Friday, 30 September 2011

This US-style gerrymandering is a terrible mistake

By John Lloyd for the Financial Times

The word “gerrymander” derives from an electoral redistricting scheme devised by Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812 for his own party’s advantage. He came up with one area which was so convoluted it looked like a salamander. Even now in the US, corruption in drawing political boundaries is, in most states, simply part of the game. So there are such charming but disgraceful confections as the 34th state senate district of New York (“the dangling lobster tail”) and the 17th congressional district of Illinois (“the rabbit on a skateboard”).

Britain got rid of rotten boroughs such as Dunwich, which had fallen into the North Sea, in 1832. After that the process of altering constituency boundaries to keep up with population changes, though inevitably contentious, became largely fair and sensible. At least until now.

The other day I saw a map of the constituency in which I am supposed to vote at the next election. It is called Ludlow and Leominster. It looks to me like a moose’s head. It will stretch from Ewyas Harold, in south-west Herefordshire, to Rowley in Shropshire, a journey – according to Google Earth - of 65.5 miles, taking an hour and 47 minutes. But I drive these country lanes more often than Google Earth and I reckon that’s optimistic. The new MP will presumably be based in Ludlow, which is an hour’s drive from my house when roads are quiet. By public transport – allow for an overnight stay. These places have totally different councils and totally different issues.

This is one extreme consequence of the latest changes but there are other examples across the country: county boundaries have been routinely forgotten so that Cornwall, a discrete political entity for 1100 years, will share an MP with Devon. Middlesbrough, which has had its own MPs throughout modern history, will now be split between three different constituencies, and Stockton-on-Tees, which is not a large place, between four.

This is not the fault of the Boundary Commissioners who have made these proposals. They are operating under absurd criteria cooked up by David Cameron in opposition. He thought it would be popular to demand fewer MPs (600 not 650), claiming it would save money. He also sought political advantage by insisting constituencies should have equal electorates. Under the rules he has pushed through, only a five per cent tolerance will be allowed on the quota for each seat (now 76,641 electors per MP) with very minor exceptions for highlands and islands. This is much too deterministic to allow sane boundaries.

The Conservatives believe they suffer discrimination because, on average, it takes more votes to elect a Tory MP than a Labour one. True: around 35,500 v 33,500 for each MP elected in 2010. But misleading, since tactical voting means that many Labour supporters in hopeless seats have until now voted Liberal Democrat.

The real political losers will not be Labour but the Lib Dems, whose blithering idiocy is allowing this to happen. They are the real victims (119,933 voters per MP) of the current system and agreed to support boundary changes in exchange for a referendum on their fantasy of voting reform, in which they got hammered. They should have foreseen that - and the fact that the Cameron plan may well do for them for ever.

There are no inherently safe third-party seats, but most Lib Dem MPs survive by working hard and exploiting local issues: the more stable, clearly defined and close-knit the constituency, the better they do. Such seats are being scrapped. In a mishmash like Ludlow, Leominster & Moose Head – theoretically promising Lib Dem territory – there will be no local issues. The plan may not even be good for the Tories: the venom engendered among their own backbenchers whose seats will vanish may poison the second half of this parliament.

However, these are not my worries. What bothers me is the democratic deficit that will result. Fewer MPs will mean a slight saving (£12m per annum has been mentioned) but they will demand more staff to serve more voters. The new boundaries mean they will also be dealing with multiple councils, so will be less effective in solving problems.

They will also become much less useful at supporting their communities. Will the MP for the new seat of City of London and Islington South be a defender of the City’s interests or cheer for the Islingtonian mix of bourgeois liberals and council tenants? If a small pot of European money is grabbable for some small-scale scheme, will my MP fight for it to go to Herefordshire or Shropshire?

In order to retain the roughly equal numbers, there will have to be constant upheaval, so the relationship between voters and their representatives will become even more distant. One Labour MP told me how he will have to give up on an enterprise scheme he had worked on for years with the council because the new boundaries will render his role meaningless.

Above all, it will be another blow to Britain’s very fragile sense of local identity and community, and reduce politicians’ ability to help preserve that. It was Mr Cameron who invented the phrase “broken society”. Over time, this nonsense will create a few more cracks.

John Lloyd, Financial Times