Earlier this week, the Labour party tried to use an arcane Parliamentary procedure to hold up the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. To you and me, that’s the AV referendum bill, and both the government and sections of the media the media tried to convince us that Labour’s only motivation was to try and scupper or delay the referendum. Lord Falconer, who tabled the motion to delay the bill, claims that his and his party’s concern is mainly around the second part of the bill – the one that deals with reducing the number of MPs in the House of Commons and equalising the size of constituencies. Regardless of their true motivation, I do think Labour have a point in challenging the second part of the bill.
In my own head, I have affectionately come to call the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill the “AV and Gerrymandering Bill”. I find supporters of the coalition government get very upset by the allegation of gerrymandering, and strictly speaking the proposed redrawing of constituency boundaries isn’t likely to particularly benefit one party. Having said that, it is likely to have at least as fundamental an impact on our political system and landscape as changing the voting system to AV, and while the general public is being given a referendum on one of these issues, the government appears to be going out of its way to stop us from having a say on the other half of the bill. To quote from Labour List,
The way the change is being rushed through, though, is of more concern. It states that:
“a Boundary Commission may not cause a public inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act.”
Contrast this with s.6 of the 1986 Representation of the People Act, which the Bill intends to repeal, which gives 100 electors the power to force the Boundary Commission to exercise an inherent discretion to hold a public inquiry.
Sure, cutting the number of MPs in the House by 50 out of a current 650 doesn’t seem like a big deal – there’ll be fewer of them to fudge their expenses, the cynics might say. The proposed make-up of the constituencies, however, is another matter. For those of you not in the habit of reading Parliamentary bills (It’s fun – your should try it!), what’s proposed is the following:
- Retain two exception constituencies which will continue to have natural borders, determined by history and geography (Orkney & Shetland, and the Outer Hebrides – none of the other island constituencies get to retain their integrity);
- divide the population of the rest of the UK by 598 (the number of remaining constituencies) and call the number you get U (U is currently around 75,000);
- then draw the constituency boundaries in such a way that no constituency (except the aforementioned two) has a population of less than 95% of U or greater than 105% of U;
- whilst trying to keep Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland separate, i.e. have no constituency straddling the borders.
In practice, what this means is that you start in one corner of the UK and draw a line when you reach 75,000 people; then you move on to the next bit and draw another line at the next 75,000; and you repeat this another 596 times. I reckon about 10 constituencies in, you will have lost any meaningful historical and geographic boundaries you and I might be familiar with from past elections. Not only that, but at the next election, you get to do it all again. You get a sudden influx of people into Bradford? You might as well start over with a blank piece of paper.
One of the negative effects of this approach will be on smaller parties, as LDV pointed out back in August. Most smaller parties tend to establish strongholds in particular constituencies, and this is a process which takes years if not decades. By moving to rigid constituency sizes and flexible and unnatural constituency boundaries, this tactic becomes futile.
Here’s the thing that really gets me though. Proponents of First Past the Post have two arguments why FPTP is a good voting system. The first is that it produces decisive election results and clear majority governments (and we’ve seen how well that’s going recently). The second is the constituency link: the fact that one MP represents a particular geographic area and set of voters, that they can be expected to address local constituency issues as well as attend to national matters in Parliament. This is one of the big arguments for moving to AV rather than a proportional system, as AV retains that constituency link. And yet, those same proponents of FPTP and the constituency link (no other party is as attached to FPTP as the Tories) are proposing to change the way we set constituency boundaries to something that will, for all intents and purposes, break the constituency link. No MP (other than possibly those representing Orkney & Shetland and the Outer Hebrides) will have an incentive to truly build a link with their constituency and properly represent their constituents if they know that in 5 years’ time the constituency they’ll be standing in will be profoundly different.
So next time someone extols the virtues of FPTP and the constituency link at you, or tries to get you to vote against AV in May, do ask them what they think of the second part of That Bill. It should make for interesting conversation. In the meantime, if you want to try your hand at gerrymandering, here’s a fun online game. It’s a bit US-centric but it gets the point across.