On Boundaries

The UK government is considering proposals to redraw Westminster constituency boundaries and reduce the size of parliament by 50 MPs. This has been condemned as gerrymandering by many from the Labour party, who will see a disproportionate number of their current seats eliminated in this review. In the strictest sense of the word, it is not gerrymandering; government MPs are not consulting voting patterns and census data to ensure as many Conversative leaning consituency as possible, and we’re unlikely to see constituencies that look like abstract art. But it is a strange policy.

While the Westminster parliament can be huge and unwieldy, for much of England the MP is the only full time politician sitting in a parliament that can have an immediate impact on people’s day-to-day life.[1] Reducing the number of MPs as a cost-cutting measure, while doing nothing about (and in fact adding to) the unelected, unwieldly and unaccountable House of Lords is either gross incompetence or cyncial manouvering designed to reduce the electoral base of the opposition.

The redistribution of seats is being based on the electoral register as of December 2015. This misses everyone who registered to vote in local elections in May 2016, or in the June 2016 EU referendum, missing some two million voters, much to Labour’s consternation. But the electoral register is a terrible way to determine constituency boundaries anyways. MPs are the representative in parliament for everyone who lives within their constituency, whether or not they are eligible to vote. This includes young people, EU citizens (who can vote in local but not Westminster elections) and non-citizens resident in the UK. Even if these people are unable to vote for their local MP, having adequate representation still matters. It is not just the electorate that the MP represents, but the entire community.

Based on the British Election Study dataset, some 33.79% of the Birmingham, Hodge Hill constituency were under the age of 18 on the day of the 2011 census, compared to 21.25% UK wide. Of the hundred constituencies with the greatest proporption of minors, 68 were won by Labour, 30 by the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats and the SNP won one each. Not counting young people as part of the population disproportionately hit Labour seats. Including non-UK citizens it seems likely that well over a third of the population was excluded from boundary calculations in some places.

The ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system used by the Westminster parliament is an archaic, unrepresentative voting system that is wholly unsuited to a twenty-first century democratic state. The one defensible thing about it is the opportunity for MPs to have a close connection and involvement with the area they represent. For ordinary people to be able to walk into an MPs’ office and have a conversation with the Member of Parliament themself, rather than a staffer, is somewhat unusual and worth preserving in any electoral reform. The proposed boundary changes strike a blow against local representation and accountability of MPs. The UK is badly in need of some proper electoral and parliamentary reform. The boundary review is not it.

[1]While there are full time Members of the European Parliament, there are only 73 for all of the UK, and they deal with legislative matters that seem remote from daily life for most people.

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