Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Left Fisk Forward

Will Straw has written a piece for Left Foot Forward today entitled "Electoral reformers should oppose the coalition’s gerrymandering" where he highlights four reasons why electoral reformers should oppose the proposed government bill to change the boundaries and put the AV to a referendum.


I won't reproduce the entire post here for the purposes of fisking but I will take each of the points that Will raises along with a synopsis and address them here:


1) The Bill prevents equal representation

While everyone accepts the principled case for equal-sized seats, time must be taken to ensure that the equalisation is of those entitled to vote rather than those already registered to vote.

This has been the mantra of Labour regarding the resizing of constituencies since Harriet Harman first raised it at PMQs a few weeks back. The redrawing of the boundaries cannot be completed until everyone who is entitled to vote is taken into account, or at least many more of them. The thing is though that all the other times that the boundaries have been redrawn, including the most recent occasions in England Scotland and Wales between 2006 and 2008 this did not happen. And that was under Labour. I agree that we should do our best to maximise voter registration but not at the expense of these other reforms. I see no reason why this issue is suddenly of such critical importance after 13 years of government when they could have done something about it. It is almost as if they are just looking for a reason to oppose the bill.


2) The Bill gives the Liberal Democrats a partisan advantage

Two parliamentary seats – the Western Isles (SNP) and Orkney and Shetland Islands (Lib Dem) – have been exempted from the need to meet new quotas because of their low population density.

Will also goes on to list a few other Lib Dem seats that will be spared from being broken up, all of which are very sparsely populated.

I'm sorry but is he having a laugh!? In 2005 Labour got 35% of the vote and 55% of the seats. the Lib Dems got 22% of the vote and less than 10% of the seats. In 2010 we got over 23% of the vote and got even fewer seats still than 2005. The current system gives a massive partisan advantage to Labour and is hugely tilted against the Lib Dems. I know from conversations with Will that he is not happy about this and wants to see it changed. Even with these changes (including AV), the Lib Dems will likely get nowhere near their proportional share of seats. And Labour will still very likely get far more than theirs.

There are good reasons to exempt the constituencies he lists from the process as they have very low population density and increasing the size of these constituencies still further (without increasing the number of MPs for the seat) would cause real problems.

We are not trying to gerrymander anything.


3) The Bill does not correct distortions in the electoral system

In essence his point is that fiddling with First Past the Post will not help with proportionality.

I agree, it won't. As Will very well knows what the Lib Dems wanted was STV with multi-member constituencies. We were never going to be able to get that. The Conservatives will not go for it (at the moment) and Labour could not have delivered it. There are too many Labour MPs who would not allow even a referendum on this through. So the Lib Dems have got the best deal they could. An agreement to a referendum on a change to AV which is at the very least preferential and ensures that the ridiculous situation at the moment where MPs can be elected on around a third of their vote (or less) in a constituency will be over. It will also reduce negative campaigning as candidates try to appeal for second (and third) preferences from their opponents.

In short it is not perfect and is certainly not proportional but it in some key respects it is better than what we have now and can be used as a springboard to STV later. After all we would already have the preferential voting. We would just need multi-member constituencies.

So I agree with Will on this one but my question to him is, where is the alternative proportional system proposal that can win enough support in the house to get a referendum? He is making the best the enemy of the good. AV is politically possible at the moment. Further change is not.


4) A smaller House of Commons will be be less representative

As Sunder Katwala has outlined on Next Left, “a smaller Commons will almost certainly delay and slow down progress towards gender equality in the House of Commons.”

There are all sorts of measures that can be taken to ensure better representation. The parties themselves have a particular responsibility to ensure they are picking a diverse range of candidates in winnable seats. More encouragement needs to be given to those from under-represented groups to stand. I also firmly believe that if we were to get STV then we would see more diversity anyway as the parties would find it in their own best interests to offer a diverse set of people in each constituency (and as I have said AV is a stepping-stone along that path).

By Will's logic here we should see even more MPs in order to increase the granularity and improve representation. I do not think that is the right way. We have too many MPs and both parties now in government wanted to see them reduced.


I think the thing that disappoints me the most about the attitude of many in Labour, including Will who I very much respect is that on this issue they seem to have approached it from the start-point of "what can we do to scupper this?". If it wasn't these four arguments, they would have found some others to object to it and vote against it.

Although he is in a minority within his own party, I was pleased to see a post from Labour blogger Anthony Painter today entitled "Labour’s tactics driven opposition continues. Disappointingly." who thinks his party are being wrong-headed about this:

“...from Labour’s point of view, that element [cut in number of constituencies] of the legislative package will, in all likelihood pass whatever I’m afraid. It is AV that is up for grabs. Labour has the opportunity to show that it can embrace reform and pluralistic politics. It can show that it is not stuck in the past; a defensive party unable to confront the future. And it is the right thing to do from the perspective of democratic accountability.”

Spot on. I only wish more in his party felt the same way.

Will claims at the start of his post that a "yes" vote on AV should be supported, but the truth is as Anthony points out that the tactics being engaged in now could wreck the whole thing.

As I said in a brief Twitter conversation with Will on this subject earlier today, every time there is a chance for electoral reform, Labour do something to prevent it. We saw it in 1998 when Jenkins was kicked into the long grass. The pattern is continuing. This is one of the reasons why I could never have considered joining Labour. As a party their heart is not in any change to the electoral system.

14 comments:

BenS said...

Indeed, Labour continued naked self-interest has gone beyond a joke now. It's almost as if they don't realise they're in opposition now.

Also, evidence-based blogging my elbow.

Duncan Stott said...

Good overall Mark, but I'm going to have to dock marks for this:

"the ridiculous situation at the moment where MPs can be elected on around a third of their vote (or less) in a constituency"

This is not a bad thing; indeed STV would almost certainly guarantee exactly this. The whole point of multi-member constituencies is that people are diverse and hold diverse views that can't be represented by a single MP. MPs with the backing of 1/3rd of their constituents do have legitimacy, the big problems that the other 2/3rds whose views are unrepresented and disenfranchised, not to mention the 10 million who don't even vote.

Will Straw said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks very much for taking the time to respond to my piece. A few thoughts in response:

1. There is a big difference between a tidying up exercise where boundaries are redrawn to reflect migration patterns (what currently takes place every 6-7 years) and a huge change where 50 constituencies are lost altogether resulting in some very drastic boundary changes. With this proposal, and the much more specific case for equalisation that accompanies it, there can be little justification but to go slow and ensure that you're denominator is right.

2. As you know, I favour a more proportional electoral system. That alone would do more than anything to address the disproportionality in the electoral system. But the "equalise & reduce" proposals are a completely different proposition and there can be little justification for not including every seat in the country. Indeed, the 12,000 sq km limit is entirely arbitrary and therefore opens the coalition up to charges of gerrymandering.

3. I agree with you. AV is the best we can hope for at the moment. But my point was slightly more nuanced. I was stating that the boundary changes will do nothing to address the distortions in the electoral system which are an inherent in any non-proportional system. This is sometimes used as an argument for boundary changes (eg Labour only needs xx thousand votes to get an MP elected compared to yy thousand for a Tory). It is, of course, an argument for wholesale reform of the electoral system.

4. It is unrealistic to think that with a reduction in the Commons of 50 MPs, that there is much scope for the House to become more diverse after the 2015 election. New intakes are generally more diverse than the existing crowd (except ironically for the Lib Dems) and because of this reform the 2015 intake will be extremely small. This doesn't require an increase in MPs, just a natural churn at each election.

On the points about Labour tactics, it would be dishonest to suggest that there are no members of the Labour party who are (a) entirely opposed to electoral reform, or (b) prioritising tactics over principle at present. But I think Anthony Painter, who is a good friend, is wrong in this instance. Indeed, the Labour amendment makes clear the party's support for a referendum on AV. Both Miliband brothers have been clear about their support for AV too.

If Clegg was able to detach the two proposals, as David Blackburn of the Spectator has suggested, the Labour party would support the AV Referendum Bill.

If we want a "Yes" vote (You do; I do) then we must find a way to get Labour enthusiastic about it. The coalition's strategy at the moment is playing into the hands of the Tories who want this scuppered altogether.

All the best,

Will

Will Straw said...

Hi Mark,

Thanks very much for taking the time to respond to my piece. A few thoughts in response:

1. There is a big difference between a tidying up exercise where boundaries are redrawn to reflect migration patterns (what currently takes place every 6-7 years) and a huge change where 50 constituencies are lost altogether resulting in some very drastic boundary changes. With this proposal, and the much more specific case for equalisation that accompanies it, there can be little justification but to go slow and ensure that you're denominator is right.

2. As you know, I favour a more proportional electoral system. That alone would do more than anything to address the disproportionality in the electoral system. But the "equalise & reduce" proposals are a completely different proposition and there can be little justification for not including every seat in the country. Indeed, the 12,000 sq km limit is entirely arbitrary and therefore opens the coalition up to charges of gerrymandering.

3. I agree with you. AV is the best we can hope for at the moment. But my point was slightly more nuanced. I was stating that the boundary changes will do nothing to address the distortions in the electoral system which are an inherent in any non-proportional system. This is sometimes used as an argument for boundary changes (eg Labour only needs xx thousand votes to get an MP elected compared to yy thousand for a Tory). It is, of course, an argument for wholesale reform of the electoral system.

4. It is unrealistic to think that with a reduction in the Commons of 50 MPs, that there is much scope for the House to become more diverse after the 2015 election. New intakes are generally more diverse than the existing crowd (except ironically for the Lib Dems) and because of this reform the 2015 intake will be extremely small. This doesn't require an increase in MPs, just a natural churn at each election.

On the points about Labour tactics, it would be dishonest to suggest that there are no members of the Labour party who are (a) entirely opposed to electoral reform, or (b) prioritising tactics over principle at present. But I think Anthony Painter, who is a good friend, is wrong in this instance. Indeed, the Labour amendment makes clear the party's support for a referendum on AV. Both Miliband brothers have been clear about their support for AV too.

If Clegg was able to detach the two proposals, as David Blackburn of the Spectator has suggested, the Labour party would support the AV Referendum Bill.

If we want a "Yes" vote (You do; I do) then we must find a way to get Labour enthusiastic about it. The coalition's strategy at the moment is playing into the hands of the Tories who want this scuppered altogether.

All the best,

Will

Mark Wadsworth said...

AV is not much better than FPTP but it is clearly better, end of discussion.

The only thing I want to know is, will you be required to rank all candidates in order, even if there are some you despise, or can you use your first vote, or your first and second votes, or whatever?

Assuming the latter, then FPTP supporters do not have a leg to stand on - there is absolutely nothing stopping them from just using their first vote only, is there?

Sunder Katwala said...

Mark

I fear you have missed the point (and the evidence) on the diversity point, and so failed to give any answer at all. It is far too complacent to say "surely there are lots of things we could do".

In fact, this measure simply makes the impact of all of the things we might do when selecting candidates much slower and less important in this cycle. That is because we can predict that approx 590 of the existing 650 MPs will want to stand again, and that there will now be only 10-20 party-held seats for new candidates, not 60-70.

And if we assume the parties (inc LibDems) have been trying hard on this, you need a proper account of the current failure to make progress before you confidently asserting we can first make the hurdles much higher, and then sort it out anyway.

Firstly, race and gender are very different cases, and I really can't see at all what will or could be done about the way this blocks recent progress on race.

My research has shown that Labour has defeated any aggregate ethnic penalty in Parliamentary selections for 2005 and 2010. (Labour's 2010 cohort of MPs was 10.7% BME, and 7.5% in 2005, though the PLP is still at 4% overall because of a lag effect). The good Tory performance will head in the same direction within two Parliaments. So although Parliament is only 3% BME, I argue that the main thing here was to crack the specific LibDem barriers, and then that the turnover of MPs would if Labour/Tories sustained what we are doing, get us there (and esp if LDs could do something), but it would have taken around 3-4 Parliaments to fully work through, and that we should think of any appropriate ways to accelerate the turnover.

That won't now happen on that timescale, because that change will be considerably more frozen next time. We will have smallest ever class of 2015, and the Coalition ensures it will be 50 smaller than whatever it would have been.

The proposal does slow down progress. We mostly keep a group of MPs elected in last 20+ yeas who are 3% BME, and cut down considerably the scale of the (say) 6-7%+ BME group coming in.

That's just a mathematical reality that we don't continue the progress we have been making.

And I can't see what liberal measures parties (such as Labour) selecting BME candidates in winnable at "fair chances" levels should now take to mitigate that.

What would you have in mind?

It is also the case that the LibDem opportunity to get off 0% becomes much harder, but that resembles more the gender problem, which I will post about separately.

Sunder Katwala said...

OK, gender. Here the challenges are tougher than for Labour (and perhaps now Tories) on race, because no party is consistently at women winning 50% of new winnable selections.

Something of a similar dynamic applies, esp for Labour, because the class of 2010 is 46% female and 54% male, while the PLP is 31-69%. So Labour's progress is set back by still being short of 50%, but especially by the reducing of the next cohort by 50.

The Tory class of 2010 was 24% female and 76% male, but that was still a considerable improvement taking the parliamentary group up to 18-82.

So again turnover is good for progress, in the major parties, and less turnover stems it.

We don't see any such effect for the LibDems, despite their efforts, as the class of 2010 was 10% female and 90% male, while the overall group of LibDem MPs is 12% female and 88% male. (So we do really need an account of why you are failing).

Now, I think it has just become in the real world impossible (despite everything Clegg said to the speakers conference) for the LibDems to even get to a 20% female, 80% male parliamentary group at the next election, simply because you are supporting the 600 seat Commons, and I don't think you can get to 25-75

Perhaps any LibDem will explain how to do that.

Before this proposal, you would have expected to have 6-8 retiring MPs, and 49-51 standing again.

You will now get to choose, I estimate, a TOTAL of about 2-3 candidates for LD-held seats instead of 6-8. So all of your new measures may have to aim at those two constituencies. How much difference can that make?

And every LD thinks keeping all current seats would be amazing, so nobody thinks there are more than 5 winnable gains do they?

So explain how you might get to 3% BME or 25-30% female before 2020-25 once you do this?

There is one way to do it: insist every seat comes up for open selection; find a way to do it which does not mean the current MPs have an advantage (political science suggests this is v.difficult); and/or get current MPs to retire at triple the normal rate in the interests of the party's commitment to equality and fairness. If that doesn't happen (could it?), then it won't be a mystery if the LibDem benches next time have the same problem on diversity.

MatGB said...

Sunder, I think, broadly, your analysis is correct on this not being helpful for progress on representational issues.

For those of us that want a more representative Parliament, this isn't good. But it's not necessarily bad, you're making assumptions on how many are likely to retire based on normal averages, I'm not sure that'll be the case, however, that's not the point I'm going to pick you up on.

Clegg was of course hoping when he spoke at the Speaker's Conference that we'd have more improvement; we agree, I hope, that multi-member seats make the task a lot easier overall, right? If I need to make that case LMK.

However, your analysis says that AV won't gain the LDs any seats at all, whereas every analysis I've seen says it will.

Current polling supports this; we know, for example, that Labour supporters who followed advice of such as Ben Bradshaw and voted tactically in the SW are unlikely to do so next time. But will they really withdraw their second preference? I doubt it.

There are many seats where the LDs are currently second (many more than before) and with a good position to gain. While Labour supporters might be less likely to transfer preferences, I don't think that's a massively likely issue.

Whereas Conservative voters are now even more likely to.

AV gives the LDs more seats overall, but importantly helps them gain seats in areas they don't currently hold seats.

I don't think keeping all current seats will be amazing. We'll lose some due to churn, but overall I predict an upward move, even with less first pref votes.

"So explain how you might get to 3% BME or 25-30% female before 2020-25 once you do this?"

Simple. After every GE there needs to be a boundary review under these proposals.


Why not get rid of that and instead just introduce STV based on local authority boundaries for 2020?

Is that something you could position Labour into oferring as part of coalition negotiations?

Because, y'know, that'd lead to realignment proper and we wouldn't need to worry about party boundaries half as much.

MatGB said...

Will, I disagree with you on point one.

Currently, boundaries are redrawn ever 8-12 years, the current boundaries, just come in, are already out of date and it's been too long since the last changes, I think we'd been on the same seats since 1997 GE?

Anyway, they've always used the current electoral register, the last changes (PPERA) continued this trend. Yes, all registers are flawed and underregistration is a problem, but we don't know yet how much the late registration drive addressed that issue; we do know registration was up.

Regardless, under these proposals seats get redrawn after every election, ergo any problematic anomalies can be fixed. We had 3 GEs with dodgy boundaries (and they were, in places, I live in one seat that's still dodgy), if the next one is dodgy for a different reason, that can be fixed, but at least the next one will a) be seen to be fair and b) have a better voting system.

It's been far too long since there was a redrawn set of boundaries, that's part of the problem, some of the anomalies and seat size issues are daft and historic, that really should have been addressed.

I'm worried about some of the details in this, and I look forward to the debate when it hits Parliament where it can be properly scrutinsed, but some of the histrionics and repeated attacks based on the same point aren't helpful within the house.

Your aside about the Lib Dems, as I'm sure you're aware, we lost ground this time due to the stupid voting system, some of the MPs we lost weren't a great loss (I predicted 2 of them, and thought others would be in trouble, their expenses claims were bad), if we'd gained 20 seats, which our increase in votes would definitely have justified, whole different story.

Sunder Katwala said...

MatGB

Thanks for response. I will write this up properly so people can get stuck into which assumptions do and don't hold up. What I would like is the government to get a non-partisan equality impact assessment of the proposal, and to think seriously about how to prevent/mitigate potential negative effects.

You are extrapolating a conclusion I was not intentionally offering.

I think that the effect I outline happens, as a "retire and reduce" effect and then there is electoral change (under whatever system, and there are a few hurdles before we win a referendum for AV right now) on top of it. The reduction does seem to, by this extent, reduce/delay recent progress.

If you can get both major LD gains after the LDs overtake the other parties on selections (where they are badly third), then yes, you could counter it.

On STV, it would help on gender.
I am aware of no evidence in the literature that suggests it would help on race in the UK. Do you have any? I look at that at the end of this long post. (including one piece of negative evidence, perhaps isolated, from a 1992 STV simulation, that it could be worse)

MatGB said...

It's obviously impossible to predict how voters would react, within the UK, if offered a diverse slate.

However, the evidence you cite comes from Dunleavy, someone who I used to have a massive amount of respect for, but after he's still trying to call SV "London AV" and push for it for Westminster despite being corrected by many people including myself, my opinion is lessened, as he's looking at the evidence he likes, and has an obvious distaste for preferential systems.

London uses SV, which is not AV in any shape or form, it's not even properly preferential, which I suspect is why he's pushing it.

But also, simulations run in 1992 would get vastly different results than simulations run now, different issue, but I had to go check when reading an article stating Tatchell foundedOutRage in 1990, the world's changed, a lot, as have attitudes.

However; first non-white MLA, Anna Lo, elected under STV in NI.

We do know that multi-member seats encourage parties to put up diverse slates, if you're in a diverse area, and all the candidates from one party in that seat are white, it jars, whereas in single member seats it's less noticeable and people are more forgiving over it. Even UKIP were shouting about them being a non-racist party as they had a diverse candidate slate. I suspect that was partially window dressing, but still.

I would, incidentally, really like to see the Euro elections run under STV, that could be brought in in time for the next elections to it (the Tories hate closed lists anyway), and while it'll take an election or two to bed in, there's nothing like a live election to resolve this sort of issue.

David Weber said...

"I see no reason why this issue is suddenly of such critical importance after 13 years of government when they could have done something about it. It is almost as if they are just looking for a reason to oppose the bill."

Although I agree about the opportunism, I think it is of critical importance given that such an easy opportunity to get the issue right exists. It's the next census -- apparently scheduled for 2013. I was surprised by this, as I thought censuses were every ten years, and therefore that the next would be in 2011, but even so, 2013 is probably before the next election. It would provide the information required to draw the boundaries around the number of people entitled to vote.

"AThere are good reasons to exempt the constituencies he lists from the process as they have very low population density and increasing the size of these constituencies still further (without increasing the number of MPs for the seat) would cause real problems."

Here you hit on a very valid point, and it becomes a really big problem for Cameron's wish to cut the number of MPs.

If you cut the number of MPs whilst exempting the largest geographical constituencies from any increase in size, you increase the problem of mallaportionment. In other words, far from equalizing the size of all constituencies, the bill will actually result in one or two becoming more out of sync with the rest.

You say later in the article that "there are too many MPs", but you fail to specify why. I see no particular reason to assume that the Commons is too big, particularly granted how centralised politics in the UK is. If there was stronger local government, it is more likely that making the goegraphically massive constituencies larger would not matter as much.

The other problem is that if you reduce the size of the Commons, the size of government in proportion to it increases. This is why one conservative MP was tabling an amendment to tie the government to having a certain proportion of ministerial appointments in relation to to house of commons.

I agree with you on the third point, though. AV is critically important, and Labour should not be opposing it for such obviously partisan interests.

oldbiddy said...

Both LibDems & Tories had promises in their election literature, on television & radio, etc to cut the number of MPs. The revamp of constituency boundaries is part of that cutting down of numbers. It is not gerrymandering, it is keeping an election promise. Ensuring that as far as possible everyone who should be on the electoral register is there is obviously essential but something that Labour failed to do for 13 years. This is actually the responsibility of a local government department and they attempt to do so on a rolling entry basis. The majority of people not on the register have opted not to be on it so would not vote even if included.

oldbiddy said...

I would also point out that on the doorstep during the recent GE campaign cutting down the number of MPs was one of the most popular policies on the local LibDem slate. Time and again we were told that fewer MPs would save money, something they approved of most strongly. They also liked the promise of both Parties to restore many responsibilities to local government, another promise that is being kept. The popularity of these policies means the coalition has a mandate for all aspects of electoral reform.