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Votes are becoming worth less

07 October 2016

Constituency changes are about to change the political geography for the worse, argues Colin Buchanan


LAST month, a 24-hour news flurry in England heralded a constitutional change. It was not Brexit; it was not another Scottish referendum; it was not even troubles (or solutions) in the Labour Party. It was a report of the Boundaries Commission for England, which decides the shape of our Parliamentary constituencies. And, unnoticed, it presages deep political troubles for this country.

It began in 2011. David Cameron, leading the Coalition, and fearing another coalition in 2015, hoped, instead, to ensure a Tory majority. His solution, with a specious appearance of justice, was to reduce the size of the Commons, and give all the constituencies equal numbers of voters. Currently, most have between 60,000 and 80,000 voters (quite a few outside at either end). The Boundaries Commission keeps an eye on the numbers, relating constituencies to genuine communities.

So, in the 2015 General Election, within the 532 seats in England, Tories held 70 seats with fewer than 70,000 voters, and 42 seats with more than 80,000. Labour held 91 with fewer than 70,000 and only 19 with more than 80,000. Cameron planned to reduce the Commons by 50 seats (33 removed in England), and, by that reduction, push up the average size, requiring all seats equally to have just under 75,000 registered voters, varying by no more than five per cent. The effect of this would be to reduce Labour-held seats, and sustain or increase Tory-held ones. This was to win the 2015 General Election.

His Coalition partners opposed it, and Parliament delayed implementation until 2020, fixing boundaries in 2018 based on the numbers who registered for the 2015 General Election. When, in 2015, Mr Cameron won a Commons majority without this help, Parliament could not rescind the whole business.

Thus the Boundaries Commission has now issued the first draft of its proposals for consultation. (The public can respond via the Commission’s website.)


THE Commission emphasises its own political neutrality: it exists simply to implement the law. But the Tories had enacted this law unilaterally in their own interest. Labour cannot easily oppose the principle of equality of voting numbers in each constituency, but is arguing that the vast numbers newly registered to vote in the EU Referendum as the basis. By law, the Commission cannot do this; and, in any case, if restarting now, could not complete its work by 2018.

There is, of course, talk of a snap General Election soon (although the legally imposed five-year period for the Commons is difficult to circumvent), and that, of course, would be done with the existing (i.e. 2015) boundaries.

Meanwhile, Labour whistles to keep its courage up, and pumps up its morale by forecasting a greatly increased future Labour vote, and a resultant electoral victory. The first of these is just possible; the second impossible.

The harsh reality is that even a Labour Party with total inner cohesion and a vastly increased membership cannot win a General Election — even with the present constituencies (i.e. in the case of a snap election). Labour would need to gain 100 seats, almost entirely from Tories (unless it recaptured Scotland). But there are fewer than 50 seats in England and Wales where, last year, Labour came within 5000 votes of a successful Tory — and many marginal ones where its MPs were at risk themselves.

The point is this: one-and-a-half million more people could now vote Labour, even in the existing constituencies, without changing the result in a single seat. This is because voting in the 400 or more “safe” constituencies makes no difference to the result: a Labour MP with a 10,000 majority can increase it to 20,000 without any effect in the Commons. Increasing numbers of Labour voters in safe Tory seats similarly waste their votes.

Those sad facts exist even before the redrawing of the constituencies for Tory purposes. Implementing the boundary changes will further secure Labour’s exclusion.


WHY write this as a Christian? Well, the Anglican Communion’s fourth “mark of mission” is “to seek to transform the unjust structures of society”. Our electoral system promotes an unjust structure of government, and we ought to “transform” it. The injustice lies not in slightly differing numbers of voters in each constituency, but in the appalling first-past-the-post voting procedure.

Mr Cameron’s prospectus, “Give each vote equal value”, sounds like justice; but it is more like using a car wash to ensure a car’s good appearance and conceal its poor mechanical state. To sell a car like that is a swindle; for our votes remain hopelessly unequal. In more than half the constituencies, no individual vote has value: the result is known before the polls open; the MP chosen by the party caucus cannot be defeated.

In marginals, votes gain perverse value by being cast “tactically”. The current upshot is a Westminster regime elected by 36.9 per cent of those who voted. Despite this, it claims a mandate to do whatever it wishes. And the boundary changes will further entrench the Tories, possibly on an even smaller overall proportion of the votes.

Anglicans are especially well placed to protest, because our own synodical life has, for almost 100 years, led the way in voting justice. The single transferable vote (STV — backed by Caroline Lucas, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish Nationalists, and all parties in Northern Ireland) delivers the result that the electors want, in the proportions in which they want it, without any tactical voting and with a choice between individual candidates as well as between groups or parties.

The Church of England does it: we hold the high moral ground. But, of course, STV for Westminster would make an overall majority for one party highly unlikely, and would give third and fourth parties the place that their support deserves. So the two main parties continue to covet that overall majority at whatever cost in justice in our representation. These two parties would never elect their own leaders by first-past-the-post; but they insist that we should elect them that way. The winners control the system, and are tying it up for long years ahead.

So, what can the voters do? First, they can protest. Sadly, despite the involvement of bishops in the House of Lords, and despite the Christian voices that bid us use our votes responsibly when elections come around, none of them ever criticises this deceitful system. Instead, they play along with it.

Surely they could at least say: “The present voting system shrieks its deficiencies, but nevertheless cast your vote.” We need to create a national atmosphere of righteous opposition, as there was when Margaret Thatcher introduced the poll tax.

And all voters who favour a party other than that of their sitting MP should press their MP on how he or she can truly represent them in Parliament. At issue is accountability to the voters.

The Scottish Nationalists have found a limited place, but the Liberal Democrats have lost out: in England we have deeply entrenched a two-party system. The boundary changes threaten to take things further, and it entrench just one party. We are being taken for a ride.


The Rt Revd Dr Colin Buchanan is a past honorary president of the Electoral Reform Society, and is the author of a Grove booklet reflecting on the 2015 Election: An Ethical Case for Electoral Reform (2015).

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