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Electoral reform dilemmas: are Britain's single-member constituencies out of date?

If parliament is to shift from representing places to representing people, we may have to leave single-member constituencies by the way side, explains Matthew Roberts. This paper is published courtesy of History & Policy

Defenders of the British first-past-the-post electoral system never tire of reminding their opponents that it is tried, trusted, and often - by implication - long established. Such claims, however, are difficult to reconcile with the fact that from the thirteenth century down to the late nineteenth century multi-member constituencies were the norm for parliamentary elections in the UK. It was not until 1948 that the last of the multi-member seats were swept away. The turning point was the Third Reform Act of 1884-5. Before 1885 70% of MPs sat for multi-member constituencies; after this Act only 8% did so. The United Kingdom is one of the few countries that implemented single-member constituencies as part of its journey towards democracy, and it is one of the few developed democracies to use a voting system based solely on single-member constituencies for general elections. The Third Reform Act imposed greater uniformity on the British electoral system. For the first time in British parliamentary history, constituencies were to contain more equal numbers of people. On the eve of the Third Reform Act the largest electorate was 250 times the size of the smallest; after 1885 the largest was only 8 times the size of the smallest. The Third Reform Act thus brought an end to a deeply inequitable system whereby small boroughs (invariably controlled by powerful interests) were massively over-represented compared with burgeoning industrial and commercial communities.

It is not surprising, then, that the replacement of unequal sized multi-member constituencies with single-member seats of a roughly equal size has been interpreted as a major concession to the modern democratic principle that parliament should represent individuals equally and not, as was traditionally the case, "communities of interests" of commerce, agriculture, industry etc. At the time, however, there were few politicians who viewed the transition to single-member constituencies as a major democratic triumph. Rather, they were seen as a controversial innovation, were widely disliked and generally regarded as the least of several evils. Far from heralding the arrival of modern democratic politics, single-member constituencies were conceived by the political elite as a less than satisfactory solution to the problem of ensuring that the educated and wealthy minority were not swamped and drowned out by the recently enfranchised masses. A clearer understanding of why they were introduced - of the thinking behind them, and of the widespread opposition to them - reveals single-member constituencies to be not only outdated but also anti-democratic by design. The electoral system created by the Third Reform Act has survived - largely unaltered - down to the present day. As politicians and the people come to discuss the controversial issue of electoral reform over the course of the present parliament the legitimacy of the Victorian electoral system will be a pressing question.

The evolution of the British electoral system

From the thirteenth century down to the Great Reform Act of 1832 most British constituencies elected two MPs. It is not entirely clear why it was thought necessary for most constituencies to elect two MPs, but some accounts suggest that it was to ensure that if one MP failed to attend the Commons then the constituency would not go unrepresented. This seems unlikely as each MP had what were known as independent manucaptors (bailsmen) whose purpose was to guarantee their attendance. Other accounts have argued that dual representation had its origins in an ancient legal precedent which required that judicial business had to be undertaken by groups and not individuals for corroborative purposes. But as parliament shed some of its legal functions and evolved into more of a representative body, MPs ceased to be corroborating witnesses and became representatives.

If we move forward several hundred years to the early nineteenth century, there were by this time a number of constituencies electing a single representative. On the eve of the Great Reform Act of 1832, 109 MPs sat for single-member constituencies. The vast majority of these were to be found outside of England. These seats were largely the creations of the various acts of union between England and the constituent nations of the United Kingdom. The first slate of single-member constituencies was created when Wales was formally incorporated into the English state in the mid sixteenth century, a pattern that was to be repeated at the time of the Union with Scotland in 1707 and Ireland in 1801. It is surely no coincidence that the "Celtic fringes" were granted minimal parliamentary representation by the English parliament. Single-member constituencies, it could be argued, were initially conceived as a means to integrate and subordinate the 'Celtic Fringe' to English rule. It was the reform acts of the nineteenth century which were responsible for transforming Britain's electoral system into a predominantly single-member regime. After the Reform Act of 1832 there were 153 single-member constituencies, after 1867 there were 193, and after 1885 this rose to 613 - the vast majority. Of the 51 created in 1832, thirty were the result of subtracting one seat from small double-member boroughs (likewise for all 38 creations in 1867) while the remaining 21 were awarded to medium-sized urban centres that were not deemed of sufficient weight to merit double representation. What is noteworthy about the reform acts of 1832 and 1867 is that the creation of single-member seats did not result, as would 1885, in the sub-division of existing constituencies.

There was muted opposition to the introduction of single-member constituencies in 1832 on the grounds that multi-member seats facilitated local pacts whereby Whigs and Tories agreed to each nominate one candidate thereby avoiding the expense of a contested election. But most politicians took the view that they were an unavoidable expedient. 

Why were single-member constituencies introduced?

Conventionally, it was argued that the move towards single-member constituencies of a roughly equal size was part of the broader democratization of the political system. Since the late eighteenth century radical reformers had not only been campaigning to extend the franchise but also to equalize the value of the vote - hence the Chartist demand for equal electoral districts. Even after the reform acts of 1832 and 1867 there were still many boroughs with tiny electorates. Opponents of reform had defended this inequality by arguing that parliament did not represent people but places, and more specifically "communities of interests". Thus, the size of population was incidental to parliamentary representation, and this was still the case at the time of the reform acts of 1832 and 1867. Even after the Third Reform Act it was only a secondary consideration. With the exception of a handful of radicals, most politicians still believed that parliament represented, first and foremost, communities of interest.

The principal objectives of the redistribution clauses of the reform acts was to make parliament more attuned to the genuine interests of property, wealth, intelligence and industry. The transference of seats from the most 'rotten' (decayed and corrupted) boroughs to industrializing towns was a concession, not to the idea that "numbers" should inform parliamentary representation, but to emergent communities of manufacturing and commercial interests. In 1832, in 1867 and again in 1884 redistribution was a means to mitigate the democratic effects of enfranchisement by ensuring that established interests were not swamped by new voters: men of the urban middle class in 1832, of the urban working class in 1867, and of the rural working class in 1884. This was achieved by giving more seats to the counties, axing only the most 'rotten' of the small boroughs, and by ensuring that different interests - notably urban and rural - were kept strictly separate. By the time of the Third Reform Act it was widely felt that single-member constituencies offered the most practical means of separating out the varied socio-economic interests, and in a way that would benefit the propertied classes. The Boundary Commissioners, who were charged with redrawing the electoral Map of the UK in 1885, were to meet various criteria when sub-dividing constituencies: seats were to be geographically compact, divisions of counties and boroughs were to contain roughly the same number of people, constituencies were to be divided in ways that reflected the 'pursuits of the population', and boundaries were to be based on well-known existing areas. Smaller, more compact constituencies, it was argued, would be more socially homogeneous and - crucially - easier for party activists to manage. This explains why a growing number of party activists began to press for single member seats after the mass enfranchisement of 1867. For these Liberal and Conservative activists, then, the impetus was largely organizational. But few beyond the ultra-radical fringe went in for full-scale equal electoral districts as this would have necessitated too many changes and would have involved uprooting the traditional belief that parliament represented organic (i.e. historically rooted) places not artificial ones.

Single-member constituencies, however, were controversial. At the time of the Third Reform Act there was a significant current of parliamentary and public opinion that was less than enthusiastic, and a vocal minority who were openly hostile to them. It was argued that the division of large boroughs into artificial entities would destroy corporate life; maximize the electoral clout of bare majorities, thus leaving many unrepresented which, in turn, would lead to apathy and the decline of serious electoral competition. In the absence of stiff competition (and the need for a party to construct broad-based coalitions of electoral support) the parties would fall under the sway of cliques, extremists and party 'wire-pullers' - the 'caucus' effect as it was termed at the time. It was feared that these factors would lead to a corresponding reduction in the quality of MPs. Perhaps the greatest objection raised was that single-member constituencies would introduce the dangerous precedent of creating constituencies dominated by one social class. So why, given these objections, were single-members introduced in 1885? Three reasons can be cited. Firstly, as we have seen, there were those who argued that they would make elections more manageable - an important consideration given that the size of the national electorate had increased from 1.3 million in 1865 to 5.7 million by 1885. There was a vocal and influential minority in the Liberal and Conservative parties who believed that their parties would do well under a single-member regime: the Tories expected to make gains in the large boroughs, the Liberals in the countryside. Secondly, the political elite could not agree on any of the other alternatives which were being proposed. One such alternative was PR. The Proportional Representation Society had recently been founded and was campaigning for the introduction of the single-transferrable vote (STV), but this was thought to be too complicated, artificial and 'un-English': this was how the great Victorian titan Mr Gladstone dismissed PR and in doing so set the cause of PR back considerably. Single member constituencies triumphed because they were the only option on which political elites could agree.

How were single-member constituencies introduced?

Today's politicians may have something to learn from the way in which the electoral system was reformed in 1884-5. The redistribution clauses of the Third Reform Act were hammered out in a series of very select, secret bipartisan meetings comprising the party leaders. This was the price that Gladstone had to pay to get his government's Franchise Bill through the Conservative dominated House of Lords. Franchise extension without redistribution, the Tories feared, would annihilate them at the polls. But this was not just a quid pro quo. Neither the Liberal government nor the Conservative opposition had relished the prospect of proposing and piloting a redistribution bill through the House of Commons, where it would be subjected to all manner of parochial and self-interested objections from the large number of MPs whose constituencies it was proposed to axe. At the same time, neither party wished to relinquish control of redistribution. The virtue of a bipartisan scheme hatched in secret was that it could be presented as a fait accompli to parliament, and steered through both Houses by the co-operation of both front benches who agreed to make the main terms of the redistribution scheme vital to the Bill and indeed to the government's very existence. 

The result was that parliament found itself inflicted with single-member constituencies in a way that left it little choice but to accept the decision of the front benches. It was not surprising that those who were opposed to single-member constituencies - which may have amounted to as much as one half of the House of Commons - complained that parliamentary sovereignty had been infringed. The sheer speed with which this legislation was enacted was staggering. Gladstone introduced the Bill on 1 December 1884, it passed its second reading a mere three days later, then the Commissioners set to work and by February 1885 they had reshaped the electoral map of the entire United Kingdom. The Committee stage was a little protracted, but the substance of the Bill remained largely unaltered, and was read for a third time in the Commons on 11 May. The Bill encountered few problems in the Lords, and it received Royal Assent on 25 June. The Gladstone government, which to all intents and purposes had run out of legislative steam after five years in power, enacted one of the most far-reaching and complex pieces of legislation in just over 6 months. This ruthless process was highly effective. It is interesting to compare the approach adopted by the Liberal Government in 1884 to that of the Coalition Government during the First World War, which was responsible for enacting the next major instalment of parliamentary reform in 1918. In the latter instance, the government had proceeded by way of the novel device of a Speaker's Conference. Chaired by the Speaker of the House (hence the name) the conference brought together 32 MPs and Peers from all the parties. Its recommendations were far-reaching: manhood suffrage, votes for women over 30, and most surprising of all - proportional representation (STV on a trial basis). These recommendations, it was assumed, would form the basis of the Reform Bill.

While this method of proceeding seemed altogether far more democratic than private deals amongst party leaderships, it soon became clear that the Conference had no real authority or guarantees. PR was defeated on three occasions on the floor of the House of Commons, although it did substitute the alternative vote (AV) for STV. The House of Lords, however, insisted that AV be dropped (on the grounds that this was likely to benefit the Liberal and Labour parties at the expense of the Conservatives) and STV be reintroduced (largely because the Conservatives saw it as means to mitigate the democratic provisions of the Reform Bill). The Commons, however, refused to back down. Out of this stalemate emerged a negative compromise: neither AV nor STV would be introduced.

Territorial representation versus equal representation

The redistribution clauses of the nineteenth century reform acts have cast a long shadow over the subsequent evolution of the British electoral system, as have the conservative intentions of the political elite who crafted these acts. In contrast to other democratizing nations, the authors of these reforms did not prescribe a uniform ratio of seats to population, or electors to representatives. They did not even set an upper limit for the maximum number of people a constituency could contain (as was done in the USA). This explains why there was still marked variation in the size of constituencies after the Third Reform Act, and why such anomalies grew apace thereafter. By 1914 the average number of electors per constituency in England was more than twice the size of the average for Ireland. The half-hearted way in which population intruded into parliamentary representation in 1884-5 was further confirmed by the failure to establish a boundary commission to oversee periodic redistricting or even to stipulate how often such redistricting should take place. Only in 1944 was a permanent boundary commission finally established. Subsequent reform acts have done little to challenge the view that parliament ultimately represents places rather than people. After all, the basis of parliamentary representation has remained territorially defined. True, the twentieth century has seen the balance shift towards equal representation at the expense of territorial representation, but even so there has been no linear shift from the former to the latter. The reform acts of 1918 and 1944 shifted the balance in favour of equal representation - the first by aiming for constituencies of 70,000 people, and the second by introducing for the first time an electoral quota with the added stipulation that constituency electorates could not deviate by more than 25%. Since then, however, the balance has shifted back to territory. Amendments in 1947 and 1958 gave greater prominence to the territorial principle by empowering the boundary commissioners to depart from the strict application of the quota if they felt that local ties would be severed.

Boundary commissioners have repeatedly complained that it is very difficult to reconcile the two conflicting principles of territorial representation and equal representation, not least because the rules have been far from clear-cut. Apart from the brief period between 1944 and 1947 there has been no stipulation of how much a constituency electorate can deviate from the quota. This makes Britain somewhat unique. As late as 1983 a court ruling upheld the view that parliament represented places as well as people, and there is still no requirement that constituencies contain the same number of people - hence the demand made by some at the 2010 general election for equal electoral districts.

Conclusions

It is too simplistic to see the transition to single-member constituencies as a staging-post on Britain's journey towards democracy. Single-member seats may have democratic virtues - they make elections more manageable, the ratio of representatives to electors is much smaller and the ratio of seats to population is more uniform, both of which create the impression of equal representation and greater accountability. But the triumph of the single-member principle ultimately had little to do with democratic notions of proportionality or the representation of individuals. The anti-democratic origins of single-member constituencies, first as a means to limit the power of the 'Celtic Fringe' and then of 'the masses', should at least make us pause and question whether they ought to have a place in a modern democracy. Add to this the criticisms that have been leveled at them from the time of the Third Reform Act through to the present day - that they prevent minorities from gaining representation; that they concentrate power in the hands of party managers; that they can discourage people from voting who believe that their vote will not count - then we really do have to ask why Britain has remained one of the few developed democracies to use a voting system based solely on single-member constituencies. Part of the answer has to be that Britain's transformation into a democracy has been gradual and uneven, almost always resisted by the political elite and when finally conceded, carefully controlled to ensure that as much of the old regime as possible was salvaged.

 

As politicians turn to the question of electoral reform they could learn much from the late-Victorian critics of the electoral system. It was surely no coincidence that these critics were often the same people who displayed anxiety about the growing fissures in Victorian society and rejected any innovation that threatened the unity and cohesion of the social order. Single-member constituencies, it was feared, would foster the wrong sort of values in the electorate, notably selfishness, apathy and myopia. We need to ask whether single-member constituencies really do supply the benefits claimed by their defenders. Some of the historic arguments against single members are worthy of renewed attention: do we really want small constituencies that facilitate nursing, allow free reign to caucuses, and that make it easier for MPs to get elected? It is often claimed that single-member constituencies provide a closer relationship between MPs and their constituents, a relationship that is all the more intimate because constituencies are smaller and geographically defined. The assumption is that PR (and STV in particular) would somehow weaken the link between territory and representative. It is true that constituencies would have to be larger under STV as it is a multi-member system - otherwise the House of Commons would simply become colossal. Even so, the basis of constituencies would still be territorially-defined, but instead of electors having only one MP they would have several. STV has worked well in the Republic of Ireland where it has played its part in generating a stable political system that has remained attuned to local interests. It is hard to see why adoption of the system in Britain would weaken the territorial basis of parliamentary representation; in fact if constituencies became once again coterminous with historic boroughs and counties, rather than artificial sections of them which serve no other purpose than electing MPs, parliament might once again become rooted in organic communities with which people retain genuine affinities. However, if constituencies become larger it is crucial that a system of proportional representation operates in them. For as the architects of the Third Reform Act were only too aware, large multi-member seats under first-past-the-post failed to secure diversity of representation - the coercive power of majorities prevented minorities from gaining representation. In the absence of some form of proportional representation democracy remains much as Lord Salisbury, the future Conservative Prime Minister, described it in the 1860s: a system in which 'six men may make five men do exactly as they like'.

Finally, the defeat of PR in 1918 illustrates the problems and limitations of entrusting electoral reform to parliament. As the architects of the Third Reform Act knew only too well, no government was likely to succeed in passing a measure of far-reaching electoral reform through conventional parliamentary means. In effectively bypassing parliament, the making of the Third Reform Act certainly appears authoritarian by modern standards. Such a method need not necessarily be authoritarian, however. A bipartisan agreement - worked out with experts - and submitted to the public for approval in a referendum would not only counter the charge of authoritarianism but potentially could also drastically simplify the messy and protracted horse-trading process of implementing electoral reform.

Further reading

  • Vernon Bogdanor, The People and the Party System: The Referendum and Electoral Reform in British Politics (Cambridge, 1981).
  • Jennifer Hart, Proportional Representation: Critics of the British Electoral System 1820-1945 (Oxford, 1992).
  • Andrew Jones, The Politics of Reform 1884 (Cambridge, 1972).
  • Iain McLean and David Butler (eds), Fixing the Boundaries: Defining and Redefining Single-Member Electoral Districts (Aldershot, 1996).
  • Matthew Roberts, 'Resisting "Arithmocracy": Parliament, Community and the Third Reform Act', Journal of British Studies, 50:2 (April 2011).
  • D. J. Rossiter, R. J. Johnston and C. J. Pattie, The Boundary Commissions: Redrawing the UK's Map of Parliamentary Constituencies (Manchester, 1999).

This article was originally published by History & Policy

About the author

Matthew Roberts is Senior Lecturer in Modern British History at Sheffield Hallam University. He works on parliamentary reform and popular politics in Victorian Britain. He is the author of Political Movements in Urban England, 1832-1914 (Palgrave, 2009).


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