For 135 years the Electoral Reform Society has been fighting for fair votes and a better democracy.
In January 1884, a diverse group of academics, parliamentarians and members of the legal profession gathered at 7 Clarges Street, Westminster. Brought together by the naturalist, archaeologist and polymath Sir John Lubbock, along with Henry Fawcett (husband of Millicent Fawcett), Leonard Courtney and Albert Grey, it was clear to them that our political system was failing to overcome the challenges presented by the approaching twentieth century.
With 180 MPs in their ranks with equal numbers from the Liberal and Conservative parties, they decided to overcome their differences and found a society dedicated to creating a parliament that could truly represent the nation.
I trust that Great Britain, the mother of Parliaments, may once more take the lead among the great nations of the world by securing for herself a House of Commons which shall really represent the nation.
Sir John Lubbock, 1884
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).
There were early successes in Australia, Malta and Ireland. But political parties were envious of the power that Westminster’s traditional system gave them.
The Irish government in 1958 and 1968 tried to abolish the use of the Single Transferable Vote and to revert to Westminster’s voting system. On both occasions, future director Enid Lakeman led our successful campaign to protect democracy in Ireland.
With a new base at 6 Chancel Street and renamed the Electoral Reform Society, the society helped ensure that the new Northern Ireland Assembly used the Single Transferable Vote when it was first convened in 1973.
In the late 70s, the Society founded a small-scale ballot services division, led by Major Frank Britton. This eventually became the separate Electoral Reform Services Limited (ERSL), the UK’s market-leading provider of software and services for election management, membership engagement, democracy and governance systems. The Electoral Reform Society’s shareholding in ERSL provided a major source of income to the Society.
As the twentieth century came to an end and the Jenkins Commission proved to be a false dawn, the ultimate goal of bringing fair results to Westminster elections was still just out of reach. But new avenues for reform were opening.
Across the UK, devolution was taking hold and each new assembly was to be elected using proportional systems.
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.
In 2018, Electoral Reform Services Limited was bought by Civica Group, allowing the Society to found a Capital Fund with the proceeds of the sale. Invested in a diversified set of shares, this fund can now support the work of the Society going into the future.
For over 130 years we have been at the forefront of political change, putting voters first, highlighting problems and offered common sense solutions. We remain the world’s oldest organisation concerned with elections and political reform, recognised by the United Nations for over 30 years.
We know that every year that passes with our steam age political system still in place is a missed opportunity for the people of Britain. Our vision is a representative democracy fit for the 21st century.