17 February 2014

Labour needs a policy on boundary changes that stops the march towards gerrymandering

In the US, the incumbent party in each state gets a once in a decade chance to draw the congressional boundaries. Sophisticated computer programs are designed that manipulate boundaries to maximise seats for the party in control. Boundaries are drawn that can significantly skew results. Keeping parties in power even with less votes than their opponents.

Aside from this the Republican party in particular have become experts in voter suppression - finding more & more ways to remove targeted groups from electoral rolls.

All in all. Not a healthy situation for a so called democracy to be in.

Thankfully the UK is in a better position, but, we are moving in the US direction.

Like in the US, the UK uses a system for electing its national parliament where the drawing of constituency boundaries can have a bigger impact on the result than the actual votes cast.

For example, it is estimated that about half of Tony Blair's majorities in his three election wins were down to the favourable boundary review in the 1990s done under John Major's Conservative government.

This Coalition government have introduced measures that are going to impact significantly on the democratic process.

The most important will come in June this year - Individual Electoral Registration (IER). It is predicted that the move from household to individual registration could reduce UK rolls by 10%, removing 4.5m people across the UK. A 10% reduction is the experience from N.Ireland where it is already in place.

Initially around 10m people will be removed from the electoral roll. Those with incorrect address details with the DWP will not be automatically added to the register. These geographically mobile people - mainly young, urban and poor will (for the first time) have to provide proof of ID to re-register.

I am assured that the main impact of these changes will not affect the register until after the 2015 general election. So the impact will be most felt at the 2020 general election. So there is time for a Labour government to find a better way.

IER will not only remove millions of potential voters from the rolls, the new boundaries due to come in by 2018 will be drawn using these incomplete rolls. These boundary reviews are where the real impact will be felt because ignoring unregistered electors will make urban constituencies bigger than they should be devaluing all urban votes.

By drawing boundaries that ignore the unregistered, the current unregistered who vote in future, along with regular voters, will find their votes are devalued even before they get to the polling booth.

Which brings me on to the second significant change made by this government.

The coverage of the boundary vote in parliament by the UK media will have implanted the idea in most people's minds that the only unfairness in our current boundary based system are unequal sizes of electorates between constituencies. In fact this is probably the least significant factor in causing bias in our system.

David Cameron and a lot of other Tories have spoken of "equalising constituency electorates". And have made hay on the fact that this "fairness" has been blocked by the Lib Dems and Labour.

The current situation is that the vast majority of seats (over 90%) vary between 65,000 and 79,000 constituents. A handful of exceptional cases vary by far more e.g Western Isles 22,000, Isle of Wight 110,000.

Labour win seats with an average of around 68,000 registered electors in them, the Tories around 72,000. It is this "bias" the Tories are complaining about.

The Tories' proposal is to "equalise" to a variation of 2.5% around the mean of new bigger constituencies (73,000-77,000). Reducing the number of constituencies makes urban & suburban seats bigger & more rural. There will still be a handful of exceptional sized constituencies mentioned earlier which are exempted under the legislation. So the huge differences between these mainly rural constituencies will remain.

Drawing constituency boundaries is a difficult enough task even with a 10% variation. With 2.5% it becomes impossible to avoid breaking up communities, taking a bit of one town and a bit of another, crossing rivers and valleys, islands and mainland, slicing across council boundaries and having more frequent changes to counteract population movement, mainly "suburban drift".

These changes make accountability a joke as large numbers of voters find their MP has changed even before they get to vote, and there is little cohesion between local and national elections and the communities they serve.

Unlike in the US, an attempt is made in the UK to draw boundaries fairly with regard to all the conflicting considerations mentioned above.

The task falls to the four boundary commisions, one for each country of the UK. Of course they are heavily influenced by the main political parties - Labour and Conservative, in their decisions. And legislative guidelines can also heavily restrict their ability to be impartial.

One of the reasons the current boundaries are seen to favour Labour is that the last time a review was done in England in the mid 1990s, the incumbent Conservatives shored up their safe seats at the expense of their marginals. Labour were more than happy to accept these boundaries. which "concentrated" more of their vote in marginal seats and less votes in seats they couldn't win or in seats they win easily. The Tories did the opposite, moving more of their voters into seats they win comfortably anyway.

In the knowledge that they were heading for a heavy defeat, the highest ranking Conservative MPs, holed up in safe to fairly safe seats valued their own re-election above maximising the number of MPs for their party.

After 17 years without a majority and the prospect of many more lean years, the Tories have learnt the lesson of this individualist approach and have now adopted (ironically) a collectivist strategy to boundary reviews.

But even if the boundaries are drawn completely impartially, it is impossible to draw them without bias, especially bias against smaller or non geographically concentrated parties. Which brings me to why the current constituency electorate variations are a red herring.

Geographical concentration of votes (just enough votes in winnable seats and few in others) and what is called "differential turnout' (61% turnout in Labour seats, 68% Tory) are far more important. In fact an LSE study suggests over 80% of the "bias" is accounted for in these ways. So, at best the Tory "equalisation" will only address 20% of their "problem".

Another point to mention is that boundaries are drawn by numbers of REGISTERED voters in a seat, not by the actual "voting age population" which should be the real guideline.

Low turnout seats also have disproportionately high numbers of eligible but unregistered electors. So to compare just the number of registered voters in each constituency underplays the numbers of eligible voters in Labour constituencies.

By voting age population, the differences in constituency numbers actually FAVOURS the Conservatives the most. Urban constituencies average 102,000 population, rural 94,000. Tory seats are more rural, so their MPs already represent smaller populations than Labour.

Another factor is double registration of people in second homes and of students. These double registrations are largely in more wealthy rural Conservative seats so overestimate the numbers in these seats giving an impression these seats are bigger than they actually are.

Nationally the Tories got 47% of the seats from a 36% voteshare in 2010 but deem this unfair because Labour would do even better with such a voteshare.

The real solution to the manifold injustices of a boundary based voting system is to move to a proportional system where national voteshare is more important than drawing boundaries on a map. But that is not a solution favoured by either of the "big two" parties for obvious reasons.

They both do very well out of the present system, the only disagreement is over the share of these unjust spoils. Both parties receive a higher percentage of seats than their percentage of votes would manage under a proportional system and this is at the expense of the other parties.

Defenders of the present system defend geographical boundaries because each MP is directly accountable to electors in their constituency. Yet every Tory boundary reform proposed will reduce this accountable "constituency link" from bigger unwieldy constituencies to frequent boundary changes, reduced registration to unfathomable boundaries based on strict numbers.

Failing a more proportional system, Labour need to offer fairer boundaries. Stable boundaries sized by voting age population eligibility & complimentary with local council boundaries etc. Tory proposals will diminish democracy.

1 comment:

  1. I took a small straw poll of a few of the many second home owners in my rural community. Predominantly they have a flat in a city where they work and a rural home. Get this: they tend to be voters and their whole family chooses which constituency to register in tactically. Digging deep into such issues is critical.