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.”

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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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