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.