Why my vote is for reform: a brief history of parliament

Elections are a strange time for me. I follow politics and I like to know what the government is up to. Elections are an exciting time, a time for championing all your best ideas. They’re also somewhat depressing, if you actually believe in democracy. I do, which is why I’ll be voting for reform of our political system. But to see why reform is necessary, a little back-story is in order:

Parliament has a long and noble history, going right back to the Anglo Saxon ‘Witengamot’, or council of noblemen. The council formally gained power in 1215 with the signing of The Magna Carta. In this historic document, King John signed away a range of kingly powers. He, and all sovereigns following him, would no longer be able to levy taxes at will, imprison citizens without cause, or take goods without paying for them. The role of the council changed, with its allegiance to itself and to the country rather than to the king. It was the most important moment in British political history, and its influence goes beyond our own shores, visible in the US Constitution or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The idea of an elected parliament began around fifty years later, with the wealthiest landowners nominating representatives. Edward I brought in a more diverse parliament in 1295, with two citizens from each city, and two knights from each county, as well as bishops and noblemen. Unsurprisingly, the arrival of all those lesser citizens prompted the formation of the upper house, and parliament divided into a House of Commons and a House of Lords. An upper house composed of landowning noblemen continued until 1999, when the Labour government banished the majority of the hereditary peers. They left 92 as a compromise. However, since the rest of the house is elected by the political parties and appointed by the Prime Minister, the reform of the House of Lords is very much unfinished business.

Power was negotiated back and forth between the monarch and Parliament over the following years, until Charles I stepped over the line and lost his head for it in 1649. When the monarchy was restored 11 years later, it was clear who held all the cards. It was around this time that traditional parliamentary divisions began to emerge, with Royalists supporting the king, and their opponents protecting the role of parliament – the Tories and the Whigs respectively. Factions rather than political parties at this stage, the Tories emerged on the side of the court, and the Whigs spoke up on the side of the newly industrialising regions. Both names are insults, a tory being an Irish bandit and a whig being a cattle-herder. Three centuries on, the two main parties in the British parliament still sit opposite each other and jeer and boo like children.

As the industrial revolution progressed, the political map was substantially re-drawn and many historic constituencies became irrelevant. The booming industrial towns needed representation, while the population of other constituencies had dwindled, sometimes to single figures. Dunwich, the former capital of the ancient kingdom of East Anglia, retained the right to elect two MPs despite being underwater – thanks to several centuries of coastal erosion. Beginning in 1832, a series of reform acts re-distributed votes across the country and broadened the number of people who could vote. It was fiercely opposed in the House of Lords, a recurring theme in parliamentary reform.

Between 1832 and the present, a series of Representation of the People Acts extended the right to vote. It began with working class men, and women were included from 1918, although not universally at first. By 1969 the voting age had been lowered to 18. Voters living outside the UK were included in the 80s, and the only group still excluded from voting are criminals serving a jail sentence, something most modern democracies allow. The 200o amendment to the act introduced postal voting, and allowed the sale of electoral rolls for advertising. None of this tweaking addressed the actual voting system itself, which remains one step up from a show of hands under the ‘first past the post’ mechanism.

First past the post is a simple majority vote system used in many countries, usually those with a British colonial influence. (There’s a list of countries and their voting systems on wikipedia, if you’re curious.) It is easy to understand and quick to count, but otherwise it’s an unsophisticated and inadequate way to run a national election. Many, if not most MPs, are elected without an overall majority. Unless you live in one of the marginal constituencies, your vote counts for very little. Small parties get fewer seats, and a national government can be formed without the majority of the country voting for them. In 2005, Labour won 55% of seats with just 35% of the vote. 22% of the population ticked the Lib Dem box, but the party only secured 9.6% of the seats in parliament. It is quite possible for Labour to come third in the election in a fortnight’s time, and still end up in government.

Predictably, it is the smaller parties and independents that are calling for electoral reform, to break the monopoly of the two main parties. It’s also an opposition game. Labour talked about it at great length in the 80s and 90s, and then failed to do anything about it once in power, although they did bless the Welsh and Scottish parliaments with a much better ‘additional member’ system. I won’t go into the various alternative voting systems now, but check out the Electoral Reform Society or Power2010 for a couple of different ideas.

In some ways, voting is a pointless exercise unless you support the Conservatives or Labour, since one of those two will form the next government. However, if a sufficient number of people vote against them to get a hung parliament, electoral reform will be much easier to secure. The Conservatives oppose reform, Labour have modest proposals, the Lib Dems favour a complete overhaul. My preferred option is a Labour government with a hung parliament, forcing Labour to work with the Lib Dems to create a fairer voting system.

I think it’s crazy that we still have lifetime seat in the House of Lords that have been passed on from generation to generation of wealthy landowners. Our electoral system is arcane and unfair and serves a political elite rather than the voting public. So this time around, I’ll be using my vote to vote for reform, and add a new chapter to the story of our parliament. And maybe next time I get to vote, it will mean a whole lot more.


  1. My preferred outcome is similar:
    Lib Dems win the most seats, but not an outright majority. Between Labour and the Conservatives, one win more votes, the other more seats. Liberal Democrats form a government with Labour.

    I’m not so convinced about house of Lords reform, though. I like that there’s a group of people who can make it more difficult to pass bad bills through parliament without having to worry about being re-elected. Maybe they should be one (fairly long) term only, and not allowed to use a party in their campaign.

    1. Yes, the House of Lords should be a counter-balance. Unfortunately its packed with appointees from the main parties at the moment. How can people like Mandelson have a lifetime invitation to meddle in our law making?

      Maybe one way to do it would be to have a variety of appointees, some from politics, others from business, NGOs, from the arts and culture. It would be a second house that represents sectors and interests rather than geographical constituencies. But that’s not really a very thought through idea, I’ll admit.

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