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Monday, 26 September 2011

Constituencies are about communities, not maths

I'm blogging a little after the event on the proposed boundary changes for England, which were announced a fortnight ago. The Government's objectives were to reduce the number of MPs by 50, to save £12m; and to equalise the number of voters in each constituency. For some Conservatives, this is their preferred flavour of electoral reform. They complain that it's unfair for the average size of a Labour seat's electorate to be 68,487 compared to 72,418 in the average Conservative seat.

So, the Boundary Commission for England has spent months conducting a wonderful mathematical and cartographical exercise to equalise the constituencies. They took an electoral map of the UK and ch
opped it up so that every constituency is no smaller than 72,810 voters and no larger than 80,473. It's a plan with some serious flaws. Here's my main concern.

It's first past the post that's unfair, not constituency sizes. Before I go down this route, I know that the "Yes to AV" campaign lost in May. But the proposals to equalise constituency sizes run counter to the "No to AV" campaign's own arguments in favour of keeping FPTP that they trotted out just six months ago. It blows their key arguments out of the water, because the supporters of equal sized constituencies recongise the connection between votes in ballot boxes and fair outcomes. It confirms that they recognise the inherent unfairness of FPTP in ignoring the popular vote.

The "No" campaign argued that FPTP should stay because it was simple, all you needed was a clear winner - the winning candidate had to win more votes than his or her competitors in that constituency. If that argument's right, then it shouldn't matter if a candidate wins with 22,000 votes in a constituency with 60,000 electors or 14,000 votes in a constituency with 45,000 electors, because they argued that the beauty of FPTP was to elect MPs in a decisive way, in individual constituencies (not regions) where MPs would have a link with that community.

Arguing for equalising constituency sizes poses the same question that the "Yes" campaigners were asking in the AV referendum, namely that there is something unfair in how the popular vote translates into seats. The "No" campaigners and those in favour of equal sized constituencies both highlight the unfairness of Labour polling 8,609,527 votes at the last election and getting 257 seats and the Tories polling nearly 2 million more votes but getting only 50 more seats for those 2 million votes.

By focusing on the disconnect between votes in ballot boxes and the outcomes, further discrepancies emerge. The injustice, for example, of the Liberal Democrats polling around 2 million fewer votes than Labour, and Labour getting 201 more seats. As advocates of PR would put it, it's unfair and unlikely that voters will feel their vote counts, if 23% of the popular vote translates into only 8% of Parliamentary seats. If that also means the BNP would get MPs, let's have the debate - not have our electoral system cover up their current support.

So the real problem with the Boundary Commission's proposals is that they've been asked to make the system fairer in a system that can only ever deliver unfairness. FPTP isn't able to reflect the value of individual votes, because it is by its very nature not about vote numbers but about winning individual contests. As long as our electoral system focuses on individual constituency results, the wider intricacies of what the wider electorate thought will be ignored. Make constituencies the same size if you like, but it's not going to change the weakness in FPTP that the reformers want to fix - you'll still end up with a disconnect between the popular vote and how it translates into seats won.

So, these are pointless changes - made more pointless by these remaining weaknesses.
  • This is about saving £12 million, right? Personally, I'd rather keep 50 MPs and find savings elsewhere. The NHS, it emerged today, wasted £12 billion, messing up its computerisation. Can we really not save money elsewhere? Is this about saving money or delivering fairer votes? Because the changes don't really do either. In the grand scheme of government spending, this really is peanuts. It's certainly not worth carving up Parliament or our democratic map for.
  • We're emerging from a massive crisis in trust between MPs and the public. Creating a raft of new constituencies, carving up the links between communities, constituencies and MPs, seems to me to risk further alienating the public from their MPs. Orphan wards, seats crossing county boundaries - it might sound petty to oppose those sorts of changes, but consituencies need to be rooted in human connections in connected communities; not rooted in mathematics or cartography.
  • What happens when the number of electors in a constituency changes again? These changes can only ever be a snapshot. Does the Boundary Commission get its map and calculator out again?
  • The constituencies are worked out according to the number of registered voters. What about those who have not registered to vote, are under 18 and cannot vote but are still represented by their MP?
  • These are not small 'c' conservative proposals. Do the benefits of change really outweigh the downsides? If the changes don't pass that test, conservatives - small 'c' or otherwise - should reject them.
  • We had a referendum on AV. I believe these changes represent such a huge change to the democratic links between MPs and communities that they should be approved only by referendum.
I've never responded to a government consultation before. I might just do so with this one, because it feels like a botched policy answer to the wrong question. It risks further alienating voters from their democratic representatives, whilst delivering no fairer system for electing those representatives, in the name of saving very little money indeed.

To have your say, you can respond to the Boundary Commission's consultation here. There are 71 days left.

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