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How Likely is Proportional Representation in the House of Commons? Lessons from International Experience

  • Alan Renwick

This article asks what international evidence suggests about the likelihood of major reform of the system used to elect the British House of Commons. It identifies four paths that have generated major electoral reform or come close to doing so in established democracies in recent decades and examines how likely each is to lead to reform in the UK. It argues that, on this evidence, reform in the UK is unlikely but not impossible.

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1 Dunleavy, Patrick and Margetts, Helen, ‘From Majoritarian to Pluaralist Democracy? Electoral Reform in Britain since 1997’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 13: 3 (July 2001), pp. 295320; Adrian Blau, ‘Electoral Reform in the UK: A Veto-Player Analysis’, in André Blais (ed.), To Keep or to Change First Past the Post? The Politics of Electoral Reform, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 61–89; Adrian Blau, ‘Majoritarianism Under Pressure: The Electoral and Party Systems’, in Robert Hazell (ed.), Constitutional Futures 2, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, pp. 233–48.

2 I have, however, updated for events outside the UK – specifically, for referendums in British Columbia and Italy in May and June of 2009.

3 I define an established democracy as any independent country that was a consolidated democracy by 1962 and has remained so ever since.

4 See, e.g. Gerard Alexander, ‘France: Reform-Mongering Between Majority Runoff and Proportionality’, in Josep M. Colomer (ed.), Handbook of Electoral System Choice, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, pp. 209–21, at p. 214.

5 Blau, ‘Electoral Reform in the UK’, pp. 73–5; see also Dunleavy, Patrick and Margetts, Helen, ‘The Impact of UK Electoral Systems’, Parliamentary Affairs, 58: 4 (October 2005), pp. 854–70, at pp. 865–6.

6 Quintal, David P., ‘The Theory of Electoral Systems’, Western Political Quarterly, 23: 4 (December 1970), pp. 752–61, at p. 755.

7 Josep M. Colomer, ‘The Strategy and History of Electoral System Choice’, in Colomer, Handbook of Electoral System Choice, pp. 3–78, at pp. 74–6.

8 E.g. Dorothy Pickles, France: The Fourth Republic, 2nd edn, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1958, p. 33; Knapp, Andrew, ‘Proportional But Bipolar: France's Electoral System in 1986’, West European Politics, 10: 1 (January 1987), pp. 89114, at p. 89; Alistair Cole and Peter Campbell, French Electoral Systems and Elections Since 1789, Aldershot, Gower, 1989, p. 3.

9 Muriel Grindrod, The Rebuilding of Italy: Politics and Economics, 1945–1955, London, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1955, p. 90; Pasquino, Gianfranco, ‘Tricks and Treats: The 2005 Italian Electoral Law and its Consequences’, South European Society and Politics, 12: 1 (March 2007), pp. 7993, at p. 85.

10 Helms, Ludger, ‘The Grand Coalition; Precedents and Prospects’, German Politics and Society, 24: 1 (Spring 2006), pp. 4766, at p. 59; see also Eckhard Jesse, ‘The West German Electoral System: The Case for Reform, 1949–1987’, West European Politics, 10: 3 (July 1987), pp. 434–48, at p. 436.

11 Diskin, Hanna and Diskin, Abraham, ‘The Politics of Electoral Reform in Israel’, International Political Science Review, 16: 1 (January 1995), pp. 3145, at p. 36.

12 Pulzer, Peter, ‘Germany’, in Bogdanor, Vernon and Butler, David (eds), Democracy and Elections: Electoral Systems and Their Political Consequences, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 84109, at pp. 99–102.

13 Andrew McLaren Carstairs, A Short History of Electoral Systems in Western Europe, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1980, p. 133; Susan E. Scarrow, ‘Germany: The Mixed-Member System as a Political Compromise’, in Matthew Soberg Shugart and Martin P. Wattenberg (eds), Mixed-Member Electoral Systems: The Best of Both Worlds?, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, pp. 55–69, at p. 66; Aardal, Bernt, ‘The Nor-wegian Parliamentary Election of 1989’, Electoral Studies, 9: 2 (June 1990), pp. 151–8, at pp. 152–3.

14 Alan Renwick, Chris Hanretty and David Hine, ‘Partisan Self-Interest and Electoral Reform: The New Italian Electoral Law of 2005’, Electoral Studies, forthcoming.

15 Liberal Democrats, Manifesto: General Election 2001, p. 7; ‘Liberal Democrats Policy Briefing 22: Constitutional Reform’, January 2005, p. 1; ‘For the People, By the People: Policy Paper 83’, August 2007, available at

16 Kenneth Benoit, ‘Models of Electoral System Change’, Electoral Studies, 23: 3 (September 2004), pp. 363–89; Colomer, Josep M., ‘It's Parties that Choose Electoral Systems (or, Duverger's Laws Upside Down)’, Political Studies, 53: 1 (March 2005), pp. 121.

17 Richard S. Katz, ‘Reforming the Italian Electoral Law, 1993’, in Shugart and Wattenberg, Mixed-Member Electoral Systems, pp. 96–122.

18 Keith Jackson and Alan McRobie, New Zealand Adopts Proportional Representation: Accident? Design? Evolution?, Aldershot, Ashgate, 1998.

19 Reed, Steven R., ‘Political Reform in Japan: Combining Scientific and Historical Analysis’, Social Science Japan Journal, 2: 2 (October 1999), pp. 177–93.

20 Matthew Soberg Shugart, ‘Inherent and Contingent Factors in Reform Initiation in Plurality Systems’, in Blais, To Keep or to Change First Past the Post?, pp. 7–60.

21 Ibid., p. 13.

22 Siaroff, Alan, ‘Spurious Majorities, Electoral Systems and Electoral System Change’, Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 41: 2 (July 2003), pp. 143–60.

23 Alan Renwick, The Politics of Electoral Reform: Changing the Rules of Democracy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, forthcoming.

24 David Nelken, ‘A Legal Revolution? The Judges and Tangentopoli’, in Stephen Gundle and Simon Parker (eds), The New Italian Republic: From the Fall of the Berlin Wall to Berlusconi, London, Routledge, 1996, pp. 191–205.

25 Curtis, Gerald L., The Logic of Japanese Politics: Leaders, Institutions, and the Limits of Change, New York, Columbia University Press, 1999, p.87.

26 David Denemark, ‘Choosing MMP in New Zealand: Explaining the 1993 Electoral Reform’, in Shugart and Wattenberg, Mixed-Member Electoral Systems, pp. 70–95, at pp. 81–3; Vowles, Jack, ‘Introducing Proportional Representation: The New Zealand Experience’, Parliamentary Affairs, 53: 4 (October 2000), pp. 680–96, at p. 684.

27 Blau, Adrian, ‘A Quadruple Whammy for First-Past-the-Post’, Electoral Studies, 23: 3 (September 2004), pp. 431–53.

28 Michael Gallagher, ‘Conclusions’, in Michael Gallagher and Paul Mitchell (eds), The Politics of Electoral Systems, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2005, pp. 535–78, at p. 572; G. Bingham Powell, Jr, Elections as Instruments of Democracy: Majoritarian and Proportional Visions, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 2000, pp. 47–68; but cf. John Curtice, ‘Neither Representative nor Accountable: First-Past-The-Post in Britain’, paper presented at the conference Plurality and Multi-Round Electoral Systems, Center for the Study of Democracy, UC Irvine, 18–19 February 2006, available at

29 Arend Lijphart, Democracies: Patterns of Majoritarian and Consensus Government in Twenty-One Countries, New Haven, CT, Yale University Press, 1984, pp. 16–20 and 216–17.

30 Mulgan, Richard, ‘The Democratic Failure of Single-Party Government: The New Zealand Experience’, special issue ofAustralian Journal of Political Science, 30 (1995), pp. 8296.

31 Dalton, Russell J., Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 7 and 178–81.

32 Lamare, James W. and Vowles, Jack, ‘Party Interests, Public Opinion and Institutional Preferences: Electoral System Change in New Zealand’, Australian Journal of Political Science, 31: 3 (November 1996), pp. 321–45, at p. 336.

33 R. Kenneth Carty, André Blais and Patrick Fournier, ‘When Citizens Choose to Reform SMP: The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform', in Blais, To Keep or to Change First Past the Post?, pp. 140–62, at pp. 141–2.

34 Pilon, Dennis, ‘The Uncertain Path of Democratic Renewal in Ontario’, in Milner, Henry (ed.), Steps Toward Making Every Vote Count: Electoral System Reform in Canada and Its Provinces, Peterborough, ON, Broadview Press, 2004, pp. 249–65, at p. 256.

35 John Curtice and Roger Jowell, ‘Trust in the Political System’, in Roger Jowell, John Curtice, Alison Park, Lindsay Brook, Katarina Thomson and Caroline Bryson (eds), British Social Attitudes: The 14th Report, Aldershot, Ashgate, 1997, pp. 89–109; John Curtice, Stephen Fisher and Laurence Lessard-Phillips, ‘Proportional Representation and the Disappearing Voter’, in Alison Park, John Curtice, Katarina Thomson, Miranda Phillips and Mark Johnson (eds), British Social Attitudes: The 23rd Report, London, Sage, 2007, pp. 119–41, at pp. 128–30.

36 Marshall, Geoffrey, ‘The Constitution: Its Theory and Interpretation’, in Bogdanor, Vernon (ed.), The British Constitution in the Twentieth Century, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003, pp. 29–68, at pp. 62–3.

37 John Curtice and Roger Jowell, ‘The Sceptical Electorate’, in Roger Jowell, John Curtice, Alison Park, Lindsay Brook and Daphne Ahrendt (eds), British Social Attitudes: The 12th Report, Aldershot, Dartmouth, 1995, pp. 141–72, at p. 163; Dunleavy, Patrick and Margetts, Helen, ‘The Electoral System’, Parliamentary Affairs, 50: 4 (October 1997), pp. 733–49, at p. 748;

38 Farrell, David M. and Gallagher, Michael, ‘British Voters and Their Criteria for Evaluating Electoral Systems’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 1: 3 (October 1999), pp. 293316.

39 Further referendums have been held on other aspects of electoral law.

40 No source gives clear evidence on the outcome of the Andorran referendum of 1982.

41 This categorization leaves out two cases: relevant information on the Andorran referendum is unavailable; the referendum in Ecuador in 1997 occurred under conditions of regime instability that are unlikely to be relevant to the UK.

42 Matic, Andrej Auersperger, ‘Electoral Reform as a Constitutional Dilemma’, East European Constitutional Review, 9: 3 (Summer 2000), pp. 7781.

43 Arthur Lupia and Mathew D. McCubbins, The Democratic Dilemma: Can Citizens Learn What They Need to Know?, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1998; Lupia, Arthur and Matsusaka, John G., ‘Direct Democracy: New Approaches to Old Questions’, Annual Review of Political Science, 7 (2004), pp. 463–82.

44 LeDuc, Lawrence, ‘Opinion Formation and Change in Referendum Campaigns’, in De Vreese, Claes H. (ed.), The Dynamics of Referendum Campaigns: An International Perspective, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, pp. 21–44, at p. 21.

45 Curtice and Jowell, ‘The Sceptical Electorate’, p. 163; Curtice and Jowell, ‘Trust in the Political System’, p. 103; Dunleavy and Margetts, ‘The Electoral System’, p. 748.

46 Shaun Bowler and Todd Donovan, Demanding Choices: Opinion, Voting, and Direct Democracy, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1998, pp. 43–55; Matthew Mendelsohn and Andrew Parkin, ‘Introduction: Referendum Democracy’, in Matthew Mendelsohn and Andrew Parkin (eds), Referendum Democracy: Citizens, Elites and Deliberation in Referendum Campaigns, Basingstoke, Palgrave, 2001, pp. 1–22, at p. 11.

47 Georg Lutz, ‘Switzerland: Introducing Proportional Representation from Below’, in Colomer, Handbook of Electoral System Choice, pp. 279–93, at pp. 285–6.

48 Webb, Paul, ‘Conclusion: Political Parties and Democratic Control in Advanced Industrial Societies’, in Webb, Paul, Farrell, David and Holliday, Ian (eds), Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 438–60, at p. 439.

49 Cutler, Fred, Johnston, Richard, Carty, R. Kenneth, Blais, André and Fournier, Patrick, ‘Deliberation, Information, and Trust: The British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly as Agenda Setter', in Warren, Mark E. and Pearse, Hilary (eds), Designing Deliberative Democracy: The British Columbia Citizens' Assembly, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008, pp. 166–91, at p. 177.

50 Fred Cutler and Patrick Fournier, ‘Why Ontarians Said No to MMP’, Globe and Mail, 25 October 2007; Laura Stephenson and Brian Tanguay, ‘The 2007 Ontario Electoral System Referendum: Information, Interest, and Democratic Renewal’, paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Political Science Association, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, 4–6 June 2008, pp. 21–3, available at

51 Cf. Lundberg, Thomas Carl, ‘Electoral System Reviews in New Zealand, Britain and Canada: A Critical Comparison’, Government and Opposition, 42: 4 (2007), pp. 471–90, at p. 472.

52 Cutler and Fournier, ‘Why Ontarians Said No to MMP’.

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