Articles

When David Cameron talks about fairness

In redistricting on September 19, 2011 by dadge

At PMQs last week, David Cameron backed up the parliamentary boundary review by an appeal to fairness: “Every seat should be the same size – how could that not be fair?”

Let’s be clear about a few things. One, politicians shouldn’t take us for fools. We know that political parties are vested interests. Ask yourselves, why did the Tories suddenly decide after all these years that UK electoral law needed changing? It’s because they knew they would benefit. We won’t know exactly till the Scottish and Welsh reviews take place in the new year, but the experts’ initial calculations are suggesting that if the last election had been fought on the new boundaries the Tories might’ve obtained an overall majority.

Some of you will remember that the Conservative election pledge was to reduce the number of MPs by 65 to 585. After the election it turned out that quite a lot of the 65 would be Tories, but that if they cut 50 instead, most of the 15 MPs they’d save would be Tory. This move seemed incredibly cynical to me, but most people didn’t notice, including the clueless Lib Dems who were too busy worrying about AV and are now bearing the brunt of the change.

Two, the Boundary Commission itself is independent and impartial. I’ve had many dealings with the Commission and I know they’re basically a hard-working bunch of statisticians and civil servants whose job it is to come up with some draft proposals that the rest of us can get our teeth into. The Assistant Commissioners are a group of lawyers who take the draft proposals, mix them in with the opinions of political parties, pressure groups, experts and members of the public, and come up with something acceptable enough to put before parliament.

The Commission aren’t guilty of gerrymandering – nothing they have done has been to favour a particular political party, but I think they have been a bit mischievous. When I visited their offices towards the end of the last review I was shown the redistricting software they use, but it was made clear that because of the rules at that time, the output from the computer was only used to get them started. Much more important was trying to keep the boundaries as similar as possible to what they had been before, not to break up communities, and to respect county boundaries. Now that the rules have changed so that the priority is equal electorates, would you blame them if a feeling of “If that’s what they want, that’s what they’ll get” simmered below the surface? Keeping the electorates within +/- 5% of the average without splitting wards is a thankless task (You try it and see!) and you can imagine them getting a tad hacked off, especially as they knew that at the end of it they’d be the ones taking the flak for the stupidity of it all, not DC of Downing Street.

Three, in the past the process has gone on for years, and it’s to the Tories credit that under the new system the whole process is designed to take just a couple of years, but it remains to be seen whether it will work. There will only be 36 hearings (starting with Manchester on 11 October) each lasting for just two days and each dealing with an average of 14 constuencies. Judging by the opposition the draft proposals have generated, and the fact that the Commission is encouraging people to do powerpoint presentations of their counter-proposals, I think they’ll be hard pushed to squeeze each hearing into two days!

And I don’t envy the Commission the job of synthesising the whole lot afterwards – I make a prediction here and now that their revised report, which they’re giving themselves ten months to produce, will look a lot different from the one that shocked MPs last Monday. For example, they have the power to split wards and I think they will do it in several places. They will also try and squeeze cross-border seats back within county boundaries. (Not “Devonwall” though – I’m afraid that getting rid of that would require tearing up the new rules completely and starting again.) What they could do with most of all, and which only parliament could give them, is the power to drift a little bit outside those 5% limits. Allowing 7%, say, would make it easy to get rid of the monstrosity known as “Mersey Banks”.

***

It’s true that UK electoral law didn’t used to give enough weight to the principle of “one person one vote”. Not that people seemed to care that much, but it was plainly ridiculous to have seats varying in size from 22,000 to 110,000. (Which makes you wonder why, under the new law, the range will still be 22,000 to 80,000: the Western Isles and the Northern Isles will still have a seat each, and, perversely, the Isle of Wight will have two seats of around 55,000 electors each.) To be fair, the discrepancies had decreased over the course of the five reviews, but the ideas of bringing electorates within a narrower range, and reviewing the boundaries more often, were good.

But fairness is not just about “one person one vote”. How fair is it on the people of a community if some of it is represented by one MP and some of it is represented by another MP? How does that help the community to speak with
one voice? How fair to you is it if your MP represents parts of two different counties or four different boroughs and has to deal with so much extra paperwork and go to so many extra meetings? It’s also somewhat unfair, of course, if a constituency covers a very large area, or has disconnected
parts, but this is the 21st century, and we have the technology to cope with such problems, and MPs in such difficult constituencies could receive an additional allowance to cover their extra costs.

***

What next? Well, our parliamentarians need to make their minds up. If they believe that even after the proposals have been revised it’ll be too much of a dog’s dinner for them to stomach, we need to call a halt to proceedings now. Otherwise, we’ll be wasting millions of pounds, and millions of hours of people’s time, on the consultation process that’s just begun.

And that wouldn’t be fair.

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