Friday, 11 March 2011

Voting Reform

We in Britain will soon be asked to vote in a referendum on whether to replace our "first past the post" method of electing M.P.s with a system of Alternative Vote (AV). The purpose of this artcle is not to argue for or against AV, but to correct the widely-held perception that a single vote is the ancient and traditional method of election: it is not.

From the very earliest days of electing English Members of Parliament, through to the 19th century, almost every constituency returned not one, but two, M.P.s, being the two candidates who attracted the most votes. Each voter similarly had not one vote, but two: he could not give both of them to the same candidate, though if he wished he could give just one vote, which was known as a "plumper". When elections became dominated by political parties, a party could, if wanted, put up two different candidates for a single constituency. The advantage of such a system from the voter's point of view was that an undecided voter could split his votes between two different parties. It would also increase the chances of popular independent candidates being elected. Although single-member constituencies became more common as the 19th century progressed, the last double-member constituencies were not abolished until 1948. (Incidentally, the English double-member system is the reason why the United States constitution decided to have two, and only two, senators for each state, regardless of size and population)

The campaign against voting reform has recently quoted Winston Churchill's hostile views on the subject. It is worth pointing out that Churchill, when first elected to Parliament as a Conservative in 1900, was only the second member for the two-member seat of Oldham, behind the first-placed Liberal candidate and fewer than 300 votes ahead of the second Liberal. Had Oldham been a single-member constituency, he would not have been elected.(Churchill switched to the Liberal Party three years later, and abandoned Oldham) Similarly, Keir Hardie, the founder of the Labour Party, was from 1900 until his death only the second-placed M.P. for the two-member seat of Merthyr.

Women did not receive voting rights on the same terms as men until the 1920s, but even then there was no absolute system of "one person, one vote". Until 1948, if you owned property in more than one constituency you could, under certain circumstances,vote in more than one place. Furthermore, since the earliest days of Parliament, the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge had elected their own M.P.s (two each, naturally), with everyone holding the degree of Master of Arts being entitled to vote in University elections, in addition to any other voting rights they might have. Some very distinguised men represented the Universities in Parliament, notably William Pitt the younger, one of our greatest Prime Ministers, who was M.P. for Cambridge University from 1784 until his death in 1806. As other universities were created, they were also granted Parliamentary seats: Trinity College Dublin, Combined English Universities, and Scottish Universities; this last even having a system of transferable votes. The university seats were finally abolished in 1948.

The uniform system of "one person, one vote" may or may not be the best one for Britain, but it is quite wrong to think that it is ancient and traditional. The first general election in which "one person, one vote" was uniformly applied was in 1950. In fact it is younger than I am! So I say; let's get back to the old traditional English system of election: double-member constituencies, with each voter having two votes. If it was good enough to get Winston Churchill and Keir Hardie into Parliament, it should be good enough for us here today!

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