David Cameron's Telegraph column indicates a cynical attempt to rebalance parliament in his favour. Only electoral reform can address the disproportionality.
On the day the Legg report is reverberating around Westminster, David Cameron’s column in today’s Telegraph indicates a cynical attempt to rebalance parliament in the Conservative leadership’s interests.
Cameron writes that he “emphatically” believes electoral reform is not the right thing to do. Instead, he suggest that the route to a “new politics” is:
“cutting the size of the House of Commons and the cost of politics.
“We will call for a ten per cent reduction in the number of MPs. And we will call for a change in the boundary commission with a view to levelling up the size of all our constituencies so that every vote weighs the same.”
The simple fact is that the current electoral system is unfair. In the 2005 election, Labour got 55.1% of MPs on 35.3% of the vote; the Conservatives got 30.7% on 32.3% of the vote; and the Lib Dems got 9.6% on 22.1% of the vote. The prime reason for reform – electoral or boundary – should be to address this disproportionality.
Cutting the number of MPs would do nothing to improve proportionality. During the writing of the Jenkins ‘Commission on the Voting System,’ Dr. David Butler, the eminent psephologist, was asked to convene a group of academics – including Vernon Bogdanor, John Curtice, and Patrick Dunleavy – to consider a series of questions including, “Can deviation from proportionality under the current system be corrected to any significant degree by changing the criteria for redrawing constituency boundaries?” They replied:
“The principal sources of disproportionality have nothing to do with boundary-drawing or the detailed statutory rules which the Boundary Commissioners have to apply. Changes in these rules would do very little to make results more proportional…
“In general, no significant reduction in disproportionality can be expected from further action to improve the workings of FPTP.”
The Butler discussion also looked at ‘bias‘ which has swung from the Conservatives in the 1950s and 1960s to Labour in recent years. They outlined a number of solutions, including “more frequent drawing of boundaries” but concluded that:
“All of these policies would be likely to prove controversial. In any event only a limited net difference could possibly result from pursuing these approaches. They could not cure the disproportionality of the sort experienced by the SNP and the Liberal Democrats.”
More recently, the Independent recently cited new research at the University of Plymouth :
“The geography of each party’s support base is much more important, so changes in the redistribution procedure are unlikely to have a substantial impact and remove the significant disadvantage currently suffered by the Conservative Party.”
Sunder Katwala of the Fabian Society, and a advocate of electoral reform, told Left Foot Forward:
“I think the academic evidence suggests the Cameron tinkering is irrelevant to the real problem, and so looks suspiciously like a partisan gerrymander.
“He has not suggested that he would reduce the size of his front bench team so this looks like an attempt to dilute the power of backbenchers.”
Although dismissing allegations of “gerrymandering,” ‘Confessions of a Political Animal,’ concludes that a 10% cut would be unworkable:
“If this was just going to be the case of giving each of the remaining 585 MPs 10% more constituents, this would probably be do-able. However, as the seats are geographically concentrated, many seats in Wales and other over-represented areas will have to see increases well in excess of that.
“Add to this the fact that low population density is the main justification for most over-represented seats and that in many areas seat mergers will produce vast, sprawling rural seats – and you have an exponential increase in MP’s travel costs to contend with as well (alongside the more important deterioration of service to constituents). From a financial point of view the proposals make little sense, from a representative democracy point of view, they are a step backwards.”
In any case, there is no urgency for a new boundary review, since the last took place in 2007 and they work on an eight to twelve year cycle.
Back to electoral reform, and there is no substance to the claim made by Eric Pickles on Monday, that, “Gordon Brown … now wants to fiddle the electoral system.”
Lewis Baston, of the Electoral Reform Society, was cited in the Guardian on the same day:
“The idea that Labour will gain from AV is probably not correct … They may pick up Lib Dem second preferences but since 2007 votes for other parties have gone up and the Tories are most likely to gain from this. For instance, those who might register their first preference as Ukip are likely to put the Tories as their second preference.
“So, although Labour may get more Lib Dem second preferences, the Tories will probably get more second preferences from other parties. The overall change is actually very small beer.”
Guy Aitchison of Power 2010 told Left Foot Forward:
“At the height of the expenses scandal last year Cameron spoke fine words about giving “power to the powerless”. With the general election in sight and power within his grasp, he has decided to stick to this formula promising vague and cosmetic changes alongside a few populist reforms that will do nothing to address the fundamental imbalances of power in our society.
“Cameron asserts on behalf of the people that they “don’t want a new voting system – they want a new politics.” If he really believed that then he’d let the people decide. Not in the cynical top-down fashion of this government which, at the eleventh hour, hand picked the voting system ministers favour in a cynical bid to wrong-foot the Tories.
“The future of our democracy is far too important to be left to empty gestures such as this – from both sides.
“Although the Alternative Vote is not proportional, and therefore does nothing to ensure the number of seats a party has reflects the share of votes it receives, it does offer voters more choice and is a small step towards a fairer system.”
I’ve extended Guy Aitchison’s quote at his request.
The Electoral Reform Society have just brought out a press release citing more reasons why Cameron is dodging the big question. Chief Executive Dr Ken Ritchie says:
“Every vote should count, and count equally. But this Reluctant Electoral Reformer has his wires crossed. Quite simply a ‘reduce and equalize’ policy would do little to deliver equality under a voting system that ensures some voters are more equal than others. Changing boundaries cannot resolve the fundamental problem of the UK’s diverse geography.”
Willie Sullivan from Vote for Change tells Left Foot Forward:
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“If Cameron is being honest and really concerned that present system disadvantage voters, he is looking in the wrong place. The problem lies not in the size of the Commons but in a voting system systematically disempowers voters. We have a system that hands government’s unrestricted power on as little as 1/3 of the vote. Card carrying Conservatives continue to be badly served by a fickle system, which delivered them 92 fewer seats than Labour in England at the last election, despite a larger slice of the popular vote. It took over 360,000 votes to get a single Tory returned in Scotland, to Labour’s average of 21,000, and 100,000 votes for each of the 3 lonely Tory MPs in Wales. This is not down to boundaries. This is about a crude system that lets winner take all, no matter how slim their lead.”