Archive | August, 2012

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Why the Chartists wouldn’t support David Cameron’s boundary changes

Posted on 08 August 2012 by admin

David Cameron has once again cheekily invoked the Chartist democracy movement from the 1830s and 1840s as a justification for his government’s boundary changes. The Chartists did indeed demand equal constituencies, but there was no banner at Kennington in 1848 reading ‘Equal constituencies for all! No variation of more than 5 per cent in registered electorate (with the exceptions of the Isle of Wight, Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan An Iar)’. Even after the Great Reform Act of 1832 there were still differences in constituency electorate of the order of 100:1, and huge systematic differences between industrial areas and market towns. It is insulting to compare the previous work of the Boundary Commissions, which has produced more-or-less equal constituencies, with the grotesque differences that existed at the time of the Chartists.

When the Chartists complained about unequal-sized constituencies, they were thinking about gross injustices like the 243 electors of Andover in Hampshire having two MPs between them in 1847, the same representation as the 23,630 electors of Lancashire (Southern). A few odd cases like the Isle of Wight and Orkney & Shetland are hardly in the same league. The ‘Chartist’ argument also ignores the differences between adult population and the number of people on the electoral register. This was, of course, enormous in 1847 – but more or less a match by the 1970s. Since then, particularly since 2000, there have been increasing numbers of people left off the electoral registers – this time not through deliberate legal disqualification but because the machinery cannot keep pace with the speed at which some people move house, and the alienation of young people in particular from any official channels. Cameron’s intentions have very little to do with progressive political reform.

The problem of the difference between registered electors and the real number of people in a locality entitled to vote is acute. The worst-affected are the young, the poor and socially marginal; already in 2010 the average Labour constituency in England probably had more people qualified to be on the register than the average Tory seat. This is likely to get worse, because a more complicated and expensive system of individual electoral registration is being introduced from 2014. The government’s new law on boundaries requires a disruptive boundary review every parliament, and the next one may take place in 2015 on the basis of particularly inaccurate electoral registers.

It is worth recapitulating what the new boundaries mean, and how it compares internationally. Other than in a few exceptions granted for islands, constituencies will now have to be within 5 per cent of the UK average size, i.e. between 72,810 and 80,473 electors on the register in December 2010. This may sound reasonable, but it is the most extreme implementation of ‘equal size’ in a national legislature that uses single-member districts.

Table: Variation in constituency size in democracies using single member seats

  Date Basis Variability in seat size Smallest seat (as % of average) Largest seat (as % of average) % of seats within 5% national limit % of seats within 10% national limit
UK proposed 2015 (2010) Electorate 2.2

(approx.)

29.3 (approx.) 105.0 (approx.) 99.3 (approx.) 99.5 (approx.)
USA 2012 (2010) Population - 74.2 (approx.) 139.9 85.7 (approx.) 96.8 (approx.)
USA 2002 (2000) Population 4.4 76.5 139.7 89.7 96.3
England 2010 (2000) Electorate 8.6 76.5 152.9 44.1 79.2
Australia

 

2010 Electorate 9.1 63.8 132.4 66.7 87.3
UK 2010 (2000) Electorate 11.1 31.7 156.7 36.6 69.1
Canada 2008 (2006) Population 21.3 25.7 166.0 22.1 39.9
Jamaica

 

2007 Electorate 24.8 65.0 154.0 3.3 25.0
France 2007 (1986) Population* - 6.5 162.7 - -

 

The first date given is the relevant figure at the time of the most recent election, or in the cases of the US and UK following the current reallocations. Where a second date is given, this is the date at which the census or other count of relevant population took place. ‘Variation in seat size’ is the standard deviation of the size of constituencies, with the national relevant population divided by the total number of constituencies being given the value of 100 to allow comparable results. For France, although districting was done on a population basis in 1986 the figures given are for electorate in 2007.

There are two broad dimensions to equalising constituencies.

  • What to do with the anomalies – islands and national minorities – and how many particularly small or large constituencies should be tolerated because they are special cases.
  • The level of uniformity imposed on the majority of ‘normal’ cases.

The different measures in the table capture different dimensions of equality – how far out of line the anomalous cases are, and how unequal the system is as a whole. It also shows the proportion of seats that meet two criteria that have featured in debate in the UK, namely being 5 per cent or 10 per cent away from the national quota. The government’s bill requires that over 99 per cent of constituencies are within 5 per cent of the national quota (the exceptions being two Scottish island seats and perhaps one in the Highlands). No other comparable legislature hits 90 per cent. In terms of the overall deviation from the standard size, the government’s proposal is twice as ‘equalised’ as the US House of Representatives.

It is worth asking why, despite legal and constitutional rules about equality, Australia and the United States fail to equalise their constituencies.

The answer is that both countries respect the boundaries of their component states and territories when drawing national legislative districts. Australia divides its 150 House seats into 8 states and territories, and the US House of 435 is divided into 50 state delegations. Some states in each country are small – 7 American states have single seats, and 5 more an allocation of two seats. The result is that Montana comprises a single Congressional district of 994,416 people, while the slightly bigger state of Rhode Island has two small districts with around 527,623 people in each. Ten voters in Rhode Island have the same voting power as 18 Montanans – a bigger variation than the divergence Nick Clegg called ‘deeply damaging to our democracy’ back in 2010. I am pleased that he seems to have changed his mind.

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First thoughts on cancelling the boundary changes

Posted on 06 August 2012 by admin

What does the shelving of the boundary review mean for David Cameron’s chances of forming a majority Conservative government at the 2015 election?

We are told that the Conservatives had pinned great hopes on their proposal to change the way in which parliamentary constituency boundaries are drawn; Cameron is said to have told MPs that it was ‘crucial’ to the prospect of a majority in 2015. Assuming the boundary changes are indeed blocked (it is a somewhat complicated parliamentary and legal procedure), has Clegg now killed off the Conservatives’ chances of winning outright?

In order to answer the question properly, one has to take a step back and ask whether the boundary review would have delivered a majority anyway. That is very questionable. On the best available figures for the impact of the proposed changes, the Tories would have been just short of an outright majority in a House of 600 MPs on the basis of the 2010 results. To win outright would still require doing something no full-term government has managed since 1955 (and indeed never managed before then), i.e. substantially increasing the party’s share of the vote. With Labour likely to poll significantly better than its poor showing in 2010, Cameron – new boundaries or not – would need to do the political equivalent of making water flow uphill anyway. Some Conservative analysts, such as Lord Ashcroft and Tim Montgomerie and colleagues at Conservative Home, have already devoted much thought to the problem.

The cancellation of the boundary changes makes the mountain the Tories have to climb for a majority a bit steeper, but if they are not in any condition to climb any sort of mountain that makes no difference. It will make it easier for Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs with small majorities to see off Conservative challenges and stop them making the 20 net gains they need for an outright win.

But some Conservative MPs in marginal seats will also be breathing a secret sigh of relief. Labour’s class of 1997 nearly all survived the 2001 election because when MPs face their first election as an incumbent they tend to do much better than the national average. Boundary changes, by altering the relationship between MP and constituency, interfere with this pattern. While the Conservatives are less likely to win outright, incumbency makes things far from straightforward to Labour on the old boundaries. Fighting the next election on the same boundaries as last time will increase the probability that the election will result in another hung parliament, probably with Labour as the largest single party.

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