The Electoral Commission has outlined rough plans on where the reduction of MPs from 650 to 600. As expected, traditional Labour strongholds will lose seats. But is it “gerrymandering”, as Labour have alleged?
Not exactly. It’s an undeniable fact that the current system, as is, is horribly skewed towards Labour. The 2005 election, for example, gave Labour 90 more seats than the Tories in England, despite losing by 0.3%. Labour also enjoy their concentrated support in inner-city areas, which allows them to win a lot of urban seats (and the reverse for the Conservatives, in business districts and rural areas). This creates a squeeze on smaller parties with even support, such as the Liberal Democrats, but also the Greens and UKIP.
Why does the skew exist? Well, there’s several reasons for this happening:
- Boundary reviews take place every eight to twelve years, using figures from the previous census. The last review happened in 2006. This means that the 2005 election was fought on census figures from 1991.
- Incumbent governments tend to gerrymander in their favour; this ranges from creative boundary drawing to hold seats to effectively using political power to obviously dilute rival power (as had happened in Texas eight years ago)
- “Urban flight”, where inner-city dwellers leave for suburban or rural housing.
- Historical over-representation of Scotland and Wales (Wales more so, with a whopping 25% seats more than they should).
It’s not a new phenomenon either. Back in 1969, a Boundary Review ended up equalizing the system in favour of the Tories. Then Home Secretary Jim Callaghan refused to implement the recommendations, leaving 1970 to be fought in constituencies ranging from 19,000 (Birmingham Ladywood) to 123,000 (Billericay). Labour still lost, and the Tories then implemented the recommendations in 1970. You might be excused for thinking the opposition to the review is a veil to the common fear of losing power.
You think that doesn’t happen these days? Think again. Arfon has a grand total of 43,000 voters. This is not that much above the amount of votes William Hague (Richmond) and Stephen Timms (East Ham) got last May, and on a 65% turnout at that.
That’s not to say I completely agree with the entire plans; I don’t think local authorities should be chopped up and distributed among the others. I’d give some more lee-way in how much constituencies varied. As a bit of “fun” (yes, I have no life), I did my own boundary review (with ONS population predictions for 2009) to see what would happen under STV, but restricted myself to only joining contiguous LAs together and not splitting them (except for Leeds and Birmingham, which are too big for one STV constituency), and did actually quite well. But that’s for another post.
However, I do sympathise with the SNP’s and Plaid Cymru’s concerns. There is a historical reason for Scotland and Wales being over-represented: to prevent England overriding the wishes of Scotland and Wales. It’s why the U.S. Senate is two senators per state; it allows the views of Wyoming to be heard as much as the views of California. But it often goes too far the other way; a majority in the U.S. Senate can, theoretically, only represent 17% of the population. And there are times when Scotland has overridden the wishes of England (the old West Lothian question, most recently exemplified by the HEA 2004, passed only with the support of Scottish Labour MPs). And it’s not as a relevant reason these days, where Wales and Scotland have more powerful devolved legislatures (hell, the Senedd was given more power yesterday). There’s a reason why reserved matters are the territory of Parliament; they need the consensus of the whole country.
Finally, I don’t think it’ll be the disaster Labour will make it out to be. The Boundary Review are non-partisan, after all, and they’re very clever in working within their rules to preserve local ties and prevent crossing local authority boundaries as much as possible. There may be some times where ignoring LA boundaries would help preserve local ties (such as in Ainley Top, a village split in half by the boundaries between Calderdale and Kirklees). And with accurate population figures, they can be much more accurate in equalising constituencies without bias.