“We have serious concerns about the government’s decision to change the boundaries, which we believe was an act of gerrymandering by the Conservative Party”
Ed Miliband, Labour leader, 13 September 2011
Calls for political reform spun out of the expenses scandal of 2009 and hurtled towards last year’s general election, with all three major parties promising change in their manifestos.
Labour proposed a non-partisan parliamentary boundary review that would look at the rules for the redistribution of seats, as well as an alternative vote (AV) referendum. Its manifesto said: “The cost of politics to the taxpayer must be minimised but we reject using this as an excuse to gerrymander constituency boundaries in the interest of one political party.”
The Tories meanwhile championed a 10 per cent cut in the number of MPs, while the Lib Dem manifesto stated that it would making voting fairer by introducing single transferable vote (STV) for elections, the number of MPs could be cut from 650 to 500.
We’ve already said no to AV, so now it’s down to the boundary changes to kick start reform. But is it fair, or are the Tories manipulating the system?
The deal struck between the coalition was to hold an AV referendum and to cut the number of MPs not by 10 per cent, to 585, but by almost 8 per cent to 600.
The Cabinet Office told FactCheck: “Alternative (numbers) were put forward in both Houses of Parliament, and Parliament has now agreed that a house of 600 is right”.
The government argues that the obese Commons is the largest directly elected national chamber in Europe. Indeed, only Italy comes close with a lower chamber of 630 MPs.
Incidently, FactCheck notes that not one European country apart from the UK uses the first past the post (FPTP) electoral system. In fact, as we previously found during the AV campaign, the most popular voting system (by number of countries in the world, rather than population) is list proportional representation or list PR.
As political consultant Lewis Baston told FactCheck: “It’s a bit of a category mistake to talk about ‘balance’ in a single member district electoral system like ours. If you want to have an electoral system where the seats won reflect the votes cast, you have to have PR.”
But PR is a pie in the sky, so putting that aside how will the boundary reforms and MP cull change things?
Research by the independent House of Commons Library states: “Academics have noted for some time that the UK electoral system appears to have become biased against the Conservatives in the last couple of decades.” It’s all down to a mix of abstention, geography, constituencies of unequal size and competition from smaller parties.
The library however points to research by academics at the Universities of Plymouth and Bristol whose overall conclusion is that the creation of more equal constituencies would help with reducing the bias against the Tories but, crucially, “it would not assist with the other factors in play”.
Why? It’s not all about size. Labour’s real advantage, the academics said, stems largely from a better distributed vote.
Mr Baston explained: “Turnout in safe Labour seats is low, turnout in safe Tory seats is high… so the Tories pile up 28,000 votes to win Sevenoaks while Labour wins Manchester Central more economically with 21,000 votes – despite Manchester Central being a much larger constituency than Sevenoaks.”
We’d stop short of calling the move to cut the number of seats “gerrymandering” from the Tories, not least because the Boundary Commission is independent.
Labour’s Chris Bryant accuses the Tories of culling the total number of MPs to 600 because it is “a number that would most significantly hit the Labour party”.
So far, we only know the results for England’s new boundaries which have been shown to hit the Lib Dems the most hardest, not Labour. And according to analysis for Channel 4 News by Mr Baston, the Tories aren’t set to gain much.
Though the Cabinet Office insists that 600 is “not a magic number”, as the HoC Library notes, “the number has not resulted from public consultation, nor is it to be the subject of a referendum”.
Will the results for Scotland and Wales change things? At this stage, the jury’s out. But if you were to put money on it, William Hill has just made Labour the new favourites to win the next general election off the back of the boundary changes.
By Emma Thelwell