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New Left Review I/194, July-August 1992


Peter Mair

The Question of Electoral Reform

Representative government in the United Kingdom has a very special character with respect to that elsewhere in Western Europe. In the first place, the British House of Commons at Westminster is the only parliament in Western Europe which neither now nor in the recent past has been elected under a system of proportional representation. The closest parallel to the British experience in this regard is France, which has maintained a majority two-ballot voting system for most of the period since abandoning proportionalism at the beginning of the Fifth Republic in 1958. And while a proportional system was reintroduced in the elections to the Assemblée Nationale in 1986, the majoritarian formula was restored once again in 1988. It now seems likely, however, that a proportional system will be reintroduced in France in the near future. Second, the House of Commons is now also the only parliament in Western Europe whose membership has been consistently and exclusively elected in single-member constituencies. Here, too, France is the closest parallel, but when proportional representation was temporarily adopted in 1986 it also necessitated the use of multi-member constituencies. And while Germany also uses singlemember constituencies, these are used to fill only half of the seats in the Bundestag, with the remainder of the seats being allocated on the basis of party lists. Third, the United Kingdom government is currently one of only three governments in Western Europe which command a majority of parliamentary seats and which at the same time represent only a minority of popular votes. While minority governments are far from exceptional in many of the Western European states, these are governments that, by definition, command just a minority of parliamentary seats, and it is only in France, Spain and the United Kingdom that the current government has been able to translate minority electoral support into a parliamentary majority. This is also all the more striking in the case of the uk given that many individual Members of Parliament who sustain that majority do not even command an individual electoral majority within their own constituencies. In the 1992 election, for example, some 40 per cent of the seats were won without an overall electoral majority, the winning threshold falling as low as 26 per cent of the vote (and just 19 per cent of the electorate) in the constituency of Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber.

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