Amidst all the sound and fury (from the Conservative benches), about the delay in implementing boundary changes, agreed by a substantial majority in the Lords last Monday evening, one important argument seems to have got lost.
When Labour left office in May 2010, we were given to understand that the electoral register was some 92% complete. Parliament decided in the discussions on the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill that this was a sufficiently robust basis for the redrawing of constituencies along strict arithmetic lines.
Subsequently, research by the Electoral Commission established that it was nothing like as complete. Nationally, the figure was only some 82%, and (significantly) drilling-down on the situation in a number of inner-city areas like Glasgow and central London, showed that one in four voters might be missing in those parts of the country. The national discrepancy was bad enough, but wide range of accuracy figures – which is almost certainly got even worse in the last two year s- calls into question the whole validity of the process? To proceed with the wholesale re-drawing of boundaries, at vast expense, on this basis would have been irresponsible.
Meanwhile, the authoritative and independent British Academy has warned that with “approximately 6 million eligible voters…missing from the register, most likely to be young people, students, members of some ethnic minority groups, those who live in converted properties or those do not own their own properties, [this] could lead to an under-representation of urban areas in the electoral map currently being prepared by the Boundary Commission for the 2015 general election.”
Conservative party tacticians appear to think that the current boundaries distort the electoral process. The scale of this is tiny compared with the way in which Lib Dem voters are under-represented. When the Commons considers this issue again on 29th January, let’s hope that these hard facts are central to the debate.
Given that the factual basis for our decisions on the previous bill was founding wanting, we should recall the wise words of that great Liberal, John Maynard Keynes, “when the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
* Paul Tyler is the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Lords on constitutional reform issues