The essential ingredient in a representative democratic system is the holding of elections: the ability of voters to periodically vote in or eject their representatives. “No taxation without representation” was the protest cry of the 18th century American colonists in being taxed by a British Parliament to which they could not send MP’s. In today’s democracy MP’s are elected according to certain key principles:
- Voting is secret: ever since the 1872 Secret Ballot Act
- Elections are free from bribery, fraud or corruption or otherwise influencing the vote
- Every adult over 18 has a vote, and must register in order to be able to vote
- General elections must be held at a maximum of every 5 years, but can be held at any time in between subject to the Fixed Terms Act (2011)
- Parliamentary constituencies are “single member”, that is that an MP represents a geographical area, and he or she is elected on the First Past The Post system, whereby the one with the most votes is elected
- Constituency boundaries are periodically reviewed by a Boundary Commission so that constituency size remains roughly equal, thus taking account of population movements
- The House of Commons consists of 650 members at present
Reform of elections
It was not always like this. Before the Great Reform Act of 1832, constituency boundaries varied a great deal, having not been re-adjusted since medieval times. Thus there were a number of very large constituencies but also “pocket boroughs” or “rotten boroughs” where the election was controlled by a landowner. One such notorious rotten borough was Gatton, the spurious “town hall” of which you can see in this photo. The Act started a process of re-drawing boundaries to take account of concentrations of people.
The franchise, or right to vote, was also very varied, but in general limited to a very small number of males who were largely property-owners. The Great Reform Act initiated a series of reforms over the next 100 years resulting eventually in full universal suffrage in 1928.
Elections were open affairs and thus also subject to influence. Landowners would instruct their tenants how to vote. Money would be spent in more diverse constituencies to swing the vote, even despite legislation to try to prevent it. Violence was not uncommon. Such influence was finally ended with the 1872 Secret Ballot Act.
Reform ideas today
A number of proposals for reform are being discussed, such as:
- Reduction of the number of MP’s from 650 to 600
- Review of constituency boundaries: this needs to happen every few years, since Parliament otherwise becomes unbalanced. Currently Labour is over-represented. MP’s are now considering a further re-distibution
- Making all or part of the House of Lords elected. It is currently almost entirely a nominated body
- Giving votes to those who have lived more than 15 years overseas. There is currently a limit
- Reducing the voting age from 18 to 16