Multi member constituencies in the British Parliament

Multi member constituencies in the British Parliament (and its predecessor bodies in the component parts of the United Kingdom) existed from the earliest era of elected representation in Parliament until the last of them were abolished in the United Kingdom general election, 1950. Since 1950, all members of the United Kingdom House of Commons have been elected from single member constituencies.

Method of election

Three electoral systems have been used to return multiple members to Parliament.

Bloc vote

The original method and the one most commonly used was the bloc vote.

In multi-member elections under this system, electors could cast a vote for up to as many candidates as there were seats to be filled. The elector could not vote more than once for any candidate, but was free not to use all the possible votes. A single vote for only one of the candidates was known as a plumper, and was particularly valued by politicians.

At the close of the poll the leading candidates, with the largest number of votes (to the required number to fill the vacant seats), were declared elected.

This was a non-proportional election system, so it suffered from the defect that an elector using all his votes might contribute to the defeat of the candidate he most preferred. It also was not a system which guaranteed minority representation, as a majority which voted solidly for candidates of one party could win all the seats.

An advantage of the system, at least from the point of view of politicians, was that it enabled different sections of a party or allied groups to work together in the same constituency. In the early and mid nineteenth century it was quite common for liberals in an area with two seats to support a left wing liberal Radical candidate and a right wing liberal Whig nominee. Similarly in the early twentieth century the Liberal Party and Labour Party found it easier to split the seats in the remaining two member constituencies than to share out single member divisions.

Limited vote

In 1868, the limited vote was introduced, which was similar to the bloc vote but restricted an individual elector in a three or four seat constituency to using up to one fewer vote than the number of seats to be filled.

The purpose of this innovation was to encourage minority representation and weaken political parties. In some areas, particularly the three member counties where rural elites were used to negotiating so as to minimise the number of contested elections, the reform worked as its proposers hoped. In some urban areas, the result was completely counterproductive.

Joseph Chamberlain and the Birmingham Liberal Caucus realised that by ensuring their supporters voted in a disciplined manner, as directed by the Caucus, they had enough support to win all three seats for the city. Instead of weakening party organisation, the limited vote strengthened it. Instead of providing guaranteed minority representation, the chance of it depended largely on how well the dominant local party organised itself.

When the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 was being considered in 1884-85, the limited vote had little support. The redistribution eliminated the three and four member districts and the limited vote disappeared.

Single transferable vote

When Parliament debated the Fourth Reform Act in 1918 consideration was given to electoral reform. James Lowther was Chairman of the Speakers' Electoral Reform Conference in 1916–1917, of the Boundary Commissions (Great Britain and Ireland) in 1917, of the Royal Commission on Proportional Representation in 1918, all held before the legislation was introduced. There had been a call for the introduction of proportional representation in multi member seats, at least in major urban areas where constituencies would not have to cover very large areas. This was not a unanimous recommendation and some politicians wanted to introduce the alternative vote in single member seats.

The House of Lords and House of Commons were agreed that there should be some reform, but could not agree what. In the end, Speaker Lowther warned that if the dispute continued the whole bill would be lost. As a result of this, neither the alternative vote or the single transferable vote (STV) were introduced for territorial constituencies which continued to use the old electoral system.

However one part of the proportional representation scheme survived into the final Act of Parliament. The multi member University constituencies would elect their representatives by the single transferable vote.

As only one constituency had as many as three seats, the trial of STV was not very satisfactory, but it did loosen the traditional Conservative Party grip on most of the University seats and encouraged the election of Independents.

The University representation was abolished in 1950, so no members have since been elected on a proportional representation system.

Constituencies

Constituencies in the Parliament of England were enfranchised (or re-enfranchised in some cases centuries after they last returned members) according to the policy or whim of particular monarchs. By the start of the English Civil War only three of the English constituencies in the Unreformed House of Commons had not yet been enfranchised.

Under the Instrument of Government England (and Wales), Scotland and Ireland were all represented in the First Protectorate Parliament and Second Protectorate Parliament, using a novel scheme of constituencies represented by 1-13 members. The Third Protectorate Parliament reverted to the pre-war distribution (at least for the English members).

By 1660 England, Scotland and Ireland had all reverted to having individual Parliaments.

In the 1670s the last three English constituencies were enfranchised (one two member county and two two member boroughs). For the summary of the final composition of the Parliament of England see the English and Welsh parts of the tables below for 1708-1800 and 1801-1821.

In 1707 45 Scottish members were added to the existing Parliament of England, to form the Parliament of Great Britain. In the 1st Parliament of Great Britain the Scottish members were co-opted from the former Parliament of Scotland, but from 1708 the distribution of members was as set out in the Scottish section of the tables below. Notably all the Scottish seats before 1832 were single member constituencies.

In 1801 100 Irish members were added to the existing Parliament of Great Britain, to form the Parliament of the United Kingdom. In the First Parliament of the United Kingdom some of the Irish members (for constituencies reduced from two seats to one) were co-opted from the former Parliament of Ireland by drawing lots. For the counties and two boroughs (Cork and Dublin) which retained two seats both members continued after the Union.

Members of Parliament 1654-1658

"Key to categories: EC - English constituencies, WC - Welsh constituencies, SC - Scottish constituencies, IC - Irish constituencies, EMP - English Members of Parliament, WMP - Welsh Members of Parliament, SMP - Scottish Members of Parliament, IMP - Irish Members of Parliament, Total MP - Total Members of Parliament."

Table 1: Constituencies by type

Table 2: Number of seats per constituency, by type and country

List of multi-member constituencies

": See List of multi-member constituencies in the United Kingdom and predecessor Parliaments"

ee also

*List of former United Kingdom Parliamentary constituencies

References

* "British Electoral Facts 1832-1987", compiled and edited by F.W.S. Craig (Parliamentary Research Services 1989)
* "The Constitutional Year Book 1900" (William Blackstone & Sons 1900) "out of copyright"
* "Electoral Reform in England and Wales", by Charles Seymour (David & Charles Reprints 1970)
* "The Statutes: Second Revised Edition, Vol. XVI 1884-1886" (printed by authority in 1900)


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