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Fairer seat size must be a Conservative priority (or re-election will be a tall order)

In the first of a short series highlighting issues which need early and urgent attention from an incoming Conservative Government, ConservativeHome Contributing Editor Paul Goodman  considers the need to redraw constituency boundaries to level a playing field which is currently weighted in Labour's favour.

GOODMAN PAUL FACE Let’s start with a simple comparison.  Imagine that at the coming election we win 40% of the vote, Labour 30%, the Liberals 18% and others 12% [The results in the overnight ICM poll].  All else being equal, we’d have a Commons majority of eight.

Now reverse those first two figures.  Imagine that Labour gain 40%, we take 30%, and the other two figures stay the same.  Labour would have a majority of 138 – an 130 seat difference on the same share of the vote, according to UK Polling Report.

Put aside, for a moment, the likelihood or otherwise of the vote dividing up in this way.  Wave away, too, the rejoinder that all things are never equal, and that regional swings, local factors, tactical voting and so on must be taken into account. The big point remains: the rules of the game work against us.  (I will stick to “rules of the game” rather than “electoral system”, because the latter suggests the matter of the voting system, which is extraneous to the case I wish to make.)  In the big game between blues and reds, we start off several goals down – and that’s before taking into account that we start from a base of under 200 MPs.

I concede that not all of our setbacks stem from the rules.  There are other factors at work, and I don’t mean policy or presentation.  For example, our vote is unevenly distributed: it tends to pile up where we don’t need it – namely, in seats that we already hold.   Martin Baxter of Electoral Calculus argues that this differential turnout is the most important element of all.  So do others – as we’ll see later.

Or again, we’ve tended to be the victim of tactical voting, as Liberal and Labour voters switch to the leading local anti-Conservative challenger to keep us out.  It’s worth noting that Labour may be the losers from this phenomenon next time, in what’s called “tactical unwind”.  Mike Smithson has explored this possibility repeatedly on the Political Betting site and his pieces are worth checking out.

None the less, it’s evident that the rules of the game don’t simply work against us, but are unfair as they stand.  I want generally to steer clear of complex figures, but it’s vital to illustrate the main weakness of the rules – that Labour get more for less.

Take Liverpool Wavertree, on its 2009 boundaries.  These were drawn up from data obtained as long ago as 2000 – almost a decade ago.  In 2000, it had 72,256 voters on these boundaries, and was thus roughly the Boundary Commission for England’s preferred size.  This year, it will have 62, 952 – some 10,000 below that ideal.

On the other hand, consider South Northants.  In 2000, it had 68,773 voters.  At the next election, it will have 79,563 – a growth of some 15 per cent in nine years – and will be well over the Commission’s norm.
I’m told by an academic who cited these examples to me that, unlike some others, they’re illustrative of a general trend.  Voters are moving out of Labour-dominated city areas into Conservative-leaning suburbs and shires, especially in a wide belt that stretches north-east across England from Devon to Lincolnshire.
And under present rules, the Boundary Commissions are always several years behind change.  As we’ve seen, the Commission for England’s latest review is based on findings ten years or so out of date.  The only-just-abolished boundaries – under which Sheffield Brightside, for example, had only 50,801 electors – were drawn from data gathered as long ago as 1992.

Furthermore, our four Commissions don’t work from the premise that equal constituency size trumps everything else.  New Zealand allows a deviation of 5% from either side of the preferred size, or quota.  America permits less than 1%.  Our Commissions balk only at variations of more than 20%.  Constituencies can’t cross county boundaries – pushing electorates over quota in growing areas.  Finally, the process is slow.  Reviews take place only once a decade, and the appeals process can be lengthy: have a look at Ed Balls’ failed attempt to stop the Boundary Commission’s changes to his seat, which went all the way to judicial review.

In short, we’re running to stand still, like the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking Glass - as voters move out of Labour’s seats into ours without the boundary reviews catching up with the change.  Now stand back for a moment from the theory, and think about the practice – what all this means in brutal electoral terms.

Return, for a moment, to my first figures – that illustrative general election in which later this year we win 40% of the vote to Labour’s 30%.  Now assume, for the sake of the argument, that the majority of 8 is pushed up to 20 by progress in marginal seats and tactical unwind, and that this majority sees us out for four years.

Go on to envisage that in 2014, after a tough and torrid term, we come in at 38% and Labour at no more than 30%  An 8% – no mean achievement – has delivered a hung Parliament.  Any Liberal inhibitions about dealing with Labour have melted away.  Britain faces a Lab/Lib coalition.

Let me clear about what I’m not trying to do.  I’m not assuming that the next election’s in the bag: victory must be worked for.  Nor am I attempting to forecast the next election, let alone the imponderable one after, or guess that the next Parliament will last four years.  My purpose is different.  I’m trying, as best I can, to illustrate the unfairness of the rules of the game.  The voters have the right to a level electoral playing field, and if we win they must have one.

Fortunately, we’re already committed to the separate proposal of reducing the number of seats by some10% – thereby cutting the cost of politics.  This is reasonable in its own terms: in a Commons in which some legislators double up as Ministers, there’s no reason why MPs shouldn’t take another 10,000 or so voters.  The measure should be in the first Queen’s Speech of a Conservative Government.

As part of that reduction, the Boundary Commissions should work from the principle that constituencies must be roughly the same size, with a much smaller variation from the quota, of New Zealand margins or thereabouts.  County and ward boundaries should be adapted to meet this norm, rather than the reverse, as is often the case at present.  Reviews should be more frequent – perhaps taking place every five years rather than ten, or being, in effect, continuous rolling assessments.  The appeals procedure must remain independent, but be speeded up.  In particular, the present rights of objection must be scrutinised closely.

I should at this point hat-tip my parliamentary colleague Andrew Tyrie, whose pamphlet “Pruning the Politicians” examined these issues in 2004.  (He made the case for a 20 per cent reduction in the number of MPs.)  There’s a lot on the net about the effects of reduction – for example, the Vote UK Discussion Forum has hosted discussions about the impact on different parts of the country – but one assessment which an academic offered me stands out.

He explained that larger and more equal constituencies won’t eliminate our electoral problem, because the uneven distribution of votes is still expected to be at work.  Two recent academic studies – one in the January issue of Parliamentary Affairs, another in the current edition of Political Quarterly (neither are available on-line) take the same view.

However, his conclusion is that a level playing field would reduce our disadvantage considerably.  The estimates are tentative, but they suggest that after reform an election lead of somewhere between 3% and 5% would give us a majority in a 2014 election.

Not, please note, a lead of 10% – a far steeper slope to climb.  I leave readers to draw the obvious conclusion.

Paul Goodman


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