Sunday, January 10, 2010

It IS SizeThat Matters


Paul Goodman has an excellent article on ConservativeHome pointing out the iniquities of the electoral boundaries. Do read the WHOLE THING, but here's a taster...
Put aside, for a moment, the likelihood or otherwise of the vote dividing up in this way. Wave away, too, the rejoinder that all things are never equal, and that regional swings, local factors, tactical voting and so on must be taken into account. The big point remains: the rules of the game work against us. (I will stick to “rules of the game” rather than “electoral system”, because the latter suggests the matter of the voting system, which is extraneous to the case I wish to make.) In the big game between blues and reds, we start off several goals down – and that’s before taking into account that we start from a base of under 200 MPs.

Our four [Boundary] Commissions don’t work from the premise that equal constituency size trumps everything else. New Zealand allows a deviation of 5% from either side of the preferred size, or quota. America permits less than 1%. Our Commissions balk only at variations of more than 20%. Constituencies can’t cross county boundaries – pushing electorates over quota in growing areas. Finally, the process is slow. Reviews take place only once a decade, and the appeals process can be lengthy: have a look at Ed Balls’ failed attempt to stop the Boundary Commission’s changes to his seat, which went all the way to judicial review.

In short, we’re running to stand still, like the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass - as voters move out of Labour’s seats into ours without the boundary reviews catching up with the change. Now stand back for a moment from the theory, and think about the practice – what all this means in brutal electoral terms.

Return, for a moment, to my first figures – that illustrative general election in which later this year we win 40% of the vote to Labour’s 30%. Now assume, for the sake of the argument, that the majority of 8 is pushed up to 20 by progress in marginal seats and tactical unwind, and that this majority sees us out for four years.

Go on to envisage that in 2014, after a tough and torrid term, we come in at 38% and Labour at no more than 30% An 8% – no mean achievement – has delivered a hung Parliament. Any Liberal inhibitions about dealing with Labour have melted away. Britain faces a Lab/Lib coalition.

Let me clear about what I’m not trying to do. I’m not assuming that the next election’s in the bag: victory must be worked for. Nor am I attempting to forecast the next election, let alone the imponderable one after, or guess that the next Parliament will last four years. My purpose is different. I’m trying, as best I can, to illustrate the unfairness of the rules of the game. The voters have the right to a level electoral playing field, and if we win they must have one.



Liberal Democrats will no doubt seek to hijack this argument with comments about more general electoral reform. That is another debate for another blogpost. But can anyone seriously disagree that under our current system, it should be an aim for all consitituencies (with one or two obvious exceptions) to be of similar size?

24 comments:

David Boothroyd said...

The base problem with your post is this: if you accept the First Past the Post electoral system, you accept a system in which the national share of the vote does not have a direct relationship with the national share of seats. It's inconsistent, on the one hand to accept that there isn't a link, and on the other hand, to complain that the link isn't working properly.

The secondary problem is that constituency size is not the primary reason why Labour wins more seats than the Conservatives on a lower national share of the vote. If a new set of boundaries were prepared on the basis of strict electorate equality, they would still favour Labour. This is because the geographical distribution of Labour voters is far more efficient in terms of getting the 40% necessary to make individual seats winnable.

Simon Cooke said...

Constituency size is only one factor. Differential turnout is far more significant. Because significantly fewer people vote in the typical labour seat, Labour MPs are elected on much smaller numbers of votes.

The Boundary Committee operates on three (often conflicting) objectives:

1.Equality (the same number of voters for each electoral division)
2.Natural communities (not needlessly dividing places)
3.Coterminosity (having a coherent set of political boundaries)

In terms of reform there are two changes that would help enormously (and would likely have saved Ed Balls seat):

Firstly, as is the case for local government boundaries, parliamentary boundaries should be defined using projected population rather than historic population.

And, secondly, the justification for smaller seats in partiicular places (Scotland, Wales and London specifically) needs ending.

If this is done (and the suggestion of a tighter definition of equality is implemented) Labour will still have an advantage but only from differential turnout not from other factors.

RodCrosby said...

Equalising constituencies would make little difference to Tory prospects.

The bulk of the anti-Tory bias arises from Labour abstention and greater efficiency in the distribution of the Labour vote, combined with the tendency of third parties to win what would otherwise be Tory seats.

Those ARE the "Rules of the Game" and only the VOTERS, not the boundary commissioners, can significantly alter them...

Such biases can easily arise under FPTP which, let's not forget, is the Tories preferred system.

So stop moaning.

AndrewJK said...

I have been saying for a long time the electrial first-past-the-post system is out of date and open to abuse as we have seen with tactical voting at the last 3 general elections. At the last one for example more people in England voted Conservative yet we not only end up with a Labour government but one with a thumping majority.

Perhaps now I understand why the liberals have bemoanded about this system and the strengths of the argument that we need to replace it with PR.

There is clearly an unfairness and Cameron must seriously consider bringing in PR (even though I know in an interview he said he was against it) if he becomes PM, or he will find he will have to make concessions to the Lib Dems or face another election defeat.

David Boothroyd said...

Simon Cooke is behind the times - only in Wales (and Northern Ireland but less so) do the rules require over-representation. London used to benefit by the rule of not crossing London borough boundaries, but the 4th Periodical Review boldly ignored that rule and so London seats are now no different. The 5th Periodical Review allocates 73 seats to London which was the lowest number they contemplated.

Scotland's electoral quota is set as identical to England.

Clive said...

As others have pointed out, constituency size is a minor reason in this matter. The main causes are geographical distribution of party supporters and the "first past the post" electoral system. You can't do much about the former, but the latter is open to change.

Rather than complaining about things that can't be changed - unless you're considering forced relocation of voters :) - why not address the things you can do something about. Campaign for electoral reform, or accept that the constituency link is always going to have this effect.

Man in a Shed said...

Slightly off topic - but how likely is it that Ed Balls might lose his seat ?

If so is there any way to help this process along.

briana said...

The elephant in the room here is the vast disparity between the average size of an English constituency and those of Scotland, Wales and NI, where there are typically 20-30% fewer electors per constituency as compared to England. This of course translates directly into an electoral weighting in favour of those areas.

Whilst there may have been some justification for this deliberate skewing a hundred years ago, these days there is none. I'm surprised the Conservatives haven't made more of this issue ...

briana said...

The elephant in the room here is the vast disparity between the average size of an English constituency and those of Scotland, Wales and NI, where there are typically 20-30% fewer electors per constituency as compared to England. This of course translates directly into an electoral weighting in favour of those areas.

Whilst there may have been some justification for this deliberate skewing a hundred years ago, these days there is none. I'm surprised the Conservatives haven't made more of this issue ...

Richard Gadsden said...

The biggest reason that Labour are overrepresented is that Labour seats average about 10% lower turnout than Tory seats.

The only way to address this is not to equalise the electorates in the seats, but to equalise the voters in the seats, ie to draw the boundaries based on the marked register.

That would result in huge increases in constituency size in urban areas where few vote, and substantial reductions in rural and suburban areas where turnout is high.

It would also be ludicrously undemocratic, which is why no-one proposes it.

DeeDee99 said...

Cameron's proposed 10% cut in MPs is a start, but as so many powers are now devolved we should be aiming at a minimum 25% cut. At the same time, Constituency boundaries should be set so that there is no more than a +/- 5000 difference.

Boundary changes should be made towards the end of each Parliament to ensure that a fairly level playing ground is maintained at all times.

Considerably larger Constituencies would naturally result in fewer 'safe' seats because they would be more diverse.

TartanSeer said...

The UK's FPTP system is an affront to democracy - how else can one view a process that turns a majority of the popular vote into a minority of seats.

At the last election the Conservatives got more support than Labour, yet Labour scooped the electoral jackpot with almost 100 extra seats.

In Scotland the same rotten system has embedded Labour for decades, and indeed the FPTP element that makes up part of what is jokingly referred to as our 'PR' system is the only thing preventing a Labour meltdown in the face of a resurgent SNP.

Both Labour & Conservatives have set their faces against electoral reform for purely partisan advantage.

Cameron could have picked up the reform mantle & demonstrated a genuine break with the past - what a delicious irony if FPTP stymies his pitch for the keys to Number 10.

alastair said...

Can you imagine NATO fighting in Afghanistan to implement the UK electoral system there!

Perhaps the Americans will invade the UK to put in place a fair system over here.

neil craig said...

So on 40% of the vote the Conservatives get 51% of the seats whereas on the same Labour get 60%

The Conservatives consider this unfair to them.

The whole system is clearly corrupt, anti-democratic & puts British politics in a straitjacket. To complain that it is unfair it is not as corrupt in the Tories favour as in Labour's is clearly disingenuous, particularly when it is a system the Conservatives have upheld for a century purely because of its corruption.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

It isn't going to work, but since setting boundaries with bits of towns and villages shaved off their "traditional" constituencies are liable to make the Tories incredibly unpopular, it will be quite fun to see them get on with it.

Alex Folkes said...

David Boothroyd (first commentor) is right - if you have FPTP then you will always have situations like this. The boundary changes in England for the next election and primarily driven at getting rid of much of the pro-Labour bias in the current boundaries, but they will still only go a tiny part of the way towards fairness. Yes I'm a committed Lib Dem, but I want to see fair boundaries. And the only way you get close to that is by having a PR system - not the hideous list system but STV

Iain Dale said...

Alex, with respect, that is bollocks. Plenty of other countries who have FPFT have more equally sized constituencies than we do. Of course you're never going to get total equality, but surely a 10% difference should be the maximum, with only a few exceptions.

Richard Gadsden said...

Iain, I agree that the constituency sizes should be equalised, though that probably means a large number of deeply unnatural constituencies. If you're going to do that, you should probably bring in the American system of numbering constituencies instead of naming them; that would reduce the local dissent.

But all that effort will have a net effect of about 20-25 seats, not 60-65 like the real difference between the parties.

RodCrosby said...

STV in itself won't fix the turnout problem, but you could have a variation that would.

All constituencies would perform their first count and send their vote totals to the central election authority.

Once all counts were in, a computer algorithm could work out how many seats each constituency was entitled to, and inform the returning officers accordingly.

The quota for each constituency would then be calculated, and the counts could continue. So, for example, a Liverpool constituency would be entitled to 5 seats by electorate, but once the actual votes were counted that might reduce to 3.

Just a thought...

Chris Hutt said...

I'm still waiting for someone to explain why 40% of the electorate should have majority representaton over the other 60%.

FPTP is unfair in lots of ways, especially for smaller parties and their potential voters. So do we want fairness, implying PR, or, if not, what instead?

RodCrosby said...

Although of course the STV example is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Compulsory Voting with Robson Rotation would solve the problem, whichever electoral system was used.

peter said...

There are three reforms necessary, all based on the Australian system:

1. Equal constituencies;
2. Full preferential voting (i.e. number each and every square, thus producing an instant run-off election where the candidate with an absolute majority wins);
3. Compulsory attendance at a polling place by all voters on elction day to be marked off the roll and to receive a ballot paper for the relevant consituency.

This system has been in place in Oz since the 1920s and has served us well. It ensures a remarkably high turn-out in each election (90+%) and gives our governments a much stronger legitimacy than most.

Yes, I know the idea of 'compulsory voting' will offend the sensibilities of slome of you, but the point is that voting itself is not compulsory, only the need to attend a polling place, have one's name marked of the roll and to receive ballot paper. If you then choose to put a blank piece of paper in the ballot box, and not vote, it's up to you. Not surprisingly 90% of electors or more in Oz decide to vote once they have turned up at a polling station.

warelane said...

I am an electoral reformer, but with PR you should still have equal-sized constituencies. Even the anomalies of the Isle of Wight and the Western Isles should conform to the same rules.

I wrote about the constituency sizes in the East of England (http://warelane.wordpress.com/2009/09/07/constituency-sizes-in-the-east-of-england/) where South East Cambridgeshire is over 40% as big again as Harlow. It is not fairness.

Thomas said...

I agree that constituency sizes should be equal. But it's absurd to suggest that this is the most important issue in electoral reform. Making the constituencies larger just means that all voters will have less representation in parliament. I'm not sure how this makes things fairer!

It also increases the share of wasted votes, since there's much less chance of minor parties winning over a larger constituency. It's another race to the status-quo again, without really addressing any problems.

The argument it that the current boundaries unfairly advantage Labour because they need less votes to win a seat right? So ok, that makes sense with a two party system. However, there aren't only two parties, are there? It takes 119,000 votes to win the Lib Dems a seat which is twice as many as it takes for Labour to win a seat.

The problem is *not* the boundaries, the problem is that there is no direct link between the number of votes, and the number of seats in parliament.

Fiddling with boundaries is a waste of time and effort. Why not actually fix the problem, instead of sticking selotape over the increasing size holes?

If the boundaries are changed, they will only become broken again in the future, and less seats just means less representation for electors. I can't see why that is more democratic.

It seems the elephant in the room is being avoided - you either believe in democracy - i.e. people's votes counting, or you don't. Deciding which people's votes should count more by fiddling with the areas to try to alter it, seems mightily anti-democratic to me. And it doesn't address the issue of wasted votes at all - once every 5 years you get to cast one vote - if you don't vote for the winner, what democratic say have you had? Creating even more wasted votes seems like a mighty step back for democracy.