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These notes are from a series of esays the BBC commissioned in 2003 and put on their website. It even includes A2 route D stuff (which can be found here .................) . Maybe someone in the beeb had a kid doing Edexcel G&P. Anyway, they are a little dated but still useful. Thanks to the beeb!

Do elections change anything?
Unit 3/1: The changing UK system by Dr Alys Thomas Former Lecturer in Government at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Glamorgan


The UK has a single-member simple plurality system for elections to Westminster, commonly known as 'first past the post' (FPTP).
Candidates need only to get more votes than any other candidate for victory. Or as Benjamin Disraeli had it: "As for our majority...One is enough". UK elections are fought in single-member constituencies.
Supporters of this system argue that it delivers strong and decisive government, unlike many other European countries where coalition governments are the norm.

This is because FPTP is more likely to produce governments with a majority in the House of Commons. In the last two general elections (1997, 2001) Tony Blair's Labour Party won very large majorities.
In 1992 the Conservatives under John Major were re-elected with a majority of 21, but by the end of the Parliament that majority had disappeared and the Government relied on the support of the Ulster Unionists.
Supporters of FPTP also argue that the system is simple and easy to understand, unlike some proportional electoral systems which do not appear to produce a 'clear winner'.
This also means that the accountability of the government is more transparent.
Having presented its manifesto to the electorate, a party forming a government with a decisive majority can claim a mandate for its programme.
Supporters contrast this with electoral systems which produce coalition governments where elections are sometimes followed by a period of 'horse-trading' between political parties while a programme is agreed.
However, FPTP also has its critics. Because a candidate in a single constituency can win by a small margin (as the Liberal Democrats did in Winchester in 1997 with 2 votes) he or she may actually secure victory with a relatively small percentage of the vote, particularly if the seat is hotly contested between three or even four parties.
Since 1945, most winning parties in general elections have won a proportion of seats higher than the proportion of the popular vote. In 1997 Labour won 63.4% of the seats with just 43.2% of the popular vote.
The concentration of party support can also produce distortion. In 1983 the Liberal-SDP Alliance polled 25.4% and Labour polled 27.6% of the popular vote but the Alliance ended up with just 23 seats to Labour's 209.
This was because Labour's votes were concentrated in its 'heartland' whereas the Alliance vote was thinly spread across the country.
Two party system
The electoral system helps to shape the party system. The UK is commonly described as a 'two party' system because since 1945 only the Labour and Conservative parties have contested elections with a realistic chance of forming a government.
They have tended to alternate in power although the Conservatives enjoyed prolonged periods in power between 1951 and 1964 and 1979 and 1997.
The Liberals were supplanted as the main opposition party by Labour early in the twentieth century but remained as a third party holding a handful of seats. Plaid Cymru and the SNP started to win seats in Wales and Scotland from the 1960s onwards.
A vote for a Liberal Democrat was often seen as a 'wasted vote' because the party would never be in a position to form a government.
However, in 1997 a substantial number of people voted tactically against the Conservatives, that is, people who normally voted Labour voted for the Liberal Democrat candidate if the party was stronger in the constituency. The number of Liberal Democrat seats more than doubled.

© Dr Aly Thomas 2002 School of Humanities and Social Sciences University of Glamorgan
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/2562443.stm
Published: 2003/09/25 15:56:54 GMT
© BBC MMVII

A need for constitutional reform?
Unit 3/2: The changing UK system by Dr Alys Thomas Former Lecturer in Government at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Glamorgan writes for BBC Parliament


The UK's constitution is commonly described as 'unwritten'.
This is not strictly true because although there is no single document such as the US Constitution the UK Constitution is found in Acts of Parliament (statute law), judgements handed down over time in the form of Common Law, an emerging body of European law, authoritative works, such as the classic piece on the English Constitution by Bagehot, and constitutional conventions such as collective responsibility.
In other countries constitutional law is entrenched which means that the constitution cannot be amended without special procedures. Amendment of the US constitution, for example, requires the assent of two-thirds of both Houses of Congress and ratification by three-quarters of the states.
The UK Parliament can amend constitutional law as it would any other law. Supporters of Britain's unique constitutional arrangements argue that it has the advantage of flexibility and has stood the test of time.
Critics
Critics argue that it allows a government with a strong majority to alter the constitution in a partisan way and that elements of the constitution, such as the House of Lords, are anachronistic.
Some people and organisations, such as the pressure group Charter 88 , believe that Britain should have a written constitution.
When the Labour Government was elected in 1997 it was committed to some elements of constitutional reform, notably devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, reform of the House of Lords and a referendum on reforming the voting system.
It also signed the European Convention of Human Rights and introduced a Freedom of Information Act. On the face of it, the Labour Government appeared to be taking constitutional reform forward, particularly as it moved swiftly to implement its devolution proposals in 1997.
However, critics have argued that the constitution as it stands suits the executive branch of government too well and Labour's desire for reform has weakened since it has enjoyed power.
Evidence for this is cited in a number of areas:-

  • House of Lords reform: In 1998 the Lords was made up of 1,272 members (759 hereditary, 461 life peers, 26 law lords and 26 archbishops and bishops). Labour wanted to reform it because the hereditary element was clearly anachronistic in a democratic state on the verge of the 21st century and it had an inbuilt Conservative majority.
In 1999 an Act was passed which abolished hereditary peers apart from 91, who will remain until 'stage two' is complete.
The government has recently announced its intention to create a fully elected Lords. This could challenge the authority of the Commons from which the Prime Minister derives his power.
But without the legitimising factor of election the Lords will remain a weak check and balance on the government and the House of Commons.
  • The Jenkins Commission: An independent body established by the Labour Government to examine the voting system. So far it has recommended the 'AV plus' system, combining the alternative vote for the election of constituency MPs and a second 'top up', list vote to ensure overall proportionality in the Commons.
However, there is no sign that the government intends to hold a referendum on these proposals in the immediate future.
© Dr Alys Thomas 2003 School of Humanities and Social Sciences University of Glamorgan
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/2562495.stm
Published: 2003/09/25 15:57:26 GMT
© BBC MMVII

How united is the UK?
Unit 3/3: The changing UK system by Dr Alys Thomas Former Lecturer in Government at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Glamorgan writes for BBC Parliament

The UK has been described as a unitary state because sovereign authority resides in Parliament at Westminster.
In reality, political arrangements in the UK have always reflected its 'multi-national' character.
Scotland has always had distinct legal and education systems. There has been separate legislation for the Welsh language in Wales and for security issues in Northern Ireland and before devolution all three had territorial government departments and a Secretary of State with a seat in Cabinet.
However, devolution has transferred power from central government in London to bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
UK devolution is characterised by asymmetry. Unlike a federal system, where states or provinces share sovereignty with the centre and have comparable powers with each other, the devolved arrangements in the UK differ sharply between territories.
UK devolution
Scotland - has a Parliament with primary law-making powers. It also has the power to vary the rate of income tax. The assumption in the Scotland Act is that all domestic policy functions have been devolved: the Act states what is reserved to Westminster, notably foreign policy, defence policy and social security.
Wales - has executive devolution. The National Assembly for Wales inherited the powers formerly held by the Secretary of State for Wales and the Welsh Office. It can pass secondary legislation (orders, regulations) but has no primary legislative powers or tax-varying powers. The Welsh Assembly Government still has to rely on England and Wales Bills to enact some of its policies.
The Northern Ireland Assembly was set up as an upshot of the ongoing peace process as part of the Good Friday Agreement. It has some primary legislative powers but no tax-raising powers. It has a power-sharing executive which requires parties elected by both sides of the religious/political divide to work together.
Critics of devolution argue that it made concessions to nationalist sensibilities which present a threat to the unity of the UK. Supporters argue that it was essential to accommodate those sensibilities in order to prevent the UK breaking up.
The part of the UK which remains undevolved is, of course, England which comprises by far the largest part both territorially and in terms of population.
However, the Labour Government has created Regional Development Agencies and appointed Assemblies to scrutinise their work. It has also come forward with proposals for elected Assemblies for the English regions.
These will be subject to demand and referendum so in the short term there is the prospect of some regions, such as the North East, having devolution and others being governed centrally. London already has a directly elected executive Mayor and a 25-member Assembly.
A key question for the future is the extent to which these asymmetrical arrangements are sustainable.
The current assumption seems to be that central government and Parliament will remain unaffected by handing power to devolved bodies.
However, there are already issues about the role of Scottish MPs in Parliament and the pursuit of different policy agendas around the UK.

© Dr Aly Thomas 2003 School of Humanities and Social Sciences University of Glamorgan
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/2562527.stm
Published: 2003/09/25 15:58:02 GMT
© BBC MMVII

EU membership and the political system
Unit 3/4: The Changing UK System by Dr Alys Thomas Former Lecturer in Government at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Glamorgan writes for BBC Parliament


The UK has been described as an "awkward partner" in the European Union (EU).
It was not one of the six signatories of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and eventually joined what was then called the EEC or Common Market in 1973.
UK governments have tended to place emphasis on the economic aspects of European integration whereas other countries have been equally concerned with political integration.
It was a Conservative Government under Margaret Thatcher which signed up to the Single European Act in 1986, aimed at creating a real single market.
However achieving this also required more common policies and more decisions and laws to be made at the European level.
In 1992 the Maastricht Treaty contained far reaching political and economic objectives including the creation of a single currency, a 'social chapter' guaranteeing a minimum standard for working conditions across the EU and the creation of a European Union with common citizenship.
Membership of the European Union is an intrinsic part of the political system in the UK. In some areas, such as agriculture, competition and employment, the UK government must pursue policies that fit into the parameters of EU law.
Critics of closer EU integration argue that membership of the EU undermines the sovereignty of the UK and that there is a democratic deficit because the EU institutions, such as the powerful, yet unelected, European Commission are seen as distant from ordinary people.
Supporters argue that the EU has helped to bring political stability to Europe and that in a global economy it allows the UK to compete with the internal EU market and as a bloc in world markets.
Divisions on Europe
Both main UK political parties have a history of division on the question of EU membership.
It was a Conservative Government under Edward Heath which took the UK in and splits in the succeeding Labour Government led the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, to call a referendum on UK membership.
In the 1980s Labour changed its policy from one advocating withdrawal, and Euroscepticism hardened in the Conservative Party.
In the early 1990s the Major government faced backbench rebellions from Eurosceptic Conservative MPs who opposed the Maastricht Treaty, even though the UK had opted out of the single currency and the Social Chapter.
When Labour were elected in 1997 they signed up to the Social Chapter but the question of joining the single currency (the euro) remains a key political issue.
The Labour Government says that it is in favour of joining the euro in principle but the economic conditions need to be right. The Chancellor, Gordon Brown has set five economic tests. The decision will be subject to a referendum.
The EU has been a divisive issue in the Conservative Party since the late 1980s, triggering Mrs Thatcher's fall from power and casting a shadow over successive leadership elections.
In the 2001 General Election, the Conservatives made a commitment to 'save the pound' a key part of their campaign. However, some Conservatives are in favour of joining and were critical of this tactic.

© Dr Aly Thomas 2003 School of Humanities and Social Sciences University of Glamorgan
Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/2562545.stm
Published: 2003/09/25 15:44:56 GMT
© BBC MMVII

Unit 3 Reading List
Further reading on this topic:
V Bognador, Devolution in the United Kingdom (1999)
I Budge et al, The New British Politics , 2nd edition (2001)
J Dearlove and P Saunders, Introduction to British Politics , 3rd edition(2000)
P Dunleavy, Developments in British Politics 6 , (2000)

P Hennessy, The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing The British Constitution (1996)
A Heywood, Politics , 2nd edition (2002)
B Jones et al, Politics UK , 4th edition, (2001)
J Richardson (ed), European Union: Power and Policy-Making , (2001)
S Weir and D Beetham, Political Power and Democratic Control in Britain (1999)
D Wilson and C Game, Local Government in the UK , 2nd edition (1998)

Story from BBC NEWS:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/programmes/bbc_parliament/2562733.stm

Published: 2003/09/25 15:53:38 GMT

© BBC MMVII