Opinion: Lords avoid falling into Labour’s “elephant trap” – just

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituency Bill advanced to its second reading in the House of Lords earlier this month after narrowly avoiding a referral motion tabled by Labour peer Lord Falconer.

Lord Falconer had argued that the bill was hybrid as it treated two existing parliamentary seats – Orkney and the Western Isles – as special cases that would have been exempt from the constituency boundary redrawing element of the bill.

The motion was defeated by 224 votes to 210, allowing the second reading of the bill to take place.

But there needs to be a closer look as to how legitimate this claim of “hybridity” was. After all, the Lords spent several hours debating this issue – time that could have been spent on other matters.

Lord McNally, leader of the Lib Dems in the Lords and a junior minister in the Ministry of Justice, described the referral motion as “an elephant trap”, adding that Lord Falconer didn’t “have a leg to stand on.”

If Lord McNally is to be believed, then Lord Falconer and the peers that backed him during the debate were truly taking part in a “piece of parliamentary mischief”, to quote Lord Strathclyde.

We all know that Labour has opposed the bill – in particular the part that would equalise the constituency sizes – and voiced their opposition during the Commons debates. They also know that if May 5, 2011 is to be the date for the proposed AV referendum, then the bill needs to make a swift progression through the upper chamber.

Had the referral motion been successful then the bill would have had to be examined by a specially convened committee, forcing either a delay in the referendum or the splitting of the bill into its two constituent parts. This would have provided Labour with two chances of driving a wedge between the two parties that make up the coalition.

There are a number of issues with the bill. Firstly, if constituencies are to be redrawn to ensure that each MP represents the same number of people, then a decision is needed as to whether this is based on registered voters or total population. The Tories want the latter, as many of those unregistered would likely be Labour supporters. But Members would do well to remember that they represent everyone in their constituency, not just those that voted for them and that includes those who didn’t vote and those who cannot vote.

Second, the bill includes measures to reduce the number of MPs to 600. But the coalition recently rejected appeals to reduce the numbers of ministers in the Government. Reducing the number of MPs by over 50 while keeping the number of ministers the same reduces the size of the backbench, a move that would almost certainly create a weaker House of Commons.

Lord Falconer and his supporters would do well to keep focused on these issues and stop with the gamesmanship.

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13 Comments

  • Mike(The Labour one) 27th Nov '10 - 11:03am

    ‘Firstly, if constituencies are to be redrawn to ensure that each MP represents the same number of people, then a decision is needed as to whether this is based on registered voters or total population. The Tories want the latter, as many of those unregistered would likely be Labour supporters. But Members would do well to remember that they represent everyone in their constituency, not just those that voted for them and that includes those who didn’t vote and those who cannot vote.’

    The Tories and the Lib Dems want the former. Exactly Labour’s point, it’s the second stage of a gerrymander that began with the Poll Tax.

    Also- ‘They also know that if May 5, 2011 is to be the date for the proposed AV referendum, then the bill needs to make a swift progression through the upper chamber.’

    Seeing as Labour has said that it will not campaign for it on that date because the elections on the same day are more important, why do you think this is a victory? My Labour lot would have actively campaigned for AV, but we can’t afford to waste time on a doomed venture when the Tories in our area probably won’t waste time and resources arguing for the No camp.

  • It’s quite easy to reduce the number of minister at any point in the future, but clearly, a period of coalition govt (when there are already lots of unhappy “nearly-ministers” on the backbenches) isnt a good time.

    On the other point, it has to be registered voters. Going on residents of any kind will get you into a hugely complex mess. First, you end up with constituencies with small numbers of voters if you have a big prison present (even more complex if prisoner voting is brought in for some prisoners), or a large number of asylum seekers, etc. If you carry this logic down to local election level it gets even worse, as you’d have entire wards that were just a prison, or just a boarding school, etc.

    Then you get more problems because you have to count children among the numbers of residents. After all, if the argument is that people not registered to vote still have to be looked after, that doesnt stop just because those people are under 18. Therefore, rural seats and seaside retirement-town seats become huge in numbers of voters compared to suburban and inner-city seats because the former contain hardly any children. If the logic is followed strictly, some seaside towns could have double the number of actual voters to child-heavy suburban seats. If the logic isnt followed strictly, then why bother?

    The argument about having more work to do in a constituency if there are more unregistered voters is a red-herring. That opens up a whole can of worms with MPs/cllrs giving the old “my constituency is more difficult than yours” line. In fact the “difficulty” of representing an area has very little to do with the number of people in it, and much more to do with the type of people in it and the endemic problems in that area. If we are to base constituency size on how “difficult” we think representing it is, then a whole new complex and subjective argument appears about the demographics of every constituency. Inevitably, Labour will argue that deprivation makes it harder, while the Tories will argue that huge rural constituencies make it harder.

    The cleanest and clearest rule to follow is that constituency size should be linked to number of voters. Simple, easy, fast, logical, honest.

  • Anthony Aloysius St 27th Nov '10 - 11:27am

    “If we are to base constituency size on how “difficult” we think representing it is, then a whole new complex and subjective argument appears about the demographics of every constituency.”

    Well, quite. People will be suggesting exceptions should be made for geographically large constituencies next …

  • A different view 27th Nov '10 - 11:31am

    This post was a bit confused. The debate about drawing boundaries is not primarily focussed on whether seats should be drawn on the basis of registered voters or population. Although there is an argument for the latter, it is generally agreed that the registered electorate is a more legitimate and stable basis for constructing the electoral map. One of the central complaints about the Bill stems from the fact that not all eligible voters are currently registered to vote; yet Nick Clegg’s timetable for the boundary review requires the December 2010 electoral roll to be used as the basis for drawing new boundaries. He himself admits that over 3.5 million eligible voters will therefore be ignored. Under registration is most acute in urban areas and the majority are young people, poor people, and those from ethnic minorities. Ignoring these people from the review will therefore produce a distorted electoral landscape. So there is an objection to the timing of this reform, which is undemocratic. There are also objections to other aspects of the boundary review process. To make seats more equal in size – a principle that everyone accepts – the Bill will set a new UK wide electoral quota (of approx 75,800) and stipulate that the paramount rule for the Boundary Commission to follow when drawing constituencies is that no seats are than 5% above or below that number. Except, of course, the exempted Scottish seats. The problem is that this very tight limit on disparity from the ideal quota will lead to strange constituencies that ignore georgraphy, history and community. In fact the Bill itself recognises the impracticality of the 5% margin of error in respect of Northern Ireland, and there is a separate clause to disallow it there! No such allowance is applied elsewhere. Ordinarily, as happened in Scotland in 2007 when there was an attempt to draw the MSP seat boundaries according to rigid mathemitcal rules designed to produce greater equality, local public inquiries would enable communities to object to impractical or unpopular Boundary Commission recommendations. For example, in Scotland there were widespread complainsts about seats that crossed the River Clyde and so on, and recommendations were changed. But the PVSC Bill abolishes the right to hold a public inquiry into future Boundary Commission recommendations. Not very localist. It does that because inquiries can take time and so would disrupt the government’s determination to complete the review in time for the next election. Many argue, especially on the Labour side, that this is putting party interest before the public interest. On that note, the decision to shrink the Commons to 600 seats is clearly politically motivated. That figure was in the neither the Lib Dem nor Tory manifestos. Both advocated an even smaller House before the election. But their internal modelling – notably that done by CCHQ – revealed that once the House is cut below 600 the number of Tory seats that end up being abolished rises considerably. So they drew the line there. That said the Bill is aimed at solving a legitimate political problem in the eyes of the Tories – which is that Labour gets more seats than its total vote would seem to warrant. This is a recent development. In the 1950s amd 1960s the system aided the Conservatives in this way. Labour’s current advantage in this respect is down to two factors: one is that turnout in many Labour held seats is lower than that for the other parties, which exaggerates the calculation that fewer votes returns more seats. The bigger issue is the distribution of the Labour vote, which in geographical terms is located more efficiently for the purposes of first-past-the-post system than either the Tory or Lib Dem vote. But the Bill doesn’t actually address this fundamental issue. It hurts Labour electorally that’s for sure – that is the point of it – albeit it does so in a clumsy and undemocratic way that will do wider damage to the political process. The irony is that there is only one way of fundamentally resolving the problem of turning the proportion of votes into an equal proportion of seats – Proportional Representation. But that’s not in the Bill. The referendum is only about AV, which as every Liberal Democrat will know, is the only electoral system that can produce a more disproportionate outcome than FPTP.

  • Whilst I agree that it’s too difficult to consider population rather than electoral role, one point I just found out about that grates me (particularly because it affects me): it will only consider registered voters that can vote in Westminster elections
    That means that Europeans are excluded even if they are registered, which will have a particularly big effect in London. 🙁

  • 3 questions for the experts please:

    Are current constituency boundaries not based on registered voters?

    Who appoints the boundary commissioners?

    What criteria do they use?

    The boundaries in my constituency make no logical sense, on geographic or population balance, I can only conclude they are political.

  • Reducing the number of MPs only makes sense if the purpose is to weaken Parliament. Every Liberal Democrat MP says the workload is enormous. How are they going to cope if their constituencies are made even larger? Reducing the number of MPs will hurt the Liberal Democrats disproportionately, since several of our MPs have small constituencies and depend on the reputations they have built up within their existing constituencies to get elected. It’s a Tory trick. Which is why only the most purblind Cleggmaniacs are willing to defend this elitist, anti-democratic manouevre.

  • Andrew Suffield 27th Nov '10 - 7:08pm

    The boundaries in my constituency make no logical sense, on geographic or population balance, I can only conclude they are political.

    They’re frequently historical, or even worse, historical politics.

    The Tories and the Lib Dems want the former. Exactly Labour’s point, it’s the second stage of a gerrymander that began with the Poll Tax.

    The flip side is, due to the highly polarised patterns of population migration in the UK, keeping constituency boundaries the same is an indirect gerrymander in favour of Labour.

    This bill does at least have the advantage of using an objective measurement (all constituencies the same number of people), which is better than most attempts that have been made to sort this mess out.

  • Mike(The Labour one) 27th Nov '10 - 7:14pm

    ‘This bill does at least have the advantage of using an objective measurement (all constituencies the same number of people), which is better than most attempts that have been made to sort this mess out.’

    The same number of registered voters, not people. While there is still chronic under-registration (which Labour should have fixed. They didn’t, but it’s still wrong). All these people who should register, if they do so after the boundary review, will mean a huge bias in favour of the Tories and Lib Dems as the groups who are most under-represented are more Labour’s demographic.

    It’s pointless anyway, the voting system has been weighted in favour of different parties at different times. Without PR it will always be like that.

  • Francis,

    “An ill-advised idea trying to jump on the anti-politician post-expensesgate bandwagon, sure, but not a Tory trick.”

    Actually, it’s a throwback to the days when we were advocating regional assemblies. It should never have been in the Manifesto and is one commitment we would be absolutely right to dump.

    We should be under no illusion as to how serious this is. In Wales, all three Lib Dem MPs have constituencies that are of below average size. Would any of them survive a redrawing of the boundaries on the basis of arbitrary population criteria against which there will be no right to call for a public inquiry? My suspicion is we will lose two out of three, even if we maintain the same level of support we had in May. The same could apply to Scotland, but it looks as if Cameron is going to let us hang on to Orkney & Shetland, though there would still be an overall loss of probably two seats in the Highlands and Islands. What about Simon Hughes? My bet is the Boundary Commission will split Southwark in two and draw the dividing line from Tower Bridge to Crystal Palace. It is disaster all the way. The Tories are determined to destroy us, and they will ue these partisan “reforms” to do it.

  • “Had the referral motion been successful then the bill would have had to be examined by a specially convened committee, forcing either a delay in the referendum or the splitting of the bill into its two constituent parts. This would have provided Labour with two chances of driving a wedge between the two parties that make up the coalition.”

    If the bill were right there would be no opportunity to drive a wedge between the coalition partners. The bill should be split into its constituent parts and there should be a delay in the referendum. The Lib Dems would have been much better off had the Lords jumped into the elephant trap. This bill does nothing for the case of electoral reform and makes the Liberal Democrat commitment to it seem nothing more than special pleading for a bigger slice of an unfairly distributed pie.

    The only point in having a referendum on reform of the electoral system is to give democratic legitimacy to whatever system is chosen by the people. There is no such thing as a truly democratic system of electing a representative parliament and much as Liberal Democrats like to believe that proportional representation is truly democratic and liberal you are wrong. It has become a mantra of faith that you are blinded by. An electoral system is only as democratic as people think it is. If people have an understanding of how it works and believe it to be fair, it’s democratic. Proportionality is subbordinate to peoples faith in an electoral system in giving it democratic legitimacy. For a referendum to offer democratic legitimacy it must have a full range of options and it must be held in a clean and unfettered way which means in isolation from all other elections and constitutional add-ons. Anything other than this leaves us in exactly the same position after the referendum as prior to it. The bill being composed of two unrelated articles will taint the result of any referendum and render any democratic legitimacy void, as will holding it at the time of other elections.

    This referendum is a waste of time and money and is being conducted for purely party political reasons. The impression it gives of the Lib Dems is that you are prepared to give a majority to a government that is ending the welfare state once and for all and is privatising the health service in return for a referendum vote and nothing more than that. As long as that referendum is about something vaguely attached to electoral reform you don’t really care what its content is after that. If the referendum passes it will give you something you don’t believe to be fair or just and if it fails it will leave you with something you believe to be unfair and unjust. As for those who don’t want PR of any kind, giving power as it does, to a centralised metropolitan elite based solely on the personality of a party’s leadership to decide the fate of the nation, the difference between FPTP and AV is of almost no interest at all.

    So those who genuinely do want a referendum want a different one to that being offered and the rest don’t really want one at all.

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