By Andy Cooke.
Constructing a new system at Westminster. The Houses of Parliament under erection.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
One area that’s often of interest to denizens of SLP is political alternate history. One area of politics that can provoke discussion is electoral reform – specifically the use of Proportional Representation (PR).
In OTL, PR has only minimal support in Parliament. A cynic might suggest that this is due to the “Big Two” parties hugely benefitting from the existing system, which locks out any true competition to the duopoly. The closest any change has come to the First Past the Post system (a system where there is no post, and the order of arrival of parties at the their score is irrelevant) in recent years was the 2011 Alternative Vote (AV) referendum, which failed by a huge margin.
But change has come much closer than that in the past. Indeed, the current system of single-member FPTP constituencies, rather than appearing to be the default for time out of mind, might never have solidified. Indeed, having any single-member FPTP constituencies may only have lasted for a bit over thirty years of our electoral history (which would be weird to most, who understandably would assume that’s the way it’s almost always been).
From British Politics 1900-1950:
“It was deemed to have been the eloquent interjection of Prime Minister Lloyd-George that put the minds of Liberal Members to rest and ensured the safe passage of the 1917 Reform Act. As well as greatly widening the franchise among men, it secured the franchise for property-owning women over the age of thirty and instituted the electoral change to the Single Transferable Vote – initially for 211 members in towns and cities, with the Alternative Vote to be used in the remaining single-member constituencies. As fears over constituency size receded as the system was used in practice in the 1918 and 1923 general elections, proposals for “completing the change” were put forward, finally secured in the later Act which also equalised the franchise between women and men.
Many put Lloyd-George’s intervention down to the outcome of a late-night dinner between the then-Prime Minister and the Speaker of the House. Lowther, learning that Lloyd-George was hesitating between giving no recommendations at all or even one against some of the proposals of his Conference, was privately incensed and managed to arrange for a private discussion. The specifics of this discussion were not recorded, but rumours exist that Lowther asked the PM, baldly: “You fear the loss of Wales for your Party? Which Party is that? The Party of Mr Lloyd-George or the Party of Mr Asquith? For you may well have to stand in opposition to each other there in the upcoming election, you know. Not to mention the question of for whom the miners will vote: either of your parties, or that of Mr Adamson!”
David Lloyd-George, as honest as the day is long. Has anyone noticed how short the days are getting?
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
This supposed question purportedly focused Lloyd-George and brought his sharp political mind to bear. His concern over the reported support of the Unionist peers for PR (on the believed grounds that it would minimise the prospect of another huge landslide for “Radicalism” such as that recently expressed in 1906) faded away and the potential of Liberal losses in a wider electorate with wider choices loomed larger. His stronger support alienated some Unionists who had previously supported the change, but this was more than made up by his bringing the Liberal Party with him – even the supporters of Asquith, who was always mildly supportive of the proposal. Accordingly, it passed both Houses in late 1917, albeit with razor-thin majorities in the Commons, and received Royal Assent in December 1917.”
What’s the Point of Divergence here? Isn’t it a bit forced?
It’s less well known (but not really that obscure) that the House of Commons actually mandated AV for general elections in a Bill passed by that House in 1917.
This failed as the House of Lords struck that out and substituted PR by Single Transferable Vote, and the Bill ping-ponged back and forth. The Commons insisted on AV and the Lords on PR – on the fairly strong grounds that the Bill was based on Mr Speaker’s Conference, which mandated PR.
Wait – what’s Mr Speaker’s Conference?
By 1915, the Parliament that had been elected in 1910 was due to expire. A fresh General Election had issues – the existing register of electors was obsolete, but refreshing it would be impossible, as considerable numbers of electors were absent due to there being, you know, a massive war on. This was exacerbated when it was pointed out that the arguments against women’s suffrage (based on them not having comparable experience of work and the pressures under which men nobly laboured) were, during the war, rather obviously not true. The question of whether many of the men who were fighting and dying for their country who currently had no right to vote should, in fact, have the right to vote, also cropped up and it was hard to argue that they could die for their country but not vote in it.
It was finally agreed to extend Parliament (very unusually) on a year-by-year basis, but these issues needed looking at urgently. A committee of some type needed to be set up, but who to chair it? The potential partisan advantages and disadvantages could dominate the argument, and a standard Commons Committee might not appear to have the necessary weight. Eventually, “Mr Speaker’s Conference” was invented to address these, to be chaired by the popular and seen-to-be-impartial Speaker Lowther. The Proportional Representation Society (PRS – now the Electoral Reform Society) seized the opportunity to throw wider electoral reform into the mix.
The Conference was reportedly thorough and largely impartial, although full records do not exist, as the discussions were meant to be informal. In the end, in early 1917, they concluded with a number of recommendations. These included:
· (Passed unanimously) – Qualifying periods for registration should be reduced to 6 months.
· (Passed unanimously) – Every adult male (at this time, adult was “over 21”) should be entitled to be registered as an elector.
· (Passed unanimously) – A minor redistribution of seats.
· (Passed unanimously) – Enfranchisement of the Combined Universities with STV.
· (Passed unanimously) – multi-member constituencies of 3 or more members to be elected under STV; London to be divided into constituencies of 3-5 members.
· (Passed by a majority 11-8) – single-member constituencies to be elected under AV.
· (Passed by a majority 15-6) – Women should receive the vote (albeit the provision: “on equal grounds to men” was defeated 12-10) if they were age 30 or over and if either they or their husband were on the Local Government Register*, which in practice meant for her or her husband to own property with a rateable value over £5 was the compromise reached.
* I mean, chaps, we’re giving the girlies the vote. Let’s not go mad here! Ladies only, at least to begin with, hmmm?
Suffragettes invade Central Lobby, House of Commons, 13 February 1907.
Remarkably, media presentations may have been politically slanted.
Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
It went forward to the Government, who were, by and large, supportive of most of the recommendations. Women’s suffrage and PR were to be the potential sticking points but, in the end, the recommendations were passed through largely as they were. But with one proviso – it was to be a free vote of the House. The Government had no official position. Of these, it was PR that would prove to be the ultimate cause of contention.
It was reported that the Prime Minister, David Lloyd-George, had no personal opinion for or against PR, stating that he had given it no thought, nor would he until the War was concluded. This was not strictly true – he was, in truth, strongly opposed. It is thought that the Liberal dominance of his home Principality was in his mind, as the Liberals typically swept the board (or nearly so) in Wales, even when a Unionist or Tory landslide occurred nationwide, and PR could place that in jeopardy. Later, in 1925, he lamented that had someone explained it properly to him, bearing in mind the rise of Labour and the expansion of the franchise, he’d have vehemently supported it.
This could have made the key difference. As the much-respected Lowther was reportedly furious with the loss of PR, I’ve chosen to have him make that intervention – the Speaker getting to talk with the PM privately on a non-partisan matter of high importance should be justifiable.
The outcomes of this change would, however, be huge going forwards. The “Coupon Election” of 1918 would not really need an official “coupon” in many cases, and the rise of Labour and collapse of the Liberals would be very different. But those outcomes are for later articles.
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Andy Cooke is a very prolific author. His books range from political punditry to ending the world. These include the series The End and Afterwards and The Fourth Lectern , which predicted the rise of UKIP on the British political scene. He has also written the portal fantasy series for young adults, The Shadowlands Chronicles , and Skyborn, a post-apocalypse story with airships.