15 March 2010

We Need A Referendum On Tory Boundary Changes

Since the expenses row, the phrase 'hung parliament' doesn't sound so bad. The current hostility to MPs means a lot of the public warm to the imagery that the term conjures up - of MPs literally being strung up.

The current political and economic crises in the run up to the next general election, means we could be heading for dangerous constitutional territory. It is either an amazing opportunity to bring progressive and long overdue reforms, or it could be used for much darker purposes. The Tories have chose the latter.

If David Cameron does become PM in May this year, the Tories are planning an immediate and radical enlargement in the constituency boundaries for the following general election which could follow as soon as the Autumn. They are pretending that this will in some way 'clean up' politics.

The Tories claim that cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 585 will not just save taxpayers money (ignoring the fact that the Tories also quietly support a massive increase in MP salaries) but in some way they claim it will restore confidence in our MPs.

But the main reason MPs are reviled, is not because there are too many of them, but because MPs are remote and unaccountable. They are unaccountable because most voters live in safe seats and the Tories are now the only party that wants to preserve this unaccountable electoral system that means most urban MPs are elected by only around 1 in 5 of their constituents. For urban councillors it is 1 in 10 constituents. Imagine living in a ward where your only council representatives both at borough and county level are BNP (Burnley, Stoke, Dagenham) who 'won' with just 29% of the vote on a 20% turnout - you can soon see how this system helps extremists and could become even more frightening as voters fragment more and more between the parties on offer or give up in frustration at voting at all.

And before someone says the rise of the BNP is all about Labour ignoring its core vote, I refer you to the London Mayor election in 2008 where 78% of BNP voters put the Tories as their second preference. All the evidence points to BNP voters being marginalised, Tory tabloid reading, urban working class Tories, alienated and frustrated by having no effective voice, living in the perpetually safe Labour seats that first-past-the-post foists on them.

Only under our present system does it make sense for the Tory press to foster anti-immigrant feeling amongst the working class as a 'wedge issue' to move working class voters to the right and towards voting Tory with the unpleasant side-effect of also increasing BNP support.

For the Tory press, this is a price worth paying as the current electoral system delivers many more Tory seats than BNP simply because only the largest party in an area win seats. So to the Tory press it doesn't matter too much that for every working class Tory they create they also create a working class BNP voter - as long as only the largest party gets seats - only the increase in Tory C2 voters will matter and it only matters in the marginals not the safish Labour urban seats. But even the Tory press does not want the BNP to actually win seats and a more proportional system would mean the Tories would have to find more positive ways to win votes otherwise the side-effect of a large minority of BNP votes would translate into BNP seats. Without the Tory tabloids pushing racist and anti-immigrant sentiment the BNP vote would collapse.

If there ever was a justification for our present first-past-the-post system, it was when there were two 'mass parties' with huge memberships hoovering up the vast majority of the votes, like the Labour and Tory parties did in the 1950s. Those days are long gone and will not return, because people want a bigger choice. Labour and Tory combined shares of the vote have dropped from well over 90% in the 1950s to around 65% today. As this continues to fall we will get more and more perverse results. A party 'winning' a general election with 35% of the vote and just 22% of potential voters giving them an absolute majority of 55% of the seats as Labour got in 2005 and the Tories might get in 2010, might begin to look nostalgic as we continue to get a 'one party' state on less and less votes in the future. We are not far away from a main party winning absolute power on 29% or even lower. There is no limit to how undemocratic first-past-the-post can go.

And the Tory proposals will not make MPs less remote either. In 1945 there were 635 MPs representing roughly 50,000 constituents each, now there are 646 representing around 65,000 constituents each. The Tories proposals will mean each MP has nearly 80,000 constituents. Rather than make MPs less remote, this is bound to increase the distance between MP and voter.

Of course it will also make a mockery of the so called 'constituency link' that supporters of the present system claim is so relevant. For example, in May Caroline Lucas is likely to become the first Green MP by winning in Brighton Pavilion only to find that she loses the seat in August for no other reason than the seat has been enlarged to be called something like Brighton & Arundel and include a swath of rural Tory voters who were previously outside the Brighton Pavilion boundaries.

Unlike the referendum Labour are proposing for the modest change of the system to the Alternative Vote (which leaves boundaries unchanged and simply means voters ranking candidates 1,2,3 rather than marking one candidate with an X), the Tories more significant change to the boundaries will happen without consulting us at all.

To enlarge the boundaries the Tories are proposing ignoring county, administrative and even geographic boundaries. The larger boundaries will also make it more difficult to maintain stable constituency numbers between seats - so will need more frequent reviews. This will make a mockery of the so called 'constituency link' - the voter will find that the MP they wanted to unseat has moved somewhere else after just one term. This is a big issue that will probably get little or no coverage in the coming general election. Yet it is a massive constitutional gerrymander that the Tories are proposing. We cannot let the Tories smuggle this massive change in under the radar. Hopefully the Tories will fail to get their majority otherwise we need to demand a referendum on this vicious Tory erosion of our democracy.

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