Ongoing Constitution Unit research is exploring options for an English Parliament. One essential question for such a body is the choice of electoral system. In this post Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell focus on the possible implications of using FPTP as compared to using AMS or another proportional system. They conclude that the choice of system would have substantial effects on an English Parliament’s likely political dynamics.
Since last autumn we have been working on a research project exploring the options for an English Parliament. Although there have been various calls over the last 20 years to establish such a body, how might it actually work in practice? One question that would need to be addressed is the choice of electoral system. In this post we focus on the possible implications of alternative systems.
Models for an English Parliament and likely electoral systems
Our research has identified two primary models for an English Parliament. Some proponents, including Conservative MPs John Redwood and Andrew Rosindell, want a ‘dual mandate’ body, whereby members of the UK House of Commons sitting for English constituencies would meet as the English Parliament on certain days. This clearly implies that members of the English Parliament would be chosen by first past the post (FPTP), at least so long as it continues to be used for UK general elections.
The alternative model is for a separately-elected English Parliament, equivalent to the existing devolved legislatures elsewhere in the UK. Proponents of this kind of change have generally said little about the choice of electoral system. FPTP has not been used for any new institutions in recent years and so a proportional system is more likely. AMS is used in both Scotland and Wales, and given these precedents it seems the most likely system to be adopted. A major part of the rationale for establishing an English Parliament is to bring more coherence and symmetry to the UK’s constitutional arrangements. UKIP’s 2017 election manifesto, which included a proposal for a separately-elected English Parliament, explicitly suggested that an English Parliament should be elected under AMS, while in correspondence with the authors senior Campaign for an English Parliament figures have stated that ‘the electoral systems for all the devolved administrations should be the same’.
Party support in England
The starting point for assessing the implications of using different electoral systems is the historic pattern of party support in England. Table 1 shows vote shares for each general election since 1945, together with vote shares in Great Britain as a whole at the same elections. The Conservatives typically perform slightly better in England than in Great Britain. Nonetheless Labour have won a plurality of the English vote (shaded grey) in their strongest years, most recently in 1997 and 2001. Notably, no party has won more than 50 per cent of the English vote since 1959.
Table 1: Vote share in UK general elections in England, 1945–2017 (GB vote shares in brackets)
First past the post
A dual mandate English Parliament would simply comprise members of the House of Commons elected for English constituencies. The first past the post voting system has tended historically to disproportionately reward the strongest party (and indeed both main parties compared to others), so the Conservatives have historically performed strongly in English seats. These results are shown in Table 2.
Table 2: Results of UK general elections in English constituencies, 1945–2017
Thinking about the balance of forces in English Parliament, and which party (or parties) would have a majority, we see that in most cases historically elections have produced the same basic outcome in England and in the UK as a whole. However, across these 20 elections there are six exceptions (shaded in the table). In each case it is the Conservatives whose position is strengthened in an English Parliament.
The past is not necessarily a good guide to the future but these results highlight how clashing majorities across the two institutions could occur if there were a dual mandate English Parliament. As Vernon Bogdanor has pointed out with respect to the operation of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), significant political difficulties could arise if a UK government (in practice likely to be Labour-led) was unable to get its legislation agreed in an English Parliament where it had no partisan majority. Dual mandate advocates do not envisage that there would be a separate English government held accountable by the English Parliament, and there would be no formal confidence arrangement. But in practice oversized majorities (i.e. including other parties) might sometimes be needed for a Labour government to get its business agreed by a dual mandate English Parliament.
AMS and other proportional systems
These results help to explain why various Conservatives have expressed an interest in establishment of an English Parliament, whereas Labour politicians have been less enthusiastic (though there are clearly various other important factors guiding these decisions as well). It is interesting to explore how a different electoral system changes the dynamics.
The additional member system (AMS, sometimes also called mixed member plurality, or MMP) combines single member constituencies with members elected through party lists to enhance proportionality. The outcomes that it would produce for England would depend to a large extent on the detail of how the system was designed. In particular, a higher proportion of list seats and larger electoral regions allow for greater rebalancing of constituency results.
We have modelled possible AMS outcomes in England for the past six general elections, assuming that the same number of members would be elected as currently represent England in the House of Commons, for comparison with the results above (in practice a separately-elected English Parliament would likely be smaller than this). In terms of balance between constituency and list seats, we took the average of the ratio in Scotland and in Wales (which makes constituency seats 61.6%) and we used the existing European Parliament regions as list areas. Other highly simplifying assumptions are that within each list area constituency seats would have been won in the same proportion as the actual FPTP share, and that list votes would have been cast in the same proportion as actual FPTP votes. In reality people may vote differently under alternative systems, but this offers a rough approximation of the political dynamics of an English Parliament elected by AMS.
Table 3: Projected results of UK general elections in England under AMS, 1997–2017
The outcomes are shown in Table 3, and indicate that (despite the system not being fully proportional) the lack of a majority among the electorate leads to no party winning a majority in England in any of the six elections. While Labour had a majority of FPTP seats in England in 1997, 2001 and 2005, and the Conservatives achieved the same in 2010, 2015 and 2017, the proportional rebalancing through the list seats under this system (if the assumptions held) would have consistently resulted in a ‘hung’ English Parliament. The geographical breakdown (see Table 4 for 2017) demonstrates how AMS could enable the main parties to win seats in English regions where they gain relatively little representation under FPTP. This benefits Labour in the South East and South West, for example, and the Conservatives in the North East and North West.
Table 4: Regional breakdown of projection of results of 2017 general election in England under AMS
The most obvious consequences of these differences to FPTP concern government formation. While in a dual mandate English Parliament based on FPTP Labour and the Conservatives would each have had a majority in three consecutive elections, a separately-elected institution using this version of AMS would have resulted in minority or coalition government for England. From 1997 Labour was clearly the largest party, so may have been the most likely leader of such a government, and in 2010 the Conservatives entered this position. Throughout most of this period either could, according to our modelling, have formed a majority government in partnership with the Liberal Democrats. In 2015 a Labour-led coalition would have fallen short of a majority, even if joined by the Greens, but the Conservatives could only have governed with support from either the Liberal Democrats or UKIP. The 2017 result is particularly interesting – with the two main parties very equally balanced. These are clearly quite different political dynamics to those in a dual mandate English Parliament.
Other proportional systems (such as list PR or the single transferable vote) are less likely to be adopted for an English Parliament, for reasons already given above. Their political outcomes would be similar to those under AMS – hung parliaments would be likely to be the norm and representation would be more balanced across the English regions than under FPTP. A version of AMS based on smaller list regions and/or a lower proportion of list to constituency seats would give a relatively less proportional outcome, but might well still deny any party an overall majority.
Other effects of electoral systems are important too. In any separately-elected English Parliament women’s representation would likely be higher than at Westminster, given the ‘clean slate’ effect and pressure on and within the parties to improve gender balance. Proportional systems using lists also make it easier to employ quotas for women and other groups. Another question would be the effect on constituency representation, with possible competition on the ground between members of two separately elected bodies over casework, as has occurred in Scotland and Wales. A dual mandate English Parliament would clearly avoid such tensions.
There are two distinct models for an English Parliament proposed by supporters of this idea, which have different implications for the electoral system, and would have very different results in terms of political dynamics. Whilst on the basis of recent results the Conservatives could be expected to have a majority most of the time in a ‘dual mandate’ English Parliament, a separately-elected English Parliament using AMS would usually be hung, requiring minority or coalition governments. This could bring significant advantages for Labour as well as other parties. The establishment of an English Parliament has more often been a demand from those on the Conservative side of politics than those on the left. But it should not be assumed that an English Parliament would necessarily be a Conservative-leaning institution.
About the authors
Jack Sheldon is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit, working on the Options for an English Parliament project. He is also the editor of the Constitution Unit blog.
Meg Russell is Professor of British and Comparative Politics at UCL, and the Director of the Constitution Unit.