Lewis Baston is author of Reggie: The Life of Reginald Maudling and several books about British general elections. He is a consultant on politics, elections and constituencies.

If one assumes that anything regarded as a timeless British tradition was invented at some point during the reign of Queen Victoria, one would not go far wrong. And so it is with our electoral system. It was invented in 1885 in a ruthless piece of practical politics by which the front benches of the Conservative and Liberal parties colluded on a ‘reform’ to cement a two party system in place.

Before 1885, most constituencies in Britain (70 per cent) had two MPs and a handful had three – but an1885 Act sliced most of them up into single-member districts, creating subdivisions of boroughs for the first time. After 1885, multi-member constituencies were a rare breed (returning only eight per cent of MPs), and they finally became extinct in 1950.

The option not taken then was to retain multi-member seats and build on a limited experiment that had started with Disraeli’s Reform Act of 1867 of providing for minority representation within them – this time on a better thought-out basis through the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of Proportional Representation (PR). Many of the earlier advocates of PR were Conservatives; the desire for minority representation accorded with Lord Salisbury’s scepticism about majoritarian rule.

But the party professionals, then at the height of their power in both the Conservative and Liberal parties, preferred single member seats because they were easier to manage and control, while multi-member seats would make MPs less dependent on the party organisation and more inclined – the horror – to disagree with and compete with MPs in the same party.

In 1882, Gilbert and Sullivan proclaimed, in Iolanthe: “That Nature always does contrive/ That every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/ Is either a little Liberal/ Or else a little Conservative!”
But two-party politics was artificial rather than natural, and even in the high days of the Victorian two party system there were challenges and ambiguities.

Gilbert’s Law (a much stronger version of Duverger’s Law, whose illustrious author died last month aged 97) certainly did not apply in Ireland, where Home Rule supporters had swept a majority of seats since 1874 and formed an influential nationalist parliamentary bloc that, when the parliamentary arithmetic permitted in 1885-86, could make the larger parties dance to their tune.

Then there was Labour. The Liberals had, more or less, caged the Labour Party before 1914: several by-elections had demonstrated that causing three-way contests was a recipe for Labour candidates coming third and often throwing the seat to the Conservatives (see my July piece on this site here). The possibility that Labour might escape the uncomfortable embrace of the Liberal Party led to the consideration of an electoral reform within the single-member system, the Alternative Vote (AV), to minimise the impact of vote splits.

While AV might well have been good for the Liberals in the short term, some in the party feared that it would remove constraints to Labour standing candidates and store up trouble for the future. The Liberals, haplessly, managed to get the worst of both worlds in 1918. Most people had assumed that AV was on the way, and Labour acted on this assumption by selecting hundreds of candidates. By the time it became clear that the election would be under FPTP, it was impossible to make them all stand down. While it would be stretching the case too far, one could make the claim that the independent existence of the Labour Party arises from a bungled attempt to introduce AV.

A 1916-17 Speaker’s Conference, established to consider the franchise, the boundaries, the electoral register and other issues, had unanimously recommended adopting PR, which was thought of then as a measure that would please the Tories! There were anxieties about being swamped in a radical working class electorate (similar concerns meant that the introduction of PR in many other countries was a conservative initiative). The party leader, Bonar Law – usually a man of firm views – was non-committal: “On this question I have no decided view (perhaps I ought to have) but I should like if it were possible to see the experiment tried on a small scale”.

However, the number of Conservative MPs supporting PR dropped steadily. During the first votes on PR in 1917 there were only 48 consistent Unionist supporters, following some lobbying against it by the party organisers, such as Archibald Salvidge, the boss of Liverpool, and some rather esoteric concerns that it would greatly reduce the scale of plural voting. Conservative MPs voting for PR dwindled to 34 in 1921 and a mere eight in 1924, by which time it had become clear that the Tories did not need PR and that AV would probably prolong the life of the Liberal Party.

This did not mean that the Conservatives then disdained any electoral experimentation. A constitutional reform by which the House of Lords recovered some powers but would be elected by proportional representation was widely desired among Conservatives in the 1920s, including Winston Churchill. The Conservatives were also enthusiastic exponents of electoral pacts for decades, from the Liberal Unionists onwards.

The ‘coupon’ of 1918 was followed by further local deals with right-wing Liberals in the 1920s, and the full-scale coalition electoral pact of 1931. Even in the 1950s, there were some local pacts with Liberals (in Bolton for example) and some seats where the Conservatives decided to stand down in the Liberal interest (several of these in Wales). Pacts were a method of obtaining AV-type results within the framework of FPTP. In these years, it was Labour’s insistence on standing candidates in every constituency that seemed strange and doctrinaire.

The Conservatives could be flexible about proportional representation. It was the Heath government that reintroduced it in Northern Ireland, and Conservative colonial ministers involved in independence negotiations in the 1950s and 1960s proved themselves quite adept constitution-mongers. Systems are means, not ends, to most politicians, a matter of pragmatic calculation rather than principle. In 1981, in the face of the surge in support for the SDP Liberal Alliance, Margaret Thatcher’s Central Office burnished its anti-PR arguments (seeing the advantages of a split centre left), but at the same time studied “the various possible forms of PR and attempt to assess which would be best for us”.  Elevating FPTP to the status of a Conservative principle would be a historical, and perhaps also a historic, mistake.

Maybe the referendum campaign against AV was an example of tactical brilliance and strategic disaster. Lord Ashcroft’s polling found in December that UKIP voters would cast second preferences for Conservative candidates over Labour by a factor of 2:1. As Ashcroft observes, the widespread expectation of a hung parliament in May, probably a more chaotic and unmanageable one than that elected in 2010, is not without its ironic side:

Since, during the 2011 referendum one of the principal arguments in favour of first-past-the-post was that it produced decisive results and stable governments, this is perhaps as close as we are going to get to evidence that an electoral system can have a sense of humour. ()

Further reading:

Martin Pugh: Electoral Reform in War and Peace 1906-18. London: Routledge, 1978.
David Butler: The Electoral System in Britain 1918-51. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Matthew Roberts: Are Single Member Constituencies Out of Date? History and Policy, 2011.