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The Boundary Commission for England has been unnecessarily radical in its proposals, often ignoring local government boundaries. New constituencies may lack community cohesion and local loyalty.

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The Boundary Commission for England has been unnecessarily radical in its proposals, often ignoring local government boundaries. New constituencies may lack community cohesion and local loyalty.

Posted on 23 September 2011 by admin

Last week, the Boundary Commission for England presented its proposals for new constituencies based on 600 rather than 650 parliamentary seats. Democratic Audit’s Lewis Baston undertook a parallel analysis in June, and while he finds some similarities, he argues that the Commission may create tri-borough seats, orphan wards and the crossing of the boundaries of upper-tier authorities and counties, which may lead to seats that have little or no community cohesion.

Comparing the initial proposals published by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) on 13 September with the Democratic Audit (DA) model boundaries published in June, has – as the author of those proposals – been an interesting exercise. In many cases the Commission’s ideas were very similar to mine. Nearly all the South West was uncannily similar (except for south Devon), as were large parts of the South East and West Midlands. Even in areas where the BCE map differs a lot from the DA map there are occasional familiar faces, like ‘Battersea and Vauxhall’.  But there were big differences in some areas, particularly North Yorkshire which was unaffected in the original DA model but reshaped by the BCE.

Some of the differences arise simply because there are, in most regions, a large number of viable alternative maps which reflect to a greater or lesser degree considerations like administrative geography, continuity with previously existing seats, and the always contestable nature of ‘local ties’.

Some of the difference, more interestingly, arises from differences in method – not in the overall rules that were set in legislation, but at the level of policies and assumptions. Some of the assumptions we made in the Democratic Audit model were not reflected in the BCE proposals.

One should start by being gracious, and pointing to a feature of the BCE report which is clearly superior to the Democratic Audit original model. It does not involve splitting any wards, while the original DA model split 13. In part, pressure of time when the DA model was released in June led us to propose some split wards while there were acceptable alternatives that emerged on closer inspection. But there was also an underlying aim of trying to reduce disruptive change and allow constituencies to be constructed that did not cross county boundaries or allow strong continuity with existing seats. This led to several ward splits in metropolitan areas.

The BCE’s avoidance of ward splits, even in difficult circumstances when it must have been tempting, is therefore to be admired. However, it comes at the cost of more radical disruption, plus creating some very peculiar seats in urban areas and crossing boundaries wholesale between London and metropolitan boroughs.

One of the assumptions in the Democratic Audit model was that the BCE would avoid creating ‘tri-borough’ constituencies. This assumption was, unfortunately, inaccurate. We regarded constituencies that contained parts of more than two primary local authorities (it will be inevitable that some constituencies will cover several district councils in two-tier areas) were undesirable. Local government boundaries both reflect and help create local communities of interest and identity. A constituency that combines parts of three authorities is unlikely to have any cohesion as a unit and will command little recognition or local loyalty. Constituency representation, in terms of casework, advocacy of local interests and the valuable but unsung role the MP plays in building networks and partnerships in the local area, will be significantly more burdensome when there are multiple local authorities with which to relate. As well as councils, local business and civic groups are often organised at borough level.

It is possible to produce viable maps which avoid splitting wards while also avoiding tri-borough seats. The tri-borough seats give one reason to expect considerable change between the initial proposals and the revised recommendations.

There were two alternative approaches to creating seats that cross county boundaries that the Democratic Audit model considered feasible or desirable, given that the rules under which the Commission was instructed to work required there to be some seats which straddled county boundaries.

One option (‘best fit’), which was embodied in the original Democratic Audit model published in June 2011, was to attempt to construct a limited number of cross-county seats working from points where there are significant numbers of electors either side of the county line and some degree of interchange or commonality between them. This involved more than the minimum number of cross-county seats: for instance, Suffolk was paired in the model. The original model had 21 cross-county seats (4.8 per cent of English seats outside London).

Probably the simplest assumption would be that cross-county seats are pretty undesirable in themselves, and that their number should be minimised. A minimal crossings rule would have produced 15 cross-county seats (3.5 per cent of England outside London).  There is room for interpretation with ‘artificial’ county boundaries, for instance those between Cheshire and the southern boroughs of Greater Manchester, which might involve multiple crossings if that fits better with local ties. But in general, on reflection, minimisation may have been the best working assumption.

However, the number of cross-county constituencies in the BCE initial proposals was surprisingly large. In total, there are 27 constituencies (6.2 per cent of English seats outside London) which straddle county boundaries.

In some regions, the BCE has adopted a minimal crossings rule: East Midlands, South East and South West. It seems to have gone for a version of the ‘best fit’ rule in two regions, West Midlands and North West.

Its recommendations in three regions seem to wander casually across county boundaries. In Eastern England, the Bedfordshire-Hertfordshire border is crossed three times, and there is also an unnecessary (but arguable on ‘best fit’ grounds) Cambridgeshire-Suffolk crossing. In North East the boundary of Northumberland is crossed an incredible four times. In Yorkshire and the Humber there are three constituencies straddling the line between North and West Yorkshire, which is striking given that all the North Yorkshire constituencies are currently the right size.

Several of these cross-county seats involve small additions from one county to a seat based overwhelmingly on another county (for example, a tiny bit of Northumberland in Whitley Bay), a recipe for that section to be marginalised within the politics of the constituency and not represented as effectively as the majority section. While there is much in the BCE report which is inevitable given the constraints under which it was operating, it does appear that there are an unnecessary number of cross-county seats and tri-borough constituencies.

Another feature of the Democratic Audit model was that it went out of its way to avoid splitting smaller towns. These are often the most effective embodiment of community identity, with strong voluntary and social institutions which the ‘big society’ is supposed to cherish. Some splitting is necessary even under the pre-2011 boundary rules and the new rules will require more division of small to medium sized towns. It was impossible to avoid completely in the DA model; suburbs of Dunstable (but not the town itself) were put in with Luton, and Formby was split, for instance.

But the BCE report takes an axe to a swathe of smaller English towns: in Yorkshire there is carnage. The Mirfield seat takes chunks of both Batley and Dewsbury, and Wakefield city is horribly divided. In Surrey, a random chunk of Weybridge is torn off and added to Spelthorne (constructing a seat here was always going to be a problem, because Spelthorne is a very well-defined geographical unit whose electorate falls just short of the threshold).

An orphan ward is a ward of one local authority which is put into a constituency with no other wards drawn from that local authority. Prima facie, it is undesirable to create orphan wards, because it is unlikely that they will have strong ties of identity to the rest of the constituency. If an MP’s casework, networking role and participation in local political debates is focused mostly on the politics of one authority, the electors of the orphan ward are likely to be peripheral to the politics of the constituency. The BCE proposals create nine orphan wards in London alone, while the original DA model had two and it is quite possible to produce a map with only one London ‘orphan’.

The new rules required the BCE to undertake a radical review and suggest a map that bore less relation than previously to administrative geography or community identity. Once the legislation had been passed, this much was inevitable.

However, it does appear that the BCE has been unnecessarily radical in some areas, particularly North Yorkshire, and that it has had an unduly lax attitude to tri-borough seats, orphan wards and the crossing of the boundaries of upper-tier authorities and counties.  However, its decision to avoid any ward splits is welcome and sensible.

It is possible, even within the rules, to draw a tidier map than the BCE has done. One is tempted to take a Machiavellian reading of some of the odder proposals like ‘Mersey Banks’ – that it is so preposterous that it exists to attract representations in the consultation period. By withdrawing it later on, the BCE can show itself as responsive and provide an illustration of the new consultation procedures ‘working’. Or it may just have been that there was insufficient time for better thought-out proposals given the need to cover the whole of England in a period of months.

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The proposed constituency boundary changes will hurt the Liberal Democrats and not help the Tories much either

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The proposed constituency boundary changes will hurt the Liberal Democrats and not help the Tories much either

Posted on 15 June 2011 by admin

With the conclusion of the AV referendum last month, focus now turns to one of the few certain electoral reforms that this parliament will contain; the redrawing of constituency boundaries, and the reduction of the number of seats by 50 to 600. Presenting recent research by Democratic Audit, Lewis Baston finds that the Liberal Democrats will suffer the most by far, and Labour and the Conservatives will suffer very similar seat reductions.

The two most striking findings of the recently released Democratic Audit model of the boundary changes were the damage it inflicted on the Liberal Democrats, and the relatively even pattern of losses between Labour and Conservative. These findings caused a certain amount of surprise in politics and the media, but they are fairly predictable from the point of view of political science, leaving aside the detail of the projection.

Overall impact of boundary changes by party

The Liberal Democrats lose the most…

The Liberal Democrats will suffer severely in boundary changes. The model suggests 14 out of 57 seats will go. This harsh result stems from two factors common to most of their seats. They tend to have smaller majorities than Conservative or Labour MPs; the mean Liberal Democrat majority is 12.5 percentage points, about two-thirds the size of the other parties. This makes it less easy for them to withstand adverse boundary changes. The other is that they tend to represent yellow islands in a red or blue sea, rather than clump together. This means that in exchanging territory with neighbouring seats, Liberal Democrat seats will tend to acquire areas where the Liberal Democrat vote in 2010 was low. The model takes out several such island seats, such as Burnley, East Dunbartonshire, Mid Dorset & North Poole and Lewes.

However, Liberal Democrat incumbents have been able to survive radical and unhelpful boundary changes in the past – David Alton in 1983, Malcolm Bruce in 1997 and Sarah Teather in 2010 all managed to engineer huge swings from the ‘notional’ result in their altered seats. Local activism has succeeded in changing the way that voters in newly arriving areas see the contest and persuaded them that they can now vote Liberal Democrat with a good chance of winning (and conversely that by voting as they did previously they might ‘let in’ the main party they dislike more). However, the context may be different now. In past changes, only a tiny number of voters would be completely unwilling to ever vote Liberal Democrat, and therefore there were a lot of persuadable voters. There will now be far more people who will never consider voting Liberal Democrat. The party has succeeded in running up the down escalator in several boundary changes in the past, but it is harder now. A regime of permanent revolution in parliamentary boundaries such as that created by the 2011 Act is a difficult environment for Liberal Democrats, even beyond the particularly tricky election of 2015.

… but the Labour and Conservative losses are even

Net losses in seats for Labour and the Conservatives came out more or less even in the model, with Labour down 18 and the Conservatives down 15 overall (it was 17 and 16 respectively before a late tweak to the model in Warrington).

This finding, too, should not be very surprising for solid reasons of political science. Variation in constituency size is a very minor contributor to the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system. It should be expected that a neutrally-implemented measure altering the size of constituencies should therefore not do very much to alter the balance between Labour and Conservative. Constituency size was worth something like six seats in Labour’s favour in 2010, and seven against the Conservatives according to Rallings, Thrasher, Borisyuk and Johnston)

Even before looking further at any local detail, a net effect of 13 seats (11-12 when applied proportionally to a smaller House) is small beer. A lot of the existing bias stems from the over-representation of Wales – but cutting down Welsh seats then will probably have a disproportionate effect on the Welsh footholds the Conservatives currently enjoy, as they are mostly either marginal or obvious candidates for merger.  It should also be borne in mind that proportionately, Labour loses 7.0 per cent of its seats, while the Conservatives are down only 4.9 per cent. The scale of change in the Democratic Audit model is within the bands one might expect from first principles, allowing only for Welsh local factors.

Looking forward to 2015

The boundaries model is static – it assumes that everyone voted as they would have done in 2010. While the result and pattern of support in 2015 may resemble 2010 more than most people expect, there will be significant changes in electoral behaviour. It is impossible to predict what might happen in terms of the swing between Labour and Conservative.  But it is likely that the Liberal Democrat vote will fall, and that the SNP vote will rise, and that the regions of England will continue to polarise between a Labour north and a Conservative south. How the new boundaries translate the national swing and its local variations into seats is more important than what would have happened in 2010, but much harder to estimate.

The Democratic Audit model may not have changed the 2010 election result in any important way had the boundary changes been in place then, but it might look different in 2015. This is one of the reasons why the predictable chorus of ignorant people claiming it is an unduly pro-Labour map is wrong. It is not in Labour’s interests to maximise its notional number of seats in 2010, but to get the best result possible in seats when the national shares of the vote of Labour and Conservative are fairly close. This was the underpinning of Labour’s successful boundary review strategy in the 1990s. Labour would be best off creating Tory marginal seats – ideally ones with sitting Labour MPs to benefit from the incumbency effect!

It is difficult to be precise, but the Democratic Audit model appears to depopulate a vital area for Labour – seats with narrow Conservative majorities that would be susceptible to a small to medium sized pro-Labour swing. Of the 50 top target Tory seats for Labour on current boundaries (winnable with swings of up to 4 per cent), 15 would see Labour’s prospects improved, 17 would see the Conservatives strengthened instead, 14 would be unchanged or not significantly politically altered, and 4 would be abolished – a fairly even spread.

Of the seats improved for Labour, 8 of them would be flipped to the party on the notional 2010 results, and therefore not available for gaining in 2015. Eight of the seats are also so much improved for the Tories that they would no longer count as marginals. This makes 20 seats taken out of Labour’s easiest target list. In exchange, four new targets result from Labour seats being flipped into being Tory marginals by boundary changes, and probably four previously safer Tory seats now made marginal. The number of Tory seats vulnerable to a pro-Labour swing of 4 per cent or so falls from 50 to 38. The hill Labour has to climb to get an overall majority is therefore steeper than it would be under existing boundaries, while it is probably a little easier for the Conservatives.

This was probably the intention of the more sophisticated Conservative supporters of this proposal – to put a finger on the scales a little by systematically adding bits of rural territory to marginal seats in towns outside the big metropolitan areas (e.g. Great Yarmouth, Harlow, Redditch, Stevenage, Lincoln, Stafford, Tamworth, Brighton, Dover – and indeed Bath and Southport…). They may have been less aware that there will be locations where increased size of seats might lead the Boundary Commission to create a core urban (Labour-inclined) seat rather than two increasingly Tory marginals (as for instance in Thanet and Norwich in the Democratic Audit model).

The Democratic Audit model illustrates the simple principle that altering something (constituency size) which is not much to do with the problem you are seeking to address (electoral bias) is unlikely to achieve your aim. It also illustrates some of the complexities in measuring the effects of boundary changes. It may superficially look a better outcome for Labour than expected, but there is a story below the headline numbers.

Link to original post with additional reader comments at LSE Politics Blog

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Whatever the result, Thursday’s referendum will not mean the end of the road for electoral reform in the UK

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Whatever the result, Thursday’s referendum will not mean the end of the road for electoral reform in the UK

Posted on 04 May 2011 by admin

AV is seen by many as a ‘stop-gap’ measure on the road to true Proportional Representation, but is this really likely to be the case if the Yes campaign is successful? Writing in a personal capacity, Lewis Baston looks at the recent history of electoral reform movements in the UK, and the prospects for further reforms depending on the result of Thursday’s referendum.

The Alternative Vote (AV) referendum on 5 May is, on the face of it, a choice between two slightly different single-member constituency majoritarian electoral systems. Some people can make a choice on that basis. Peter Kellner and Peter Hain, for instance, have always favoured AV, over the options of either First Past The Post (FPTP) or Proportional Representation (PR). Similarly, some others simply do not see the appeal of preferential voting and sincerely favour FPTP. However, no decision is made in a vacuum, and for most of the rest of us the context is relevant when considering how one might vote. There are partisan and strategic calculations at work in the referendum, and one should not be too high-minded about this fact. I have discussed the partisan consequences of AV in another piece.

The outcome, in terms of a simple Yes or No, will have unknown effects on the further progress of electoral reform. The case can be argued either way, despite some efforts on the part of each of the campaigns to suggest that the referendum will close the issue. Arguments about future consequences are all conjecture, but the ‘finality’ argument seems a poor one either way (as it was when it was used to support the 1832 Reform Act). Alan Renwick, for instance argues quite persuasively that it is likely that a Yes on AV will lead to further change because it makes change itself thinkable and because it may well lead to more inter-party agreement and hung parliaments.

But there is an alternative argument. The history of constitutional reform is littered with cases where things that were supposed to be stopgaps lasted for decades – such as FPTP itself in 1918, or the House of Lords after 1911. If AV wins, small-c conservatism will work in its favour – it will be argued that the issue has been decided, and that the new system should be ‘given a fair chance’ or ‘allowed to bed in’. Clegg himself seems to have abandoned his party’s long term goal of PR, saying on 21 April that:

We aren’t going to enter into a Maoist, perpetual revolution… This is a once in a blue moon opportunity to change the electoral system. It’s completely wrong to somehow suggest this is a stepping stone for something else.

This gravely weakens the strategic pro-PR case for voting Yes in the referendum, which depends on the Liberal Democrats’ ability to use an increased incidence of hung parliaments under AV to demand further reforms in future. Someone who is in favour of PR can reconcile themselves to a No vote. FPTP may well be swept away in the 2020s even if it survives 2011, while AV might prove more resilient because it is a more robust majoritarian system. Jack Straw, for instance, favours the Alternative Vote for this reason. It produces a higher measurable level of consent both for single-member constituency representatives and, usually, for a national government. It enables the logic of majoritarianism to be renewed and interpreted for a multi-party system. Straw’s hope is the flipside of David Owen’s fear, that AV will be a roadblock to PR.

From the reformer’s point of view, AV does not have the renewing potential of proper PR, which can unlock fluid political competition. In New Zealand, PR has enabled political positions like neoliberalism and the old left to fight openly for their ideas rather than operate behind the scenes in party caucuses and elite influence. It may not look this way on Friday, but opposing AV could end up being one of the biggest blunders the British right has ever made. AV is a small-c conservative reform: as Lampedusa wrote, sometimes ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’.

In any case, John Curtice and others have demonstrated that FPTP is increasingly unlikely to achieve what its supporters claim, namely a decisive outcome to a general election (not that it has much of a track record of doing so anyway). Hung parliaments are likely to be the norm, rather than the exception, in the future, and there will be another reforming moment which hopefully will not be sold out, as those in 1997 and 2010 were, by politicians adapting rapidly to the culture of Whitehall.  There will most likely be another hung parliament in the next 20 years (probably the election of 2020 will produce one) and therefore the possibility of another go at electoral reform. When politicians talk about ‘a generation’ they actually mean only about 20 years, but they wish to make it sound longer.

Win or lose, the result of this referendum will not alter the disconnection between the electorate and the political system. Problems of low turnout and election results not reflecting the way people have voted will still be with us either way. Reform propositions sometimes emerge better and stronger from initial defeat in this sort of timescale, as Scottish devolution did between 1979 and 1997. This referendum is no more the end of the struggle for real electoral reform than the 1979 referendum was for Scottish self-government (or Welsh nationhood).

Hopefully lessons will be learned this time, just as lessons should have been learned from the Jenkins process. The reform option should not be the product of a ‘wheeze’ cooked up in Downing Street (as it was in 2009) or a compromise that emerges from hasty coalition talks that nobody supported on the way in to the discussions (as in 2010). There should be up-front legislation ensuring that it cannot be allowed to drop down the agenda; reformers would be justified in insisting on this given what happened after Jenkins. Whether a referendum is the best mechanism for public involvement in the process, after this unedifying campaign, is also a suitable point for consideration.

The reform proposition should be the product of due deliberation, but times have moved on since 1998 and there should be some real public involvement in the process of designing the alternative. This might take the form of a ‘preferendum’ on different reform options as in New Zealand, or more likely a Canadian-style Citizens’ Assembly. There is no need for the latter method in particular to be tainted if AV has failed in 2011. It is also more likely to lead to a genuinely different system being offered rather than the imposed choice being between two systems as similar as FPTP and AV.

However, referendum day approaches rapidly. The polls seem to agree that No has a strong lead in voting intention, and a crushing win for No probably would cause the political class to shy away from the subject of reform for longer than a narrow margin would. A narrow win for either side would keep the pot boiling. Even if it were ‘No’, one could argue that it would be winnable if there were a better reform proposition than AV, a better campaign, or a vote at a time when relations between the parties containing substantial numbers of electoral reformers (Lib Dem and Labour) were less poisonous. A Yes vote – with one’s fingers crossed – seems indicated. And that is – probably – what I shall do.

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Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP should vote Yes to AV. For the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear

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Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP should vote Yes to AV. For the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear

Posted on 02 May 2011 by admin

The AV referendum campaign has produced some strange political alignments, more because of its perceived strategic consequences than the nature of the alternative electoral systems. Writing in a personal capacity, Lewis Baston finds that for some parties rational self-interest is clear: supporters of the Liberal Democrats, Greens and UK Independence Party should vote Yes on AV. For others –the Conservatives and Labour – the balance of advantage is much less clear, and may differ between different bits of the party. Arguably, looking only at rational self-interest, the Conservatives should be divided, rather than mostly for No.

How to make a partisan choice on AV

It is not unreasonable to examine the effect a change such as moving to the Alternative Vote will have on the fortunes of the parties. To do so is rational self-interest, but also more than that; its effects on party performance imply consequences for the range of economic, public policy and social outcomes towards which few people are neutral. Given that the difference in terms of democratic values between FPTP and AV is not large, it need not trump a medium-term partisan calculation. What one should ask of such calculations is that they should be rational.

For a Liberal Democrat, supporting AV is a no-brainer. The Liberal Democrats are (and even in 2015 can be expected to be) a fair-sized centre party. If a centre party has enough first-preference electoral support to come first or second (and therefore not be eliminated during the early stages of an AV count), it will tend to attract more transferred votes than its less centrist main competitor and therefore win more seats than it would otherwise. AV also suits the campaigning culture of the Liberal Democrats, in that the party is experienced in the techniques of attracting tactical votes and gathering local and personal credibility for individual candidates, and this is easily adapted to casting a net for second preferences. They tend to have more trouble winning votes in actual PR elections, like the European Parliament, London Assembly and devolved parliaments.

The SNP and Plaid Cymru are also capable of attracting transfers and would probably be helped by AV.

For Greens, Yes to AV is also logical. They are likely, whichever system is used, to hold their Brighton seat but not gain any more in the medium term. The benefits from AV would be in increasing the party’s overall share of the vote, because sympathisers could afford to give them a first preference without fear of letting in a hostile candidate. They would gain the credibility that goes with a significant vote share and encourage more voters to consider the option of voting Green. They would also encourage other candidates to adopt parts of the Green agenda in order to attract second preference votes from Greens, and give the Green Party itself more power in politics by giving and withholding endorsements for second place. For UKIP, AV probably helps for the same reasons as it helps the Greens. UKIP could influence the other parties, particularly the Conservatives, towards its objectives.

For the interests of the BNP – if indeed there is a BNP in recognisable form for very much longer – AV is not an attractive system. They may get a few more first preferences than they currently get FPTP votes, but AV would make it extremely difficult for them to win any seats. It would also be less successful at using AV to influence the other parties, because a BNP endorsement of a second preference for one candidate would be likely to put off more voters than it would encourage (in London in 2008 Boris Johnson repudiated such a dubious BNP benediction). The BNP would be better off with FPTP (which allows it to win on 30 per cent of the vote when its opponents are divided) or PR (which represents minority parties), not AV.

Much of the Conservative Party has displayed a bafflingly intense hostility to AV, on the assumption that it would prevent them winning a majority. This is very doubtful indeed; looking back on the history of modelled AV election results, there would have been no election when a Conservative majority under FPTP would have disappeared under AV, with the possible exception of 1992. The Conservative Party has generally been a very adaptable creature – the secret of its success. Cameron has demonstrated considerable skill in adapting to the situation, as shown in his strategic brilliance after the 2010 election result. The Conservatives are in a position to benefit from AV and Cameron is probably the man to navigate a path to that point.

AV tends to help the side of politics which is divided between parties with overlapping sources of support, and – in contrast to most of the 20th Century – this is the centre right. The Tories could go into a 2015 AV election well placed to pick up second preference support from UKIP and Liberal Democrats voters and overturn Labour voting leads on first preferences. While the party in general should not fear AV, if one looks within the party the traditionalist right and Cameron’s opponents may have reason to fear an electoral system that takes Cameron even further out of their influence. The party may have to share power a bit more, and may need to tack a bit to the centre in order to pick up second preferences. The old right may prefer not to take the opportunities that AV provides, and take its chances with a core vote strategy under FPTP.

Another potential worry for some Conservatives (and others) would be that AV might weaken the Union, by representing in exaggerated form a centre-right majority in England and left-of-centre majorities in Wales and Scotland. A future centre-right government might have next to no representatives outside England because the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would be crushed by preference transfers in Wales and Scotland. Conversely, a Labour government could find itself dependent on lopsided majorities in Wales and Scotland to outvote a centre-right lead in England. Either scenario would put pressure on the constitutional settlement – perhaps another argument for an SNP Yes vote.

The range of interests and views within the Labour Party is, as it should be, varied, because the strategic situation is far from clear. In the short term, a narrow Yes may be best because of the ructions it will cause in the Conservative Party, but looking beyond that, things are more complicated. In the politics of the 1990s and 2000s, AV would have worked strongly in Labour’s favour, and a generation of Labour reformers is accustomed to thinking in terms of a ‘progressive majority’. This is not a permanent feature of politics – AV would probably have expressed conservative majorities in the 1950s and 1980s. It may well not be a feature of politics again for some time.

The Liberal Democrats have a co-ordinated political and communications strategy which reinforces Conservative messages and systematically disparages Labour; even in his 21 April ippr lecture, when he might have concentrated on persuading the undecided Labour vote, Nick Clegg could not resist the opportunity to make a strident partisan attack on Labour. The Liberal Democrats vote of 2015 will have absorbed five years of this and be broadly happy about it. Some polling in 2011 has started to show Liberal Democrats second preferences skewing towards the Conservatives, and that is only logical. Among the stupidest arguments for Yes – though less stupid than ‘Make Your MP Work Harder’ – is that it is in the self-interest of the Labour Party.

 

AV and the coalition

AV would solve a coalition management issue for the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, in that they could run candidates in each constituency (satisfying their partisan activists) while campaigning on a more targeted basis and recommending second preferences for their coalition partner. AV can be the glue that keeps coalitions together and prevents realignments, as historically with the National and Liberal parties in Australia. The relationship between Tory and the Liberal Democrats in 2015 is much more vexed under FPTP; actually standing down in a constituency is a much more radical and controversial step than suggesting how second preferences might be used. FPTP might hasten a split in the Liberal Democrats and the emergence of a left-liberal element that could even reconstitute that fabled progressive majority and reactivating the push for electoral reform. How the true believer in electoral reform (or majoritarian rule) should vote is the subject of my next article.

 

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Britain’s unequally sized constituencies are a non existent problem

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Britain’s unequally sized constituencies are a non existent problem

Posted on 08 January 2011 by admin

Britain’s unequally sized constituencies are a non existent problem, to which the coalition government has adopted an extreme and perhaps unworkable solution. (Crossposted from LSE)

The government is seeking to fundamentally change how local constituencies for Parliament are drawn up. Its alleged ‘reform’ bill returns to the House of Lords shortly for a final look. Comparing its proposals with the requirements used in other liberal democracies, Lewis Baston shows that the UK already has some of the most equally sized constituencies in the western world. In trying to solve a non-existent problem, Conservative ministers in particular are bent on requiring unworkable levels of equality in constituency sizes. The government is pursuing an extreme solution that will fatally damage the organic unity of local communities, which both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have traditionally protected and valued.

It may seem a matter of obvious common sense and fairness that constituencies should be ‘equal sized’ – the government certainly insists that it is so. They propose that constituencies for the House of Commons should have the same number of registered electors, within plus or minus 5 per cent of the national average (and with only 2 or 3 allowed exceptions).

Yet in fact no other country in the world has actually achieved this degree of equality without adopting proportional representation and multi-member seats. Even apparently highly equalised systems for drawing constituency boundaries in Australia and the United States involve more variation in constituency sizes than the government proposes to allow within the United Kingdom.

When introducing the Second Reading of the government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in September, Nick Clegg said this about the proposal to ‘equalise’ the size of the registered electorate in each constituency:

On the broken scales of our democracy, 10 voters in Glasgow North have the same weight as 17 voters in Manchester Central. That is not a single anomaly, because those differences are repeated up and down the country. As of last December, Wirral West, Edinburgh South and Wrexham had fewer than 60,000 voters. Falkirk, Banbury and West Ham had more than 80,000. That unfairness is deeply damaging to our democracy.

Yet by this standard, boundaries in many of the principal countries using single member constituencies must be ‘deeply damaging’ to democracy, since my Table below shows that current UK system in now way performs particularly poorly by international standards.

Variations in constituency sizes across liberal democracies using single member seats

Notes: The dates on the census or other count of relevant population took place does not normally coincide with the election dates. For the countries above the relevant population count dates are UK proposed (2009), USA 2012 (2010), USA 2002 (2000), England current (2000), UK current (2000), Australia (2010), Canada (2006), Jamaica (2007), and France (1986). For France, although districting was done on a population basis in 1986 the figures given are for electorate in 2007

Sources: US Census Bureau, Australian Electoral Commission, Elections Canada, Electoral Office of Jamaica, http://aceproject.org/, David Jarman and www.swingstateproject.com for tabulation of USA 2000.

Numbers in all shaded cells are approximations.

The key column in the Table is the ‘Variation in seat size’, which is a measure called the standard deviation of the size of constituencies. Here the national relevant population is divided by the total number of constituencies (being given the value of 100 to allow comparable results). The Table shows that the outcome of the government Bill would not be to make Britain level up to a common standard already being achieved elsewhere. Instead it would require the UK to reach a level of arithmetic equality that is unknown in comparable national legislatures, (and that would also be based of course on severely flawed UK electoral registers).

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 up national legislative districts. Australia divides its 150 House seats into 8 states and territories, and the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives are divided into 50 state delegations. Some states in each country are small – seven American states have single seats, and five more have an allocation of two seats. The result is that Montana comprises a single Congressional district of 994,400 people, while the slightly bigger state of Rhode Island has two small districts with around 527,600 people in each. Ten voters in Rhode Island have the same voting power as 18 Montanans. If the United Kingdom respected proportionally as many sub-national units in a 600-seat Commons as the US does for its 435-seat House, then there would be 69 localities with boundaries that could not be crossed.

The government legislation proposes that there should be just six recognised sub-divisions in across the whole of the UK – namely the four component nations, plus Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney and Shetland. In fact, the English boundary commission will probably respect the boundaries of the nine government standard regions for England. Ironically then, the already existing UK boundary system is closer to American and Australian practice, because respecting county boundaries in England outside London involved 46 units with established community identities being given whole numbers of seats.

Isle of Wight

Taking the powerful elected Senates of Australia and the United States into account only widens the huge differences in voting power. In terms of total members of Congress (House and Senate), an inhabitant of Wyoming has 10.3 times as much power as a Californian, a differential that makes the gap between the Hebrides and the Isle of Wight appear small. The inequality in voting power in the United Kingdom caused by constituency size is therefore patently not deeply damaging to British democracy.

Constituency equalisation that was about as good as that for the US House of Representatives could be achieved for the Commons with a much less extreme legislative definition of equal size that would work with the grain and attract more political consensus. For instance:

  • The law could allow 10 per cent deviation from the national average, which would mean that county boundaries could nearly all be respected.
  • The law could recognise other special cases. such as the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and Anglesey,
  • And the final Act could allow some latitude for urban seats where population is grossly in excess of the registered electorate.

The government has portrayed its scheme as a modest, tidying up job. In reality it is a radical and extreme shift towards requiring a level of equality in constituency size that no other country in the world attempts, at the expense of riding roughshod over virtually all organic local identities. It has so far escaped proper scrutiny. The House of Lords forthcoming deliberations on the Bill will provide a last opportunity for the true nature of the coalition’s proposals to be exposed and a last chance for its worst and most unworkable features to be ameliorated.

For further analysis of how the constituency proposals will affect the parties see:

Lewis Baston, ‘Do Turkeys vote for Christmas? Yes, when it comes to Liberal Democrat MPs and the boundary review for Westminster constituencies. Nick Clegg’s party will lose a fifth of all its MPs’.

And

Ron Johnston, ‘Pursuing a passion for parity, the coalition government is axing one in every 4 MPs in Wales, but less than one in 14 in England. How the UK draws its electoral map will never be the same again’.

This blog article is based on the new report, All are equal, but some are more equal than others (click here to download) published on 7 January 2011 by Democratic Audit.

The coalition government is introducing major constitutional changes but does not have a coherent overall constitutional strategy. The results will not provide a stable basis either for British liberties, democracy or its constitution

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