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New report puts electoral system under the microscope

With the prospects of a hung Parliament increasing, the Commons voting for a referendum on changing the current "first past the post" system in 2011, and all three major parties now seemingly committed to a wholly or largely elected House of Lords; a new analysis of the pros and cons of different voting systems could scarcely be timelier.

Choosing an Electoral System, co-authored by Professor Simon Hix of LSE and published on March 10 by the British Academy, identifies the characteristics of the main types of electoral system – and their variations – now used around the world, and discusses their implications for electors and political parties. The outcomes from their application, both in the UK and elsewhere, are used to illustrate their characteristics.

First-past-the-post has long been the method for electing MPs, but a number of different electoral systems have been introduced in the UK in recent decades - in elections for the European Parliament, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies, the London Assembly, the Mayor of London and local governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

While voters who use these different systems generally appreciate their nature and are able to apply them with little difficulty, appreciation of the variety of systems on offer is not widespread among voters who have not experienced them, and there are many myths about their different effects on government formation and other aspects of political behaviour. Many of those myths are dispelled once people become accustomed to using the systems and appreciating what they deliver.

Social scientists have done a great deal of research on those effects. That body of work is summarised in the report as part of the Academy's programme of bringing the results of academic research into the public domain – with the aim of strengthening informed debate of the choices involved in selecting a voting system.

The report establishes three criteria against which electoral systems should be judged: whether they produce a parliament whose members represent particular territorial constituencies; whether their outcomes are commensurate with the concept of proportional representation; and whether electors are able to choose candidates within as well as between parties.

Professor Hix, of the Government department at LSE, said:

'The debate about electoral reform in the UK will not go away. Our report aims to explain what political scientists have learned about how different electoral systems work and what might happen if we changed the way we elect MPs.'

Professor Ron Johnston, Fellow of the British Academy and co-author of the report said:

'There is no perfect electoral system. In our discussion we outline the trade-offs that have to be made when choosing one.'

The report provides an accessible, non-technical introduction to electoral systems, how they operate and their outcomes relative to those criteria and trade-offs. It provides an essential introduction to an important contemporary issue for both commentators and participants, illustrating the value of public investment in the high quality social science for which the UK is renowned.

It was formally launched on Wednesday March 10 at the British Academy at an event chaired by Peter Riddell of The Times. The panel included Tony Wright (Labour MP and Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee); Lord Geoffrey Howe (former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer, Foreign Secretary, and Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Prime Minister); and Lord Paul Tyler (Liberal Democrat Spokesperson on Constitutional Reform). 

To download a copy of the report, please click here .


Notes to editors

Choosing an Electoral System (March 2010) is a research report prepared for the British Academy by Simon Hix, Ron Johnston and Ian Maclean with research assistance from Angela Cummine.

Professor Simon Hix is Professor of European and Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is Director of the Political Science and Political Economy Group at the LSE and is the co-editor of the journal European Union Politics. Simon has held visiting professorships at, inter alia, Berkeley, Stanford, UC San Diego, Sciences-Po in Paris and the College of Europe in Bruges. He has twice won awards from the American Political Science Association for his research.

Professor Ron Johnston FBA has been Professor of Geography at the University of Bristol since 1995. He previously worked in the Departments of Geography at Monash University, the Universities of Canterbury and Sheffield and as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Essex. He has twice been honoured by both the Royal Geographical Society for his research achievements (Murchison Award, 1985; Victoria Medal, 1990), and by the Association of American Geographers (Research Honors, 1991); Lifetime Achievement, 2010.

Professor Iain McLean FBA is Official Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, Oxford and Professor of Politics at Oxford University. He was appointed as Specialist Adviser to the House of Commons Reform Committee in November 2009. Prior to this, Iain has worked at the Universities of Newcastle upon Tyne, Warwick, and Oxford, and has held visiting professorships at Washington & Lee, Stanford, Yale, and the Australian National University.

This is the second report from the new British Academy Policy Centre. The Centre was established with the support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) . It oversees a programme of activity engaging with the expertise of the social sciences and humanities to shed light on policy issues.

The British Academy, established by Royal Charter in 1902, is the national body that champions and supports the humanities and social sciences. It aims to inspire, recognise and support excellence and high achievement across the UK and internationally.   For more information, please visit  www.britac.ac.uk

Journalists should call:

Simon Hix on 0207 955 7657 or s.hix@lse.ac.uk

Kate Turnbull, Press and PR Manager, British Academy, on 0207 969 526