Electoral reform: is there any hope?

The British parliament will soon debate electoral reform, thanks to a citizens’ petition. This campaign looks hopeless, but then so did Brexit not that long ago – so am I being too pessimistic?

This was one of the issues that first drew me into politics, back in the 1970s, along with Europe (I was an enthusiastic pro-European from the start). However, since the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) in 2011, I have found the topic deeply depressing. That referendum showed how low the forces of conservatism could sink in order to defend what they thought was in their interests. And then The Economist, the paper that originally persuaded me of the virtues of AV, turned against it, simply because they didn’t want to back a loser. That showed just how hard reform will be.

Is it worth getting excited about? My chief objection to the current system is that  it is undemocratic – not so much in the overall result, but in how the results are achieved at constituency level, where an MP can be picked on a minority of the vote. And then there is the issue of safe seats, which mean that so many people have no meaningful choice. Travelling across southern England during the June election  was to witness a depressing sea of blue. Supporters of other parties were effectively being disenfranchised, as it was not worth these parties putting any serious resources into these contests. I received not one single piece of literature from either of the two main parties where I lived, because neither thought it was worthwhile campaigning there. As it happens they were mistaken – Labour took the seat off the Conservatives. It pays political parties to concentrate on a small minority of seats; the problem for the Conservatives in June was that they picked the wrong ones.

Still, other electoral systems have their disadvantages too, and it is hard to argue that they engage their voters more effectively. Political disenchantment is widespread, and largely independent of electoral system. Still, injustice is injustice. The British system excludes more people than it should, and all too often it empowers the mediocre, rewarding schmoozing with activists rather than dialogue with ordinary electors.

Proportional representation (PR) has been brought into British politics since 1997 (and earlier in Northern Ireland). This was first in the devolved parliaments of Scotland and Wales, and then the largely powerless London Assembly. Elections to the European Parliament were also changed to a proportional system. This has given oxygen to smaller political parties, provided that they achieve a certain critical mass – which few manage. Ukip was obviously a big beneficiary, and also the Greens; less so the Liberal Democrats, in spite of their ardent support – the party has had little idea of how to campaign under proportional systems – preferring locally targeted messages to broad ones. But perhaps the biggest beneficiary has been the Conservatives. The party was practically wiped out in Scotland under First Past the Post – they won no seats there in the UK parliament in 1997, and hung on to just one from 2001 until this year. That is enough to suffocate a political party – as Labour have found in the south of England, outside London. But with PR the Conservatives established a substantial presence in the Scottish Parliament, and led a fightback from there. The party is now in second place, and gained 12 seats in the UK parliament – without which the party nationally would have been sunk.

But implementing PR at UK level involves some tricky calculations for the main political parties. Actually not so tricky for the Conservatives; they have been so consistently opposed to reform in the past that a change of mind would cause major ructions they don’t need – even if it would be a good way to build the party up in north England. Labour would stand to gain hugely in southern England, where it struggles to get traction under the current system. The party has a strong brand with wide appeal, and it could use this like the Tories have in Scotland. But it also reduces their chances of achieving an overall majority in Westminster. And to many in the party, nothing matters more than the possibility of monopoly power at national level.

But there is a possible compromise, which might appeal to the more strategic Labour and Conservative leaders: PR for local government. Far too many local authorities are run as one party states, to the huge detriment of the quality of government. PR would tackle this, and give both parties a chance to establish themselves in areas where the other dominates. And it might even make life easier for parties in those areas where they do have monopolies: they do not have to stuff their benches with mediocrities to make the numbers up – and it should sharpen them up generally, as competition usually does. I think it was Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg’s biggest mistake not to go for local electoral reform in the coalition negotiations with the Conservatives in 2010, instead of what turned out to be that hopeless referendum on AV. David Cameron and George Osborne might just have gone for it. Whether it would have done the Lib Dems much good is another matter – but democracy would have been a winner. The party must not make that mistake again, and it should make local electoral reform a major plank of its policy platform. There is a precedent: the Lib Dems forced local electoral reform in Scotland on a reluctant Labour Party as part of a coalition deal.

That’s one small hope. I don’t see either Labour or Tory establishments having the guts to take such a reform forward by themselves however. The only possibility I can see is if Labour’s newly recruited younger activists take an interest in the issue: such people tend to mistrust systems handed down by their elders. The parliamentary debate will hopefully flush the Labour leadership out. As more younger activists get involved with the injustices of the current system, that could create some real pressure. especially if the Lib Dems can become competitive to Labour leaning voters again.

Long shots. But that is all advocates of electoral reform have.


Parliamentary boundary changes: good idea, could be better

People grow attached to the status quo.  There used to be a large packing crate in our garden when I was a boy.  When my elder brother problem objected that it was unsightly and we should get rid of it, my mother countered that: “But the cat likes to sit on it!”.  This was too much for my brother who took an axe to the crate shortly afterwards.  An unsightly item was removed, and the cat had no difficulty in adapting.

So it is with the British parliamentary boundary reviews.  There’s a lot of fuss, with many saying that fundamental democratic principles are being undermined.  But the arguments offered against them are little better than that offered by my mother (who did come to see the humour of it) of our packing crate.

The idea behind the reforms is that all constituencies should have roughly the same number of electors, so that everybody’s vote carries the same weight in the political process.  That is a solid democratic principle.  The problem is that equal constituency size implies arbitrary boundaries.  Under the current arrangements quite a lot of weight is put on natural geographical or administrative boundaries.  That can lead to some quite big variations in size.  In my local borough of Wandsworth we get three seats, but two of them are 15% bigger than the third.  Across the country the variations can be much bigger, even excluding the peripheral highlands and islands (Western Isles is very small; Isle of Wight very big).  A further principle is to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, which is still large by international standards.

The main argument offered against the new boundaries is that they are too arbitrary, and, to listen to the rhetoric, you would think they would tear communities apart, with half a village represented by one MP and half by another, say.  I really struggle to understand this.  MPs may be moderately important community figures, but they hardly define communities.  If they did we would already be in deep trouble.  In Wandsworth the local parliamentary seats are all very well for the residents of Battersea, Putney and Tooting – but the communities that lie between these (Wandsworth Town and Balham) are carved up between three different constituencies each.  Life goes on.

A related issue is that the new seats will cross local authority boundaries much more often.  In Wandsworth none of the three current seats crosses a boundary.  Under the new proposals the borough will be split between four seats, all shared with neighbouring boroughs.  No doubt this will make constituency casework a bit harder.  But frankly I’m not sure it is entirely healthy for parliamentarians to get too closely associated with their local governments – they are meant to sit above that layer of government and judge in the common interest.  They may even gain from comparing the way different authorities handle things.

Another issue is that boundaries will change more frequently and by larger amounts, to reflect population changes.  Locally we have a major development that will be smack in the middle of one of the new seats; when all these new people move in this will cause the boundaries to be changed – knocking on into neighbouring seats.  But there’s too much job security with MPs as it is – it’s good for them to have to sell themselves in new areas every so often.  There are too many safe seats as it is.

A more subtle argument is that new areas represent equal electorates but not equal populations.  Quite a few people aren’t on the register, or don’t count because they aren’t allowed to vote in parliamentary elections (through not being UK citizens).  Surely the interests of these people should be represented too?  But it is hard to overcome the principle of equal rights for all those entitled to vote.  And frankly, those who deliberately avoid being registered (which is in fact illegal) shouldn’t be given weight.  The running of a democratic society requires a degree of active engagement by citizens; people have a perfect right to say they aren’t interested and not vote – but if they can’t even be bothered to register, how hard are we to fight for their democratic entitlement? And why should their neighbours be empowered in their place?  There is an issue for MPs with a lot of non-voting constituents generating a bigger case load – but if that really is a problem, they should simply be paid more.

Mind you, the Boundary Commission’s current proposals could be less arbitrary.  They have created some rather silly looking constituencies.  But the consultation and appeal process should help a lot here.  It’s not too hard to come up with some better looking alternatives.  One idea I have seen in our area does an even better job than the existing boundaries, though this may knock on badly further afield, managing to reunite the currently split communities of Wandsworth Town, Balham and Clapham, while keeping Putney, Tooting and Battersea together.

Better still would be to have a system of proportional presentation, where party representations would be based directly on votes cast.  You could have less arbitrary constituencies then.  But the British political class has set its face against such radical ideas; they should accept the consequences.