Constituency size and liberal norms
One speaker was a James Graham, from the Social Liberal Forum. His main pitch was broadly:
We’re LibDems, and despite their being no evidence of it to date, because we’re LibDems we’ll have a restraining influence on the Tories, and this is a good thing for which you should all be grateful.
Anyway , that’s where we are, so get used to it.
Oh, and by the way, this means you have to support AV in a referendum, because that’s a good thing, and you lot in Labour had better do it if you want ever to be in government.
If I’m honest, I’d drifted off a bit after the opening statement.
However, one thing made me prick up my ears. This was when he rolled AV in with the Equal Constituency size thing, assuming no-one would notice or care.
This woke me up enough to wave my arms in the air, and when I got my say, to note that AV might be one thing, but that equal constituency size was quite another, and that it was wrong simply to assume acquiescence from Labour on this.
Someone else got up and said equal constituencies was a ‘no brainer’ to support, and that Labour had to get real about the democratic deficit it had created with its gerrymandering and blah de blah.
And so it is that I’ve had to dig out some data on the last election that I tinkered with in May, discovered some interesting stuff from, but then put to one side and forgot about.
Because the need for equal constituency size is only a ‘no-brainer’ for liberal numpties with no understanding of, or desire to engage with matters of institutional bias and the need for the left to counteract this balance as best it can. (This is a point made eloquently by Chris Dillow in relation to an earlier post of mine on PR, in which he talks of FTTP potentially being a tool of ‘Rawlsian justice’, where a seeming injustice in its own right is used to counteract greater systemic unfairness.
So what does the election data tell us about the fairness or otherwise of equal constituency sizes?
Consider these points, established from a bit of excel-based battering of the results data provided by the Guardian.
1) The Tories won 306 seats, Labour won 258.
2) The Tories got 10, 683, 258 votes. Labour got 8,601,349 votes.
3) Average turnout in seats won by the Tories was 68.3%. In seats won by Labour, it was 61.2%.
4) If Labour had gained its total vote figure on the basis of the Tories’s turnout (in places they won), they would have gained 9, 558, 670 votes in total across the country, about 950,000 up on the figures they actually did win.
5) If then this hypothetically increased balance of Tory/Labour votes were used to adjust the number of seats won, the Tories would have won 297 seats to Labour’s 267.
6) The balance of power for a coalition would have been with Labour, and life would be very different now.
Now of course this is all very broad brush, based on an excel crunch which took me about 20 minutes late one night. (Let me know if you really want to see the workings, especially if you want to number crunch further, and I’ll email it to you.)
I simply want to make the point that all is not as clear-cut as James Graham and his mates would have us believe.
The key question we need to ask is why voter turnout in ‘Labour win’ seats was 7% lower than in ‘Tory win’ seats. The standard liberal perspective will be that some voters simply decided to exercise their free will, and did not vote Labour in seats won by Labour, whereas Tory voters were more inclined to vote.
But the other, more persuasive argument is indeed that of Chris Dillow: that there are institutional forces which militate against people in poorer areas exercising what is a legal right, but which they do not feel entitled or empowered to exercise. This is more to do with life opportunity, education, hope, and a sense of self-value than it is to do with whether different political parties are any good at ‘getting out the vote’.
Of course there are many other considerations when it comes to debating constituency size, not least the inadvisability of constituency equality gaining primacy over identified locality (e.g. the absurd recent idea for a constituency covering part of the Wirral and part of Liverpool, with a 1.2 mile estuary in between).
More importantly, there’s the question of voter registration, and the need to take not just registered voters but all possible voters into account when determining constituency size.
What we shouldn’t do, though, is simply ‘let this one go through’ as a minor adjunct to the AV issue, when it is clear that what may have been gained for Labour through constituency size differentials is only, arguably, a counterbalance to the inbuilt social injustices of parliamentary democracy.
The cards are stacked far enough in the right’s favour. We don’t need to give them any more aces.