28 May 2012

The Parliamentary Voting System & Constituencies Act

The Lib Dems expected to get the Alternative Vote (which can help elect new MPs in seats where over 50% of voters oppose an incumbent but are split between the alternatives). And the Tories would get enlarged boundaries (adding more rural votes to urban seats) to help elect more Tory MPs. That was the deal.

Thanks to the inept Yes campaign and aggressive misinformation of the Tory led No campaign (overwhelmingly backed by the media), the referendum was lost and the Lib Dems got nothing.

I think it is difficult to claim the AV referendum was fair when the promised literature to 'every household' from the Electoral Commission didn't happen. Most voters got nothing from the Commission (surely there should have been a legal challenge about this?) Personally, I wouldn't trust them to organise a piss up in a brewery after this debacle. The SNP are brave trusting them with their independence referendum.

Also, with the inexplicable decision of the Yes campaign not to use their free mailshot, the only information most voters received was from the No campaign, either through two mailshots or propaganda in the overwhelmingly hostile press.

Not surprising that most voters hadn't a clue what they were voting for. Here was a clear chance to educate millions on how different voting systems allocate power in wildly different ways, and the opportunity was completely missed and/or sabotaged.

Short of real information, voters resorted to party lines, and the Noes made better use of their prominent Labour politicians than the Yeses did.

The Labour vote was key and the half hearted support at the top of the party was never going to beat the focussed half of the party led by prominent right-wing Labour MPs campaigning hard for a No vote just to save their own skins from left of centre competition. Self preservation is a powerful incentive even if it meant tribal Labour siding with the Tories.

Most Lib Dems are still understandably bitter about the underhand and dirty No campaign of the Tories and their cohort right-wing Labour MPs.

Another promise of constitutional change (this time on the Lords), now seems hollow. They want something concrete to show for their 80 year wait for power and who can blame them? Their only bargaining chip they have left is the boundary changes.

Let us not forget that AV supporters were at various times accused of being money wasting, baby killing, racist, commie extremists supporting MPs who were middle of the road, third placed Lib Dems elected by a ridiculously expensive system that no-one understands.

As incoherent as this illogical strategy sounds, in the absence of more impartial information and delivered with utmost ruthless efficiency by the No team, each constituency of voter picked up the bit that frightened them most and the truth was defeated.

It is hard to imagine how any referendum can be fair with the present press bias we have. Come to think of it the same applies to elections.

And don't give me the line that the press don't matter. Organisations spend billions every year on advertising and PR. What the rich and powerful Tories get is free PR worth tens of billions. As Jack Straw says, of course it makes a difference! It is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

So, it is absolutely essential that the Lib Dems either stop the boundary enlargement or get something on the Lords in return.

The number of MPs will fall to 600 from 650. The new boundaries will average around 76,000 registered constituents and vary no more than approximately 4,000 electors either side of this average (5 seats excepted). And will be reviewed before every election (5 years).

The old boundaries averaged around 70,000 registered constituents with most seats within 10,000 electors of this. Reviewed every 8-12 years.

Seemingly, this doesn't sound much of a change. But the implications of this are massive - constant upheaval for voters, no respect for local authority (or even county) boundaries, geographical anomolies, community links broken and MPs even more remote and unaccountable. Fewer backbenchers will also mean weakened parliamentary scrutiny of bills.

But even more than this, this partizan change allows for more gerrymandering as Labour MPs in low registering urban seats find their voting age population will be far higher than the high registering Tory rural seats.

Boundaries are drawn on the electoral register numbers, not on how many voter age eligible adults actually live there.

If people fail to register they not only lose their vote but they enlarge their constituency. This is a particular problem in Labour voting areas which have more younger adults, more students and more poor people in rented accommodation who move more often and can easily be missed.

This will be even more of a problem in 2020 when the administrative nightmare of individual voter registration comes in and disenfranchises 10 million potential voters (as opposed to the estimated 3.5 million who currently fail to register).

All in all. The argument for this boundary change is that the Tories with 36% of the vote 'only' got 47% of the seats in 2010. Whereas Labour won a majority (55%) of seats with just 35% in 2005.

Obviously both these results are undemocratic and the real culprit is the voting system not the boundaries.

But rather than tackling the injustice of the Lib Dems getting just 9% of seats for their 23% voteshare or the fact that 10% of voters who voted against the three main parties in England have just 1 MP to show for it, it is the Tories who will benefit from boundaries that mean they get more seats from less votes.

Neither is this a 'Celtic' problem. A lot of right-wing noise has been generated suggesting Scotland and Wales have too many MPs. But in fact this is negligible.

Currently England has 83% of registered voters and is allocated 82% of the seats. After these Tory changes England will get 84% of the seats. So a move from 1% under-represented to 1% over-represented. Hardly earth shattering or for that matter more democratic.

No, the real prize for the Tories will be in slicing up urban seats in England and carefully adding more rural voters to tip the balance in their favour in many of these seats.

There is also a shift from North to South in the seat allocation. So expect even more Londonocentric policies. Already 34% of Tory MPs are in London & South East constituencies when these regions are only 24% of the UK electorate.

The Lib Dems should think very carefully before giving this boundary prize to the Tories. It will decimate the already thin constituency link which local Lib Dem MPs rely on. With their polling so low and constituencies so malleble in future it will be even harder for smaller parties to build local constituency votes. The Lib Dems are predicted to be big losers from this. They help the Tories at their and democracys peril.

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