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