Lines of Least Resistance (May 17 2005)
Everyone should be aware by now of how ridiculously unfair the election result proved to be.
However, there is a worrying tendency for some people, particularly on the Conservative side, to imagine that all that needs to be done is to jiggle around with the constituency boundaries a bit and that would produce a fair relationship between seats and votes between the big parties at least.
This, I’m afraid, is nonsense.
The reasons why it is nonsense are a bit complicated to go through in detail on a blog post, but an analysis piece should appear soon on the Electoral Reform Society website.
In brief, the reasons that the system is biased in Labour’s favour are not much to do with boundaries, more to do with intrinsic defects in the First Past the Post electoral system. FPTP rewards parties whose support is ‘lumpy’ – moderately high in some areas, low in others, as Labour’s has been in recent elections. It brutally punishes parties with a middling vote spread evenly across the country, the prime example of this being the Alliance vote of 25.4% in 1983 which netted only 23 seats. Anti-Tory tactical voting has distorted the electoral system against the Conservatives at every election since 1992.
Labour also benefit from ‘differential turnout’ – that turnout in safe Labour seats is low. If there had been full turnout, and the party shares of the vote in each constituency had been exactly the same as in the real 2005 election, the Labour lead would have been 2 points greater. The system ‘thought’ Labour led by 5 points, not 3. There’s nothing that changing the boundaries can do about this.
The forthcoming boundary review will do a bit towards improving the fairness of the electoral system, but not much – it will abolish a few seats in depopulated urban areas and create a few new rural and suburban seats. But on my estimates this would only reduce the Labour majority to 52, and still leave the Conservatives needing a lead as large as they achieved in 1987 to get a bare overall majority of 2. The Times suggests as much today.
Complaining about boundaries is the classic line of least resistance from those who have realised that there is something very wrong with the way our electoral system works, but who are not willing to grapple with what needs to be done.