Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Boundary changes are needed - it will be a democratic outrage if no change goes through

This morning the politically neutral Boundaries Commission published a set of proposals for parliamentary boundary changes. Since these would mean that at least 50 MPs will lose their seats, it is unsurprising that the airwaves this morning were full of self-interested whining from various MPs and activists.

There will now be a period of consultation on the proposed new boundaries. It is entirely possible that there may be some bad ideas in the initial proposals: my experience is that if a strong case is assembled, with real public support, to point out a bad proposal, the Boundary Commission has often been known to listen to representations and change the boundaries they are putting forward, as they did in Cumbria during the last parliament.

The criticisms I make below about those who attack the entire process of updating parliamentary boundaries do not apply to those who think the specific proposals are wrong for their area and come up with constructive alternative proposals to improve them. It is far too early to say that the changes which will or should be put forward will be the ones published today.

But it is not too early to say that it would be a disaster for democracy in Britain if the final recommendations which the Boundary Commission comes up with after consultations are not adopted. Nor is it too early to say that the vast majority of those who appear on TV or the radio to attack the boundary review process, as Labour’s Jon Ashworth, shadow minister without portfolio, did on the Today programme this morning, will be engaged in self-interested partisan politics, putting their own or their party's political interests before those of the country and talking complete rubbish.

Over the years people move: some towns grow, some shrink and very occasionally they even disappear beneath the sea. To keep constituencies at a reasonable and consistent size you need an impartial process to review and update them every so often. The longer you leave it between the reviews, the harder they will be to do, because they will have to be more drastic and upset more members of parliament.

There was a time when Britain had no change to the electoral composition of parliament for centuries. Towards the end of that time, until it was finally addressed by the great reform act in the 1830s, it was notorious that while some great towns and cities were under-represented or completely unrepresented because they were too new, many MPs in parliament came from "rotten boroughs" which had fewer than ten electors - and yes, including a town which had disappeared beneath the sea but still returned two MPs to the House of Commons.

It was to avoid that situation being re-established that Britain set up an independent boundary commission and evolved a tradition which held for decades until 2012, that once the commission made a final recommendation after full consultation all parties had a duty to implement it.

The present constituency boundaries are based on data which is more than a decade out of date. If for a second parliament running no steps to update them are agreed, we will have taken a measurable step back towards the era of rotten boroughs.

Early in the last parliament it was agreed, through all the correct procedures, that the number of MPs would reduce from 650 to 600 and that the remit of the Boundary Commission would reduce the permitted variation in numbers of electors between constituencies. This was based on a promise in the 2010 Conservative manifesto, was included in the Coalition Agreement, and was voted into law by Lib/Dem as well as Conservative MPs and peers. Those people who are attacking the Boundary Commission proposals for this reduction or for more equal constituency sizes are attacking them for following what has been law for five years.

These changes, though made law early in the last parliament, did not come into effect because in 2012 Nick Clegg took revenge on the Conservative backbenchers who scuppered his proposals for House of Lords reform by joining with Ed Miliband to vote down the recommendations of the Commission - and thereby destroying the convention that all parties should support what the independent boundary commission recommends.

Here are a couple of articles from two people who see the need to update our boundaries

 1) Sean O'Grady in the Independent

 2) Robert Colville in CAPX

In my opinion the case they make is overwhelming.


POSTSCRIPT - RESPONDING TO THE ARGUMENTS.

There have been some points made by various critics of the government about which register should have been used. Jon Ashworth made the (valid) point that the most accurate and best registers to use are the ones just after a general election of referendum. What he failed to acknowledge is that the register being used (the December 2015 one shortly after the 2015 election) meets that criteria. When the timetable for this boundary review was set nobody knew when the EU referendum would be held or how badly using the register following that referendum (for which Ashworth was, in effect, retrospectively arguing) would have delayed the review. If it made it too late to bring the changes in for the 2020 election - and in 2015 nobody could be certain that was not the case - that would have meant that election was fought on demographic information two decades out of date.

Mike Smithson makes a far more defensible criticism here of the use of the 2015 register. He argues that this register shrank because of the introduction of individual registration and suggests that an end 2016 register would have given more time for this process to work through.

This is the only criticism of the process I have seen for which I have any time whatsoever - all the others are mere self-serving hypocrisy without a shred of justification. Mike's concerns were shared by the Electoral Commission and unlike any of the other arguments coming forward against the general principles of the review, I can see how it is possible for an impartial, well-informed and reasonable person to agree with it. But on balance I do not.

Let's not forget why Individual Voter Registration was introduced: because there were fears that the previous system was too open to abuse and to electoral fraud. There has been other evidence since then such as the Pickles review that we do need to crack down on such fraud.

If those fears were genuine, then a reduction in numbers registered is EXACTLY what you would expect to see. I don't dispute for an instant that we need to continue to work to ensure that fraudulent or coerced voting is reduced while trying to ensure that genuine voters are not disenfranchised.

But I have not seen any hard evidence what part of the drop in registration represents an improvement (reduction in fraud and error) and what proportion represents a problem (legitimate voters not registering). However, it is almost certain that even individual registration has produced a net increase in error - which we don't know - then an up-to-date 2015 register with that error will still far more closely reflect where voters are in 2020 than a review based on a review at the turn of the century which will by then be two decades out of date.

My fear is that if we keep putting the date of the register on which we base the review back to try to get the allowance for IVR perfect - which we never will - it will get put further back, and back again. Then before we know it there will be inadequate time to complete the review, get the legislation through parliament and give parties time to select candidates in time for 2020 and we'll be going with increasingly outdated boundaries for another parliament. You can agree or disagree with this view, but wanting to get the boundaries up-to-date is NOT gerrymandering.

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