Gerrymandering the next election

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Gerrymander as:  “To divide (a geographic area) into voting districts so as to give unfair advantage to one party in elections.” In fact, the original derivation of ‘Gerrymander’ was in response to a proposed boundary for a US district which was very oddly shaped – it’s a portmanteau of Gerry and Salamander, because the district was so shaped.

Unlike in the United States and other countries we have independent bodies, the Boundary Commissions set up by the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1944 revised more recently by the Representation of the People Act 1986. Their job is to draw the boundaries of the house of commons with relation a very simple set of rules; the number of constituencies in Great Britain should not be substantially more or less than 613  (there were 632 in 2010), there shall be a single constituency covering the City of London, and there shall not be less than 35 seats in Wales. They work on the basis of making seats as close as possible in size to an electoral quota, based on the number of electors divided by the number of seats in a given area at the start of the review. For the boundaries which came into effect in the 2010 election, that date was February 17, 2000. This quota was 69,935 for England. Seats must not cross boundaries of counties or London boroughs, where practicable. Interestingly enough, the Boundary commission for Scotland’s review, which introduced new boundaries there in 2005, started a year later, in June 2001, and used the electorate from that date.
The most recent review took 7 years for England, and although it increased the number of seats, it kept this number down as far as practical by creating seats which crossed borough boundaries. Although there were seats which had fewer electors than the quota, anyone who has studied the 1092 pages of the report for England can see that this has been avoided where possible. Only by creating some strangely shaped seats, joining areas with no connection to each other would this have been avoided. So yes, at the moment the way they draw the boundaries do favour Labour. But the fact is that the Boundary commissions are independent, and arrive at their decisions whilst trying to conform, but having the flexibility to adjust to local preferences. The lack of a public enquiry has already raised hackles, and Cornwall is up in arms about the crossing of the historic boundary with Devon that this bill will result in.

However – in the 80’s and early 90’s their boundaries favoured the Tories – yes that’s right the TORY PARTY GAINED 20-30 seats from the way the boundaries were drawn. Did we hear Neil Kinnock complain that the  reason he lost the 1987 election was because of the boundaries? No.

But is our system that biased? How much do these smaller seats make a difference? The problem is in looking at boundaries in isolation. Anthony Wells, at UK Polling Report has written a good analysis on electoral bias here which makes interesting reading, for exactly that reason. There is a bias to Labour due to out-of-date boundaries. The thing is people move about, and any review will be slightly out of date. The most recent election, gave Labour and additional 10 seats on that basis.

However, differential turnout introduces bias too. Thats where fewer people turn out to vote in some seats than in others. If the turnout of the Labour voters had been the same as that of Tory voters, then Labour would have won an extra 12 seats! Now which way is the system biased? Distribution of the vote also has an effect – Labour voters don’t seem to exist in Stockbroker-belt Surrey (I wonder why!) but there are some Tories in the devastated industrial North and Scotland, for some reason. And then there is tactical voting. My impression is that even at the 2010 election, there was some tactical voting. Here in Scotland, I know of some people who voted SNP to keep the Tories out, even though they don’t believe in independence.

There are two ways you could radically change the system that would be fair to all parties, not result in strange shaped seats of disparate communities. You could base seats on the population, and not the electorate – and use projections of the population likely to be there at the time they come into force. Or you could introduce more radical electoral reform, so that the number of seats reflect the percentage of the vote. Something like STV, which the Liberal Democrats prefer, or AMS as we use in Scotland, or AV+ as proposed by the Jenkins Commission.

The biggest crime, from a Government that proclaims “Localism, Localism, Localism!” is that any form of local consultation, or regard for local sensitivities is swept aside in the rush to bastardise the system. No public enquiries, and no flexibility to accomodate long standing communities having the same representative. The changes proposed in the bill will not improve equality and fairness in our voting system (remember those principles Lib Dems?) without disenfranchising people in some of the most deprived areas of our country. It merely seems like a childish attempt at twisting the system in someone elses favour, rather than making it equitable to all.  The excuse from Tories (and many Lib Dems) will be “Oh, but it was biased in favour of Labour!”, but that doesn’t mean the system should be forced to be biased in favour of the Tories.

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This entry was posted in Conservatives, Electoral Reform, Labour, Liberal Democrats. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Gerrymandering the next election

  1. jimmykerr says:

    Even though I would like to see smaller parties better and more fairly represented, which I think would be best achieved under an STV system. I really like the AMS system. It is better I think than STV as it offers the chance to keep the link between the representative and their constituent, plus it allows for a fuller range of voices to be heard in Parliament.

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