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.
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 There is a bias to Labour due to out-of-date boundaries. The thing is people move about, and any review will be slightly out of date.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.