What Electoral reforms have there been since 1997?

Thea Ridley-Castle, Research and Policy Officer

Posted on the 2nd March 2023

While the need for reforming Westminster’s First Past the Post (FPTP) voting system is getting clearer every day, outside Westminster the process of reform has been slowly, but surely, going in the right direction. While there have been setbacks, the last few decades have seen voters across the UK benefit from fairer voting systems.

A number of electoral reforms have been implemented since 1997, including reforms in devolved nations and the UK as a whole. The disjunction between the devolved nations and the UK is due to the devolution of powers to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland legislatures and executives, which include elections and local government.

A history of electoral reforms across the UK

The introduction of Hereditary Peer by-elections

The one UK-wide electoral reform is also one that barely any of us can take part in.

The House of Lords Act (1999) reduced the number of hereditary peers in the House of Lords to 90 (the Earl Marshal and Lord Great chamberlain are ex officio members therefore they remained members due to the royal offices they held and are not included in the number of hereditary peers). Since 2002, when a hereditary peer dies or retires a replacement is chosen via by-election using Alternative Vote (AV).

Electoral Reform covering England, Scotland and Wales

1999 changed the way some MEPs are elected

The UK held elections to the European Parliament until 2019. Up until 1994 First Past the Post (FPTP) was used in Great Britain to elect Members of the European (MEPs), the Single Transferable Vote (STV) has always been used in Northern Ireland to elect MEPs. In 1999, party-list PR was introduced to elect Members of the European Parliament across Great Britain.

Electoral Reform covering England & Wales

The Introduction of Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC)

41 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) are elected in England and Wales every four years, they were first introduced in 2012. Both the Lib Dem and Tory manifestos for 2010 included reforming police authorities. The Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition agreement included a measure to elect an individual responsible for the oversight of the police force in a designated area. The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act was introduced in 2011, this included the commitment that the PCCs are elected via Supplementary Vote (SV) unless there are only 2 candidates in a region, then FPTP can be used.

From 2023, PCCs will be elected via FPTP.

Electoral Reform in England

Mayors come to England

English Mayors and the Mayor of London are elected via Supplementary Vote (SV), as of 2022 there are 26 elected Mayors in England. From 2023, mayoral elections in England and Wales (including the Mayor of London) will move from SV to FPTP. In 2024, a further 6 Mayors will be elected in England in Cornwall, the East Midlands, Norfolk, the North East, Suffolk and North Yorkshire.

Foundation of the London Assembly

There are 14 constituency members and 11 London-wide members in the Greater London Authority. London Assembly members are elected using the Additional Member System (AMS). There is one vote for a constituency member representative and one for a London-wide representative.

Electoral Reform in Northern Ireland

The Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland Assembly

In Northern Ireland, devolution was established through the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and was supported in a referendum in 1998. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland both had to vote in favour of the agreement in order for it to be accepted. The referendum passed and the Northern Ireland Act (1998) provided the legislative basis for the creation of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive.

Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) are elected via Single Transferable Vote (STV), a form of Proportional Representation. STV was enshrined in the Multi-Party Agreement, signed by the British Government, the Irish Government and most of the political parties in Northern Ireland.

Local government in Northern Ireland

The process to replace the 1973 districts in Northern Ireland began in 2002 with a review of the existing 26 districts. In June 2012, the Northern Ireland Assembly approved the draft Local Government (Boundaries) Order and by April 2015 the previous 26 districts were reduced to 11 in the local council elections. Despite the boundaries and districts changing, the voting system stayed the same, Northern Irish local elections have used STV since the 1970s.

Electoral Reform in Scotland

The re-establishment of the Scottish Parliament

In 1997, voters in Scotland voted to create a Scottish Parliament, the Scotland Act established this in 1998 and the first meeting for the Scottish Parliament was in May 1999. The Scotland Act established an Additional Member Voting (AMS) system for Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), this combines the traditional Westminster First Past the Post and PR.

Extending the Franchise in Scotland

Following the success of extending the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds for the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum, the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to give 16- and 17-year olds the vote in Scottish Parliamentary and local elections in June 2015.

Scottish local government

Ten years on from the devolution referendum and more electoral reforms were on the cards in Scotland. In 2007 Scottish voters used STV for the first time to elect their local councillors. The Local Governance (Scotland) Act was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2004, this Act enshrined the used of STV in all local election in Scotland.

Alongside the new voting system, a large-scale redistricting exercise was undertaken to introduce the multi-member wards needed to facilitate STV. Before the introduction of STV, Scottish voters elected 1,222 councillors to Unitary Councils within FPTP wards. Under STV, they elected the same number of councillors (1,222) to newly created multi-member wards, 190 of these wards elected three councillors, 163 elected four councillors.

Electoral Reform in Wales

National Assembly for Wales, now the Welsh Parliament

In 1997 a referendum was held in Wales which approved the creation of the National Assembly for Wales (Senedd), the Government of Wales Act was passed in 1998 and the Senedd sat for the first time in 1999. Members of the Senedd (MSs) are elected via AMS, the same voting system as is used to elect MSPs in Scotland.

Extending the franchise in Wales

In 2017, The Wales Act was created which gave decision-making powers to the Welsh Government on how best to improve Welsh elections. After consultation on this topic, The Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020 and the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Act 2021 were enacted which changed the eligibility requirements for voting in local election and Senedd elections; the Acts extended the franchise to voters over the age of 16, foreign nationals living in Wales and gave local authorities the power to change their voting system.

Local authorities’ voting systems

For the first time councils will have the chance to move to a system that gives voters more choice, ensures their vote counts and delivers greater representation. A huge victory for campaigners for electoral reform in Wales. Because of this Act individual councils will now get to vote on whether to move from the ineffective First Past the Post System to STV, potentially ending years of uncontested seats and disproportionate results. Across the border in England, all local authorities will remain stuck with a system that doesn’t effectively deliver for voters.

Reforming Westminster may be the ultimate goal, but the changes in Scotland and Wales have made a real difference in the lives of people living there. We now have over two decades of experience of proportional representation in the UK, and all that experience demonstrates the real benefits of reform.

Do you care about how we choose our elected representatives?

Members support our work in parliament, in the press and online – making the case, and backing it up – for how we can fix Westminster’s broken system.

Join the Electoral Reform Society today

Read more posts...

Where is Single Transferable Vote used in the UK?

Whilst First Past the Post is used for Westminster elections in the UK, it’s not the only way we elect people to office in the UK. Other voting systems have a long history and are...

Posted 29 Mar 2024

MPs and Peers recognise the benefits of STV when they are the voters