Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

Eric Pickles has proposed reducing the number of MPs. But ‘equalising’ the size of constituencies is a deeply flawed policy In his speech to the Conservative party conference today, Eric Pickles claimed to stand for “fair votes”. He did not mean an end to the first past the post system that gives all the power on the basis of under 40% of the vote and ignores votes cast outside the marginal seats. What he meant was a policy of cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 585 and a promise that “we will make all constituencies equal in voting size”. This would be accomplished in time for the general election after 2010. Cutting the number of MPs is a bit of easy populism, made even easier by the expenses scandal. It might not necessarily be a bad idea; the number of MPs should be determined by the need of constituents for representation and the needs of parliament to function well as an institution. However, the Conservative rationale is cost-cutting. It is doubtful that cutting the number of MPs will really make much of a saving in terms of public spending – after all, the same amount of constituency casework will just end up being done by fewer MPs. There is also the possibility that unless the number of ministerial jobs is sharply reduced, there will be more executive dominance of parliament than we have already. The principle that constituencies should be more or less the same size is generally accepted. The issue is how much tolerance for variation from the average constituency size one allows, and how frequently the boundaries are redrawn. Currently, the Boundary Commission allows around 10% either side of the ideal (ie 63,000 to 77,000 electors) with a bigger margin for geographically difficult mountainous or island areas. The Conservatives are talking in terms of a rigid rule not allowing more than 5% either side of the new ideal figure (77,000 after the number of MPs has been cut). To keep within this limit, boundary reviews would have to become more frequent and proceed faster than the current, admittedly ridiculous, system where the boundaries coming into force in 2010 are based on electorate figures from February 2000. Pickles appears to believe that the major cause of the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system evident in the 2005 election was variation in constituency size. This is factually untrue. Constituency size was a small component of the bias, but most arose from other factors such as low turnout in safe Labour seats. Labour’s vote is efficiently distributed, partly because of tactical voting in 1992 and partly through New Labour’s successful electoral strategy. It is quite possible that less...

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Poll position (Oct 1 2009)

The Tories are doing better in marginal seats than the national polls suggest, warns Lewis Baston Even now, unbelievably, some Labour people seem to be complacent about the next general election. The argument goes that the Conservatives, because of electoral system bias against them, need to be 11-points clear of Labour in the national share of the vote to have a majority. This is true only if the swing is uniform, ie the same across the country. While uniform national swing is usually the best rule of thumb for translating poll figures into seats in the House of Commons, it is only an assumption, not a rule. For instance, Labour did significantly better in 2001 than uniform swing predicted because Labour MPs first elected in 1997 often boosted their majorities. The local elections in June 2009 were a test of how far ahead the Tories really need to be to win an election. The ‘national equivalent vote’ of the parties (ie the local results translated into what they would mean in an election across the whole country) was, depending on whose projection you look at, the Conservatives on either 35% or 38% and Labour on 22% or 23%. This means a swing of 8% or 9% from Labour to Conservative, slightly more than the 7% they need to win a majority under the uniform swing assumption. Given that governments rarely repeat their worst mid-term performance in a general election, some people assume that an overall Conservative majority is unlikely. The results in the key marginal constituencies where there were local elections in June should explode any such complacency. While the national swing appears to have been 8-9%, it is much higher in most of the marginals. In the constituencies where more or less any swing will switch the seat to the Tories or LibDems, it seems about average – although 8% or 9% is easily enough to do the job. The ominous finding is from the constituencies where the Conservatives need a bit more of a swing to gain from Labour. In these cases the average swing is 13% or thereabouts, which would cut a swathe through Labour’s parliamentary representation. There were 61 Labour-held seats with county elections in June. Only four would have survived an election like the county elections. This is because the Conservatives seem to be getting the big swings where they need them. In some of the target seats, the Conservatives are simply blowing Labour away – swings of 18% in South Ribble and 17% in Tamworth are extremely large by any comparison, and reflect a particular loss of support in areas where New Labour did particularly well in 1997. In others, Labour’s traditional vote...

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We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

Gordon Brown’s manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote is too little, too late for electoral reformers Labour retains some shreds of its constitutional reform programme that was part of its appeal in 1997, and Gordon Brown’s speech at conference on Tuesday featured three significant promises on reform. We have the most detail on the longstanding policy of ending the absurdity of hereditary peers and introducing an elected second chamber. Another, the ability of electors to “recall” erring MPs by forcing an election, has also been trailed but is a minor and possibly dangerous concession to populism. The other announcement is a genuine surprise. The 2010 Labour manifesto will contain a promise to have a referendum early in the next parliament on one form of electoral reform, the Alternative Vote (AV). This is welcome, but can only be greeted by constitutional reformers with the very thinnest of smiles. AV is a weak reform, and the promise at this stage of something in the Labour manifesto reminds one of Hunter Thompson’s cruel simile of a candidate making promises “like a farmer with terminal cancer bargaining for a loan on next year’s crop”. Even if Labour’s malaise enters spontaneous remission and Brown is still Prime Minister a year from now, this is pretty mild fare. The Alternative Vote (AV), which Gordon Brown has come to support, is a simple reform. The current system asks voters to mark an X by a single candidate (implicitly saying that the voter opposes the other candidates in equal measure). Under AV, voters choose their favourite candidate with a 1, next favourite with 2 and so on. If no candidate gets a majority of 1 votes, the 2 votes for the lowest-placed candidate are taken into account, and so on until someone gets to 50%. Nothing else changes – constituencies will be exactly the same. AV is simply an accommodation of the present system to circumstances where two thirds of MPs are there despite a majority of their local voters having voted against them. The electorate clearly no longer believes that a choice of two parties is adequate. AV broadens political choice a bit, makes tactical voting much less significant, and encourages a more honest and pluralistic relationship between large and small parties. To win marginal seats under AV, a party will need to build bridges with supporters of local minority parties and not pretend to have all the answers. Additionally, AV is probably the most extremist-proof electoral system ever devised, as – other than people who support the party – most voters will make sure the BNP is ranked last on their ballot. AV is not perfect by any means. By the same...

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BNP’s Euro success should not shut door on voting reform (9 June 2009)

The two electoral systems most widely discussed for Westminster are both less likely to elect extremists than first-past-the-post As the dust settles on the county and European election results, one can take stock of what they mean for the parties and politics over the next year and in the long term. The county elections are probably the more accurate measure of what might happen in the next general election, because they use the same electoral system and the considerations people have in mind when choosing their vote are more similar. The county results point to the Conservatives being substantially ahead and in a position to win the next general election, although they have less of a margin of comfort than they did last year, when they were 43-23 ahead of Labour in national vote share, rather than this year’s 38-22. While Labour’s vote collapsed, the Conservative vote has been gently drifting downwards. It is too easy to dismiss the Euro results as a freakish curiosity: while voters perhaps behave oddly in European parliament elections, the results can be consequential and indicative of future trends. The 1979 European election produced a Conservative landslide, and the campaign was marked by ludicrous Labour infighting, a prelude to the divisions and disaster of the next four years. In 1984 Neil Kinnock proved that Labour was not dead, and in 1989 Labour inflicted Margaret Thatcher’s only defeat in a national election. It was the first pillar of her rule to crumble; a botched reshuffle, the resignation of the chancellor and a stalking-horse challenge followed by the end of the year – and in 1990 she was out. The 1989 election was also interesting for the 15% of the vote for the Greens, and the Conservative tilt to Euroscepticism. In 1994, John Major did not do quite badly enough to trigger a leadership challenge. In 1999, the Conservatives’ win, and the vote for Ukip, helped take joining the euro off the agenda, and the low turnout and strong vote for smaller parties was a sign of what was to come, confirmed by the fragmentation of the vote and the weak performance by both main parties in 2004. The 2009 European elections will surely be notable for more than confirmation of existing trends away from the two (or three) principal British political parties. The pre-eminent fact is the astonishingly low Labour share of the national vote, at 15.8%. Winning at the last general election in 2005, with 36% of the British vote on a 61% turnout, showed that Labour was on thin ice. Euro 2009 may be an important point on a long-term declining trend in Labour’s vote and vote share that has only been briefly...

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A right romp (8 June 2009)

Lewis Baston on the winners and loses in the European elections Gordon Brown surveys a landscape of ruins this morning. Labour’s 15% of the vote in the European elections is absolutely abysmal, the worst ever for the party by a considerable margin. The ignominious details pile up – behind the Conservatives in Wales, far behind the SNP in Scotland, fifth and without enough votes to qualify for a seat in south-west England. It is a disaster without recent precedent or parallel. At least in the 1931 general election there was still a solid 30% working class vote for Labour. One might have to look back to 1924 and the end of the Liberals as a party of government. It might have been even worse, had voters in urban areas without county elections not turned out in unexpected strength – hence the smaller slide in the Labour vote in London and the strange bright spot of Leicester. Many of these determined voters were hoping to stop the BNP. Much has and will be written, a lot of it valid, about how mainstream politics has created the conditions of alienation and anger that led to the BNP vote – and the parties will try to bid for support by “understanding” the feelings of those voters. Less will probably be written on the need, to quote John Major, to “condemn a little more, understand a little less”. With the array of protest parties contesting the elections, nobody can claim not to have had enough choice of political spittoons to expectorate into, but a large number of people chose that particular one. Before the election, there was some hope that the BNP’s reputation for racism and thuggery would cause voters to think twice about supporting them, no matter how cross they were with the Westminster parties. But while some BNP voters may not themselves be racist, indulging a temper tantrum with the system was more important to them than the rights and dignity of their fellow citizens from ethnic minorities. The Green party has reason to be disappointed with the election. It was untainted by any expenses problems and has a programme of political reforms, so it could have hoped for more than to displace Labour as the fourth party in southern England. But the politics of recession tends to be difficult for Greens, who find that voters anxious about their jobs are less concerned about the long term. The Liberal Democrats also fared indifferently. Euro elections are always difficult for them because their pro-EU stand is unfashionable and their campaigning techniques centre around candidates’ personalities. The protest vote headed instead towards the right, with Ukip polling at levels that seemed inconceivable a...

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