Larger constituencies present a big problem for the Lib Dems

Both the Lib Dems and Conservatives proposed a reduction in the number of MPs in their manifestos.  The Lib Dems proposed cutting the number of MPs to around 500 as part of a move to PR, whilst the Conservatives want to keep the current voting system, reduce the number of MPs to around 600 and radically redraw constituency boundaries to equalise the number of voters in each.

So over the next five years we are likely to be fighting:

  • a general election in which almost every constituency in the country will be larger than today with different boundaries.
  • European elections fought under the list system where each constituency is a whole region (I’m not a fan).
  • elections to the reformed House of Lords under some yet-to-be-determined proportional system (STV? List? AV+?).
  • local elections, which it would seem sensible to move to PR but I can’t yet find any suggestion that they will be.
  • elections to the Scottish parliament, Welsh and London assemblies and for the Mayor of London under a variety of voting systems.
  • Possibly other elections such as the Conservative pledge to give “people the power to elect an individual who will set the policing priorities for their community”

That’s all a little scary for a party that’s spent the last couple of decades ruthlessly targetting a hundred or so parliamentary constituencies to counter the bias inherent in the westminster electoral system.

To put it simply, the Lib Dems aren’t very good at fighting PR elections with large constituencies – as can be seen from our performance in the London mayoral and Euro elections in recent years.  That’s not a criticism of the party – when you’ve limited resources, trying to achieve everything is a very good way to end up with nothing.

If we really thought about it, the party should be scared witless at the thought of our preferred voting system – the Single Transferable Vote – actually being used.  Most constituencies would be at least 3-4 times larger than at present; but in how many places across the country do we have four strong constituencies together?

The current (fairly successful) strategy has often led to one or two stronger constituencies being surrounded by weaker ones, as activists from a wider area are pulled into the places where we have a real chance of success.

What can be sensibly done at this stage, given that we know things are going to change but we don’t really know how?  Jumping into some grand new organisational structure that might turn out to be inappropriate seems premature.

At national level, the signs are good.  The party had a good campaign – probably its best ever, despite the disappointment of the final result. There will be air wars to be fought, and the party is well placed to fight them.

Locally it’s more challenging.  A strategy that involves volunteers delivering large amounts of literature across a hundred key constituencies and doing much less elsewhere may not cope with larger constituencies (perhaps much larger if we end up using STV or a list system for elections to the House of Lords).  The money and volunteers may not be there in sufficient quantities.

So what can local parties do now, to prepare for whatever might be down the road? Making sure we know all our neighbours is an important early step.  Many already do this, but not all.

Here’s the question.  If you found that you had to plan and execute a joint campaign with your neighbouring local parties, or that you were taking on half their area (or they half of yours), how difficult would it be to do it?  Do you already have those strong relationships?  Do you work together jointly on targetting, deciding where money and activists go?  Do you have a close relationship with the regional party?

Or do you keep yourselves to yourselves, do things your own way, vaguely aware of the local party next door as a name in a directory somewhere.  If so, now would be a good time to change.

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42 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 18th May '10 - 9:03am

    in how many places across the country do we have four strong constituencies together?

    The whole point of proportional representation is that this sort of thing doesn’t matter. The number of MPs elected will be proportional to the popular vote, so one “strong” constituency in a group of four would elect approximately one Lib Dem MP (from its own large share of the vote, plus whatever fallout from the national campaign appears in the other three).

    The difficulties of joint campaigns between groups which haven’t previously worked together are a different matter.

  • Local elections being STV – This was voted for at conference so you’d hope there’d be some movement, plus Scotland already does it plus the Tories are likely to be less reluctant; they do well at the local level and there are as many Labour rotten boroughs to break at the local level in England as there are at the national level in Scotland and the North (outside Tory heartlands).

    “How difficult would it be to do it?” – Er… we already do this. Don’t you? We spent as much time campaigning for Jo Swinson on the run up to the 2005 GE as we did our own constituency. Ironically it’s areas where we do badly that we’re probably most used to this: I imagine successful LibDem regions might have more of an issue.

  • “The difficulties of joint campaigns between groups which haven’t previously worked together are a different matter.” – It might work better. Hang around ukpollingreport (or just know a fair number of non-LibDems across the country) and you hear about very negative campaigns being run. In one case the campaign in a university seat which had looked hopeful apparently alienated the student vote because of how negative the campaign was. Looking into it, it sounds as if the people running it were a very tight knit group which probably makes these things more likely to happen.

    One worry, not enough to oppose the system, is that the internal party politics of STV becomes more important. Okay, multiple candidates from the same party run but I’m assuming the conventional wisdom is that a lot of the literature distributed is devoted to one candidate more than others. I can foresee this resulting in slightly squalid maneuvering to promote one’s own candidacy at the expense of others via internal politicking amongst local parties. Anyone familiar with disagreements concerning who gets which position on the top-up list for Holyrood will be familiar with what I’m talking about.

  • Mark Inskip 18th May '10 - 9:18am

    I think you’ve missed the fundamental change which would come about in an election with STV. Under first past the post, even with a pretty strict targetting strategy we still end up with less than 10% of the MPs with 23% of the national vote. Under STV most constituencies would be in with a good change of electing Lib Dem MPs. There would of course be some exceptions in Tory or Labour heartlands where our local organisation is very weak and unable to mount a decent campaign, but these would be exceptions.

    As to not being successful in fighting European elections under PR, we have been able to get Lib Dem MEPs elected across the country, something we didn’t achieve under first past the post. Maybe we would have liked a higher proportion of the national vote but that’s not an issue of PR verses FPTP.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th May '10 - 9:23am


    If we really thought about it, the party should be scared witless at the thought of our preferred voting system – the Single Transferable Vote – actually being used. Most constituencies would be at least 3-4 times larger than at present; but in how many places across the country do we have four strong constituencies together?

    Er, no, STV doesn’t work like that. To get elected you have to win a quota of votes. There is no requirement that the quota of votes be evenly distributed across the multi-member constituency. If you happen to be popular enough in one part of it to be able to gain your quota just from that part, you’re in.

    The nice thing is that you aren’t forced to use whatever boundaries are imposed on you. You can choose your own constituency within the multi-member constituency to win your quota of votes from.

    So, put together six single-member constituencies to form one five-member constituency for STV voting (this does the cutting down MP numbers as well, and also four’s a bit small to make STV also good PR). They might be mostly weak constituencies, but these days even in the weak places we tend to have a few doughty campaigners running a Focus and winning the odd ward. So, put together those LibDem target wards scattered across the six old constituencies. Call them “our constituency”. Put your Parliamentary campaigning effort which is nominally across all six seats just into all those wards. Win the quota.

    Look, we Liberal Democrats are clever people. We’re not like thick Tories and Labour people whose argument against STV is generally “duh, I can’t understand it, too much maths for me”. We managed to work out their system better than they could, devising the targeting strategy to turn our weakness into strength. We can most certainly work STV and win with it while they with their innumeracy just won’t know how to.

  • Grumpy Old Man 18th May '10 - 9:28am

    It all comes back to the same answer. Use the coalition to prove to the electorate that you have the ethos and the discipline to become electable in your own right. There’s 30% undecideds and the Labour right who are there for the taking.

  • In my area, STV might benefit us. Taking Fife as an example, where after the GE there are 3 Labour MPs and 1 Lib Dem (4 MPs, so it fits quite neatly as an STV constituency.) This, though, doesn’t reflect the overall political make-up of Fife, as the Tories are strong in NE Fife but nowhere else, the SNP have a strong presence in Glenrothes and a fair number in Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath and Dunfermline and West Fife, and of course there’s a strong Lib Dem vote in Dunfermline now too. By my reckoning, an STV election would probably see one MP from each of the 4 parties elected, with possibly one other Lib Dem bumping out either the Tory or the SNP.

    Personally, I’m not actually in favour of reducing the number of MPs – I think it was a knee-jerk policy produced in the wake of the expenses scandal. Less MPs under FPTP would actually make the House of Commons less proportionate than it already is, and would actually make MPs less accountable to their electorate as there’s much more of them to deal with. It would also, in Scotland in particular, simply make the size of the constituency unwieldy – it would be all to easy to have 1 MP for a land area the size of Belgium.

    Additionally, assuming FPTP were to continue, it would be much more difficult to unseat an errant MP – something which both ourselves and the Tories want. Under the proposals for “recall”, the numbers of people needed to sign the petition would increase, and at an election it would be much more difficult for any party to amass the number of votes required to do so. Even if the AV referendum were to pass, this problem still wouldn’t go away, and no party has actually provided an answer to how the two policies of reducing the number of MPs and “recall” can actually reconcile.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th May '10 - 10:31am

    Iain Roberts,

    in reply to what you wrote, you know, I really don’t care. I want the system which is fairest and gives the people of this country the most control over who represents them, I don’t give a monkeys for whether that’s best or worst for our party.

    I take on the point that three member constituencies are too small for STV to deliver a result which is satisfactorily proportional. Whether or not they are particularly good or bad for Liberal Democrats is of no relevance whatsoever.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th May '10 - 10:36am

    KL

    Personally, I’m not actually in favour of reducing the number of MPs – I think it was a knee-jerk policy produced in the wake of the expenses scandal. Less MPs under FPTP would actually make the House of Commons less proportionate than it already is, and would actually make MPs less accountable to their electorate as there’s much more of them to deal with.

    One of the issues is that the major job for MPs now has shifted to doing casework. We probably do need to find a way of having more people with some sort of electoral mandate doing casework, while not having such an unwieldy large legislature.

    Once we have a democratically elected Lords, we might consider shifting much of the legislative work there, while retaining the Commons as a large assembly of caseworkers who also have a back-up legislative role.

  • The current plan does not involve STV but may involve AV, if we win the referendum. The simple redrawing of the constituency boundaries will have more effect than the change in voting system. David Cameron’s plan is to equalise the number of voters in each constituency. In places like northern Scotland, the number of seats would be drastically reduced.

    Orkney and Shetland, Caithness Sutherland and Easter Ross, Ross Skye and Lochaber, Na H-Eileanan An Iar, Argyl and Bute plus Inverness Nairn Badenoch & Strathspey are currently 6 constituencies and between them don’t have enough people to make up 3 new sized constituencies. We currently hold 5 of these 6 seats. We will lose 2 or 3 seats just here.

    Birmingham currently has 8 seats in its metropolitan borough, this will be reduced to 7. Our one Birmingham seat, Yardley, has a majority of 3000. if one seat is abolished, the number of voters will go up by one seventh and they will come from neighbouring Labour held seats. One seventh of the vote is about 5800 people, enough to swamp our majority.

    We could see our clustered seats halved and our isolated seats divided into 2 second places. Do we risk a wipe out next time with a boundary review but no PR?

  • Iain Roberts misunderstands STV. You don’t need 25% of the vote to win a seat in a 3-seat constituency. Consider this, for instance: http://www.electionsireland.org/result.cfm?election=2007&cons=98 – two seats out of three went to parties that didn’t command 25% of the vote, but that attracted transfers from eliminated candidates. That is the key here. The system would be disproportional without transfers.

    But the main point is correct: reducing the number of MPs is electoral lunacy from the Lib Dem perspective. Aggregation helps big parties. That’s why Jeremy Thorpe kicked up such a fuss about PR for the first European elections; he didn’t get it and the party won no seats despite the largest national percentage vote in Europe for any liberal party.

  • Surely, if we are serious about the new politics the first thing we need to do is stop encouraging Tactical Voting. No more ” x cant win here”, no more Bar Charts !

  • Paul McKeown 18th May '10 - 3:27pm

    @Zoe

    I tend to agree. A cost cutting exercise (which this essentially is) should not reduce the diversity of Parliament. The move to equal sized constituencies is, however, necessary, although a limited number of small constituencies representing specific and distinct geographical and social entities (e.g. the Western Isles) must retain their identities in Parliament for the sake of reflective democracy.

  • Kevin Colwill 18th May '10 - 6:26pm

    @ Paul Barker, wanna re-run the election with no tactical voting? It would not be the Dave and Nick show, it’d be a clear Tory victory with Lid Dems down many more seats.
    Careful what you wish for mate. Are you sure that the Lib Dems really lose out from tactical voting? I’m not so sure!

  • Michelle Taylor 18th May '10 - 7:00pm

    Tactical voting is awful for reasons of principle, not for reasons of getting more Lib Dems in power. Everyone should be able to vote for who they actually want in; negative campaigning (and especially the ‘two horse race’ rhetoric) might die down a bit if there wasn’t such a need to be voting _against_ something rather than _for_ something.

  • Kevin Colwill “Are you sure that the Lib Dems really lose out from tactical voting? I’m not so sure!”

    I don’t think anyone is complaining about tactical voting on the basis that the Lib Dems lose out from it, I believe that all parties both gain and lose votes because of it. The issue is not tactical voting itself, but the electoral system that causes people to do it.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th May '10 - 10:50am

    stephen J, what you say contradicts itself – if we continue to use the current constituencies, it can only be made party proportional by also having top-up list MPs, and top-up systems introduce a mass of tactical voting issues.

  • We know that the Tories are proposing to gerrymander Paliamentary boundaries in their favour. Labour did this last time, and got away with it, because the Tories failed to object and attend the numerous public inquiries that were held. This is something Liberal Democrats are going to have to take seriously. Where there are unfavourable proposals (eg, to split a town in two and add in Tory villages on either side), we must object and make the case before the inspector.

  • “Tactical voting is entirely undesirable, the signature of an unfair system.”

    Tactical voting occurs in all systems. Even STV.

  • Hywel, do you have a source of information regarding how much tactical voting occurs under
    PR, compared to under FPTP?

  • “If you found that you had to plan and execute a joint campaign with your neighbouring local parties, or that you were taking on half their area (or they half of yours), how difficult would it be to do it?”

    Been there; done that. F***ing disaster!

    I tried to run a joint campaign over 5 constituencies for a wider election. Funnily enough, I wouldn’t be surprised if these 5 were merged if we were to get multi-membere STV. Afterwards I took a sabbatical as a cat herder to unwind. In most places they simply did not want to do anything – if they weren’t ploughing their traditional council and parliamentary furrows they just couldn’t give a damn.

    I’ve also seen what happens when constituency boundaries change and a new party takes over an area that used to be part of a different local authority. The two did not integrate properly and there was poor coordination between the two areas.

    I suspect that the new system will create enormous problems, though to be fair these will be shared by all parties. Those that are most successful at managing the change internally will have a big advantage in the ensuing elections.

    “Do you work together jointly on targetting, deciding where money and activists go? Do you have a close relationship with the regional party?”

    If the constituencies get significantly bigger (as we would have under STV) it will no longer be possible to deliver large quantities of literature to whole constituencies. The key then will be to identify our strong areas and turn out the vote where it matters. This is what the Tories did in London in 2008: they identified their 200 strongest wards and ruthlessly prioritised them at the expense of the other c.450 wards, with no respect to grouping or other considerations. This is what we need to do for large-area elections.

  • Edward wrote:

    “reducing the number of MPs is electoral lunacy from the Lib Dem perspective.”

    It is. But that’s not how we sell our opposition to it. Rather, we need to focus of the negative way that Cameron’s proposals would impact on voters. Reducing the number of MPs will have the effect of reducing the quality of service they provide to constituents. This is especially true in (1) inner city areas where there tend to be more problems per head of population, and (2) isolated communities such as those in the Scottish Highlands where one MP could not possibly serve 70,000 voters (how does one get from Stornoway to Lerwick in an evening?). Tory proposals have a habit of doing down Scotland. We need to point this out.

  • Just as much of a concern is the huge amount of resource and time it will take to complete the boundary review that will be needed to introduce the new constituencies – there will be irresistable urge to delay, or postpone until after an election (what sitting MP wants brand new boundaries right before an election, with no opportunity to campaign or establish themselves?) – thus by linking the two changes together the Tories have managed to find a way of stopping AV happening, at least very quickly, even after a positive referendum result. We need to do everything we can to ensure a) the referendum happens quickly, and b) AV is, given a yes vote, introduced for the next election, new boundaries or not.

    If the boundaries are radically different (as is very likely) a lot of our MPs have probably had it, AV or not…

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