Thursday, 12 July 2012

Boundary reform: not much of a big bang

 One rather esoteric element of the current stand-off about House of Lords reforms fascinates academics and political anoraks.

It's boundary reform - which the Liberal Democrats have been threatening to block if they don't get their way on changes to the upper chamber.

The Conservatives are desperate to secure these changes. They think that they are disadvantaged by an electoral system that means that they have to secure something like a nine-point lead over Labour to gain an overall working majority in the House of Commons. Clearly that's very unlikely any time soon, and they don't want to go on relying on the Liberal Democrats forever - especially since the smaller coalition party looks likely to lose many of its seats in the next General Election.

The reasoning goes like this. Very gradually, most of Britain's cities are emptying out, meaning that the seats in city centres (usually Labour-held) contain fewer and fewer voters. In the past, the Electoral Commission hasn't been able to keep pace with these changes, and therefore it takes far fewer votes to win a Labour-leaning urban seat than a suburban or rural Conservative one.

But hold your horses. More sophisticated analysis shows that this isn't the main reason for the electoral 'bias' in our system. Turnout is low in urban seats, meaning that fewer votes are needed among voters who would probably come out and put a cross next to a Labour candidate anyway. Tactical voting is low, because many of these seats (for instance in northern English and Scottish cities) are very safe. And some areas of the country are over-represented for historic reasons (Wales, for instance) - something that the new system is supposed to lessen, but not bring to an end.

So the real effect of electoral 'reform' for the Commons, speeding up the process and lessening the number of seats? Well, if you watch this video by Plymouth University academic Michael Thrasher, very little indeed. Maybe just a few seats. At the cost, as Nottingham Politics academics have recently pointed out, of fracturing historic seats, especially in urban areas, crossing borough and even county lines, and weakening the link between MPs and people that Conservatives always say they care so much about. If you've got a subscription to a journals service, you can read the whole paper here.

The very feeling of community on which the 'Big Society' (remember that?) is supposed to rest is under threat, without wresting power away from political parties in an overly-hasty and confused rush to draw new lines on the map.

There's a little-understood payoff to all this. If the Lib Dems are only holding a spud gun to his head, why shouldn't David Cameron go to the country earlier than May 2015? Assume that, under the Fixed Term Parliament Act, Labour will also vote for a poll to avoid appearing frightened of a contest. It's possible. It's often thought that the Prime Minister is holding on, waiting for the new boundaries. But what if they won't really avail him anyway? What's really to stop him pulling the rug out from his Lib Dem 'partners'?

At the moment, the conventional wisdom is that this can't happen because of the overriding political and economic need for deficit reduction, and the need for our leaders to look statesmanlike rather than like a bunch of squabbling schoolchildren. It's a view well put by Danny Finkelstein on Newsnight last night.

But what if that's wrong? It was devolution that brought down James Callaghan in 1979, not the Winter of Discontent. It was Irish Home Rule that broke up the Gladstonian Liberal Party, not levels of taxation .

Watch this space.