The United Kingdom Comes of Age: The British Electoral Reform “Revolution” Of the 1990S

David M. Farrell

in Mixed-Member Electoral Systems

Published in print February 2003 | ISBN: 9780199257683
Published online November 2003 | e-ISBN: 9780191600241 | DOI:

Series: Comparative Politics

 The United Kingdom Comes of Age: The British Electoral Reform “Revolution” Of the 1990S

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In the field of electoral systems, Britain has long held out as a bastion of stability, as the country seen as least likely to undergo fundamental electoral reform, but this picture was rudely shattered in the late spring of 1997, with the election of a new Labour government. The central argument of this chapter is that the current debate over British electoral reform should be viewed as part of a wider process of the coming of age of British politics. A review of the historical debate reveals a series of failed initiatives to reform the electoral system, suggesting that the matter has never been entirely put to rest, and that there has always been the prospect of its re‐emergence. The current episode, dating from the election of the new government in 1997, provides reason to expect that electoral reform may really happen this time, and indeed already has happened in a number of British electoral arenas (European Parliament; London mayor; Northern Ireland, Scottish, Welsh and London Assemblies). The chapter is arranged as follows: the first section summarizes the historical record from 1860 to 1970, and provides evidence of a political elite willing at least to countenance the idea of experimenting with change, even if not yet prepared to embrace it; the second section explores possible explanations for why the issue re‐emerged in the 1990s and describes the reforms implemented in that period (up to 2000); this is followed by an outline of the deliberations and proposals of the Independent Commission on the Voting System for the British House of Commons (the Jenkins Commission), which was established by the new Labour prime minister, Tony Blair, in December 1997, whose report was published in October 1998 and suggested ‘alternative vote plus (AV+)’ as the new electoral system; the concluding section discusses the current prospects for electoral reform in the UK.

Keywords: alternative vote plus; Britain; British House of Commons; electoral history; electoral reform; electoral systems; European Parliament; Independent Commission on the Voting System; Jenkins Commission; Labour government; London Assembly; London mayor; Northern Ireland Assembly; Scottish Assembly; Welsh Assembly

Chapter.  10497 words. 

Subjects: Comparative Politics

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