September 09, 2010

PR in the UK

Proportional representation leaflet

Leaflet issued by the Proportional Representation Society (PRS) explaining the single transferable vote system used in elections to university constituencies, November 1918

Last Monday MPs held their first debate on the bill which would lead to the holding of a referendum in May 2011 on the introduction of the alternative vote system to Westminster elections.  'First past the post’ voting has been universal in such elections for decades, but this leaflet shows that a proportional system was tried on a limited basis just after World War I.   

The new method of voting was to be used in the constituencies of Oxford, Cambridge, the combined English Universities (Birmingham, Bristol, Durham, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield), Dublin and the Scottish universities.  In March 1919, an analysis of these elections was published in Representation, the PRS journal, under the title ’The first trial of proportional representation in the United Kingdom’.  Among the features noted were the first election of a Liberal (who was also the “Teachers’ Candidate”) to a Scottish university seat since 1885 and the first contest at Oxford since 1878, which confirmed “the testimony of other countries that there are few uncontested constituencies under a P.R. system.”  Apparently the voters did not have any difficulty with the new system, despite its comparative complexity.  This may have been due to the fact that having attended university they were, in theory at least, of above-average intelligence.  

This document is in a file about parliamentary elections in the archive of the Association of University Teachers (AUT) held at the Modern Records Centre.  Other papers in the file reflect the AUT’s concern about issues, such as higher education funding and teachers’ pensions, which are still matters of debate today.  [document reference MSS.27/3/46 (3 of 3) (link to on-line catalogue)] .

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