“It is a truth universally acknowledged that it takes fewer votes to elect a Labour than a Conservative government.” Sarah Wollaston, Conservative MP for Totnes, makes this “truth” sound like an immutable law of British politics. One does not need to be a psephologist to find this a little simplistic. The real truth that we can infer from the statement is that that she assumes there are only two parties that have a right to govern in this country, and that the rest can be safely ignored.
Yet, it seems absurd to blatantly ignore these ‘other’ parties, when the focus of Dr Wollaston’s article on Monday proceeded to directly target one of them. Indeed, Dr Wollaston condemns the third largest party, and her party’s coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, for their apparent “betrayal” in anticipating their vote against the cherished Tory policy of boundary reform. If we assume she isn’t just being partisan (an improbable assumption), then she has evidently missed a few key points about electoral reform.
In the event, the Conservatives lost the vote. The Liberal Democrats, as expected, broke with their coalition partners and voted with Labour and the other smaller parties to delay the boundary review until after the next election. Four Conservatives, perhaps fearful that they might lose their seats in redrawn constituencies, also joined them. The next election will be fought on a similar basis to the last one – biases and all.
A statistic I have now often repeated remains crucial: at the last election, the Conservatives needed 35,000 votes to win a seat, which was indeed a little more than Labour’s requirement of 33,400. The apparently treacherous Liberal Democrats, however, needed 120,000 votes, which, if it needs spelling out, is quite a lot more. UKIP, now in the process of trying to scoop up many disgruntled Tory voters, nearly reached the million mark in 2010 and didn’t win a single seat.
Looking further back reveals a similar picture. In 1992, when Labour came second with 271 seats and 11.5 million votes, the Liberal Democrats’ six million votes yielded a pitiful 20 seats – nearly twelve times fewer on over half Labour’s vote share. The disadvantage is obvious.
The purpose of redrawing the boundaries is ostensibly to adjust the size of the constituencies so that they each contain roughly the same number of voters. In principle, that is fine and proper, although by itself it does little to address the monopolisation of British parliamentary democracy by Labour and the Conservatives. There are, moreover, at least two things wrong with the current scheme. Firstly, it won’t work for long, given that voters have that devious tendency of moving around, which will inevitably skew the system again in the near future. Under First-Past-the-Post, the problem of geographical (re)distribution will persist; only a proportional system is immune to the biases that this can create.
Secondly, why must redrawing the boundaries also entail shrinking the House of Commons? Dr Wollaston assumes that they are necessarily connected, but reducing the number of parliamentary representatives would actually diminish the weight of our vote. Vernon Bogdanor has pointed out that, taking population growth into account, if the reforms were to have gone through, the average MP’s number of constituents would have increased by 60% as compared with 1945. The workload would therefore be likely to have risen too. As such, “any reduction in the number of MPs could lead to greater alienation amongst those who find themselves lost amidst the thickets of modern bureaucracy”.
During the long-running debate, Conservatives have repeated their belief that the reform will ensure that each vote carries equal weight, but appear relaxed or just unaware that this will mean less weight. To her credit though, Dr Wollaston does fleetingly point out that another drawback associated with reduction is that it will weaken legislative scrutiny, with a larger proportion of MPs in ministerial positions. Lord Hailsham’s description of an “elective dictatorship” would ring ever truer.
What’s it worth, this voting business?
Does equalising the constituency sizes mean that votes carry equal weight anyway though? In her constituency, Totnes, Dr Wollaston won 21,940 votes out of 47,843 votes cast. What happened to the ‘losing votes’, which accounted for more than half of those cast? Under Proportional Representation, they would all be counted and would contribute to the final overall outcome. Under the Alternative Vote, each voter’s preferences would be taken into account so that the winner is explicitly preferred by at least 50% of voters. Under FPTP – the system used – they count for nothing, and are discarded. All votes may be equal with the new boundaries, but under some electoral systems some votes can be more equal than others.
The Conservatives opposed AV - and ran a disgraceful campaign against it - precisely because of self-interest, for there was little other reason to oppose a system that would actually have empowered voters further and dented the duopoly of the main parties. The Liberal Democrats also felt stabbed in the back over the Conservatives’ refusal to support democratisation of the House of Lords. Yet, seemingly without shame, Dr Wollaston accuses the Liberal Democrats of “abandoning fairness”, for failing to support a reform that will do little but help the Conservatives and further alienate voters from political engagement.
This is all a little ironic, given that Totnes was the testing ground for Conservative primaries, which gave voters a choice in selecting her as the candidate in the first place. Dr Wollaston can make a plausible case for being the most democratically elected MP in the UK. It is a pity she does not understand – or does not admit – where further democratisation really needs to take place and where the gaping biases and problems in the electoral system exist. Without managing this, the accusation that the Liberal Democrats have acted against fairness will continue to sound hypocritical.
The future, redrawn
As for the Prime Minister, he may now be in real trouble. His speech on Europe yielded a poll bounce that is unlikely to last, and seems to have been made largely to halt an apparent UKIP surge. While a referendum would be healthy for democracy (that is, once the EU’s flux has ended and we actually know what it is that we are being asked to vote on) David Cameron’s tactical ploy will create five years (assuming his re-election with a majority) of uncertainty, which may lose him business (and other) support. He has also now lost boundary reform, which means he will go into the next election without the new advantage that he had hoped for. At the time of writing, the William Hill odds on the 2015 election are 4/9 for Labour to win the most seats. Despite being in opposition, it has done the best out of this government’s attempts at constitutional reform.
With rumours swirling that Adam Afriyie is being groomed to replace him, and one backbencher claiming he’ll be “toast” if he doesn’t deliver a majority in 2015, Mr Cameron’s best hope may now be the result of another referendum. If Scotland votes for independence in 2014, many progressive votes will disappear from UK politics. Labour would lose 41 seats at Westminster, while the Lib Dems would drop 11. The Conservatives would lose just one, and would have a much better chance of a majority after that.
Some Conservative MPs may even call that fair.