Why the rush, Nick?

What reason is there for Nick Clegg not rethinking the process and chronology of the boundary review – unless the government actively wants to redraw the boundaries without taking account of the missing voters? If that's not the reason, then why the rush?

Our guest writer is John Costello

Nick Clegg is due to publish his constitutional reform bill this week – but the central part of that bill, the referendum on the alternative vote, is already being poisoned by its association with the unfair boundary reforms; the problem is not the principle of equal sized seats – which, within reason, everyone basically accepts – but the process for achieving them.

Clegg told the Commons last Monday that 50 seats will be cut and all but two constituencies redrawn on the basis of the electoral register as it stands in December 2010.

At the same time he acknowledged that millions of eligible voters are missing from the electoral register, and that these missing voters are dominated by people from specific social groups in particular places.

He’s right – and the problem won’t have been solved in six months.

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.”

So why is the deputy prime minister rushing to reform the boundaries before these missing voters – or at least some of them – are put on the electoral roll so that they can be counted?

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.

Never mind the party politics, this is fundamentally anti-democratic. Many of those who campaigned for electoral reform outside Lib Dem headquarters when the coalition talks were proceeding did so because they wanted to create a more inclusive democracy in which everyone has an equal say and a Parliament in which everyone is fairly represented.

The government’s boundary review promises to deliver the very antithesis of that objective. Now it’s true that over the past 13 years boundary reviews have been conducted on the basis of the existing, incomplete electoral registers. But not on the scale being proposed here (i.e. being used as the basis for chopping 50 seats), and the process was always balanced by the opportunity for public consultation.

But in his haste to complete the review by 2013 Nick Clegg is going to do away with all that; so much for the “Big Society” and giving local communities more power over the decisions that affect them…

All this prompts the question, why the rush? Why does this all need to be done by 2013? What is so important that it justifies excluding somewhere between 8%-16% of eligible voters?

Why not work to get the missing eligible voters on the register? Perhaps set a reasonable target to get all local authority registers up to a minimum level (say 95%) before conducting the boundary review. At the moment many constituencies have 20% of resident adults missing from the register. That’s too much of a gap. Why not take a bit of time to close it?

What reason is there for not rethinking the process and chronology of this review – unless the government actively wants to redraw the boundaries without taking account of the missing voters? If that’s not the reason, then why the rush?

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