140 years of winning electoral reform

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive

Posted on the 16th January 2024

On a chilly evening exactly 140 years ago, a diverse group gathered at 7 Clarges Street, Westminster. Brought together by the Victorian naturalist, archaeologist and polymath Sir John Lubbock, it was clear to them that the political system was failing to overcome the challenges presented by the approaching twentieth century.

Following his successful efforts to create the first Bank Holidays and bring in legal protection for Stone Henge and other ancient monuments, Sir John Lubbock set his sights on parliament.

They decided to do something about it. They overcame their political differences and founded a Society dedicated to creating a parliament that could truly represent the nation.

The first formal meeting of the Proportional Representation Society

By the first formal meeting on the 5th March 1884, the membership included 43 Conservative and 38 Liberal MPs, plus nearly all the Irish MPs. First known as the Proportional Representation Society, this group quickly attracted leading luminaries of the Victorian age, including C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian), the Rev. Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll), and Thomas Hare (the inventor of the Single Transferable Vote).

100 years later, in 1984, the Electoral Reform Society commissioned a history of the Society’s first 100 years, modestly called The Best System. Now, 40 years later, I’m pleased that we can make it publicly available once again to celebrate our 140th birthday.

This is a historic document, reproduced in its entirety. If you are interested in the history of the Society, the earliest records are held at the Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

Read The Best System: An Account of the first hundred years of the Electoral Reform Society

The present political landscape would appear both radically different and depressingly similar to our forebears in 1884 and 1984.

Victories for reform around the world

The early Society played a role in winning reform around the world.

Reformers in Ireland won provisions for proportional representation in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, for the election of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland parliaments. Society Member, and Colonial Under-Secretary L.S. Amery introduced self-government and proportional representation to Malta, meanwhile, Attorney-General of Tasmania Andrew Inglis Clark was influenced by Thomas Hare’s work and introduced proportional representation to Tasmania, which later spread to many of Australia’s states and Senates.

In recent decades, devolution has taken hold and each new assembly has been elected using proportional systems. The Society helped ensure that the new Northern Ireland Assembly used the Single Transferable Vote when it was first convened in 1973. The current, post-Good Friday/Belfast Agreement Assembly still uses the system.

The Society’s constant campaigning for reform meant that when the opportunity for devolution came to Scotland, Wales and London at the end of the twentieth century, proportional representation was the obvious choice.

At the start of the 21st century, First Past the Post was on the retreat again. After a vigorous campaign, voters in Scotland had their voice properly heard in 2007 as the Single Transferable Vote was used in local elections for the first time. Today, councils in Wales can also choose to move to the Single Transferable Vote.

Both of these victories continued a campaign that started in 1888, when the Society met with the prime minister, Lord Salisbury, to urge the election of the first county councils by the Single Transferable Vote.

Lessons from the past

Reading The Best System, it’s hard not to see parallels and warnings from the past.

In recent years both Unite and Unison have adopted policy in favour of proportional representation. The Electoral Reform Society has a long history in the trade union movement, having counted the ballots for the National Union of Mineworkers right from the start of the twentieth century. Trade Unions have long recognised the importance of equal ballots.

Electoral reform isn’t a one-way street though – while we fight for reform, we always need to defend what we gain. Following their success in Ireland, the Society wound down their operations, only for the Irish government to twice try and introduce First Past the Post. On both occasions, the Society’s team had to rush across the Irish Sea to help defend proportional representation.

For over 140 years we have been at the forefront of political change, putting voters first, highlighting problems and offering common sense solutions. Hopefully, when we get to 2084, we’ll be looking back on a century where voters in the UK were properly represented for the majority of it.

Read The Best System

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