Election Countdown

Should we change our voting system?

The February 1974 election reignited the debate into whether first-past-the-post is the fairest way to choose MPs. Fifty years on, it’s still raging

February 26, 2024
Harold Wilson voting as leader of the opposition. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
Harold Wilson voting as leader of the opposition. Image: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Fifty years ago this week, British politics changed course. It saw the birth—or, more accurately, rebirth—of one of the controversies that has since become a permanent feature of political debate: should we change the voting system for choosing our MPs?

On February 28th 1974, Britain’s voters decided to eject Edward Heath’s Conservative government from office. After a weekend of drama and uncertainty, Harold Wilson returned as prime minister, leading a minority government. Heath had gambled on an early general election to help him solve Britain’s most serious postwar industrial crisis. A strike by the National Union of Mineworkers had led to daily power cuts. Most businesses were told to operate only three days a week. “Who should govern Britain?”, Heath asked. “Not you,” came the electorate’s unexpected answer. While Labour emerged with the most MPs, it did not secure an outright majority. Seven months later, a fresh election allowed Labour to limp over the line with a majority of three.

However, the feature of that February election that has had the most enduring impact was the huge discrepancy between the votes cast for each party and the number of seats they won. Both Labour and the Conservatives lost support: the Tory share was down eight percentage points on 1970; Labour, though it “won” the election, was down six. The real swing was to the Liberals, up 12 points, and trebling their tally from 2.1 to 6.1m. (As it happens, this set a new record for the party; decades earlier, when it regularly won elections, far fewer adults had the vote.)

Yet the Liberals won only 14 seats. The discrepancy—19.3 per cent of the vote, 2.2 per cent of the seats—was unprecedented.

It had always been the case that our first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system was tilted against third parties to some degree. Indeed, there had been serious moves to introduce electoral reform. A Speaker’s Conference during the First World War recommended a limited form of proportional representation, but MPs and peers disagreed on what specific type of reform to implement, so the status quo prevailed. In 1930, the year-old Labour minority government did a deal with the Liberals’ 59 MPs to introduce the Alternative Vote, in return for the Liberals keeping Labour in power for a full five years. The Electoral Reform Bill was passed by the Commons but opposed by the House of Lords. The deadlock might have been resolved but for the global financial crisis which led to an early election. The bill lapsed and was not revived afterwards.

The issue then subsided. Following the Second World War, Britain reverted to two-party politics. Between 1945 and 1970, no more than 13 per cent of voters supported minor parties. The significance of the election 50 years ago is that this number doubled to 25 per cent, mostly Liberals. In the three decades before 1974, the numbers voting for parties other than Labour or Conservative never rose above 3.5m. Since then, it has never dropped below 5.5m.

During the weekend after the election, Heath tried to carry on. His party had won 200,000 more votes than Labour but ended up with four fewer MPs. Both main parties were well short of a majority. Acknowledging the surge in Liberal support, Heath offered to form a coalition with Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader. In a letter to Thorpe, Heath offered “a Speaker’s Conference to consider the desirability and possibility of a change in our electoral arrangements.” Heath did not, however, commit the Tories to supporting reform. In the event, a deal was probably never possible—not least because the Tories and Liberals together would still have fallen well short of a parliamentary majority. 

However, the issue of electoral reform was no longer a marginal issue that small numbers of consenting adults would discuss in private. The Hansard Society set up a high-powered, cross-party commission, which recommended a semi-proportional system. So did a separate commission, set up by Tony Blair when he became prime minister, and chaired by Roy Jenkins. Both reports attracted much attention but no subsequent action.

Then came the 2010 election, in which David Cameron lured Nick Clegg into a Con-Lib Dem coalition with the promise of a referendum on switching to the Alternative Vote—the far from proportional system that MPs had backed in 1931, but one that would have helped the Lib Dems. Clegg brushed aside warnings that he would lose the vote, which he did by more than two-to-one.

So here we are, a series of efforts over more than a century to reform our voting system being rebuffed each time.

Yet that is not the whole story. Electoral reform remains the subject of intense debate. And it’s not just the Liberal Democrats that are keen advocates. So is Reform UK, which may well win two million or more votes at the next election but no seats. And 18 months ago, Labour’s annual conference overwhelmingly backed reform, although Keir Starmer has shown no sign of turning this into a manifesto commitment.

That is not all. Proportional systems are now used to elect Scotland’s parliament and local councillors, and the Welsh and Greater London assemblies. Northern Ireland’s assembly and councillors too—but the province is the one part of the United Kingdom that has had various forms of proportional voting since it was established a century ago. We should also add that for 20 years we used the Single Transferable Vote for elections to the European Parliament. At different times this benefited the Liberal Democrats, Greens, Ukip, the Brexit Party and the British National Party. For good or ill, the old monopoly that FPTP used to enjoy in the electoral arrangements for mainland Britain has been shattered.

Perhaps the final bastion of FPTP, the House of Commons, will fall in the next few years. My guess is that it’s at least two elections away, as I argued in a blog last year. But whatever happens, the controversy that was reignited 50 years ago this week won’t go away.