Here we go…

In News on July 6, 2010 by dadge

Today the government outlined its proposals for electoral reform. Some were Tory policies, some were Labour policies, and some were even LibDem policies; it didn’t seem to bother Nick…

1. There’s going to be a referendum on changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote.

Really, in order to thank the LibDems for their support, the Tories should just introduce a bill to change the law. Instead we’re going to have a very unsatisfactory election. Government allies will be campaigning against each other. The Tories favour the status quo. The LibDems will be campaigning for a voting system they don’t really like. (They want STV, not AV.) Labour, who are probably more in favour of AV than either of the other two main parties, will have to decide whether to vote against it anyway, since a referendum defeat might bring down the government. And the general public? Utterly confused, the public are the last people to ask to make such a decision. In general we can all see that the current state of affairs is suboptimal, but whether that’ll be enough to carry the day is anyone’s guess. 

2. The referendum will be on the same day (5/5/11) as Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish elections (and English local elections).

This makes sense in order to save money, but the different votes will affect each other, since people who were only really turning up for one of the two votes will take part in the other one as well. I don’t think this matters, but some people do, obviously the ones who think it’ll harm their chances of winning…

3. There will be fixed-term parliaments. (The next general election will be on 7/5/15.)

I’m not one of those people who think this is an important matter. Much is made of the fact that currently the prime minister can choose when to go to the polls, but I can’t see there’s much harm in that. On the other hand, a fixed election date will have the effect of lengthening the campaign from a  few weeks to a few months. 😦

4. Parliament can dissolve itself early if two-thirds of MPs agree.

Fair enough, some mechanism is needed to get an early election, but we don’t yet know what will happen if a government loses a no-confidence motion but the dissolution vote is defeated! I’m worried that things are becoming overcomplicated for no reason.

5. The number of MP’s will be reduced from 650 to 600.

When the Tories announced their policy of cutting the number of MPs by 10%, I thought they’d probably go for 600 rather than 585, and they have. This is a mistake though, for two reasons. Firstly, reducing the size of parliament is a relatively complex business and I think a proper 10% cut would make the effort more worthwhile. Worryingly, it can be shown that most of those extra 15 seats would be coalition seats, so the choice to stick at 600 appears to be politically motivated.

Secondly, I don’t believe that the number of MPs should be fixed. And if it isn’t fixed, and the population continues to increase, the number of MPs will drift back up. Therefore we should start with as low a figure as possible. There’s a very good reason why I don’t think the number of MPs should be fixed and that’s got to do with the maths. When you break the country down into review areas (usally counties) and allocate seats to each, you find that the total doesn’t add up to 600, or 585, or whatever target figure you’re after. That’s because there’s a lot of rounding in the calculations. So if you have a fixed number of seats, you’re forced to take an extra seat off, or give an extra seat to, a county or two, which seems unfair.

Also, I believe the parliamentary boundary review should be a rolling review. The current system of fixed-term reviews is monolithic. Each county is dealt with punctiliously at glacial pace, whether it needs to be or not. Altogether, the last review took six years, meaning it was already out of date when the new boundaries were approved by parliament! We had the farcical situation at the 2005 election that it was fought on boundaries based on 1991 data because the review that started in 2001 wasn’t quite ready. How a rolling review would operate would be that when the electorate of a seat in a county grew or fell beyond acceptable limits, that county’s seats would be reviewed. Simples.

6. Constituency sizes will be equalised, with almost all electorates within 5% of the national average.

Interestingly, Nick Clegg used East Ham (electorate 87,809) and Islington North (66,472) as his examples of disparity within London whilst there are even smaller seats in the city. (Putney, Ealing Central and Leyton all have electorates under 64,000.)

The 5% figure seems new. The Tories had earlier suggested 3.5%. But both are too restrictive. Back in 2001, when I started to follow the Fifth Review, I was a believer in equal electorates. Experience has made me wiser. Although it’s possible to make constituencies all exactly the same size, that’s not what people want, and not what our democracy needs. If you want to see the mess you can get into if you go down the path of equal electorates, investigate redistricting in the United States. The constituencies they end up with are crazy, and the impression of exactitude is illusory, since populations and voter lists are continuously changing.

(Speaking of which, the electoral roll in this country is in a terrible state at the moment, with hundreds of thousands of people missing off it, and electoral officials must be given the power and resources to restore its accuracy.)

Believe me, the bias in our electoral system has almost nothing to do with the fact that in effect we currently allow a range of around +/-12% in constituency size. The problem lies in that (among other things): a. the policy of minimum change means that seats that are small at the start of a review are usually still small at the end of the review, b. seats where the electorate grows or falls are not re-reviewed, and c. Welsh seats are allowed to be much smaller than those in the rest of the country.

Allowing ourselves more leeway means we can use county-council wards as constituency building blocks, as we have done at previous reviews, and put constituencies together in such a way that, by and large, they cover distinct communities. The amount of leeway required to do this is +/-10%, which means that if the average is 77,000, the limits are 69,300 and 84,700. This is quite a big range, but if you look at a list of several hundred seats all within this range it looks like a good job well done. And a rolling review would mean that you can keep seats within the range as time goes by and not have to wait a decade to put them right.

The only places where you might need to change the rules slightly are (a) big cities like Birmingham and Glasgow, where some splitting of their huge wards might be necessary in order to get seats within the limits, and (b) sparsely populated counties like Shropshire and Northumberland, which need to be combined with other areas (e.g. in Northumberland’s case, Newcastle and North Tyneside) to avoid the possibility of ending up with seats outside the limits.

It’s good that the Isle of Wight will now have one-and-a-bit MPs for its 110,000 voters. One thing that’s very wrong is that Orkney & Shetland and the Western Isles will continue to have an MP each, despite their electorates of 33,000 and 22,000 respectively. I’m sorry, but the principle must be one person, one vote(ish), and I don’t believe the people of those islands think they deserve two or three votes each. I know it’s difficult for the MPs to serve those islands and part of the mainland, but in the 21st century it’s not impossible, and they can receive financial assistance to do so.


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