Skip to main content

Should unionists support PR? Electoral systems, party systems and territorial integration in the United Kingdom

Abstract

Conventional wisdom has it that the British first-past-the-post electoral system (FPTP) fosters an all-British two-party system which in turn provides territorial integration to a multi-national British state. While the first relationship has been significantly weakened since the early 1970s, the second one lost much of its compelling power at the General Election of 2015. However, as this analysis shows, the integrating function of the British party system has been a myth for quite some time. The FPTP system may have helped to concentrate votes in the two major British parties, yet it has also heavily exaggerated the existing electoral divergence between different parts of the country and has thus contributed considerably to the disintegration of the UK polity. As this effect becomes increasingly obvious, strong commitment to unionist ideology might be expected to induce corresponding support for electoral reform in both the Conservative and the Labour Party. The territorial concentration of their MPs (in part a consequence of this exaggeration), though, means that career self-interest points in the opposite direction.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1

Source Author’s calculations

Fig. 2
Fig. 3

Source Author’s calculations

Fig. 4

Source Author’s calculations

Fig. 5

Source Author’s calculations

Notes

  1. The electoral deviation for each region/nation is calculated by adding up the differences between the share of votes on the regional/national level and on the UK level for each party and by dividing the total by two. Scores may vary between 0, depicting complete similarity of the vote, and 100, depicting complete dissimilarity. The accumulated figure is calculated by adding up the dissimilarity scores for Scotland, Wales and England at each election. While there are much more elaborate measurements for electoral territorial divergence (cf. Bochsler 2010; Morgenstern et al. 2014), this simple index is sufficient to demonstrate the immense electoral divergence within the UK and its development over time.

  2. For such an assessment see, among others, Wyn Jones et al 2013; Ford and Goodwin 2014; Hayton 2016.

  3. For a more detailed account of this path-dependent process see Stolz (2009, pp. 250–258, 275).

  4. Moran (2017, p. 75) states: ‘The election of 1997 (for the Conservatives) and 2015 (for Labour) showed that the first past the post system, far from advantaging the Westminster giants, could wipe them out territorially once popular support fell below around 20% (the Conservatives 1997) and 25% (Labour in 2015)’.

  5. This was the first time since 1987 that the Conservatives did not lose out massively from FPTP in Wales.

  6. The Daily Mail, (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3055575/Theresa-SNP-Labour-pact-spark-biggest-constitutional-crisis-abdication-Edward-VIII.html). Accessed 25 April 2015.

  7. The effective number of parties (ENP) is a common measurement of party system fragmentation introduced by Laakso and Taagepera (1979). Parties are counted according to their relative strength (both in terms of vote share and parliamentary seats) resulting in the formula ENEP = 1/Σvi2 (for the effective number of electoral parties) and ENPP = 1/Σsi2 (for the effective number of parliamentary parties).

  8. An effective number of parties (votes) of four is the value Colomer (2005, p. 13) calculated for the probability of electoral reform to rise above 50%. The ENP (votes) for the 2015 Westminster election was at 3.91. The 2017 election shows a mere 2.52.

References

  • Aughey, A. 2010. British questions: A non-instrumentalist answer. Parliamentary Affairs 63: 407–424.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Aughey, A. 2013. The British question. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Audickas, L., O. Hawkins, and R. Cracknell. 2017 UK Election Statistics 1918–2017. House of Commons Library, Briefing Paper, Number CBP7529. Accessed 23 Aug 2017.

  • Billig, M. 1995. Banal Nationalism. London: Sage.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bochsler, D. 2010. Measuring party nationalization: A new Gini-based indicator that corrects for the number of units. Electoral Studies 29: 155–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bogdanor, V. 2009. The New British Constitution. Oxford: Hart Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bradbury, J., and J. Mitchell. 2005. Devolution: Between governance and territorial politics. Parliamentary Affairs 58 (2): 287–302.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bulpitt, J. 1983. Territory and Power in the United Kingdom. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Cairney, P. 2016. The Scottish Parliament election 2016: Another momentous event but dull campaign. Scottish Affairs 25: 277–293.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Colomer, J. 2005. It’s parties that choose electoral systems (or, Duverger’s laws upside down). Political Studies 53: 1–21.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cowley, P., and D. Kavanagh. 2016. The British General Election of 2015. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Curtice, J., and M. Steed. 1986. Proportionality and exaggeration in the British electoral system. Electoral Studies 5: 209–288.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dunleavy, P. 2005. Facing up to multi-party politics: How partisan dealignment and PR voting have fundamentally changed Britain’s party system. Parliamentary Affairs 58: 503–532.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ford, R., and M. Goodwin. 2014. Revolt on the Right: Explaining the Support for the Radical Right in Britain. Abingdon: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hall, M. 2011. Political Traditions and UK Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Hassan, G., and E. Shaw. 2012. The Strange Death of Labour Scotland. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hayton, R. 2016. The UK independence party and the politics of englishness. Political Studies Review 14: 400–410.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnston, R., and C. Pattie. 2011. The British general election of 2010: A three-party contest—or three two-party contests? The Geographical Journal 177: 17–26.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Johnston, R.J., C.J. Pattie, and J.G. Allsopp. 1988. A Nation Dividing? The Electoral Map of Great Britain, 1979–1987. London: Longman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Keating, M. 1994. The union under strain: Constitutional reform and the territorial state. In Changing Conceptions of Constitutional Government, ed. H. Kastendiek, and R. Stinshoff, 23–48. Bochum: Dr. Brockmeyer Verlag.

    Google Scholar 

  • Keating, M. 2008. Thirty years of territorial politics. West European Politics 31: 60–81.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Laakso, M., and R. Taagepera. 1979. Effective number of parties: A measure with application to West Europe. Comparative Political Studies 12: 3–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Macwhirter, I. 2015. Tsunami: Scotland’s Democratic Revolution. Glasgow: Cargo.

    Google Scholar 

  • Madgwick, P., and R. Rose. 1982. Introduction. In The Territorial Dimension in United Kingdom Politics, ed. P. Madgwick, and R. Rose, 1–6. London: Macmillan.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Marquand, D. 1988. The Unprincipled Society. New Demands and Old Politics. London: Jonathan Cape.

    Google Scholar 

  • Marquand, D. 1991. The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Kinnock. London: Heinemann.

    Google Scholar 

  • Marsh, D., and M. Hall. 2007. The British political tradition: Explaining the fate of new labour’s constitutional reform agenda. British Politics 2 (2): 215–238.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McLean, I., and A. McMillan. 2005. State of the union: Unionism and the alternatives in the United Kingdom since 1707. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Midwinter, A., M. Keating, and J. Mitchell. 1991. Politics and Public Policy in Scotland. Houndmills: Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mitchell, J. 2009. Devolution in the UK. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Moran, M. 2017. The End of British Politics?. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Morgenstern, S., J. Polga-Hecimovich, and P.M. Siavelis. 2014. Seven imperatives for improving the measurement of party nationalization with evidence from Chile. Electoral Studies 33: 186–199.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nairn, T. 1977. The break-up of Britain. London: New Left Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nairn, T. 2000. After Britain: New labour and the return of Scotland. London: Granta.

    Google Scholar 

  • Nairn, T. 2007. Union on the rocks? New Left Review 43 (1): 117–132.

    Google Scholar 

  • Perryman, M. 2009. Breaking up Britain: Four nations after a union. London: Lawrence and Wishart.

    Google Scholar 

  • Rhodes, R. 1988. Beyond Westminster and Whitehall. London: Unwin-Hyman.

    Google Scholar 

  • Stolz, K. 2009. Towards a Regional Political Class? Professional Politicians and Regional Institutions in Catalonia and Scotland. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Taylor, P. 1979. The changing geography of representation in Britain. Area 11: 289–294.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wright, T., and A. Gamble. 2010. Commentary: The end of Britain? Political Quarterly 71 (1): 1–3.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wyn Jones, R., G. Lodge, C. Jeffery, G. Gottfried, R. Scully, A. Henderson and D. Wincott. 2013. England and its Two Unions. The Anatomy of a Nation and its Discontents. London: IPPR. http://www.ippr.org/files/images/media/files/publication/2013/07/england-two-unions_Jul2013_11003.pdf. Accessed 26 Oct 2017.

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Klaus Stolz.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Stolz, K. Should unionists support PR? Electoral systems, party systems and territorial integration in the United Kingdom. Br Polit 14, 269–289 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-018-0075-y

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41293-018-0075-y

Keywords

  • Electoral system
  • Party system
  • Territorial politics
  • Unionism