The classical First Past the Post (FPTP), single-member district, electoral system that is so strongly associated with Great Britain did not in fact come into widespread use for Westminster elections until 1884-1885 - a full 50 years after the First Reform Act of 1832, which marked the beginnings of representative democracy in the UK. Up until 1867 most members of the British House of Commons were elected from two-member districts by the Block Vote who served to compound the seat bonuses given to the larger parties. The Second Reform Act of 1867 introduced the Limited Vote (in which electors had one fewer vote than the number of seats to be filled) for the election of 43 members of the Commons, chosen from 13 three member districts and one four-member seat.

The Third Reform Act of 1884-1885 abolished these Limited Vote seats and FPTP became established as the dominant system. Even today, and despite Westminster's reputation as the birthplace of FPTP, the system is not used throughout the United Kingdom. The Single Transferable Vote form of PR was re-introduced in Northern Ireland, after a 50 year absence, for local government elections in 1973 in an attempt to craft incentives for accommodatory behaviour between the political representatives of the Nationalist and Unionist communities, advantage the moderate and non-sectarian middle, and ensure adequate representation of the minority Catholic community, see Single Transferable Vote. In the same year STV was used to elect the ill-fated Stormont Assembly-which had been created to give the people of Ulster a degree of self-governing power. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in May 1996, a new body charged with finding solutions to the province's troubles, the Northern Irish Peace Forum, was elected by PR in order to give rise to the most representative body possible, see List PR. Ninety Forum members were elected from 18 list PR districts of five members in size, while the top 10 parties in terms of votes won across Ulster were awarded two additional seats in the assembly. Since 1979 Northern Ireland's three members of the European parliament have been elected by STV while, at the same time, Britain's 84 English, Scottish, and Welsh MEPs have been elected by FPTP.

The proliferation of different electoral systems in use in the UK has meant that electoral reform, for all tiers of British government, has become an increasingly debated issue. In July 1997 the new Labour government, led by Prime Minister Tony Blair, announced that they would present legislation to change the electoral system for British members of the European parliament to a form of regional list PR in England, Scotland, and Wales, while leaving unaltered the PR STV system in Northern Ireland. Similarly, the proposed Scottish and Welsh assemblies, which will have a degree of autonomous law-making power devolved from the Westminster parliament, are to be elected by PR methods if they are approved by the Scottish and Welsh peoples in September 1997 referenda. Both assemblies are to have Mixed Member Proportional systems which retain FPTP seats based on the current Westminster single-member districts, but include district-based PR lists which will compensate, to some extent, for any overall disproportionality. The proposed Welsh Assembly will have 40 FPTP single-member seats and 20 list PR seats, while the proposed Scottish Assembly will have 73 FPTP seats and 56 list PR seats. No set threshold for representation has been agreed upon but the Welsh Assembly will have an effective threshold of just under five per cent for a party to win a list seat while in Scotland parties will need far fewer votes to gain representation - probably closer to 1.5 per cent of the total vote. Lastly, STV has been proposed by the Fabians (an influential Labour-affiliated policy institute) for local government elections. But it is unlikely that electoral system reform will be seriously considered for local government in this parliament's lifetime-not least because the government's agenda for constitutional reform is already so over-loaded.

However, the overwhelming focus of electoral reform remains the House of Commons and at the time of writing Britain appears closer to changing her FPTP system than at any time since 1917. In that year a proposal to introduce the Alternative Vote (AV) for two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, and the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for the remaining one-third of seats, was narrowly defeated after a stalemate between the House of Lords and House of Commons. A second attempt to move to AV was rejected by parliament in 1931, and it was not until the 1970s that electoral reform muscled its way back on to the British political agenda. In 1976 the Hansard Commission on Electoral Reform, chaired by the former Conservative cabinet minister Lord Blake, recommended that a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) system be used for parliamentary elections, with three-quarters of the members being elected by FPTP and one-quarter from regional PR lists. The calculation for list seat allocations would take place at the national level and these seats would compensate for any disproportionality in the overall results of the single member district seats.

After four consecutive defeats for the Labour party (1979, 1983, 1987, and 1992) the previously solid Labour support for FPTP began to fracture and in 1990 the leadership set up a commission, chaired by Professor Raymond Plant, to investigate electoral system reform options. The Plant Report (1993) recommended a switch to a sibling of the Alternative Vote. While this proposal was never officially adopted by the Labour party in opposition they did nonetheless adopt a policy that, when returned to office, they would hold a national referendum on electoral system change. This policy was given teeth in a joint agreement on constitutional reform between Labour and the Liberal Democrats (who had consistently advocated a switch to a PR) announced on the eve of the 1997 British general election.

The first step in the referendum process will be the setting up of an independent commission with the brief to recommend which system is to be pitted against FPTP on the ballot paper. The new government has said that the referendum alternative to the current system will be a "PR system" but it remains unclear if that automatically excludes the consideration of majoritarian alternatives such as the Alternative Vote and Supplementary Vote (despite the academic consensus that these are not PR systems). It is envisioned that the referendum could be held by 1999, to allow time to introduce a new electoral system, if chosen, for general elections held in 2001 or 2002.

It is likely that the debate over reforming the way members of the House of Commons are elected will reflect the First Past the Post versus Proportional Representation debate which has underlain much of the discussion of British constitutional practice throughout this century. The criticisms of the current FPTP electoral system have been restated many times. First, FPTP in the UK has led to some highly disproportional results where minority parties received far fewer seats than their percentage vote might have indicated and has led to situations where the "losing" party, in terms of votes won, became the winning party in term of seats won and thus formed the government.

The Liberal Party, then Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance, then Liberal Democrats, have been the most victimized on the first count-although over the last four elections the disparity between the third party's vote and seat share has been decreasing. In 1983 the Liberal-SDP Alliance won 25.4 percent of the vote but only 3.5 percent of the seats. In 1987 the Alliance won 22.6 percent and 3.4 percent of the seats. In 1992 the newly formed Liberal Democrats won 17.8 percent of the votes and 3.1 percent of the seats, but in 1997, utilising more sophisticated targeting techniques and benefiting from the tide of anti-Conservative feeling, the Lib Dems were able to win 6.5 percent of the seats with 16.7 percent of the popular vote. The uphill struggle that new parties face under FPTP was dramatically illustrated in the 1989 UK European elections when the UK Green Party won 15 percent of the vote but not a single seat. The second anomaly, of one party winning most votes but forming the opposition, has happened twice in the post-war period. In 1951 the Labour Party won more votes but the Conservatives won most seats and formed the government, while in February 1974 the indignity was reversed with Labour forming the government after the Conservatives had polled most votes.

A second powerful criticism leveled at the British FPTP system has been its inability to adequately represent the nation along lines of gender and ethnicity. Up until 1997 fewer than ten percent of British MPs were women, although Labour's vigorous promotion of women parliamentary candidates and their subsequent landslide victory did nearly double the number of women MPs to 18.1 percent in the 1997 parliament. Ethnic minorities in Britain have been similarly under-represented. Most parliaments preceding the 1987 election were all white, and the four Black and Indian-English MPs elected in that year represented less than 0.5 percent of the total. While Black and Asian representation has increased over the last three elections their numbers in parliament remain substantially below their proportion of the UK population as a whole.

Opponents of FPTP have also cited destabilizing swings in economic policy which arose from the alternation of Conservative and Labour governments between 1945-1979, but the Conservatives 18 unbroken years in office (1979-1997) and Labour's drift toward the fiscally moderate centre has tended to weaken this argument. Finally, some PR advocates have disputed the fact that FPTP creates a strong geographical link between elector and representative in the UK, arguing that many safe Conservative and Labour seats are effectively "rotten boroughs" where MPs have little incentive to make themselves accessible, and that the urban centres of the UK are now so totally dominated by Labour MPs that all other party supporters are effectively disenfranchised.

In contrast FPTP in Britain is defended particular because of its single-member districts and encouragement of a "dominant two-party system". Supporters of the status quo find the single constituency member sacrosanct and argue that this relationship of accountability between a voter and their MP is the bedrock of British democracy. Opponents of PR also point to the fact that all, bar one, UK governments in the post-war period have been single party governments and predict that the coalition governments, which would most likely result from a PR system, would be destabilizing to the country as a whole. Related to the previous point is the argument that FPTP provides a barrier against the fragmentation of the party system, which might involve the break up of the major parties (for example, a split in the Conservative Party between "pro-" and "anti-" European wings). Finally, FPTP is praised for denying a platform to extremist parties such as the National Front and British National Party.

The prospects for reform of Britain's FPTP system for parliamentary elections remain uncertain. While it now seems increasingly likely that a referendum will be held it is unclear whether the British electorate would support a switch to PR. Opinion polls between 1992 and 1997 have been inconsistent. At times they have shown great support for change while at other times a majority of voters have expressed the desire to keep FPTP. If a referendum is held the stance taken by the Labour government is likely to be key. A vigorous campaign against change (joined by the Conservatives) would probably condemn the PR alternative to failure, while a strong Labour campaign for change (in harness with the Liberal Democrats) might ensure that electoral reform carried the day. If Britain does change its electoral system, and goes through with the establishment of the Scottish and Welsh assemblies, then there could be up to six different electoral systems operating at the national, local, and European parliamentary levels come the end of this century.

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