater % share of the votes. The figures showed that although Labour polled 48.8% of the vote and won 295 seats, the Conservatives polled only 48% of the vote and won 321 seats. The Conservatives win was more than lucky. The results of the 1951 contest gave the runner-up in terms of votes an actual majority in the House of Commons; it is clearly evident that through this our British electoral system is neither fair nor legitimate in terms of representation. It is true that this result is partly attributed to the decline of the Liberals, as paradoxically whilst their electoral significance declined their theoretical significance grew. Ex-liberal voters were more inclined to vote Conservative and this therefore accounted for both their 40% increase in votes between 1945 and 50, and a further gain later in 1951. Yet this still does not answer the question. It is the fact that in 1951, numerous Labour votes were ‘wasted’ in safe seats, landing them 50 of the 60 largest constituency majorities. Therefore, we can assertively attribute Labour’s loss to the First-Past-The-Post electoral system, as Labour votes translated into increased majorities for MPs in safe seats, as opposed to gaining them the needed dispersed support in new and varied seats. The Representation of the Peoples Act 1948 and 1949 did various other things to stimulate the Conservative’s victory too. For example, Attlee’s abolishment of plural voting and separate university seats, which had played in Labour’s favour. Additionally, the introduction of postal voting, which Herbert Morrison stated were cast 10-1 in favour of the Conservatives.

This was not simply a one-off occasion in which FPTP produced a ‘dodgy’ electoral outcome but was in fact one among four elections (also 1874, 1929, 1964) where a party lost the popular vote yet still managed to win the most seats, therefore forming a government as the party with the majority in the House of Commons. Although it is easy enough to find faults within the current electoral system being used for general elections, it is also important to recognise why this hasn’t changed. Despite attempts towards reform, many parties notice that although FPTP isn’t perfect, neither are any of the other alternatives. We must therefore acknowledge the fact that systems such as the hybrid ‘compromise’, Additional Member System, which is currently used at elections to Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and London Greater Assembly- also comes with its flaws. 

To conclude, research by Hanover Communications and polling group ‘Populus’ states the chances of the May 2015 general election resulting in yet another hung Parliament is at 94.5% and many argue that this failure of the FTPT to deliver an overall majority could itself reignite the debate over electoral reform.