Wednesday, 12 January 2011

What could be fairer than equally sized constituencies?

The government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill allows for more 'equal' constituencies: no Parliamentary seat bar two will be less than five per cent smaller, or five per cent bigger, in terms of electors than the average. What could be fairer? In recent years the Conservatives have been relatively disadvantaged by the present system - so they ended up nearly seven points ahead of Labour in last year's General Election, but only 49 seats ahead out of 650 in the House of Commons.

Well, quite a lot of things could be fairer actually, for this superficially honest and reformist Bill actually hides a lot of evils. I'll heave a big sigh and list them:

1. The numbers used. The Government is using the number of electors, not residents, to calculate the seats. Many people in Labour-held seats aren't registered to vote or are between registrations given that they represent a less settled/ owner-occupying slice of society. This skews the figures to make Labour constituencies seem even smaller than they are. No allowance at all is made for this 'virtual' representation - as it has been historically from the eighteenth century onwards (notwithstanding the rather disreputable history of that concept, under which members for a whole county were supposed to represent the big cities in that area as well).

2. National anomalies. The major loser in the redistribution will be Wales. Pending the success or otherwise of next year's referendum on extra powers for the Welsh Assembly, Wales relies for almost all its primary legislation on the Westminster Parliament and its MPs there - unlike Scotland, which is essentially governed domestically from Edinburgh. Historically the nations of the United Kingdom have had a rather beefed-up 'say' at Westminster to reflect the fact they are voluntarily part of the Union and their interests and views have to be aired.

3. Traditional identities and boundaries. It might well be the case that the weakening of these historic links and identities may lessen the local and regional standing of MPs, reducing their ability to hold the executive to account. Chunks of Cornwall may have to go in with Devon; a slice of the Isle of Wight will have to be bundled up with the 'mainland'. The Government has recognised this problem by allowing the Western Isles of Scotland, and the Orkneys and Shetland, to keep their MPs. Why not elsewhere?

4. The right of appeal. At the moment the Boundary Commissioners have to take public objections on board, and a Public Inquiry has to be held if they reach a certain pitch. The Bill abolishes the Public Inquiry part of the process, 'speeding it up' but making it less democratic.

5. Party advantage. One of the major problems with this Bill is its naked partisan character. As politics academics at the London School of Economics have pointed out, the major losers will in fact be the Liberal Democrats as a fifth of their MPs' seats are wiped out. As they often depend on the well-known advantage sitting MPs enjoy from loyal or grateful electors, the Conservatives will be the major beneficiaries. A more consensual approach would have been to widen the bounds to all seats being within ten per cent of the average. Alas, that wouldn't give the Conservatives many more seats.

A lot of these problems are nothing new, for First Past the Post inevitably advantages some and hampers others on the basis of where the seats are. Labour 'won' the 1951 General Election in terms of votes, but ended up 25 or seats shy of the Tory position in terms of seats. But no other country in the world has seat redistribution based on such tight criteria. Makes you wonder why we might.


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