Monday, 17 March 2008

What if Proportional Representation Been Introduced in the UK in 1918?

In January 1917 the Speaker's Conference, which had sat since October 1916, proposed that Britain adopt the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation for its electoral system.  This would have replaced the so called 'first past the post' system which was (and remains) in place in the UK. The first-past-the-post system means that even if a candidate wins by 1 vote they get the seat and the second (and subsequent candidates) get nothing.  This is despite the fact that they may have received almost as much support from the public. Thus the proportional representation system was seen as being 'fairer' to voters.  More than one candidate would be returned from each constituency.  It was also seen as allowing a wider spectrum of political opinion to be voiced at a time when there were only the Liberal and Conservative parties and the  small Labour Party. 

Proportional representation was adopted in Germany and Belgium following the First World War.  It is in common usage in different forms across Europe now.  In the UK it is used for European Parliament elections and for general elections in Northern Ireland as it better reflects the sectarian diversity of the constituencies there. The Prime Minister in 1917 was David Lloyd George, the Liberal leader.  He had opposed proportional representation as early as 1884.  With the Liberals in government, albeit in a coalition, he was in no hurry to alter the system.  The same happened in 1997 when the Labour Party gained a large majority it immediately abandoned its previously developed plans to introduce proportional representation.

The big fear about proportional representation for the British which continues in a misinformed way even now, is that it automatically leads to governments which cannot command a majority.  Thus it is felt that they would need to negotiate on every piece of legislation and this is seen as leading to weak rule. This view was increased by the difficulties in the Third Republic of France (1870-1940) and Weimar Germany (1918-33). However, it ignores the stability of states with proportional representation, notably West Germany (1949-91).

In this posting I am going to look at what would have happened if Lloyd George had not been so hostile to the approach or if he had been aware of how the Liberal Party was crumbling. It was never to hold office alone again after 1922 and was not even part of a coalition until 1931-45, though individual Liberals participated. Alternatively, as Nina Barzachka shows in an online article, it can be imagined that he would have had a more enlightened view like the Catholic Party of Belgium which adopted Proportional Representation at national level.  Belgium had had it locally since 1895.  They did this despite it leading to losses for them. Anyway, let us imagine if proportional representation, like votes for women, had been introduced in 1918, how would the political picture of Britain been different?

Now, one caveat, STV is a complex system and the UK's constituencies are very imbalanced, with Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales being over-represented, for their populations, in the Westminster Parliament. I have adopted a simplistic system of giving the parties the same percentage of the available seats as they got percentage of the overall vote. However, I think different anomalies would have cancelled each other out.  There would certainly have been an alteration to the size and number of constituencies to fewer, but larger, ones.  Representation for Scotland and Wales may have been balanced at that time. Of course, with the new system in place voter choice may have been very different and new parties which never materialised in our world are likely to have appeared as they did in other countries.  Most likely there would have been a left-wing Socialist and/or Communist party and a right-wing British nationalist party. As now, Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties may have also emerged, but sooner. There may have also been an Agrarian party and/or a small Business-focused party.  However, the Conservatives may have been able to retain these within their bounds.  Moving into the latter part of the 20th century, a women's party or a 'grey' party, i.e. one for the interests of the elderly may have appeared.

As the Irish Free State left the UK in 1922 and that was probably the first year that the new system could have been put into effect having been introduced in 1918, I will start at the 1922 election. The format is -

Year: Total number of seats available (Party that formed government in our world)

Party [party forming government shown in Bold]: (Percentage of the vote received); Seats under PR [Actual seats received in our world].

1922 Election: 615 seats (Conservative Party) 
Conservative: (38.5%); 237 seats [344]
Labour: (29.7%); 183 seats [142]
Liberal: (18.9%); 116 seats [62]
National Liberal (9.9%); 61 seats [53]
Irish Nationalist (0.4%): 3 seats [3]
Others (2.8%): 15 seats [15]

This would have led to a minority government in that Labour and the main Liberal Party could outvote the Conservatives (even if had National Liberal support) something they could not do in our world. If the Conservatives had been unable to form a government then a new coalition is likely to have been formed between the Liberals and Labour. This would have brought Labour into government two years earlier than actually happened and in a slightly dominant position as it had more seats than the Liberals. This is feasible given that the Liberals supported Labour's brief minority government in 1924.

Labour's relative inexperience would probably have meant senior Liberals playing a central role. Policies probably would have embraced some extension of the nascent welfare state began by the Liberals before the First World War, but there would have tensions arising over the impact of the Russian Revolution. If Labour and the Liberals had fallen out, say in 1924, then we might have indeed seen the jockeying for position between the three main parties.  This in itself would have been a first for Britain.  Then maybe there would have even been a resurrection of the wartime Liberal-Conservative coalition. However, even with proportional representation, the eclipse of the Liberals as a leading party, would seem to have been as apparent in this alternate world as in ours.

As in Germany, there may have been a split in the Labour Party with a Communist Party appearing and able under this system to gain some seats in a way that was impossible in Britain until 1945.  Their gains would have just weakened Labour, though probably not to the extent that they would have been smaller than the Liberals.  Establishing a Communist presence in parliament is likely to have had an impact when the economy began to go into depression in the late 1920s.

1923: 615 (Conservative Party; then Labour Party)
Conservative: (38%); 234 seats [258]
Labour: (30.7%); 188 seats [191]
Liberal: (29.7%); 183 seats [158]
Others: (2%); 10 seats [8]

In our December 1923 Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin, despite a reasonable majority decided to call an election just 13 months after the previous one.  This was because he wanted a mandate on his adoption of tariffs and abandonment of free trade. This election actually decreased his majority and he ran a minority government (so, who says first-past-the-post avoided this) until it collapsed in January 1924. Then a minority Labour government ruled until October 1924 when it fell.

The effective elimination in 1923 of the National Liberals through lost seats and defections to Labour and the Conservatives to some extent reinforced the main Liberal Party. In the proportional representation system this would have been even more apparent and a true three-party state would seem to be in position. Again, the opportunity for a true Labour-Liberal coalition would have appeared but the partners would have been on more equal terms now. The Liberals might have been reluctant to partner with an increasingly established Labour party but with their support of Free Trade would have been unlikely to go to the Conservatives unless they dropped this policy. It is clear that at this time, no matter what system was in place, British politics was unstable as Labour sought to replace the Liberals. With proportional representation that process may have taken far longer.

1924: 615 (Conservative Party)
Conservative: (46.8%); 288 seats [412]
Labour: (33.3%); 205 seats [151]
Liberal: (17.8%); 109 seats [40]
Others: (2.2%); 13 [12]

This election is where we begin to see a real divergence. The slide of the Liberals is apparent even with proportional representation though slowed down.  The huge difference is that rather than a 209-seat majority, the Conservatives still have a minority government. Of course if the Labour-Liberal coalition had continued from 1922 onwards, even if it had faced an election at this stage it could have continued. However, increasing division between Labour and the Liberals would have made this difficult. In addition, Labour would by now increasingly have felt the Liberals were splitting the vote that could have given it access to power. 

The Conservatives who adopted a very cautious policy in the light of economic turmoil would have probably had to address more policies towards the other parties' constituencies in order to remain in power. Of course, as opponents of proportional representation argue, the UK may simply have become like France of the 1920s and Italy before the advent of Fascism, in having governments only lasting a few months. In our world the 1924 election halted that for a while.  As in 1922 with the example of the rise of the Communists in Russia, in 1924, perhaps even earlier, the model of Fascism, though it did not gain complete power until 1925, may have led to the appearance of a Fascist Party in Britain.

1929: 615 (Labour Party)
Conservative: (38.1%) 234 seats [260]
Labour: (37.1%) 228 seats [287]
Liberal: (23.6%) 145 seats [59]
Others: (1.4%) 8 seats [12]

In 1929 in our world another minority Labour government was formed and by this stage the Liberals had really faded from the scene politically though in terms of individuals and their ideas they remained important. With proportional representation, the election in May 1929 may have been one of a pattern of the 1920s. The system would have offered another minority Conservative government or possibly yet another continuation of the Labour-Liberal coalition which might have dominated British politics throughout the 1920s. 

Those who might have seen the death of Liberalism in 1924 would have witnessed the party rallying and the persistence of British three-party politics. With the two class-based parties seemingly so close, the Liberals would have been the kingmakers right throughout this period and effectively would have almost become the 'true party of government' forming the core around which successive coalitions would have formed.

What is interesting is that Britain's political centre ground, while weaker than what it had been would have been far stronger than in Germany, which had adopted proportional representation in 1918. Of course, proportional representation may have led to the fracturing of parties and the one which could retain its cohesion may have been the one to keep winning, for example if the Conservatives could rein in their nationalist wing and Labour could hold on to radicals moving towards Communism.

It is more likely that Labour would have haemorrhaged to the left more that the Conservatives to the right, so the Conservatives would have been in power, though not coming close to having a majority whilst three-party politics continued. The Liberals probably would have clung together having witnessed the danger of fragmentation with the National Liberals in the past.  There is nothing to say that sustaining themselves as a reasonably large party in the 1920s they would not have received support from the left of the Conservatives. Remember Churchill only returned to the Conservatives in the 1920s because the Liberal Party, where he had been so important in the 1910s, had effectively dissolved. It is certainly not impossible to envisage a Liberal Party of the late 1920s led by Churchill with a combination of a patriotic approach but with social welfare policies.

1931: 615 (National Government)
Conservative: (55%); 338 seats [470]
National Labour (1.5%); 9 seats [13]
National Liberal (3.7%); 23 seats [35]
Labour: (30.8%); 189 seats [52]
Liberal: (6.5%); 40 seats [32]
Others: (2.7%); 17 seats [13]

In this alternate UK, 1931 would have really been the year three-party politics died. The Labour government fell over its inability to agree how to tackle the global financial crises. The Conservatives won a huge majority in our world and would have become the first post-1918 majority government in the UK. They barely needed the Liberals and Labour members who joined them in the National Government coalition but symbolically as a coalition of supposed national unity it was useful to suggest it was so broad.  It was Ramsay MacDonald, former leader of the Labour Party who, as head of National Labour continued to serve as Prime Minister 1931-5.  The picture shown here actually does not really reflect how fragmented the Liberals had become with a faction of 5 MPs around official Liberal leader David Lloyd George, here contained among the 'Others'.

People who say Britain had a more stable system without coalitions forget that 1931-45 the country was run by a coalition stretching across the political spectrum. The key beneficiaries of the proportional representation system would have been Labour who whilst shrinking would not have been almost wiped out in the way they were in our world. This would have meant more personalities to fill the front benches and possibly offer more alternative policies. 

Note that under proportional representation the number of 'Others' would be higher and 1931 saw the launch of the New Party, a Fascist party which contested 24 seats. With proportional representation they may have gained more ground and eaten into Conservative support.  Labour may not have done as well as shown here if a Communist Party was similarly taking away its support as people looked for a more radical solution to the crisis. The National Government effectively made up for the death of the centre in the UK as had happened in other European states by locating the whole system near the centre ground with cautious policies that could do little to oppose the Depression.

1935: 615 (National Government)
Conservative: (47.8%); 294 seats [387]
National Labour (1.5%); 9 seats [8]
National Liberal (3.7%); 23 seats [33]
Labour: (38%); 234 seats [154]
Liberal: (6.7%); 40 seats [21]
Others: (2.4%); 15 seats [13]

Now, in our world, the National Government continued with minimal challenge. MacDonald was replaced by Stanley Baldwin before the 1935 election as MacDonald retired on grounds of ill-health. Baldwin retired in 1937 and was replaced by Neville Chamberlain. He was effectively ousted in 1940 over the handling of the German invasion of Norway and was replaced by Winston Churchill. There was no general election 1935-45 but Churchill restructured the government and brought the non-National Labour Party into the wartime coalition with its leader, Clement Attlee, as his deputy prime minister.

In this alternate UK, in 1935 Labour would have bounced back reducing the coalition's majority to 37 compared to the 240 majority it had in our world. Certainly Labour could have claimed it represented a sizeable body of opinion possibly pressing for more imaginative policies to combat the economic crises and as critics of appeasement. The British Union of Fascists had almost crumbled by 1935 and so is unlikely to have made any showing in the elections, though having won a seat or two in 1931 may have retained some credibility and cohesion. However, even so, divisions over anti-Semitism and street fighting were likely to have caused fragmentation.

1945: 640 (Labour Party)
Conservative: (34.7%); 224 seats [178]

Labour: (47.9%); 308 seats [392]
Liberal: (9%); 58 seats [12]
Liberal National (3%); 19 seats [0]
Ulster Unionist (1.5%); 9 seats [9]
Independent (0.8%); 5 seats [0]
National (0.6%); 4 seats [2]
Common Wealth (0.4%); 3 seats [1]
Communist (0.4%); 3 seats [2]
Indpendent Conservative: (0.16%); 1 seat [0]
Labour Independent (0.2%); 1 seat [2]
Irish Nationalist (0.6%): 4 seats [0]
Scottish Nationalist (0.12%); 1 seat [0]

What we see in the alternate 1945 is still Labour winning, though effectively with a minority government rather than the majority of 150.  With a stronger rather than almost disappeared Liberal party they may have been able to revive the 1920s Labour-Liberal coalition to help them make up the 24 votes they need to pass legislation. What this would have meant probably is whilst the welfare state would have proceeded in the way it did, especially given it was based on the theories of William Beveridge a Liberal.  However, nationalisation which was much more of a purely Labour approach, though the Conservatives had done some on efficiency grounds between the wars, would have been restricted.  It certainly would not have reached the steel industry, though railways and coal would have come under state control. 

The other interesting thing, emphasised by the greater range of information that I have about the post-war elections, is the appearance of more minor parties.  They would have had 31 seats compared to numbers in the teens for the Others in the inter-war era. Particularly notable is the Liberal National Party which in this world would have been larger in parliament than the main Liberal party was in our world. 

The Communists would not have benefited a great deal, probably adding just one other MP. Of course, their credibility in the UK was at an all-time high in 1945 in the UK and with proportional representation they may have picked up more votes in Labour areas. This would have provided even more of a challenge for a minority Labour government, if they had, for example, reached double figures. The Scottish Nationalists may have disappeared at the next election or maybe, as they were to do later in the century, their single MP could have been the grounds for attracting support to the party.

1950: 625 (Labour Party)
Conservative: (38.9%); 247 seats [271]
Labour: (46.1%); 293 seats [315]
Liberal: (9.1%); 59 seats [9]
Conservative & National Liberal: (1.2%); 7 seats [4]
Liberal & Conservative: (0.2%); 0 seats [2]
National Liberal & Conservative: (1.3%); 7 seats [2]
National Liberal: (0.2%); 0 seats [2]
Communist: (0.3%); 2 seats [0]
Ulster Unionists: (1.2%) 9 seats [10]
Irish Nationalists: (0.2%) 1 seat [0]

There had been rationalisation of the constituencies since the last election, for example, removing university seats, which is why there were fewer seats contested than in 1945.

At the 1950 election in our world Labour's majority was cut to 6. In this alternate UK it would have been a minority government having to find an additional 15 seats compared to the previous parliament, in order to pass legislation. Again, with proportional representation the Liberals, though a shadow of their 1920s strength, would be useful allies.

It is interesting to see what would have happened to the plethora of small parties. In our world Others got 2 seats and the Communists disappeared at this election. There were a range of weird national government leftovers as can be seen here, some would have gone entirely until proportional representation and others would have been almost as strong as the Liberals were in our world at this time. It is still likely they would in time have been absorbed into either the stronger Liberal Party or, as tended to happen in reality, into the Conservatives. These various national liberals mixed in with other conservatives were simply counted as being part of the Conservative figure, as are the Ulster Unionists; I have disaggregated them here to show the impact of proportional representation on these very small parties.

Of course, like West Germany, established in 1949, the UK after 1945 may have barred parties not achieving at least 5% of the vote from getting seats. This would have disposed of the embarrassing Communists and tidied up this range of political parties, though the consequent gains are not likely to have helped Labour's search for a majority.

1951: 625 (Conservative Party)
Conservative: (43.4%); 273 seats [293]
Labour: (48.8%); 306 seats [295]
Liberal: (2.6%); 17 seats [6]
Conservative & National Liberal: (1%); 6 seats [2]
Conservative & Liberal: (0.8%); 4 seats [2]
National Liberal & Conservative: (0.7%); 4 seats [7]
Liberal & Conservative: (1%); 6 seats [7]
National Liberal: (0.07%); 0 seats [1]
Ulster Unionists: (1%) 10 [9] [Though they would not be entitled to 10 under PR, the fragmentation of the Irish nationalist parties would have prevented them beating the Ulster Unionists for the seats which mainland British parties did not contest].

Our 1951 election was brought about by Labour having such a small majority so it is very likely to have occurred in the alternate UK where they would remain a minority government. In our version though Labour increased its vote it fell from being the largest party and the Conservatives got a majority of 17. Hardly an outstanding victory but this gentle swing back and forth between Labour and the Conservatives was characteristic of Britain 1945-79/83. 

In this alternative UK, Labour remains the largest party in 1951. In fact the size of its shortfall in votes in parliament declines to 13. This means that even with the Liberals having declined sharply since 1950 the old Labour-Liberal alliance may have worked.  The Liberal decline may not have been so great if they had had representation in the 50s in the 1940s as they would have seemed more credible.

The interesting challenge for Labour in this period with the beginning of removal of wartime restrictions, the last rationing ended in 1956, would be how they addressed the beginning of prosperity. Of course Britain may have been like the French Fourth Republic (1944-56) constantly plunged into chaos as governments came and went scrabbling around for a majority. Techniques such as barring parties below 5% or a premium of, say, 20 seats for the winning party, would have eliminated the problem and Labour would have had a small majority. With Labour in power, economic controls would have been retained longer and it is unlikely that Britain would have become involved in the Suez Crisis in 1956.  Conversely decolonisation may have proceeded far faster.

1955: 630 (Conservative Party)
Conservative: (44.9%); 285 seats (316)
Labour: (46.2%); 294 seats [277]
Liberal: (2.7%); 19 seats [6]
Conservative & National Liberal: (0.9%); 6 seats [3]
Conservative &  Liberal: (0.6%); 3 seats [3]
National Liberal & Conservative: (0.6%); 5 seats [6]
National Liberal: (0.2%); 1 seat [2]
Liberal & Conservative (0.9%); 6 seats [5]
Ulster Unionists (1.7%); 10 seats [10]
Sinn Fein (0.5%); 3 seats [2]
Welsh Nationalist: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]

Rather than a second clear win in a row for the Conservatives and a majority of 59, the 1955 election under proportional representation would have seen a real contest with the Conservatives and their allies raising 319 seats versus Labour and Liberals on 313. Thus the Conservatives would have been in power but with a tiny minority of 2. What would this have led the Conservatives to have done: maybe to promote a slightly more independent identity for their shoal of allied parties in the hope of capturing some of those on the right of the Liberal Party. Some, notably the National Liberals, may have already gone, meaning a few additional seats to those other combinations remaining.

Of course, given the constant role of the Liberals as government makers their credibility would have been much higher and their support may have sustained something closer to the 1945 level. In our world, Labour survived with a majority of 6 after 1950 but for less than a year, so I imagine an election early in 1956 or later in 1955, this one occurred in May, would have been the result. Possibly the Conservatives would have done more to attract the Liberals to their side.  Yet again, even in their shrunken state, though three times larger than in our world, they would have been the kingmakers once again.

The Communists may have scraped a single seat as they got 0.12% of the vote, but more likely we would have seen the first Welsh Nationalist MP again beginning to give credibility to a small party. It is difficult, given the small size of Northern Ireland, to correctly map the shifts between the Unionists and Nationalists, by now represented by Sinn Fein, but the latter may have picked up a seat in areas outside Northern Ireland with a high Irish population, notably Liverpool or London.

1959: 630 (Conservative Party)
Conservative: (45.3%); 287 seats [334]
Labour: (43.7%); 277 seats [258]
Liberal: (5.9%); 38 seats [6]
Conservative & National Liberal: (0.9%); 6 seats [6]
Conservative & Liberal: (0.5%); 3 seats [2]
National Liberal & Conservative: (0.5%); 3 seats [4]
National Liberal (0.03%); 0 seats [1]
Liberal & Conservative: (0.6%); 4 seats [6]
Ulster Unionists: (1.5%); 10 seats [11]
Sinn Fein (0.2%); 2 seats [1]
Plaid Cymru (0.3%); 2 seats [0]

The 1959 election would have been similar to the bulk of those we have looked at with subtle shifts back and forth between Labour and the Conservatives.  The Liberals would still be the brokers in the middle. In this case what I said about the Liberals gaining credibility proved actually to be the case in our world and this would have been turned into more actual seats in the alternate world we are looking at.

The Conservatives and their allies could raise 312 seats another minority as a Labour-Liberal alliance could provide 315 seats. Again the Conservatives would have win over the Liberals in order to remain in government, in sharp contrast to the 100 majority they won in our 1959. 

Plaid Cymru is what the Welsh Nationalists had evolved into and regionally with 2 MPs they may have been able to gain momentum. There is effectively a gap here for the Northern Ireland seats. Though the Ulster Unionists would not have been entitled to the additional seat (they should have got 9) there may have been no-one else strong enough to be awarded them, so I have assumed that Sinn Fein under this system could have picked up one more and the Ulster Unionists would be over-represented, though less than they were in reality.

1964: 630 (Labour Party)
Conservative: (40.7%); 257 seats [285]
Labour: (43.8%); 279 seats [317]
Liberal: (11.2%); 71 seats [9]
Conservative & National Liberal: (0.9%); 5 seats [4]
National Liberal & Conservative: (0.2%); 1 seat [2]
Ulster Unionist: (1.5%); 9 seats [12]
Republican: (0.4%); 2 seats [0]
Northern Ireland Labour: (0.4%); 2 seats [0]
Scottish Nationalist: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Plaid Cymru: (0.3%); 2 seats [0]
Communist: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]

Labour won the 1964 election in our world with a majority of 6. In the alternate UK they would still be in a minority, but the key thing is the upwards momentum of the Liberals whose seats in our world severely under-represented their level of support. The revival of the old Labour-Liberal coalition would be very feasible or the persistence of the Conservative-Liberal one of the 1950s would also be a possibility. The big difference would be in Northern Ireland. You will have noticed in the square brackets of how dominant the Ulster Unionists, allied to the Conservatives, were in the few constituencies of Northern Ireland.

The growing interest in politics can be seen at the 1964 election when 39 different parties put up candidates. Many of these were issue-focused for example, two Christian parties and others regarding the EEC and nuclear disarmament. This was the first time that the British National Party, Britain's current Fascist party first appeared. In this environment of issue politics the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru were to begin to really appear on the scene. Of course, in this alternate Britain this would have been part of a process that had been occurring since the 1950s rather than something seemingly new in the mid-1960s.

1966: 630 (Labour Party)
Conservative: (39.9%); 253 seats [242]
Labour: (47.6%); 303 seats [363]
Liberal: (8.6%); 55 seats [12]
Conservative & National Liberal (0.53%); 3 seats [0]
Ulster Unionist: (1.4%); 9 seats [11]
Northern Ireland Labour: (0.3%); 2 seats [0]
Republican: (0.2%); 1 seat [1]
Scottish Nationalist: (0.5%); 3 seats [0]
Plaid Cymru: (0.2%): 1 seat [0]
Communist (0.2%): 1 seat [0]

In our 1966 the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, returned to the electorate to try to boost his majority in order to carry out the tough economic policies that were necessary to cope with the weakening trade position. He was successful, lifting Labour's majority to 97 seats. In this alternate world he would have been far less successful. Whichever coalition had come about in 1964 probably would have been looking for a stronger position in 1966, though with over forty years of proportional representation by now this might not have been expected. In this world Labour would still be a minority government, needing the support of the Liberals yet again. However, it would have done sufficient, given the range of smaller parties, notably the nationalist ones liable to help Labour, to rule out another attempted Conservative-Liberal coalition.

Again, the situation in Northern Ireland would have been different as tensions were coming to a peak in the mid-late 1960s and British troops were sent in to protect the Catholic population. A few MPs in Westminster would not have altered this drastically but may have made Catholic voters feel less totally excluded from politics in the Province, especially if there was a better local reflection of the population make-up. If proportional representation is good for Northern Ireland today it is likely it would have also been the case in the past.

1970: 630 (Conservative Party)
Conservative: (44.9%); 283 seats [322]
Labour: (42.6%); 268 seats [287]
Liberal: (7.5%); 47 seats [6]
Ulster Unionists: (1.5%); 9 seats [8]
Northern Ireland Labour: (0.4%); 2 seats [0]
Republican Labour: (0.1%); 1 seat [0]
National Unity: (0.3%); 1 seat [0]
National Democrat: (0.1%); 1 seat [0]
Scottish Nationalist: (1.1%); 7 seats [1]
Plaid Cymru: (0.6%): 4 seats [0]
Communist: (0.1%): 1 seat [0]

Rather than the Conservative majority of 31 we would have seen a very similar pattern to all the post-war elections. Of course the Liberals may have been even more powerful than this as in our world they were seen as a very minor concern lower in number by now than the Ulster Unionists, whereas under proportional representation they would be a second rank rather than third or fourth rank party in terms of size and influence.  As with many third parties their power would be greater than their weight. 

By now, one might envisage that the Liberals would have developed a policy for how they engaged with coalitions, given how common they would have been. Thus, 1970 may have seen the choice of a Labour-Liberal or Conservative-Liberal government. Given that Labour did not do too badly 1964-70 in our world and were expected to win the 1970 election until the last moment, their ongoing coalition would probably have continued. Whilst proportional representation may have stripped Labour of its 1945 landslide, it is likely that it would have been in government far more often than was the case in our 20th century when it faced 1900-24; 1924-9; 1931-45, 1951-64, 1970-4 and 1979-97, i.e. 78 years outside the government in the space of the century which can be seen as being dominated by the Conservatives.

Issue politics had not died but had shifted. In 1966, 35 parties had put up candidates, in 1970 it had risen to 45. Whilst things like Social Credit and Ratepayers persisted, the nuclear disarmers had gone and what is noticeable is the range of far right-wing parties, notably the National Front and others using Nazi titles like National Unity and National Socialist. Also there were more 'anti-' parties with a right-wing focus, e.g., Anti-Immigration Party, Anti-Labour Party as well as more left-wing radicals such as the Anti-Election Party, Anti-Party Party as you would expect lingering on after the cold shock of the death of hippyism as the new decade began. Also noticeable is the appearance of more parties in Northern Ireland, and in the wake of the appearance of the Scottish Nationalists in Parliament of regional parties like Independent Scottish Labour and Independent Scottish Nationalist; even Mebyon Kernow supporting an independent Cornwall.

Britain entered a turbulent political period due to industrial unrest leading to more states of emergency being declared than at any time in British history and the adoption of power shortages and the so-called 'Three-Day Week' through 1973 and into 1974.  This led to the 1974 elections as the Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath tried to gain a mandate to tackle these problems in the way he saw fit.

February 1974: 635 (Labour Party)
Conservative: (37.8%); 242 seats [296]
Labour: (37.2%); 239 seats [301]
Liberal: (19.3%); 124 seats [14]
Ulster Unionists (3 parties) (1.4%); 9 seats [9]
SDLP (0.5%); 3 seats [1]
Scottish Nationalist: (2%); 13 seats [7]
Plaid Cymru: (0.6%); 4 seats [2]
National Front: (0.3%); 1 seat [0]

The elections of 1974 even with the first-past-the-post system demonstrated the challenges of coalition politics. This is where the two versions of the UK come closest as Labour was a minority government needing at least the agreement of the Liberals to get legislation passed. In the alternate world, with the Liberals back to the size of the 1920s any coalition they supported would not have needed to scrabble around for votes in parliament but could have continued without difficulty. 

You can see why the Liberals became supporters of proportional representation as they were getting almost a tenth of the seats their support from the electorate would have suggested. On this system the Scottish Nationalists did a great deal better than the Liberals but still would have gained more under proportional representation. The system would also have let in another Fascist to Parliament, this time representing the National Front. Given the range of tiny anti-immigration and pro-(Enoch) Powell candidates, the NF getting a seat may have drawn their supporters to it. The far left was terribly fragmented at this time and so the Communist MP disappears once again.

October 1974: 634 (Labour Party)
Conservative: (35.7%); 227 seats [276]
Labour: (39.2%); 249 seats [319]
Liberal: (18.3%); 116 seats [13]
Ulster Unionists (1.5%); 8 seats [11]
SDLP (0.53%); 3 seats [1]
Alliance (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Scottish Nationalist: (2.9%); 18 seats [11]
Plaid Cymru: (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
National Front: (0.4%); 2 seats [0]

Harold Wilson managed to secure a majority of 4 at the October 1974 election of our world and had to enter the so-called Lib-Lab Pact with the Liberal Party in order to function as a government and even then with a small majority. In the alternate UK if there had even been a need for an October 1974 election, the Labour-Liberal coalition would have been far stronger.

In our world there was a referendum in 1978 on whether Scotland and/or Wales should receive greater devolution. Partly due to poor turnout, these steps did not win. Would the outcome have been different with the SNP growing election by election in strength in Parliament to the extent that they were the fourth largest party? Would the slow, but seemingly steady growth of the NF have led to the introduction of the 5% rule now assuming it had not come in 1945? Would the seeming respectability of this Fascist party now with 2 MPs have led them to rein in their violence on the streets?

1979: 634 (Conservative Party)
Conservative: (43.9%); 281 seats [339]
Labour: (36.9%); 236 seats [268]
Liberal: (13.8%); 88 seats [11]
Ulster Unionists (4 parties): (1.3%); 7 seats [5]
SDLP: (0.4%); 3 seats [1]
Alliance: (0.3%); 2 seats [0]
Scottish Nationalist: (1.6%); 10 seats [2]
Plaid Cymru: (0.4%); 3 seats [2]
National Front; (0.6%); 4 seats [0]

The 1979 election is a pivotal one in British 20th century history as it ushered in 18 years of rule by the Conservatives. They differed greatly from the party that had been in power under Heath in the early 1970s.  In the mid-1970s the Conservatives had embraced New Right, monetarist thinking. This was welcomed by many people who were tired of the industrial unrest and inflation of the 1970s.  Most never understood that it would mean the vast destruction of British industry and infrastructure plus unemployment of over 4 million that would follow when Margaret Thatcher came to power.

The fact that Thatcher was able to stay in power for so long, whilst receiving so little support from the electorate, led Lord Scarman at the end of the 1980s to refer to the 'elective dictatorship' of British politics,  Unsurprisingly, attention returned to the possibility of proportional representation. Thatcher left in 1991 but the Conservatives under John Major continued in power until 1997. 

Whereas in the 1940s there had been a consensus around what the Labour government, itself more founded on Liberalism than Socialism, had broadly tried to do, by the 1990s the consensus had shifted to the market-orientated focus of Thatcherism. New Labour, who came to power in 1997, can clearly be seen as a Thatcherite Conservative party rather than either a Liberal or Socialist one.

The Conservatives in our world got a majority of 44 in 1979 and the Liberals jogged along just in double figures. While under proportional representation the Liberals would have lost about a quarter of their seats they still would have been a significant force and clear of the other small parties. The SNP, also battered, would not have been pushed back to its standing of the early 1960s. 

The shift to the right is apparent and the NF would have continued its rise. There would be no majority for Thatcher and she would have been seeking at least 72 seats. Given the breakdown of the Lib-Lab Pact especially over the so-called Winter of Discontent of 1978/9 it is likely that the Liberals would have been willing to give the Conservatives a go in coalition. The tension would have soon developed as Thatcher began privatising utilities and also her brash policy that led to the Falklands Conflict in 1982. Dependent on Liberal support she may have either gone for another election quickly or chaffed at the restraint as her radical programme was slowed or diverted.

1983: 650 (Conservative Party)
Conservative: (42.4%); 280 seats [397]
Labour: (27.6%); 181 seats [209]
Liberal-SDP Alliance: (25.4%) 167 seats [28] - consisting of Liberal: (13.9%); 91 seats [17] and Social Democratic Party: (11.5%); 76 seats [11]
Scottish Nationalist: (1.1%); 7 seats [2]
Plaid Cymru: (0.4%); 3 seats [2]
Ulster Unionists (2 parties): (1.4%); 9 seats [11]
Sinn Fein: (0.3%): 2 seats [1]
Alliance: (0.2%): 1 seat [0]
Ecology: (0.2%): 1 seat [0]

Following a wave of patriotism after the Falklands Conflict, Margaret Thatcher was able to extend her majority to 143 seats in our world and really push ahead with the dismantlement of manufacturing industry and the selling off of utilities. Of course, having had a minority government or a coalition in this alternate UK she may have not been able to declare war on Argentina in 1982 and a prolonged negotiated settlement over the Falkland Islands would not have gained her the right-wing kudos she benefited from.

The ructions in the Labour Party following the 1979 election had led some MPs to go off and form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) which for the 1983 election formed half of the electoral coalition with the Liberal Party: the Liberal-SDP Alliance. In our world they achieved more seats than the Liberals had done alone, but in this alternate UK they would have just had 14 fewer seats than Labour. This would have marked the return of the strong centre in British politics. 

Under proportional representation even with the 'Falklands Factor' in play, the Conservatives actually would have had to find an additional 15 seats compared to 1979 in order to hold power, being 90 short. The thing is with the divisions of the time the Alliance was unlikely to have worked either with Labour or the Conservatives. Ironically it may have been them who came into power with either the tacit support of one of the other two parties.

 Certainly the Thatcherite agenda, even there had been the war in the Falklands, would have been entirely derailed.  Either the Conservatives would have been kept out by a centrist government or dependent on their support for each policy.  This would have meant nothing extreme. In particular the year long miners' strike, 1984-5, engineered by Thatcher which led to the destruction of the coal industry and damage to civil liberties, would never have occurred. Notice that the NF have slid from.  However, reflecting the rise of the Green movement in the 1980s, there would have been 1 Ecology MP, probably representing somewhere like Oxford where Greens began appearing on the council.

1987: 650 (Conservative Party)
Conservative: (42.2%); 276 seats [375]
Labour: (30.8%); 202 seats [229]
Liberal-SDP Alliance: (22.5%): 147 seats [22] - Liberal: (12.8%); 84 seats [17]; SDP: (9.7%); 63 [5]
Scottish Nationalist: (1.3%); 8 seats [3]
Plaid Cymru: (0.4%): 2 seats [3]
Ulster Unionists (2 parties): (1.1%) 7 seats [9]
Alliance: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Sinn Fein: (0.3%); 2 seats [1]
SDLP: (0.5%): 3 seats[3]
Green: (0.3%): 2 seats [0]

Rather than the 100 majority that Thatcher managed to attain in 1987, the Conservatives would have continued on the downward slide they had faced since 1979, by now needing to find 102 seats to make a government. Labour showed some improvement mainly at the expense of the SDP. We might have seen a similar result, if the Liberal-SDP Alliance had been in power. With the reduction of the Cold War which came after 1985 they would have come into their own in place of the cold warrior, Thatcher. 

The 1987 election would be characteristic of the three-party politics of 20th century Britain, though with a cowed Labour less able to play a leading role than before. Of course, by 1987 the tension between Labour which was purging its extremists and the centrist bloc may have declined sufficiently to allow them into coalition. Certainly the Conservative Party would be weaker than before and there would have been nothing like the unfair poll tax (so-called Community Charge) introduced in 1989-90. The Green Party would have gained another seat, and as we have seen with small parties before, it may have thus gained in credibility so would have won more seats at the next election than the pure statistics based on our world show.

1992: 651 (Conservative Party)
Conservative: (41.9%); 273 seats [336]
Labour: (34.4%); 224 seats [271]
Liberal Democrat: (17.9%); 116 seats [20]
Liberal: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Scottish Nationalist: (1.95%); 12 seats [3]
Plaid Cymru: (0.5%); 3 seats [4]
Ulster Unionists (2 parties): (1.1%); 7 seats [9]
Alliance: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
SDLP: (0.6%); 4 seats [4]
Sinn Fein: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Green: (0.5%); 3 seats [0]
Natural Law (0.2%); 1 seat [0]

The 1992 election was seen as the one which Labour, under Neil Kinnock, lost rather than the Conservatives, since 1991 under John Major, won. Major only achieved a majority of 20 and this deteriorated through the mid-1990s.

In our alternate UK, 1992 is most likely to have seen the return of the old Labour-Liberal alliance to form government. The Liberal Democrat Party had been effectively formed in 1988, though some Liberals and SDP members stayed out. The de facto disappearance of the SDP which had been a breakaway from Labour may have made working together easier. 

Major was a watered-down version of Thatcher still following privatisation of the railways. The weakening of Conservative support, which actually occurred in our world but was not reflected in seats, may have meant the party abandoned Thatcherism.  It may moved towards policies of the kind more common among right-wing parties in Europe. As before, proportional representation may have made bigger changes in Northern Ireland with larger representation of the Catholic voice. Note the Greens' slow increase and the appearance of the party based on transcendental meditation, Natural Law, who fielded 309 candidates at the election, compared to 253 Green and 632 Liberal Democrat candidates.

1997: 659 (Labour Party)
Conservative: (30.8%): 206 seats [165]
Labour (43.2%); 291 seats [418]
Liberal Democrat: (16.8%); 112 seats [46]
Scottish Nationalist: (2%); 13 seats [6]
Plaid Cymru: (0.5%); 3 seats [4]
Ulster Unionists (2 parties): (1.1%); 7 seats [10]
SDLP (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
Alliance (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Sinn Fein (0.4%); 2 seats [2]
Referendum Party (2.6%); 17 seats [0]
Green (0.3%); 2 seats [0]
Socialist Labour (0.2%); 1 seat [0]

Rather than the 1997 Labour landslide in which the Labour Party gained more seats than any party in British history and the Conservatives returned to the level they had not seen since 1906 and without any MPs in Scotland or Wales, we would see the continuation of the Labour-Liberal coalition.  The Conservatives would not be much worse off than they had been becoming in the 1980s.

In our world, Tony Blair had talked of the 'big tent' and working with the Liberal Democrats before the 1997 election, clearly fearful of a narrow victory like Major had had in 1992. He also promised proportional representation but all of this was forgotten with such a vast victory. Of course, in the alternate UK where the Labour-Liberal coalition had been the dominant political pattern of the 20th century it would have happened again. 

Interestingly whilst Thatcherism would have been blunted by the decreasing strength of the Conservatives in the 1980s, Blair might have actually been prompted to do more than he actually did when in office. There is little bar the Freedom of Information Act and the Minimum Wage which mark out Labour's period, in sharp contrast to our 1945-51. The Liberal Democrats actually had more of a radical agenda and a greater portion of this would have been passed, if not all of it, given that they would still be the junior partners.

Of course those tired of the Conservatives in this alternative UK may have turned to the Liberal Democrats rather than heading right over to New Labour given how much stronger the Liberal Democrats would be in this world than in ours. 

Note the appearance of the Referendum Party, a right-wing single issue party aimed to pressurise the government to have a referendum on the EU's Maastricht Treaty. In our world it was a failure, in this alternate one it would be the fourth largest party, ahead even of the far longer established Scottish Nationalists. Whilst it may have had minimal impact on the coalition government its presence may have provoked the Conservatives to being more strongly Eurosceptic than some of them were in our world.

2001: 659 (Labour Party)
Conservative: (31.7%); 210 seats [166]
Labour: (40.7%); 270 seats [413]
Liberal Democrats: (18.3%); 121 seats [52]
Scottish Nationalists: (1.8%); 12 seats [5]
Scottish Socialist Party (0.3%): 2 seats [0]
Plaid Cymru: (0.7%); 5 seats [4]
Ulster Unionists (2 parties): (1.5%) 9 seats [10]
Sinn Fein: (0.7%); 5 seats [4]
SDLP: (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
UK Independence Party: (1.5%); 10 seats [0]
British National Party: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Green: (0.6%); 4 seats [0]
Socialist Alliance: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Socialist Labour: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Independent: (0.4%); 3 seats [1]

In our world, the 2001 election was seen pretty much as 'no change' and that would predominantly have been the case in the alternate UK. The most notable feature was what the media termed the return to three-party politics with the Liberal Democrats achieving the strength of the Liberals in the 1920s.  Of course in the alternate UK, bar a period in the 1950s, the Liberals would have been far stronger throughout, possibly even coming into government in the mid-1980s. 

Note the appearance of the UK Independence Party in 2001; it had been founded in 1993. This is a more strongly anti-European Union party but if the Referendum Party had won seats in 1997 it may have grown or mutated by 2001. The RP had effectively been run by Sir James Goldsmith its leader and after his death following the 1997 election it may have encountered difficulties. Whether UKIP replaced it or not, we would still have an anti-European pepper group in Parliament especially needling the Conservatives. 

Note also the appearance of the BNP. Like the NF in the 1970s, seats may have given it credibility, but the British public seem uninspired to adopt Fascism to any large extent. Also interesting is the appearance of more left-wing parties in the wake of New Labour's move to the Thatcherite consensus ground. Of course, in our world, there have been tens of left-wing parties on the margins of British politics certainly from the 1960s onwards, but never achieving anything in parliament. This might have been the biggest change in 2001, hidden by first-past-the-post but shown by proportional representation that on the fringes on both ends of the political spectrum people were becoming more radical. The Greens would also double their seats from 1997.

2005: 646 (Labour Party)
Conservative (32.3%); 209 seats [198]
Labour: (35.3%); 228 seats [356]
Liberal Democrat: (22.1%); 143 seats [62]
Scottish Nationalists: (1.5%); 10 seats [6]
Scottish Socialist: (0.2%); 1 seat [0]
Plaid Cymru: (0.6%); 4 seats [3]
Ulster Unionists (2 parties): (1.4%); 10 seats [10]
SDLP: (0.5%); 4 seats [3]
Sinn Fein (0.6%); 4 seats [5]
UK Independence Party: (2.2%); 14 seats [0]
BNP: (0.7%); 5 seats [0]
Green: (1%); 7 seats [0]
Respect: (0.3%); 2 seats [1]
Independent: (0.5%); 3 seats [1]

The Labour-Liberal coalition, if they were not heartily sick of each other, would be going still into the 21st century with the Liberals becoming stronger with each election. The coalition could argue legitimately that it represented a majority of voters receiving over 57% of the vote. 

The Conservatives, ironically, would have done far better with proportional representation than they did under our system, not fading away so drastically as they did post-1997 in our world. Hanging on their coat-tails though is the UKIP growing slowly in strength and shaping Conservative policy, no doubt. 

Note the steady advance too of the Greens and of the BNP, suggesting that the mainstream parties are not addressing concerns of a growing number of people on issues around the environment and immigration/a Fascist state. Of course, under proportional representation their growth may have been even faster, as, like with the Liberals, people who supported these parties would not feel they were 'wasting' their vote with no chance of getting an MP. To a lesser extent the dissatisfaction with Labour in particular is shown by the Scottish Socialists clinging on and the Respect Party headed by ex-Labour MP and maverick, George Galloway. His small party would have done a little better under proportional representation.

This posting has taken 3 days to assemble and in that time I have realised that my assumptions about proportional representation were partly wrong. If it had come in from 1918 then the UK is unlikely to have seen a majority government subsequently. However, at some times, notably in the 1920s and 1970s the political scene would have been little different to what the real UK faced. 

In contrast to what is usually argued, however, the British centre ground would have been far stronger with the Liberals, except in the 1950s, being a clear third party for much of the post-1918 period.  They would certainly have been key players in the formation of governments. It seems clear that Britain might have suffered the turbulence of politics, especially in the 1920s and later, that France faced. There in 1958 the political system was overhauled to promote stability and possibly by the 1960s the UK would have seen modification of its system as well. However, ironically, at times of severe crisis, as in the First World War (1914-18), the Depression (1931-40) and the Second World War (1939-45) the UK has been ruled by coalitions and has done not badly out of it. We probably would have seen a centre-left coalition for the bulk of the 20th century and into the 21st century.

If Lloyd George had opted for proportional representation then the Liberal Party would have declined as maybe it was fated to do in the century of class based politics. However, this decline would have been a great deal slower and its revival in the era of prosperity, rather than hot conflict, in the 1960s would have been far quicker. In addition, given the electorate's seemingly almost equally divided loyalty between Labour and the Conservatives the Liberals would have been an essential part of almost every government created in 20th century Britain. There would have been issues around which way they turned and there was no guarantee between the 1920s and the 1970s that they would have been natural allies of Labour. Given that anyway the difference between Labour and the Conservatives on policy was so narrow from the later 1940s right through to the mid-1970s it may have simply come down to personalities.

As for small parties, the key beneficiaries would have been the Scottish National Party who from the 1960s onwards would have had a standing similar to the Liberals in our world. Fascist parties, the BNP and NF would have gained some credibility with a handful of MPs, but it seems that British political culture is not supportive of Fascists. Also, there have been small anti-Fascist parties since the 1970s and these may have gained ground in a way they never did in our world because of seeing the Fascists get seats and also the 'not wasted vote' issue. Similarly, Britain may have seen a Green movement more akin to that of West Germany which may have had an impact on particular social, industrial and environmental policies.

Some of the multiplicity of extreme left-wing parties may have gained ground. The Communists certainly would have had some seats after 1950 and in the 2000s we would have seen radical socialists appearing. All mainstream parties did a solid job of opposing Communism, Labour no less than the Conservatives and the behaviour of the USSR and China in the 1960s and 1970s discredited domestic Communists. In addition the continued fragmentation of the far left would have made it difficult for them to organise sufficiently to gain ground. However, as occurred in West Germany 1966-1969 when the Socialist SPD and Christian Democrat (Conservative) CDU/CSU were in the Grand Coalition there was resentment that everything was all sewn up in the centre and people turned to radical politics and violence as they felt that in such a corporatist system their voices were not heard. Whether the regular Labour-Liberal coalitions and occasional Conservative-Liberal ones would have made people feel similarly is open to speculation.

The biggest difference would have been the shifts in government in 1979 and to a lesser extent in 1945. In 1945 the different sides were far closer together on policy so the appearance of a strong Labour government did not mean huge differences compared to if the Conservatives had returned, especially in terms of the welfare state and foreign policy. In contrast the failure of Thatcher to achieve a strong majority in 1979 and the steady decline of support for the Conservatives through the 1980s would have prevented the extreme economic policies and the harsh social consequences that the UK faced. Consequently the Labour Party that would have evolved without the prick of Thatcherism probably would not have become New Labour, but rather have had more of a Kinnockite flavour.

The position in Northern Ireland would have been different with more Catholic representation at an earlier stage. However, it is doubtful whether this would have reduced the tensions and subsequent violence that occurred from the mid-1960s onwards, right through to the 1990s.

Your overall view of the proportional representation UK probably depends on how you view the big political shifts. Certainly Thatcherite Conservatives feel she did necessary things to the UK, despite the pain, and that the alternative was sustained crisis. The Labourites would mourn the loss of the sweeping changes of Attlee's governments, though I imagine many aspects like the National Health Service would have been created anyway. There would have been no need for New Labour which, as regular readers know, I feel owes little to Labour and more to an authoritarian mindset.

What is certain is that with proportional representation the fact that in general the British public is in three main groupings of similar sizes would have been apparent throughout, rather than seemingly making huge swings in one direction or the other. Looking at the percentages the changes have not been great and have arisen simply because of the distortion of the political system, it is usually a party with a minority of the votes who comes to power because they achieve far more seats. The British electorate is surprisingly stable, but this is not shown by the system we use. Well, I have learnt a lot from this exercise and my views on proportional representation have shifted as a result.

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