Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday, 26 April 2013


One of the proposals in the coalition agreement in 2010 was to alter the boundaries of constituencies to ensure more equal numbers of voters in each seat.

As it happens, this policy fell by the wayside in the aftermath of the Tories backing away from reforming the House of Lords. But for a time it looked like the equalisation of constituencies was going to happen.

Labour were dead against this change. They came up with various arguments against it but the term I saw used time and time again was "Gerrymandering". This is a term coined in the 19th century to describe a situation where boundaries are manipulated in order to favour one political party.

I bridle every time I see this word used with respect to the boundary changes. The boundaries in the UK have become so distorted over decades that there are some constituencies with only just over 50,000 voters and some with double that number. The idea that the current boundaries are somehow "fair" is nonsense. The equalisation was intended to ensure that constituencies had roughly the same number of voters (within a tolerance of about 5% around the average).

It was likely that the Conservative Party would have benefitted from the changes. But the current situation is manifestly unfair. How can it be the case that in one area a voter has about twice as much influence in terms of how much their vote counts towards electing an MP? So to use the term gerrymandering in the context of trying to redress a huge historical imbalance is utterly perverse and wrong in my view.

Don't get me wrong. I think there are much better ways of reforming our electoral settlement than tinkering with boundaries under first past the post. But after the debacle of the AV referendum we are stuck with our current system for now. So in that context ensuring the boundaries are more evenly distributed is actually fair. It only didn't happen because of shortsighted Tory MPs assuming they could break one part of the coalition agreement and for there not to be consequences.

One final point. All those Labour politicians and activists who are so quick to cry "gerrymander" at the proposed changes should bear the following in mind (taken from Wikipedia):

Because gerrymandering relies on the wasted vote effect, the use of a different voting system with fewer wasted votes can help reduce gerrymandering. In particular, the use of multimember districts alongside voting systems establishing proportional representation such as Single Transferable Voting can reduce wasted votes and gerrymandering. Semi-proportional voting systems such as single non-transferable vote or cumulative voting are relatively simple and similar to first past the post and can also reduce the proportion of wasted votes and thus potential gerrymandering.
Rather than throwing around inaccurate terms implying political corruption they should redouble their efforts to get behind proper electoral reform. Then any future attempts to gerrymander, perceived or real would have much less effect anyway.

But lots of the dinosaurs in Labour don't want that. Could it be because the current system benefits them so disproportionately? They should be careful about that. They don't want to be accused of gerrymandering now do they?


Richard Thomas said...

You have only to look at the continuing resentment expressed by the Central Belt Labour MPs against the Lib Dems for extracting STV as part of the coalition agreement following the Scottish elections in 2003. This has largely broken the stranglehold Labour had across the Central Belt which these stalinists wish back. It is of course the same mentality that most the Tory party has agaisnt any sort of electoral reform.

Michael Emanuel said...

Ah, but "unfair" with regards to who in particular - the Lib Dems? Labour's cries of "gerrymandering" stem from the fear the should any major boundary changes take place, it would be highly unlikely that they would be able to ever form a majority again. I feel the Lib Dem calls for electoral reform come from the fear that under FPTP, they will never be an electable third party.

Stephen Johnson said...

The core goal of Proportional Representation is that each vote for each party contributes equally to the number of votes the party has in the parliament, regardless of where each vote is cast.

This is best achieved by giving the electorate two votes rather than one – one for the candidate to represent the constituency, and one for the party to determine the balance of votes in the parliament, and which party or parties are able to form the Government.

If votes for the party are aggregated nationally, gerrymandering for national party advantage is not possible, and it doesn’t matter how you draw constituency boundaries.

The problem of gerrymandering for individual personal (rather than party) advantage remains, but this is has much less significance. Equal sized constituencies might be seen as desirable as a way of equalising MPs’ work load, but again it is a local rather than national matter.