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Constituency size and liberal norms

Voting: the tip of the democratic iceberg

I was at the Blognation event on Saturday, already covered here by Dave.

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.

Or something. 

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.

  1. Barney Stannard
    June 28, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    When I first read this I spluttered into my coffee and spilt my cornflakes.

    But. On reflection quite sensible. You may be interested by this:


    Which links to a paper analysing the income effect in the US and gives statistical evidence that backs up your hypothesis. The data used show the income effect persisting even when controlling for age and education.

    The only thing that worries me about explaining behaviour by reference to external factors is that there is potential for it leading to a deterministic and demoralising view of humanity by getting rid of personal responsibility.

    With that in the back of the mind, in this particular instance one could view the better solution as being increased education etc to boost the turnout in these lower income sets. This not only would hopefully level the playing field but also empower more people and allow them to assert their own autonomy, rather than relying on others to protect their interests.

    But that is perhaps a pipe dream.

  2. paulinlancs
    June 29, 2010 at 8:11 am

    Thankls Barney. I appreciatee why it would be a rice crispies splutterer at first reading, as it looks like cynical status quo defence etc. All I’m trying to say is that it’s not as simple as the Lib Dems make out, and it’s an insult for them to tie up equal constituencies with AV like this.

  3. mycrippledeagle
    June 29, 2010 at 9:31 am

    I’m curious as to how student voters, who are entitled at the moment to vote in both their ‘home’ constituency and their temporary university accomodation, would fit in with equal constituency sizes. If you calculate constituencies based on all possible voters, including students, constituencies such as Sheffield Hallam or Cardiff Central with large student populations may be under-represented in terms of actual ballots cast. Alternatively, if they are calculated assuming students will vote either at their term-time addresses or at home, some constituencies could end up with over-representation in terms of available votes.

    I would question your assertion that the Lib Dems have had “no restraining influence” on the Tories, though. As minority coalition partners, their influence is limited, but I firmly believe that an admittedly shocking budget would have been even worse if we had a Tory majority government.

  4. June 29, 2010 at 9:54 am

    Students, as with every other type of voter, are permitted to vote for each sovereign body just the once. They can vote once for parliament, and once for EACH county or other local authority for which they are registered at a property. This matter would thus not affect constituency sizes.


    I wouldn’t worry too much if you got two parliamentary votes – I know a couple of people who said that it happened to them too. Bottom line is that it’s not meant to happen.

  5. June 29, 2010 at 11:42 am

    Paul raises very good practical points, but for me there are issues of principle in terms of what democracy is, too.

    James is clearly philosophically a liberal, so I can understand why his main focus is on every vote having an equal potential to make a difference. Hence he supports PR and equal constituency sizes. But for those of us who aren’t liberals, there are other important factors too.

    First, electing an MP isn’t just something that individuals do based on their own values and judgements. It’s about a community coming together to make a decision on who can represent their interests best. It thus makes sense to have constituencies that reflect where people think their geographical community begins and ends. These communities will not all be exactly the same size. It’s about what people have in common.

    Secondly, accountability is just as important a feature of democracy (probably more important in my view) as proportionality. If equal sized constituencies means levelling down by reducing the number of MPs, that weakens the voice all of us have. It especially weakens the voice more vulnerable people have because with bigger constituencies MPs are less likely to be able to get to know their constituents and will be encourage to get elected by positioning themselves carefully than by actually addressing the concerns of their electorate. That means in turn that those who shout loudest will be heard, but no-one else will.

  6. June 29, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    I don’t see why we couldn’t go the other direction – a massive increase in the number of MPs, in order to reduce constituency size and balance constituency sizes a little more, without sacrificing the cohesion which seats enjoy (though it has to be said that even based on the current system they aren’t always cohesive).

    As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m in favour of a unicameral parliament of somewhere in the region of 1200 seats.

    Tim, just out of interest – and I agree that community is an important ideal when it comes to structures of representation – how do you figure medium sized cities and suburbs of London work? Islington, for example – which is clearly a ‘community’ – has two MPs, and the ‘community’ is arbitrarily divided into two. Or take Bristol or Belfast – again, these cities form communities of their own (and their constituent communities are too small to have an MP all to themselves) so they’re pretty much arbitrarily divided into four.

    Is there a way to address that, do you feel, under the current method of organising elections? Or does it need addressing?

    • July 1, 2010 at 10:03 am

      Sorry for being so late in replying to this. Like you and Dan say, I think smaller constituency sizes would help with this (although good luck trying to push that in the current atmosphere: if we have equal constituency sizes realistically we’re talking about fewer constituencies not more).

      One radical idea that I hadn’t really thought about before is to have multi-member seats for some communities and single-member seats for others. It would be a headache working out what applied to what area, but no more nonsensical or subject to partisan submissions than the current boundary commission system. This could be done independently of changing the voting system – it could be a mix of AV and STV, or single-member FPTP and multi-member FPTP. (Obviously I would prefer the latter.)

  7. mycrippledeagle
    June 29, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    I fear my language wasn’t clear enough – I’m well aware that students are only allowed to vote in one of the two constituencies, my point was that because of this, there’s no way to accurately factor this in when you’re trying to ensure each constituency is of roughly equivalent size, so that constituencies with a lot of student tenants could either be over- or under-sized, dependent on voter behaviour and the assumptions used when defining constituency borders.

    I may as well state here that I agree with the points raised above that community representation is vital when considering methods used to elect MPs. I had a conversation with a Swedish relative last summer about how much he envied the British system of having a local MP, rather than voting for huge party lists.

    A unicameral legislature would smooth things a little by instantly creating scope for division of existing constituencies which are not particularly cohesive (a local example for myself being the Vale of Glamorgan), while getting rid of the House of Lords is something I’m 100% behind. I’m not sure, in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal, quite how much public support there is for such a scheme, though.

  8. Barney Stannard
    June 29, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I’m not entirely sure how unicameralism fits into this? Why would it create scope for changes in Constituency boundaries? (per Crippled Eagle)

    Second – the obvious checks and balances point. Which I’m sure you have thought of and have a reply to (Dave).

  9. June 29, 2010 at 3:31 pm

    Well, smaller constituencies would allow greater flexibility w.r.t. both balancing the size of constituencies with their applicability to communities.

    As for checks and balances, well personally I think the House of Lords is a particularly inefficient method of checking the executive – I’d much prefer a unicameral system with more power and independence for the committees and less patronage on the part of the government, w.r.t. members of parliament.

  10. June 29, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    I agree with Dave – say 1,000 MPs with constituencies of about 45,000 would be better than the current system. Smaller constituencies create greater opportunities for independents and independent-minded candidates.

    A London borough isn’t necessarily 1 community – e.g. in Ealing there are seven town centres.

  11. mycrippledeagle
    June 29, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    @Barney (8) – by abandoning the House of Lords, but creating a unicameral legislative body, it sidesteps somewhat the predictable tabloid headlines of “MORE SCROUNGER MPs”, etc. because you’re getting rid of the House of Lords.

    I’m with Dave on the checks and balances issue too – the understanding in Parliament at present is that you toe the party line on issues X, Y and Z, and are rewarded in due time with a government post, with its associated perks and allowances. Backbench rebellions are the only rebellions you ever see nowadays, because all the rebels are necessarily backbenchers.

    But then, that’s what you get when your MPs are careerist Oxbridge graduates with a couple of years of think-tank experience who’ve been parachuted into safe seats. I’ve got nothing against Oxbridge graduates or think-tank employees, but the supply chain of public school => Oxford/Cambridge => think-tank => parliamentary candidate does not make for Members of Parliament who command respect within the local community, stand up for that community, or challenge the broad consensus of the front benches of all 3 major parties.

  12. Barney Stannard
    June 30, 2010 at 12:50 am

    Well it’s good to see that we’re engineering major constitutional change on the basis of tabloid headlines.

    On the checks and balances, yes, it is definitely the case that the committee system isn’t as strong as it should be. I’m not sure that a ‘full-strength’ committee system would necessarily remove the need for a second chamber. Not least because it is much easier to tamper with the workings of committee systems than it is to reform second chambers.

    I don’t think you can blame the demise of committees entirely on careerist Oxbridge graduates. I’m sure some careerist LSE graduates are in on the act. I also think that ‘careerism’ is too simple a lens. MPs want influence – its how they put their beliefs into practice and represent their constituencies most effectively (after all, being senior does help awfully when deciding which hospitals to close). More helpful reforms would be to alter the mechanics of committee chairs and increase their powers. Perhaps.

  13. June 30, 2010 at 7:59 am

    Barney that’s hardly fair! I could give a stuff what the tabloids think, but on the other hand, I don’t think ‘checks and balances’ have been particularly effective with our second chamber – and if one looks at different models of said second chamber, say Australia or the USA, they haven’t been that much more effective either.

    I think the key problem lies with the insulation of representatives from their constituents, particularly from those constituents who can’t afford world class QCs when they are banged up for looking the wrong way at a policeman. There are a few socialist answers to this – right of recall, MPs on a workers’ wage etc – but even these wouldn’t solve the problems that come from centralising power and influence into a tiny village with its insiders and outsiders.

    In the meantime, I’m for more mandatory time for Private Members’ Bills and Opposition policies, some statutory role for Early Day Motions, a stronger system of committees (investing them with some powers like the US House of Representatives has, perhaps) and the transfer of MP ‘jollies’ and minor posts that are used to confer favours like money, holidays, prestige and speaking time from the power of the government to a system of lots.

  14. Barney Stannard
    July 1, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Dave, sorry I was referring to CrippledEagle’s point.

    It’s too long since I did any institutional politics for me to remember the mechanisms which I used to think should be used to increase the power of the committee system, and I can’t be bothered to dredge up my notes, but the things you suggest sound pretty sensible.

    On second house, I’m not so sure the evidence is as clear as you say, but I’m not going to debate it. The only point I would make is that a second chamber allows for a second layer of review of legislation which can be given a degree of institutional isolation from the party leaders by having longer terms etc. The large number of accepted House of Lords amendments points to this.

    True they can’t always stop the earth-shaking things, but government is mainly composed of little things, and on those I think second chambers are a useful review mechanism.

  15. mycrippledeagle
    July 1, 2010 at 6:55 pm

    My point was merely that if you’re going to expand the number of MPs and abolish the House of Lords, it would make sense to do it at the same time, with a view to maintaining public support for any plans to do so.

    The House of Lords does provide oversight of legislation, and acts as a review mechanism, but these facets alone do not, in my personal opinion, mean that it is an invaluable and integral part of our political system.

    I realise that boiling down the problems of our political class to “careerism” is overly-simplistic, but the systems of patronage and the insulation of Westminster from actual goings-on in the country at large (including in Scotland and Wales) do not make for truly representative MPs, surrounded as they are by people who are no less in touch than they are, and ultimately operate in exactly the same bubble.

  1. July 28, 2010 at 1:44 pm
  2. February 5, 2012 at 3:59 pm
  3. February 5, 2012 at 7:06 pm

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