Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Harriet's boundary objections are objectionable

At PMQs today Harriet Harman asked about the government's plans for redrawing the constituency boundaries to even up the sizes. She particularly focused on the fact that there are lots of people (3.5 million according to her figures) who are not registered and implied that the redrawing of the boundaries would not be valid unless this was resolved. The crux of her point is here taken from Hansard:

The danger is that if the Prime Minister presses on in the way he has indicated, he will be making the system less fair, not more fair. As he said, the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledged to the House this week that there is a problem with the register. The Electoral Commission study found not just the number of people who are not on the register, but who they are: a third of all black people, half of all young people, and half of all private sector tenants are not on the register, despite the work that has been undertaken by electoral registration officers. Those people will not be counted if the Prime Minister redraws constituency boundaries now. He says he wants equal constituencies, but does he accept that he cannot have equal constituencies based on an unequal register?

Paul Walter has already suggested that this is an attempt to throw the political equivalent of a "police stinger" in front of voting reform.

The first point to make in response to Harman's question is the one that David Cameron did which is to point out that Labour had 13 years to sort this out if they consider it to be so vital. A related point is that the constituency boundaries were redrawn near the start of the last decade when presumably the imbalance was as bad as it is now, perhaps even worse. It didn't stop them then and nor should it have.

But perhaps a more fundamental objection to this approach is that if we were to accept Harman's principle that there should be no redrawing of boundaries until voter registration figures improve, what criteria would be used to determine success? A 5% improvement in each of the categories she states. 10%? Parity with the average? Parity with the highest rates of registration? Who would decide? What other minorities are also disadvantaged that would also have to be considered? How long does she think that will take to achieve? And what would happen in the meantime? Would we keep the existing (in some cases already woefully outdated) boundaries?

Don't get me wrong, I think Cameron's plans to redraw the boundaries are largely designed to improve things for the Tories and if I was Prime Minister there would be other reforms I would put before this one. However it is not easy to argue against the idea that the sizes should be more even in principle and they have conceded a referendum on AV as part of the coalition agreement which shows they are willing to compromise.

What we cannot have are spurious arguments that held no water when Labour were in power being used to scupper any change at all which would effectively be the result if we were to follow Harman's logic to its conclusion.

Oh and in case anyone is in any doubt of course I think we should do our best to improve voter registration. It just cannot be used as a way of holding all other reforms to ransom.


James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Labour have nothing to fear from changing the boundaries. Repeated studies have shown that it won't especially redress the existing Labour bias in the system. As far as I'm concerned, if it keeps the Tories happy and further weakens the single member-constituency link then I'm all for it.

Where they might have a point from the point of view of denying people representation is if the review is based solely on the electoral register. I'm trying to ascertain to what extent it is based on the register and not, as would seem more sensible, census returns (I'm surprised that I don't know this and am having trouble finding out). Furthermore, the Electoral Commission has recently published a study on how registration fares across the UK.

It seems to me that we have all the data we need at our fingertips already to draw up these boundaries in a fair way. All that we need to do is pull the various statistics together, in an open and transparent way, and agree upon a formula. This will resolve the Labour objection while getting the Tories their review.

And then the rest of us can concentrate on the thing that REALLY leads to political exclusion: the voting system.

Mick Anderson said...

I'm rather inclined to the view that anybody who has remained off the electoral register during such a close-fought election obviously prefers it that way. They don't want to be counted.

There's also the issue of all the dodgy postal votes that should be addressed.

However, neither of these issues should stop the boundaries commission from acting.

David Weber said...

"But perhaps a more fundamental objection to this approach is that if we were to accept Harman's principle that there should be no redrawing of boundaries until voter registration figures improve"

I don't think that's necessarily what's implied. I think more important should be to establish exactly *who should* be registered, and build the constituencies around that. In other words, in the next census (next year?) draw the boundaries around the number of eligible voters in each constituency, registered or not.

Neil Harding said...

I think the three commenters above make similar points, but just to add, when you consider registration is much lower in urban seats, Labour seats actually contain more eligible voters than Tory ones. But the Tories aren't interested in that sort of 'equalising constituencies, which is why their naked partizanship is being question by Harman.