13 May 2010

Why Constituency Boundaries Are As Important As Electoral Reform

This is in reply to this excellent post here by peezedtee.

PZT: Very good post. It seems incredible today to think Tories were so pro-PR in the 70s, there are virtually none today.

Kellner's anaylsis is good, there are two problems with FPTP for the Tories.

The first is the minor problem of surburban drift where Tory constituency size grows between boundary reviews. Tory constituencies tend to have a few thousand extra constituents. A big thing is made of this and 'equalising constituencies' by the Tories, as if this will solve their problem but in fact it will make less than half a dozen seats difference to the result (as demonstrated by the recent big boundary changes in their favour which only garnered them 10 or so seats).

The second and much bigger problem for the Tories is the concentration of their vote in the South of England, and in suburban and rural areas.

They plan to address this by increasing the constituency size under the populist guise of 'reducing the cost of politics', i.e. cutting the number of MPs. They propose a 10% reduction from 650 to 585. This will help them in the short term, well at least to some extent, because the massive change in boundaries this will require will obliterate any current personal votes and make it much more difficult for smaller parties to establish themselves. The rise of the Greens in Brighton shows how under the current size it is still possible for small national parties to reach out and knock on doors. The loss by the excellent independent Dr Taylor in Wyre Forest shows it is still nigh on impossible for independents even when highly regarded. No independents won a seat in GB this election, despite the expenses scandal. The closeness of the election and the classic first-past-the-post squeeze means people felt compelled to vote tactically for the two big parties, which probably also explains the Lib Dems vote disintegrating.

Anyway I digress. Like I say, this will only help the Tories a bit in the short term (unless they plan continual massive changes in boundaries which rather undermines their claim of FPTP being good because of the 'constituency link') because larger constituencies will mean they can water down Labour urban strength with more rural and surburban areas creating more marginals and less ultra safe Tory seats.

Another factor that makes this particular attractive for them is whats called 'differential turnout'. Because Labour urban seats tend to have lower turnout, Labour can win seats with less votes than the Tories pile up in the shires, this means just a 10% enlargement of a lot of fringe urban seats will deliver a marginal win to the Tories (in the South at least).

Enlarging boundaries always improves gerrymandering possibilities. In the states the seats for Congress are 5 times the size of ours and this leads to entrenched safe seats with very little change from election to election - this suits the elite fine (of course in the US the winning party is allowed to use computer programs to maximise their strength in drawing boundaries. Over here we at least pretend to be more impartial with an 'independent' boundary commission quango. In practise this commission follows strict guidelines from the governing powers which maximise Labour and Tory strength at expense of others. I suspect this time the Lib Dems will want a piece of the action in setting boundaries under this new government).

If you look at local government elections here, obviously ward size is usually a seventh of constituency size and consequently you get a much more proportional result - the Tories have 40% of 22,000 councillors in England and Wales on about 40% of the vote, ditto for Labour and Lib Dems with about 25% each.

But the enlargement of boundaries will do nothing to address the Tories' weakness in regional areas like in Scotland, Wales and Northern England. There is only so long they can manage without these regions as it obviously places pressure for them to win enormously well in the South. Over time first-past-the-post is certain to exacerbate regional divides. In particular regional monopolies on local government is very bad for democracy.

Anyway, to conclude, I wonder what Kellner would make of this gerrymandering? The people have never been properly consulted over boundary size. Who for instance determines 3 councillors per ward - this almost lends itself to STV rather than the silly situation of a party winning all the seats in a ward on a minority of the vote. I think consultation on boundaries is just as important as consultation on the electoral system. The Lib Dems have got to win a referendum in the face of a hostile media and maybe both of the big parties opposed to change the voting system, whereas the Tories plan to enlarge and massively change boundaries without any consultation. This will mean the probable loss of Green MP Carline Lucas and other minor parties for instance and make MPs much more remote from their constituents at a time when people are already disengaged. It will take time for these parties to re-establish, including perhaps the Lib Dems to re-establish themselves. This gerrymander will definitely put back reform, but in the long term the Tories are only putting off the inevitable. It might be better for them to embrace change they can live with than for a future Labour coalition to deliver change they can't live with. If the Tories can only get 36% of the vote in these unpopular times for Labour, I can't see how they will try and justify majority government on even less than the vote than this which seems increasingly their fate. Neverless, the Tory guile never ceases to amaze me, so I am sure they will try.

2 comments:

  1. "Over here we at least pretend to be more impartial with an 'independent' boundary commission quango. In practise this commission follows strict guidelines from the governing powers which maximise Labour and Tory strength at expense of others."

    You are quite incorrect on this. There are 4 parliamentary boundary commissions for each country in the UK. Each has a high court judge as the Deputy Chairman (Mr Speaker is the nominal Chairman of each) and Commissioners who are totally independent having no political links whatsoever. Parliament have set a series of "Rules" for the boundary review process and each Commission has the discretion on how those rules are applied in each country. Parity of electors in each constituency is the objective.

    E H Lewis

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  2. Mr Lewis: Thanks for responding - I did indeed know that there are 4 boundary commissions - I was simplifying somewhat but the 'Rules' are in effect what decides the boundaries and any objections or suggestions are usually by local parties dominated by the big two. The aim of the commission may be to achieve parity of electors - I do not dispute that, but there are many different ways to achieve this and it is in any case irrelevant to the gerrymandering that I am talking about. Finally you suggest that the commissions are made up of 'commissioners who are totally independent having no political links whatsoever'. If you believe that is even possible you are very naive indeed.

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