Saturday, January 24, 2009

Malapportionment in the UK?

One of the issues that has exercised many fingers in the Conservative blogosphere in recent years is the basic question of apportionment of constituencies for the House of Commons, with discussion of concepts of "fairness", "how many votes does it take to elect an MP from each party?", "Scotland is overrepresented" and so forth being thrown around. And a lot of the discussion is frankly poorly informed, out of context and mixing up several different concepts. See for example some of the comments below ConservativeHome: John Leonard: Don't reduce our representation at Westminster.

So I'd like to try and have a go at looking at what the various issues and confusions are, to see if there really is a bias in the system and whether it's deliberate or not.

Firstly a note on a few terms. "Gerrymandering" is the deliberate fixing of political boundaries to secure results. "Malapportionment" is when some people/areas have more representation than others. Although the two can be combined they can also occur separately - the United States has taken the principle of exactly equal sized constituencies to ridiculous extremes (with courts rejecting even a difference of just 19 voters) but has amongst the worst gerrymandering in the democratic world, whilst Australia has seen virtually no gerrymandering in its history but has a long history of malapportionment.

The other key terms are the "Boundary Commission", one of four impartial bodies that amend parliamentary boundaries, and the "quota", which is both the average number of voters per constituency in the existing constituencies and the desirable target size for each constituency on the new boundaries. I'll say upfront that I don't believe the Boundary Commissions have an inbuilt bias. Rather they are trying to apply the various rules and precedents to a situation that is far more complicated than its critics often realise, but are coming from a non-partisan background.

This brings us neatly to the first key distinction. All too often the population, the total electorate and the people who actually turn out to vote are used almost interchangeably. But these are three distinctly defined groups. One of the biggest confusions comes because constituencies in the UK are designed on the basis of the total number of registered voters and not just those who turn out. Since the turnout varies across the country this often means that even if the constituencies have exactly equal numbers of registered voters there will still be some seats with more people voting than others. And because turnout in safe Conservative seats is invariably higher than in safe Labour seats this is the start of the numbers appearing to show a bias.

(A further factor in this is the accuracy of the electoral register. In urban areas in particular there is often a high turnover of population with the result that there are many people still listed on the register at both an old and new address, thus reducing the nominal turnout. Similarly many people with multiple addresses like students are registered at both addresses but can only vote once per election. The Boundary Commissions are presently not allowed to take either of these factors into account. Changes to the way voter registration is done in this country are likely to have a significant effect on the numbers.)

The second distinction is the point in time at which equality must occur. The Boundary Commissions are required by law to use only the numbers on the electoral register at the start of the review. But reviews often take a few years to complete and in turn the resulting boundaries are often used for several elections - for instance the boundaries produced in a review based on voter location in 1976 were not replaced until 1997 (bar a few minor local changes). The result is that by the time the boundaries come in they are already out of date and as time goes on the perceived problem worsens. It is no coincidence that this issue has arisen in the last few years, when the current boundaries date to 1991.

The obvious solution is to have more frequent boundary reviews, but this presents other problems, as discovered by the political parties at the 1955 election when the boundaries were changed after only five years. Several MPs found their seats disappearing, there was political chaos when new seats had two (or more) "sitting MPs" who battled for the nomination, local parties had to be reorganised and voters became confused by the sudden changeover. As a result of this it was agreed to have a longer period between reviews so as to minimise the disruption.

By far the most complicated set of number variations comes with the main stage. As you can probably guess an attempt to redraw boundaries for 533 constituencies in one go would overload the work of the Commissions, as well as make it very hard for members of the public to hold it to account. The result is that the review is broken into smaller amounts, usually at the level of the county. Invariably this forces some rounding - for instance Surrey in the most recent review has 11.43 quotas and so is rounded to the nearest whole, 11. Generally this effect balances itself out, though as urban unitary authorities tend to be smaller than provincial counties the rounding effect does create a slight urban bias.

A further bias comes in the use of the local government ward as the basic building block. Rather than face a potential infinite number of lines on the map that can be proposed and counter-proposed, the Boundary Commissions reinforces their neutrality by rarely going below ward level. This make the process much easier to follow, but once again the ward forces a rounding effect. Some wards in Birmingham have getting on for 20,000 voters and can leave the Commission facing either a 10,000 undersized seat or a 10,000 oversized one. Once again this effect is more urban as the wards usually have more voters there, though some rural wards are awkward combinations of several scattered villages. (And these can be further complicated if different villages in the same ward have different main towns.)

The cause of the most extreme variations is physical geography. Often there are some incredibly natural boundaries in existence, whilst in many rural areas it is difficult to represent the scattered voters if the seat is too large. The result is that some big variations come. As I've blogged before (A nice big seat) the constituency with the most voters is the Isle of Wight, because it's just too small to split in two and having a seat span the Solent is absurd. Similarly the smallest seat is Na h-Eileanan an Iar, formerly known as the Western Isles, where representing a scattered cluster of islands is already difficult enough without adding on the mainland as well. Mainland areas can also have undersized seats - the Scottish Highlands, Cumbria and Northumbria all get extra seats because of this.

Division of KalgoorlieSuch a practice is followed in most parts of the world. The Division of Kalgoorlie (to the right) is not well known in the UK. If it were people would be amazed to learn it has a single MP. For this constituency in the Australian Parliament covers most of the non-Perth & environs area of Western Australia - a "mere" 2,295,354 km². At the last election it had 80,773 voters. Representing the seat must be an onourous task and perhaps this is why despite regularly being held by the government of the day it has not been represented by a minister since 1949.

Division of LingiariThe Division of Lingiari (to the left) has fared better, with the present member currently sitting in the Cabinet. But Lingiari is another monster seat, covering the entire of the Northern Territory except for the city of Darwin, and also includes the Christmas and Cocos (Keeling) Islands. It has an area of 1,347,849 km² and still has one of the smallest electorates, only 60,341 at the last election. And it's not just Australia with such large constituencies - Canada has the Nunavut electoral district covering the entire of the territory of the same name. It has an area of 2,093,190 km² and just 17,088 voters.

And there are many others. Whilst some of the earlier biases have benefited urban areas, and thus Labour, this one is anti-Labour. The extra seats in Northumbria and Cumbria are both Conservative, whilst all five seats, and thus the two extra, in the Scottish Highlands and Islands, are not held by Labour. It's also interesting to note that, as with some of the other causes of grievances in the system, this is also one that was agreed in recent times. In 1944 when the rules for the current system of reviews were agreed, proposals for a greater equality of constituency size resulted in many natural communities being broken up. It was agreed that a greater level of discretion would be allowed to cover natural communities and rural areas. (I don't think it's a coincidence that a large part of the complaints about the current set-up come from people in urban areas where this is less of an issue.)

Perhaps the biggest myth is that Scotland is still overrepresented compared to England. Since 2005 this has no longer been the case as Scotland now has seats based on the English quota. The reason it has a slightly lower number of voters per constituency is because of the extra seats in the Highlands and Islands, but as this rule also applies to England there is no imbalance.

There is however an imbalance when it comes to Wales. Firstly legislation gives Wales a minimum of thirty-five constituencies when on the same numbers as England it would have only thirty-two. Unlike Scotland this provision has not been repealed. Secondly Wales also has geographically sparse areas, with most of its smallest seats in the north and west (not the Labour the heartland in the south). Thirdly because each part of the UK has a separate Boundary Commission, the quota for each part is calculated separately and imbalances are rarely explicitly reset, and Wales has been operating on separate figures since 1944 (although amendments to both the Scottish and Northern Irish provisions in the last thirty years have had a reset effect).

This has been quite a detailed post so far but I hope it has shown that the imbalances in the system are not deliberate and are instead the by-product of several individual factors designed to make the system easier to use. There is, however, one area where political influence can make a difference.

As part of the public accountability of the review, the proposals must be subjected to a public enquiry if there is sufficient demand. At these reviews local parties and individuals will comment on the proposals and sometimes argue alternative proposals. Some of this is with an eye to partisan benefit, but argued on the basis of what the natural ties in an area are. Others are simply concerned with local ties, such as having a village in the same constituency as its main town, or matching the seat to things such as school catchment areas, bus routes and local newspapers and so forth. Unfortunately if one side makes a fantastic effort and the other a dire one it can have a distorted outcome. And during the 1990s review the Labour Party devoted central resources to supporting and co-ordinating responses to the individual sections of the review. By contrast the Conservatives left it to local parties who often wound up arguing against each other, with some in safe seats seemingly prioritising having the largest majority in the area over all other concerns! But to blame the Commission for accepting the better argued Labour cases is like an amateur who knows nothing about law arguing in court with a top QC and accusing the judge of bias for accepting the latter's outcome.

My very last point on this is the whole notion that there should be equity in the "number of votes it takes to elect an MP from a particular party". Such a concept is totally alien to a constituency based electoral system. If a party has a weak and scattered vote (as the Conservative vote has been in recent elections for reasons that having nothing to do with the boundaries) then it will find it difficult to win seats. By contrast if the vote is strong and concentrated it becomes easier. The first past the post electoral system has always carried this risk, regardless of constituency size, and trying to rig the boundaries to make the seats deliver a predetermined outcome would be a gerrymander that produced hideously unnatural seats. If people want "fairness" and "equality" in this area, the logical solution is a change in the voting system (though few proportional systems deliver absolute "equality" either), not a boundary fix. But I doubt many want to take that leap into the dark just yet.

I hope this post has helped enlighten what is a very complicated process. I don't believe there is any simple solution in this area because the problem is in the detail. The simplistic changes proposed in some quarters would produce awkward alternatives that no-one is actually advocating in and of themselves. And the differences are hardly on the grand scale of some of the grand malapportionments around the world in the past. The way to get more seats is to get more people voting Conservative.

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