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‘In the 1970s, the British Electoral System Became More Controversial’ - Discuss.

26 October 1998

With the imminent publication of the Jenkins Report, electoral reform has again jumped back to a high position on the UK political agenda. Interest in electoral reform has had ebbs and flows in past decades. However, this essay will argue that the present phase of interest in electoral reform emerged in the 1970’s, and examine the reasons for this. It will argue that the commonly cited reason, the rise of the Liberals and the Nationalist parties, was the primary determining factor in growing debate about the UK electoral system, but that other changes in the British political set-up fostered increased demands for change as well.

The years around the turn of the century saw an upsurge in interest in methods of election across Europe. At first these focused on franchise, but as franchise gradually became universalised, the focus of the debate moved on to systems of election. In 1918 the electoral system in the UK came within a whisker of being changed, while a subsequent attempt, an attempt to change to AMS, almost succeeded in 1931. However in the post-war years demand for change slackened off and in 1951, when Attlee’s government lost despite polling 0.8% more than the Conservatives, little protest was heard. The two major parties dominated politics between 1945 and 1970 - at times as much as 97% of the vote was shared between them. The Liberals and other minor parties were effectively irrelevant.

Some would argue that the 1970’s saw no real change in attitudes to the electoral system. The party élites remained firmly opposed to any change in the party system, and largely have until very recently. I, however, agree with Butler that political attitudes to electoral reform changed significantly during the 1970’s as compared to the immediate post-War era. The 1966 Speaker’s Conference rejected reform of the electoral system by 19 votes to 1. However, by 1976, a Hansard Society Commission under Lord Blake supported the introduction of the German AMS system. In the years of the post-war consensus, debate on electoral reform was largely confined to the Liberal Party. By 1980, industrialists and trade unionists had added their voices to the call for electoral reform, and even former Conservative Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Holme had done so. What had been seen as the favourite whinge of the politically powerless was now part of mainstream political debate.

Having established that the British electoral system did become more controversial in the 1970’s, we must now examine why this was the case. The most often cited, and in my view the most important, reason for attitudinal change was what Butler calls the “manifest injustice” of the February 1974 General Election results, which saw the Liberal Party obtain over 19% of the vote, but a mere 2% of the seats. This coupled with the rise of the Nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales meant that, mathematically, the 1974 elections were substantially less fair than any other since the war. The Rose Index of proportionality for Westminster elections between 1950 and 1970 was between 89% to 97%. However in both 1974 elections this slumped to 81%, and recovered only to 85% in 1979.

Other measures also show this significant decline in two-party dominance. For example, between 1945 and 1966, half of all seats fought were straight Conservative/Labour fights. From February 1974 on, every seat in the country was fought by at least three parties. From 1950 until 1966, between 4 and 6 parties were represented at Westminster. In 1970 this rose to 8, and by October 1974 this figure had risen to 11. From 1945 to 1970, the Conservative plus Labour share of the vote varied between 87.5% and 96.8%; between 1974 and 1979, it’s range was between 74.9% and 80.8%. Despite this, the two big parties continued to receive well over 90% of the seats at Westminster. This disparity between votes gained and seats won raised disquiet even among those who had little sympathy for either the Liberals or the Celtic Nationalist parties.

Butler lists a second reason for the emergence of controversy over the electoral system during the 1970’s. Many Conservatives were worried about Labour’s drift to the left. There were genuine objective reasons why one could question the validity of a party claiming that 39% of the vote was a mandate for ‘a fundamental and irreversible shift of power to working people’. Many, especially on the wet wing of the Conservatives, sought constitutional change as a means of controlling Labour’s more radical edge, and electoral reform was increasingly seen as part of a programme including a written constitution and a stronger Upper House that could check radical change to established policy norms on such a small share of popular support.

I would however, argue that these fears were simply part of a wider disquiet, stirred-up by drift towards extremism in the two main parties, which led to the rise of the Liberals and undermined one of the key arguments in support of simple plurality.

When Margaret Thatcher was elected in 1979, Britain had witnessed 4 changes in government in 15 years. Policy now seemed to be facing substantial alteration every five years. By 1980, Mrs Thatcher’s monetarist policies were in deep trouble and many in the business community, and many Tory wets, were deeply uncomfortable with the Tory Party’s lurch to the right. At the same time Labour had been gradually ‘entered’ by activists from Militant Tendency and other extremist groups and had drifted very substantially to the left. It was never less attractive to the business community, and as it’s trouncing in 1983 would demonstrate, to the public at large. Many in public life outside the political parties came to see proportional representation as a means of forcing permanent coalition and thereby preventing disruptive changes in policy. For example, Lord Caldecote stated in 1980 that: “The great disadvantage of the present electoral system from an industrial point of view is that it produces drastic changes in policy at intervals which are far too short to enable industry to plan and operate efficiently. […] I firmly believe that electoral reform will benefit industry … it will strengthen the moderate view in government and the influence of those who prefer consensus and consistency in government policy.”

Not only did growing extremism give rise to a desire for coalition governments among some, it also undermined one of the arguments used in favour of simple plurality - that it forced the major parties to be moderate in order to woo floating voters. During the 1970’s, the extremist wings of both major parties, by that stage becoming more and more influential on party policies, seemed to set a greater emphasis on policy dogmatism than on the necessity to attract centrist voters.

Several other factors, not directly mentioned in the literature on this topic, also seem to me to have played a rôle in the change of opinion on electoral systems.

One was another case in which simple plurality failed to deliver what it’s proponents claimed for it. In 1974 a dispute with the coal-miners, following closely on the heels of the three day week, plunged Britain into crisis. This was exactly the sort of situation in which supporters of plurality said that it provided the strong government which was needed. Edward Heath went to the country demanding a mandate to force the miners to back down - Labour fought on a manifesto urging conciliation entitled Let Us Work Together. After the polls closed, the country waited with baited breath… and neither party won a majority. Eventually a Labour minority government took power. In October of that year, the Wilson minority government sought an overall majority. This it obtained by a mere four seats, which was gradually whittled away over the following years due to by-elections. The Labour government was forced to deal with the Liberals, then in the winter of 1978-9 an industrial crisis again debilitated Britain. The Lib-Lab pact had broken down, and the UK was again without a strong government when it needed it most. Opponents of PR had long argued that it led to weak and unstable governments and coalitions. Now the simple plurality system had done exactly the same.

The economic and military decline of Britain was in my view a more important factor than most people give credit for. This was a causative factor of decline in loyalty to the institutions of the state. In the boom of the ‘Butskellite’ years, there was a consensus that the British constitutional set-up worked. By the early ‘50s economic policy differences between Tory and Labour were more to do with emphasis than substance, and the realities of being part of the Western military alliance was fully accepted by both. No matter who was in power, Britons had, to coin a phrase, never had it so good. However the economic decline from the late 1960’s on, coupled with the end of empire and increasing British dependence on the American defence umbrella changed all that. Not only did policy differences between Labour and Tory widen, but many people questioned the myth that the British system of government was, as had always been stated, the best in the world. Neither party seemed capable of arresting Britain’s decline as a world power. Not only did people look to new political parties, they looked for changes in institutions. The most public expression of this was the rise in support for parties proposing radical changes to the constitutional system, such as the Scottish and Welsh separatists, and after a more sinister fashion, the National Front.

In conclusion, there is no doubt in my mind that the British electoral system became more controversial in the 1970’s, in marked contrast to the immediate post-war years which were marked by constitutional consensus. The primary reason for the increasing controversy of the electoral system in the ‘70s was the rise of the Liberals, and to a lesser extent Scottish and Welsh nationalists. However other, less often mentioned factors were also of significance. These included: the drift away from the centre among both Conservatives and Labour; the failure of the electoral system to produce decisive majorities twice in 1974; and the general decline of Britain prompting increasing mistrust of traditional institutions and political parties which seemed powerless to arrest that decline. All these factors overlap and reinforce one another to some extent. All have continued to persist to a greater or lesser extent through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s. As this year’s Labour Party conference showed, the electoral system remains highly controversial to this day.


  • 1 - Blackburn, p383
  • 2 - Butler (1995), p54
  • 3 - Ibid, p57-58
  • 4 - Blackburn (1995), p406
  • 5 - Butler (1995), p58
  • 6 - Blackburn (1995), p399
  • 7 - Ibid, p398
  • 8 - Butler (1995), p58
  • 9 - Norris (1997), p47. The Speakers’ seats and the April 1981 by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone are excluded.
  • 10 - Ibid, p48
  • 11 - Butler (1995), p130-1 Labour’s vote in the October 1974 General Election
  • 12 - Ibid, p58 From a pamphlet called Industry Needs Electoral Reform, quoted in Blackburn (1995), p399
  • 13 - Butler (1995), p58
  • 14 - Ibid, p29
  • 15 - Ibid, p32
  • 16 - Blackburn (1995), p394
  • 17 - Norris (1997), p 72

  • Bibliography

    Blackburn, Robert, The Electoral System in Britain, Basingstoke, Macmillan (1995)
    Butler, David, British General Elections Since 1945, Oxford, Blackwell (1995)
    Norris, Pippa, Electoral Change Since 1945, Oxford, Blackwell (1997)

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