Monday, 12 November 2012

An Odd Political Feeling

So, I was reading in the Guardian online about the issue of boundary reform.  This is the Conservative party's desire to reduce the overall number of MPs and change how they are divvied up.  However, they are facing a revolt (or at least resistance) from their nominal coalitian partners, the Lib Dems:
The Conservatives are in talks with the Democratic Unionist party (DUP)to win their backing for moves to cut the number of MPs at Westminster, Tory sources have told the Guardian.
The party is also looking to win the support of one of the nationalist parties in a bid to keep alive constituency boundary reforms that would improve Tory chances of securing an overall majority at the 2015 election. Prime minister David Cameron fears Labour and Liberal Democrats will combine to defer the boundary reforms until after the election.
The DUP, for reference, are one of the Northern Irish parties.

Usually, I'd enjoy at least a little Schadenfreude at the failings of a right wing party.  That's double in a case like this, which could easily be called gerrymandering (second comment below the article!)  But instead I feel somewhat conflicted.

It's not a case of supporting the Conservative's moves, either.  I'm not afraid to endorse the actions of my political opponents when they do something smart.  It's simply that I'm in two minds about this issue as a whole; there's enough of me to think this is a bad idea to want to enjoy the Tory's discomfort, but I can't because the rest of me thinks this might be the right idea.

Let's start with the idea to reduce the number of MPs.  The justification for this seems to be tied in to the expenses scandal, with the suggestion that there were too many people in government for what needed to be done.  However, I'm not sure that this is true.  Part of this is that I look at the US, where a reluctance to increase the House of Representatives has lead to the average size of a Congressional District being three-quarters of a million, ranging from half to a full million.  Representatives need sizeable staffs to manage those areas and are inevitably disconnected from the people they are supposed to speak for.  Contrast that with the UK, where my father (who's no one special) has talked with our new MP on several occasions about issues that concern him.  All UK MPs have surgery hours where they can hear from their constituents.

Of course, that wouldn't suddenly change if we dropped a few MPs.  The UK has a very high level of representation even compared to other European countries; about ninety thousand people per constituency, compared to I think 130k in Germany.  More to the point, the largest current constituency -- the Isle of Wight -- has a population of 110k.  If you divided the UK into constituencies of that size, we'd have about 560, compared to 650 now and 600 under the Tory plans.  So it should be possible to reduce the House of Commons without destroying British democracy.

But, just because something is possible doesn't mean it's wise.  I guess that at heart I simply don't think there is any real need to cull the politicians, and I kind of like the high level of UK representation.

The other main element of the Conservative's plans is to change how boundaries are drawn.  At the moment, there is a distinct unevenness in the allocation of seats, which happens to hurt the Conservative party.  As I understand it the proposal would lead to more equally sized constituencies, and in doing so reduce some of the advantage held by Labour.

One of the simplest ways to look at the bias in constituencies is to look at their average size in the four countries of the UK:

  • Wales: 77 thousand;
  • Scotland: 89 thousand;
  • UK: 96 thousand;
  • England: 99 thousand;
  • Northern Ireland: 101 thousand.

Note that these are total population, not voters, so I'm assuming that doesn't offer a large bias.  Still, we can see that the Scots and Welsh are overrepresented in parliament  and the English and Northern Irish under.  What's more, the Conservatives currently fair very poorly in Scotland (and to a lesser extent in Wales).

The immediate question is why this difference exists.  Was it the eeeeevil plan of the last Labour government, under whom the current boundaries where redrawn?  Well, no; as far as I can tell the main change under Labour was to reduce the representation of Scotland.  The Scots used to be even more overrepresented, a legacy of the Act of Union of 1707 I think.  With the implementation of the Scottish parliament to handle purely Scottish affairs, their representation in Westminster was reduced.

A good chunk of the remaining overrepresentation of Scotland comes from just two seats: Orkney and Shetlands, population 32 thousand, and the Western Isles, population 26 thousand.  These are sparsely populated island chains; despite being the smallest constituencies in terms of population, they are among the largest in terms of area.  It seems difficult to suggest an alternative that would not make it too hard for the people living there to have access to their representative.

The last time I looked at this, a couple of years ago, Scotland basically ran even with the UK after those two seats were removed from consideration.  Now I find that this is not the case, suggesting that the remaining difference may be due to differing rates of population growth.

I don't know why Wales is so heavily represented.  I do know that the number of seats Wales gets is mandated by law to be a minimum of 35.  Whether this was for similar reasons to the Scots, or simply a legacy of population reassignment, I'm not sure.

Even beyond this, however, there are biases in the size of seats in England.  Labour-friendly seats in the urban centres of the north tend to be smaller than Conservative-friendly seats in the rural South-East.  This seems to be a combination of population changes over the years (related to the decline of the manufacturing industry) together with the conservative nature of the Boundary Commission's reforms, generally making minor changes rather than redrawing the whole map.

So, having looked at the reasons for the unequal distribution of seats across the UK, what can we conclude?  Well, it's probably time to have some major reforms to fix things.  The moderate approach of the Boundary Commission to redrawing constituencies is a benefit overall, but may need a whack to bring things back into line every so often.  Whatever the reason for the excess of Welsh seats, it seems antiquated and anti-democratic, especially with a separate Welsh Assembly.  Even the disparity in the Scottish islands can surely be reconsidered in an age of mobile phones and email.

But, again, just because change might be timely doesn't mean that any change is good.  There is something unseemly about a party rewriting the rules to aid them in future elections; on the other hand, this is ultimately the cost the Conservatives have had for having a narrow base of support and alienating the extremities under Thatcher and Major.

Hence, the feelings of uncertainty I mentioned at the start of this article.  I kind of think this reform is a good idea; but there's enough about it I don't like to make me feel uneasy, and I'm not really willing to give the Conservatives the benefit of the doubt.

Oh well.  It's not like I'm registered to vote, anyway.

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