Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday 3 January 2016

Labour have forfeited any right to complain about boundary changes

So the (evil natch) Tories have got themselves a majority and are now going to press ahead with boundary reform. They intend to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and also to even up the number of voters in constituencies to within about a 5% margin. This is in contrast to the situation at the moment where there can be huge disparities between numbers of voters with some constituencies being 4 or 5 times the size of others.

Now before I get into how Labour have no right to whine about this let me just reiterate my long held position on our electoral system. I think First Past the Post is not fit for purpose. I think it hugely distorts results, forces parties to focus on a tiny number of swing voters in marginal seats and prevents new parties from getting a foothold hence allowing our atrophied and sclerotic politics to perpetuate.

But Labour don't agree with this. Since the Second World War they have been in power cumulatively for 30 years, most recently the 13 years from 1997 to 2010. In all those long years, and especially when Blair had his big majorities between 1997 and 2005 they could easily have put through a change to the electoral system to make it more proportional (or what I would call "fairer"). Indeed after the Jenkins Commission (set up by the new Labour government) reported in 1998 and recommended we change to a system of Alternative Vote Plus (a preferential system topped up to add proportionality) they would have had the perfect political opportunity. But they chose not to do this. The system that had served them so well and given them a huge majority was deemed fine and dandy. Blair has subsequently admitted as much.

The boundaries have long favoured Labour because of their vote distribution and the constituency sizes. Until the night of the long sgian dubhs they could expect to get significantly more seats than the Tories even if their vote share had been the same. It's questionable whether this is still the case following their rout in Scotland but nevertheless this held for many, many years.

So what we essentially had was an electoral system that was strongly bent in favour of the two main parties, Labour and the Tories, and then within that bending, it was bent a little further in favour of Labour than the Tories. Labour were fine with the massive bending towards the two main parties, and of course the extra bending towards them in favour of the Tories.

Unsurprisingly the Tories, while happy with the overall massive bending towards the two main parties were not happy with this extra bias towards Labour. They saw an opportunity to "fix" this problematic (for them) part of the system by evening up the constituency sizes and reducing their number. They were (and are) able to use the cover of "making the system fairer" even though the effect will be to bend things more in their favour. Analysis suggests it may give them another 20 or so seats compared to what they would get at the moment. It's not an exact science but most observers agree it will be to their benefit.

And of course Labour are not happy with this change. There are cries of "foul" and "gerrymandering". But they've brought this on entirely themselves. A rotten system that was bent in favour of red/blue hegemony but slightly more towards red will now be a rotten system that will be bent a little more towards blue. But the Tory argument that evening up the constituency sizes will be fairer is very hard to rebut. It is unfair that there is such disparity in the system and Labour could get more seats than the Tories for the same vote. If you accept the premise that FPTP is the best system (as Labour clearly have every time they achieve power) then you simply don't have a leg to stand on trying to claim what the Tories are doing is unfair.

I'd scrap the whole lot and change it to multi-member constituencies using a preferential voting system. But Labour have never done anything like that for Westminster and there are no signs they want that now. Maybe after another 15 years of opposition (which is looking increasingly likely with the Corbyn/McDonnell nexus) they'll change their mind again. Although even if they do I'd have no confidence in them actually changing things were they ever to fluke back into power again.

But in the meantime the best thing they can do about the incipient Tory changes is pipe down.

They long ago forfeited any right to complain about "unfairness" in our electoral system.