Electoral reformers should oppose the coalition’s gerrymandering

AV is a superior electoral system to first-past-the-post and should be supported in a referendum. But electoral reformers should oppose the coalition's gerrymandering

The Alternative Vote is a superior electoral system to first-past-the-post and should be supported if there is a referendum. But the coalition’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill also contains clauses that would herald unfair boundary reforms. To accompany Next Left‘s examination of the politics behind the move, Left Foot Forward looks at the main arguments against the boundary reform process.

1. The Bill prevents equal representation

While everyone accepts the principled case for equal-sized seats, time must be taken to ensure that the equalisation is of those entitled to vote rather than those already registered to vote.

In 2005 the Electoral Commission estimated that 3.5 million eligible voters were missing from the electoral roll in England and Wales alone. But that was based on five-year-old figures. More recent estimates suggest the figure for the UK today is closer to 6 million. According to an Electoral Commission investigation published in March this year, “under-registration is notably higher than average among 17-24 year olds (56 per cent not registered), private sector tenants (49%) and black and minority ethnic British residents (31%)”, finding that:

“The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation.”

As John Costello, writing for this blog, wrote:

“By failing to factor them into his arithmetical review of constituency boundaries, Mr Clegg will be distorting the electoral map of Britain for good, and diluting the representation of people from poorer social groups in the process.”

A proper registration drive must take place before boundaries are redrawn.

2. The Bill gives the Liberal Democrats a partisan advantage

Two parliamentary seats – the Western Isles (SNP) and Orkney and Shetland Islands (Lib Dem) – have been exempted from the need to meet new quotas because of their low population density.

But as John Costello has outlined:

“in practice other seats are spared by special “geographical exemptions” that appear to have been devised with Lib Dem seats in the Scottish Highlands in mind. The Bill states that no seat can be enlarged beyond 13,000 square kilometres. Alongside that, tucked away in Schedule 2, Rule 4(2), is a previously unmentioned exemption that, in addition to the 13,000 sq km limit, constituencies larger than 12,000 sq km are freed from the need to hit the quota of registered electors.”

Seats that will be spared from being broken up include the Liberal Democrat constituencies of Ross, Skye and Lochaber; Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross; and Argyll and Bute.

Completing the boundary changes by 2013 will also lock the public out of deliberations. So much for “[handing] power back to the people” as Nick Clegg claimed in his first speech as Deputy Prime Minister.

3. The Bill does not correct distortions in the electoral system

On the Today programme this morning, Evan Davies asked Jack Straw about the disproportionality in the system which meant the Conservatives needed a large lead in votes in order to form a majority. The 1998 Jenkins ‘Commission on the Voting System’ looked at the issue of ‘bias’ and described it as one of the defects of First-Past-The-Post but described it as “very difficult if not impossible to correct”. Meanwhile, 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.”

More recently, the Independent cited new research at the University of Plymouth which set out why the changes would not correct the problems with the current electoral system:

“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.”

4. A smaller House of Commons will be be less representative

As Sunder Katwala has outlined on Next Left, “a smaller Commons will almost certainly delay and slow down progress towards gender equality in the House of Commons.”

Katwala explains that since 232 new MPs were elected in 2010, the reduction in the size of the House makes it extremely likely that the new intake in 2015 will be “one of the smallest in recent political history”. This will have a knock on effect since, “new cohorts of entries to the House of Commons are very likely to be more equal than the House as a whole in terms of both gender and ethnicity.”


The Spectator‘s David Blackburn has some advice for David Cameron today suggesting that he should, “Detach the boundaries changes clauses from the AV bill, and then re-introduce them in a separate bill.”

This is a good idea as it would mean that Labour MPs could heartily support the AV bill while continuing a principled opposition to the proposed boundary changes. Reformers should encourage the Coalition to do just that.

UPDATE 10.13

David Cameron this morning accused Labour of “complete and utter opportunism” on the Parliamentary Voting Bill. The wording of Labour’s amendment makes it clear that this is not the case:

“That this House, whilst affirming its belief that there should be a referendum on moving to the Alternative Vote system for elections to the House of Commons, declines to give a Second Reading to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill because it combines that objective with entirely unrelated provisions designed to gerrymander constituencies by imposing a top-down, hasty and undemocratic review of boundaries, the effect of which would be to exclude millions of eligible but unregistered voters from the calculation of the electoral average and to deprive local communities of their long established right to trigger open and transparent public inquiries into the recommendations of a Boundary Commission, thereby destroying a bi-partisan system of drawing boundaries which has been the envy of countries across the world; and is strongly of the opinion that the publication of such a Bill should have been preceded by a full process of pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill.”

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86 Responses to “Electoral reformers should oppose the coalition’s gerrymandering”

  1. John Bracewell

    Unregistered voters are not interested, give them a deadline to register, if they do not, then create boundaries accordingly. Labour’s opposition to reduction of number of seats to 600 and then be roughly equal sized is down to self interest. They did nothing for 13 years in government to correct the bias in our electoral system because it was in their favour. Now they start moaning. A situation of 36% of votes giving 1 party a majority of 60+ seats and then makes another party 20 seats short of a majority is a biased system. The AV referendum and the equal sized constituencies will go through on Coalition votes, get used to being in Opposition.

  2. beltain

    Can't disagree “@jreynoldsMP: Clegg has betrayed every electoral reformer by combining reform with gerrymandering – http://bit.ly/dd5YGW”

  3. Sam Browse

    RT @leftfootfwd: Electoral reformers should oppose the coalition's gerrymandering http://bit.ly/dd5YGW

  4. Adam White

    RT @jreynoldsMP: Clegg has betrayed every electoral reformer by combining reform with gerrymandering – http://bit.ly/dd5YGW > damn right!

  5. Lozza

    No need to sound so smug – there will come a time when people will be saying this lot have been in power for long enough. And you will be defeated with another record breaking swing. Something this chimera government could only dream of securing.

  6. Tom King

    RT @theday2day: RT @jreynoldsMP: Clegg has betrayed every electoral reformer by combining reform with gerrymandering – http://bit.ly/dd5YGW > damn right!

  7. Pascal Jacquemain

    http://bit.ly/cPXImX Would I be represented in parliament only if there was a French atheit male MP of Jewish origin with IT experience?

  8. Chris

    @John Bracewell

    Did you read the article? It is an inherent weakness of FPTP that it won’t give the same number of seats for the same voter share as it is not a proportional system. You’ve just puked up the ill informed arguments that the Cleggron are basing this entire gerrymandering exercise on, why bother commenting if your not going to read the article.

  9. Joseph Finlay

    Good article. It would indeed to preferable if the boundary commission worked from the number of adults in each area rather than from the electoral register. The post doesn’t talk about the proposed reduction in the number of MPs, which is also advantageous to the Conservatives. It claims to be a cost-cutting measure, yet will be cancelled out by the increase in the House of Lords.

  10. Andrew Biden

    RT @JohnPrescott: Good analysis RT @leftfootfwd: Electoral reformers should oppose coalition's gerrymandering http://bit.ly/dd5YGW

  11. Rob

    The Bill also calls for 5-yearly boundary revisions, so it’s likely each election (if the fixed-term proposals hold) will be held on the basis of new constituencies. Doesn’t sound like entrenching a particular party domination to me.

    And the geographic limits come into play after the reduction in the number of seats, so it’s silly to say that Charlie Kennedy’s seat is protected; who knows how the Scottish seats would be distributed? But representing people in a huge constituency must be more difficult than a compact city seat.

    Of course, as Jack Straw conceded this morning, these issues only – but inevitably – arise in single-member seat systems; moving to STV would cure these ills, if not all others!

  12. Mike

    so if equal size how come Charles Kennedy (Lib dem) seat doesnt get carved up

    because opt out for Coalition favoured candidates


    The Lib Dems are well atruley in a hole thats why Camerton is sweaking all the way from India

    he knows Tory back benchers will back Labour

    certainly wont be in May next year

    Lib Dems in power making cuts and no AV

    still few percent to go before they hit single figures

  13. election time

    bit more labour self interest here, methinks.

  14. Quarrenne

    RT @theday2day: RT @jreynoldsMP: Clegg has betrayed every electoral reformer by combining reform with gerrymandering – http://bit.ly/dd5YGW > damn right!

  15. vikz

    Reading: "Electoral reformers should oppose the coalition's gerrymandering | Left Foot Forward" ( http://bit.ly/95Z62R )

  16. Andy holmes

    1/ Reviews have always been done on the basis of the Electoral register. The desire for a “registration drive”, doesn’t have to delay the bill. Also John Costello is wrong about “distorting the electoral map for good”, as the bill includes a review in each, full parliamentary term, so any distortion can easily be corrected. If the Labour party feels their are unfairly dissadvantaged by a lack of registration, there is nothing to stop them doing something about it. I would imagine that the reason they haven’t, after 13 years in power, is that it’s not really an issue.

    2/I don’t know how anyone can complain about changes favouring the Lib Dems, considering the appauling way Lib Dem voters are treated by our voting system

    3/ If the bill doesn’t redress Labour’s in built advantage, why are they opposing it ?

    4/ The lack of representation in the House of Commons, is primarily down to the selection of candidates by local parties. Maintaining parliament at it’s current size, or even enlarging it, just to improve the “representative balance”, without addressing the root cause, is no solution.

  17. Phil Whittaker

    RT @johnprescott: Good analysis RT @leftfootfwd: Electoral reformers should oppose coalition's gerrymandering http://bit.ly/dd5YGW

  18. Richard K Hornsey

    RT @BevaniteEllie: RT @johnprescott: Good analysis RT @leftfootfwd: Electoral reformers should oppose coalition's gerrymandering http://bit.ly/dd5YGW

  19. Celtic warnings over AV poll date | Left Foot Forward

    […] controversy about the Government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill rumbling on, […]

  20. Rachel Hardy

    Electoral reformers should oppose the coalition's gerrymandering | Left Foot Forward http://goo.gl/9Br6

  21. We can reach the moon, but you can’t vote on weekends. | The Young Fabians Blog

    […] at Left Foot Forward, Will Straw has highlighted the issues MPs are currently debating given the content of the Government’s […]

  22. Sean

    Demos think Tank for the highest bidder

  23. Mr. Sensible

    Will completely agree with this.

    I have to admit that point 4 I had not considered. I don’t know everything, you know.

    And on the point of cutting the number of MPs, Nick Clegg is not telling the truth when he talks about ‘cutting the cost of politics’. Someone mentioned the increased peers the coalition is looking to create, and also those MPs who are left will have a larger workload. i read in the news earlier this week how some MPs had resorting to sleeping in their offices, which to me shows how hard certainly most work. Therefore, if we cut the number of MPs, we would increase the workload of the remainder, and in time there would be a clammer to give them more allowances, for example more staff.

  24. Mike Underwood

    Indeed. RT @johnprescott: Good analysis RT @leftfootfwd: Electoral reformers should oppose coalition's gerrymandering http://bit.ly/dd5YGW

  25. Alan Lockey

    I have to say, I disagree. I think we should vote yes to the referendum. My reasons are almost entirely what I’d call ‘dark-arts,’ or strategical.

    The gerrymandering is a genuine issue. It’s not made up, I accept. But I suspect opposition is far more motivated by spite towards the Lib Dems. Most of the PLP would love to see proportionality thwarted for a generation purely to hurt them. My personal preference is for AV+. But I don’t want this government to introduce it, I want it introduced by a Labour government. It is vital that Nick Clegg is not seen to be delivering on anything or the Lib Dems come anywhere near to grabbing the mantle of reform. So I want this AV bill to crash and burn. But ideally – for the same reason – I don’t want us to have our fingerprints on the trigger. Leave that the Tories, they’re more than capable. Also, there is real strategic value on backing the referendum for the disunity it’ll cause in the coaliton – they have to campaign for different responses, how the FUCK is that going to work? As it is, the Tories will be whipped pretty hard into voting for a referendum – Cam will off record sweeten it as the chance to destroy proportionality for a generation with the added bonus that they’ll almost certainly win the ref. So our opposition is pointless. The public won’t swallow the gerrymandering line – we’ll look opportunistic.

    All these strategical benefits seem to me far more important. The gerrymandering is frustrating, but its not the collateral damage it does to us our ‘progressive’ image.

    If it was AV+ I’d put aside such strategical concerns, but to be honest AV is too imperfect for me to care.

  26. Alan Lockey

    not worth*

  27. Dave

    The poorest will never register not with a debt collector armed with the latest electoral roll hot on their tale.

  28. Brian Corbett

    Why 600 seats and not 400?
    Far, far too many MPs all living at tax-payers expense.
    With much UK law now based in Brussels, we clearly need (at most) 400 MPs and 250 Lords (with co-opted speakers for debates, but with no voting rights)

    Gender equality is a mindless mantra – I simply want the best people in any job, anywhere, any time – everything else matters not a jot.

    Since the most important and useful job any human can do is to care for their children, I’d expect most MPs to be male -the great tragedy of the past 30 years has been the idea that women NEED to go out to work to be useful or valued.

    The greatest harm to our society by a false dogma ever perpetrated on two generations of children and one I hope will change from now on.

  29. Mike

    see Clegg got Lib Dem partners (wives etc) to No 10 Garden party just in case they were getting cold feet

    oh the trappings of power

    a few OBES, The Lords etc

    just keep being a fig leaf for the Tories

  30. Tom

    What a rubbisha nd desperate article. A sad case of scrapping the barrel to support a pre-ordained conclusion.

    1. People not on the register can’t vote – they are not included by making some constituencies smaller. They still won’t be voting ! In my lcoal council you
    get a minimum of three letters and 2 personal visists before they give up trying to register you.

    2. What nonsense – the Lib Dems have plenty of seats in large rural areas where they will lose out on this reform. Including the rest of Scotland ! Wales, The Lake District, Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. Why not just accept that these 5 massive rural areas are a special case ?

    3. Oh well, Labour are dead keen on correcting the distortions of the electoral system are they ? Well the biggets distortion is the difference between the number of people who vote Lib Dem and the number of MPs they get.

    4. If fact your “evidence” points out that rather than being the “worst gerrymandering ever” the changes “are unlikely to have a substantial impact and remove the significant disadvantage currently suffered by the Conservative Party.”
    Let alone the Lib Dems !

    5. So ethnic minorities should be proportionately represeneted in Parliament, but Lib Dems should not? If you want women,. ethnic minorities and all other sections of society, then support Single Transferable Vote – if you aren’t really arsed about it, join the Labour Party.



  31. Emily Needham

    RT @leftfootfwd: Electoral reformers should oppose the coalition's gerrymandering http://goo.gl/9Br6

  32. Andrew Ducker

    The problem with the redistricting proposals in the current bill http://bit.ly/dqx8Dn

  33. Guy Debord's Cat

    […] Will Straw (Jack’s lad) notes the Electoral Commission’s investigation into under-registration earlier this year, “The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation.” […]

  34. Marq Hugh

    @Thomoli Electoral reformers should oppose the coalition’s gerrymandering http://is.gd/e0tcc

  35. mpg

    Totall agree with the posters analysis. I am reluctantly supporting the AV referendum, but feel that the boundary proposal, while I reasonable idea in principle, needs more work, the main adjustment being a change from registered voters to all possible voters in a locale. I hope the Liberal Democrats will encourage these changes.

  36. Humphrey Cushion

    @barton_of_notts heres a good place to start : http://bit.ly/aXoap1

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