The Birth of the Democratic Constitution
•How the right to vote was secured
•Nature of the electoral system
•The management of the electoral system
•The case for reforming the electoral system
•Emergence of political parties
•Response to political scandal.
Origins of Parliament
Model Parliament of 1295 summoned by Edward I
generally regarded as the first representative Parliament.
Comprised 2 knights from each county, 2 Burgers from
each borough, 2 citizens from each city.
Scotland remained separate nation with its own Parliament
and legal system.
The Monarchy was combined in 1603 and the two
Parliaments combined in 1707.
Bill of Rights of 1689 ensured regular Parliaments.
A Democratic Parliament?
House of Lords represented the peers of the realm. Mainly
landowners with hereditary titles (barons, viscounts, earls,
dukes etc), plus the church (archbishops and bishops).
House of Commons elected but until 1832 the distribution
of seats was based on medieval centres of population
recognised by Royal Charter. Many large cities and towns
had no representation in Parliament.
No control over the conduct of elections. Bribery and
corruption common place and no secret ballot.
Hogarth’s allegorical electoral canvases
The first of Hogarth's famous scenes features 'An Election
Entertainment'. It was executed in 1754 as an allegory of Leonardo's
Last Supper exactly 100 years before Parliament legislated to
address the problem it highlighted. This panel features the feasting
and revelling associated with election time. The pre-election
entertainment was the opportunity for candidates to lavish favours in
exchange for votes. The Corrupt Practices Act 1854 was a largely
unsuccessful attempt to stamp out the considerable corruption which
continued to accompany elections. It required an audit of accounts
payable by each candidate and it defined the various forms of
corrupt practice, including the intimidation of voters.
Great Reform Act 1832
Right to vote achieved after a prolonged struggle:
1832 Reform Act changed the voting qualification to the £10 level which
virtually doubled the franchise.
56 rotten and pocket boroughs were abolished and these seats went to
large cities and towns in midlands and north.
22 new boroughs were created with two members and 19 new
boroughs with one member. The representation of counties was
increased. One county was given six members. 26 counties were given
4 members. 7 counties were given three members. Until 1832 no list of
voters was prepared beforehand.
1832 Reform Act is an important constitutional landmark because it can
be regarded as a symbolic defeat of immense significance for the
landed interests within Parliament.
Path to universal suffrage
1867 Reform Act further reduced the voting qualification
and redistributed more seats
1872 Secret Ballot introduced
1883 Corrupt Practices Act
1884 Reform Act regulated elections further extended the
franchise.
1918 all adult males and women over 30 given right to
vote.
1928 All women over 21 have the right to vote.
Votes for women
• Mary Wollstonecraft was a radical among her contemporaries
who had published her influential Vindication of the Rights of
Woman 1792 arguing that men and women should be entitled
to the same fundamental rights.
• Dicey commented: '... women of pre-eminent goodness are
often lacking in the virtues such as active courage, firmness of
judgment, self-control, steadiness of conduct, and above all, a
certain sense of justice maintained in the heat of party
conflict.’
• National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies was
established in 1888 to present the case for female suffrage.
Contribution to the war (1914-18) crucial in the struggle for the
vote.
Frequency of elections
• Parliament Act 1911 reduced the maximum period between
elections from 7 to 5 years. Counter balance weakening of
House of Lords.
• Westminster system depends on government maintaining its
majority so a policy defeat before that will trigger an election
e.g. 1979.
• Until the last election by convention the PM had a
discretionary power to call for the dissolution of Parliament
prompting an election.
• Following the coalition agreement the Fixed Term Parliament
Act 2011 sets elections at 5 year intervals unless government
is defeated.
• Until such time as the Act is repealed PM no longer has this
power.
The Electoral System
First past the post/simple majority system
Nation divided into 645 single member constituencies.
Adults over the age of 18 have the right to vote.
Secret ballot
Electoral register must be kept up-to-date.
Boundary Commission is an independent public body that reviews
Parliamentary constituency boundaries.
'The electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota
as is practicable ...' In doing this it takes into account a number of subrules to allow for some flexibility e.g. geographical considerations and
shape of a constituency. There may need to be quite far-reaching
changes to make in response to changes in population.
Ratio between popular vote and seats
gained
2001 General Election Result
Labour 42% popular vote 413 seats 62.7% seats
Conservative 32.7% popular vote 166 seats 25.2% seats
Liberal Democrat 18% popular vote 52 seats 7.9% seats
2010 General Election Result
Labour 30% popular vote 258 seats 40% seats
Conservative 37% popular vote 307 seats 47.5% seats
Liberal Democrat 24% popular vote 57 seats 8.8% seats
Referendum on alternative vote 2011
• Alternative vote system as a possible replacement rejected in a
referendum May 2011.
• The coalition agreement after the 2010 general election included a
commitment to hold a national referendum allowing voters a choice
between the retaining the present system or changing it in favour of
the Alternative Vote (AV) system. AV is a preferential system that
maintains single-member constituencies and seeks to ensure that all
MPs have the support of more than half of the electors in their
constituency. It works by allowing voters to rank candidates in order
of preference. Candidates are elected outright if they receive more
than half of the votes. If no candidate gains a majority on first
preferences, the second preferences of the losing candidates are
redistributed successively until a candidate emerges with more than
half the votes.
• Jenkins Commission recommended additional member system.
Regulating electoral funding
The Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000
now regulates the conduct of political parties. It set up an
Election Commission to oversee the electoral process. The
Act also requires political parties to be registered and it
imposes restrictions on the source of donations to prevent
foreign and anonymous support for political parties. The Act
further requires that any donation over £5000 to a political
party is declared.
Political Parties
• Eighteenth and early nineteenth century: two factions
Whigs and Tories both associated with the monarchy but
Tories associated also with exiled Stuarts. Whigs
evolved into the Liberal Party.
• Traditional Tory ‘God, King and Country’: Associated with
Burke late Eighteenth century. It became the
Conservative Party during the nineteenth century and
under Disreali idea of one nation conservatism
developed.
• Labour Party formed from the Fabian movement and
Trade Unions. Kier Hardy first MP.
National parties today
• Conservative Party represents middle classes and
business but no longer a party of the landed aristocracy.
Relies on private funding.
• Labour Party close links with trade union movement
which provides a substantial proportion of funding.
Represents poorer groups plus some middle class
voters.
• Liberal Democrats privately funded. Middle class
representation
• UKIP – anti-Europe
• National Front – racist anti-immigration – working class
support.
Parties (contd)
• National parties tend to be grand coalitions of interest
reflecting a wide range of views. Electoral system means
that concentrated support is required to win a seat. Small
parties tend to do very badly.
• Scottish Nationalists and Welsh Nationalists are able to
get MPs elected because of concentrated support in
parts of Scotland and Wales.
• Independents tend only to be elected at by elections.
Political scandal
• Thatcher/Major years: cash for questions involved MPs
being given money to ask parliamentary questions.
Raises question of lobbying. Led to a parliamentary
commissioner for standards and a compulsory register of
MPs interests.
• MPs Expenses: In 2009 Freedom of Information
requests led to the exposure of many false claims from
MPs exploiting the expenses that were offered. Several
MPs were forced to resign and some imprisoned.
Conclusion
• Vote only achieved after a protracted struggle.
• Legitimacy of the House of Commons was asserted as
the franchise was extended.
• Not just a matter of the right to vote but of establishing
boundaries and regulating conduct to avoid abuse of the
system.
• Simple majority electoral system contributes to large
stable parties that tend to be broadly representative.
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2010 General Election Result