How long have we used First Past the Post? You might be surprised

Doug Cowan, Head of Digital

Posted on the 11th January 2019

We’re right to be proud of the long history of parliamentary democracy in Britain. But the way we elect MPs to Westminster is a relatively new development in that history. There have been countless reforms over the last 800 years to how the people who represent us are chosen.

The idea that the ruler needs to have the support of the ruled, or at least some of them, goes as far back as government itself. From the 8th to 11th centuries, Anglo-Saxon kings would summon a Witan (council) of prominent figures, but this body had no formal powers. Anger enough of them, though, and a king may find a rebellion on his hands.

In 1215, the Magna Carta laid out the principle that taxation could only be levied with the ‘general consent’ of the kingdom. But consent was not to be found through elections – rather specific ‘archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, and greater barons [were] to be summoned individually by letter’.

Simon De Montford’s Parliament

The first ‘proper’ parliament can be traced back to 1265, when Simon de Montfort called a new parliament. This was made up of two knights elected from each county and major town, and four from each of the Cinque Ports in Kent and Sussex – plus all the barons and priests he wanted to invite.

In general, each voter would have as many votes as there were vacancies.

Each of the towns invited to take part had varying arrangements for who could vote, from all the freemen to just a handful of voters. Some places had no representatives at all. A far cry from a single representative for each equal-sized area that we have today.

It wasn’t until January 1327 that every parliament has included elected representatives – before this date the king could just invite the nobility. And only in 1341 did the House of Commons start to sit independently from the House of Lords.

The Great Reform Act

By 1832, many of the towns that had been granted representation hundreds of years previously were now hollowed out, having lost most of their population to the big cities. But they retained their right to elect MPs.

Among other things, the Great Reform Act swept away the worst of these ‘rotten boroughs’ and gave representation to new cities, like Manchester, for the first time.

Constituencies that elected only one MP started appearing en masse in the 19th century as a reaction against growing working-class enfranchisement (the majority of working-class men were given the vote by 1885).

The Bloc Vote

Until then, the electoral system used was the Bloc Vote, where each voter has as many votes as there are vacancies. One problem with this system is that, if one party can gain enough votes to come first, it can also come second – and get both seats – as all voters have two votes.

For property owners, this raised the fear of losing their representation in parliament, as working men could win all vacant seats under the Bloc Vote. Splitting a town into two single-member seats, instead, would mean that the town’s property owners could win the constituency they live in, while the poorer residents could win the other.

The Limited Vote

For this reason, in 1868, some constituencies also started to use the Limited Vote. The Limited Vote reduced the number of votes each voter had to one fewer than the number of vacancies and increased the size of constituencies from two to three or four.

The aim was to ensure the minority would get at least one seat, but in practice, well-organised parties could still win every seat.

1884 Reform Act

This experiment only lasted until the 1884 Third Reform Act, when the seats that used the Limited Vote went back to the Bloc Vote. It was through this Act that the majority of MPs were elected by First Past the Post for the first time.

The Speaker’s Conference

In 1918, Britain was close to changing the seats that still used the Bloc Vote to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of proportional representation. The remaining single-member seats would have changed to the Alternative Vote.

A battle ensued between Conservatives in the Commons who tried to remove the STV components, only for the Lords to re-instate them. Eventually, they settled on removing most of the electoral reform provisions and promised that 100 MPs would be elected via STV in future, a promise they went back on later that year.

The only parts that survived introduced STV for university seats.

University seats were special seats that represented the graduates of certain universities. Graduates could vote for their local candidate, plus the candidates standing to represent their university. Graduates used STV to elect their MPs until the seats were abolished in 1950.

In the first half of the twentieth century, some MPs were from single-member seats, while others were from two-member seats or STV constituencies.

The Representation of the People Act 1948

It was only in 1950 that parliament took the form we recognise today, with every MP representing a roughly equal population, and elected via First Past the Post.

While the Single Transferable Vote was defeated in 1917, the model it presents – of each town or county being represented by a small group of MPs – is far closer to the historical norm than First Past the Post is.

Towns, counties, and cities make far more sense to the ordinary voter, than the artificial shapes that get thrown up by trying to chop up a community into single-member seats.

As a proportional system, it also solves the problem of minorities losing all their representation. And by varying the number of MPs each constituency elects, it still ensures that each MP is elected by the same number of voters.

Sometimes it’s worth looking back at the long experience of British democracy, before looking forward to how we can make it even better.

Further reading

Electoral Systems and Electoral Reform in Historical Perspective by David Klemperer and the Constitution Society

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