Published on February 14th, 2013 |
by Kelly Faulkner
Image © UKParliament
Crossing the line or just failing to redraw it?
A fortnight is a long time in politics, or so they say, but when news cycles invariably last no more than 48 hours, we can be forgiven for forgetting what did (or did not) happen just over fourteen days ago…
On Tuesday 29th January, the House of Commons vote on parliamentary boundary reform received relatively little public or media attention despite its contentious nature. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act (PVSC) has, according to the Democratic Audit, ‘proved to be one of the most controversial pieces of legislation to be put before Parliament since the coalition took office in May 2010.’ Had the vote succeeded, the coalition government stood to gain unrivaled advantage as the architects behind the redrawing of constituency boundaries, and the reductions of the number of seats by 50 to 600. It has been sold as a strategy to ‘reduce and equalise’ constituency sizes in terms of voter numbers. Yes, the rhetoric scores highly in democratic terms – few can argue with the principle of ‘fairer votes’, especially in the aftermath of failed electoral reform. However, while diminishing the number of salaried MPs is perhaps far from controversial in the current climate, the potential electoral effects for each party and their respective gains or losses are indeed notable. Early estimates by Lewis Baston indicate that the reduction and consequential boundary changes might lose the Liberal Democrats 14 seats, the Conservatives 15 and Labour 18.
Due to a combination of differential turnout and regional factors, the existing map is widely argued to be biased towards Labour. As such, a delayed constituency boundary review means that the Tories will now need a much bigger lead over Labour in the share of the vote to secure an overall majority than if the new boundaries had been brought in. Under the current system, the Conservatives need a poll lead of 11 points to win a majority at the next election – Labour at present only needs a lead of three points. However under the new constituencies, the Tories would have been likely to gain 20 extra seats and would require a more favourable lead of seven points. And while the Liberal Democrats may be forecasted to lose what appears to be the fewest number of seats; the party’s historic dependence on incumbency for re-election endangers even more of the Lib Dem’s 57 MPs. Call it what you will, but this strategy of ‘reduce and equalise’ is beginning to look like an attempt to ‘divide and conquer’ by the Conservative party. It is constitutional gerrymandering at its very worst.
When elections are supposedly won at the margins, and hung parliaments are no longer archived to wartime past, such dissent by both Labour and the Liberal Democrats is of course self-interested. But to understand the politics behind last week’s defeated vote, it is necessary to turn back to the events of last summer. Shrouded in the fervent buzz of the London Olympics, Nick Clegg made an announcement on the 6th August 2012, which unsurprisingly received little media attention. The Conservatives had allegedly ‘broken the coalition contract’ and reform of the House of Lords was abandoned much to the Lib Dem’s dismay. In order to redress the imbalance this supposedly created, the Deputy PM concluded that he would be instructing his party to oppose boundary changes for the 2015 election.
But balance has not been restored. The aforementioned Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act (PVSC) linked the Conservative plan to reduce the size of the House of Commons with the Liberal Democrat plan for a referendum on the voting system. As both proposals involved a compromise from the parties’ original manifesto commitments, the Act ensured that the Tories would vote for the AV referendum in part one of the bill, and the Lib Dems for boundary reform in part two. Lords reform itself was never linked to the plan to reduce the number of MPs and the ‘reciprocal arrangement’ therefore remained intact since the Tories delivered on the 2010 AV referendum. But the Liberal Democrats lost the referendum on the voting system, and with that, so too the hope of gaining an electoral advantage at the next election. It is then hardly surprising that the Liberal Democrats would risk damaging the status quo of coalition politics in order to prevent further resounding defeat in 2015. If anyone is liable for breach of the coalition agreement, it is the Deputy PM for his orchestration of the withdrawal of his party’s support for boundary reform.
The review will now be delayed for five years, leaving the next election to be fought on the existing constituency boundaries, and seriously damaging the Tories’ prospects of winning an overall majority in the next general election. However the central issue is not Nick Clegg’s increasing propensity for duplicity, but rather the relative ease in which constitutional ‘reform’ can be so swiftly and undemocratically enacted or withdrawn. Indeed, victories no matter how apparently large may be true in party politics but this is far from good news for wider politics in the UK.