The current boundary review, if it goes through consultation in its present form, will see my tiny part of Barnsley and South Yorkshire snipped off and stuck on to the Colne Valley constituency in West Yorkshire. This will see me and one of my sisters – who lives on the other side of Huddersfield – with the same MP. On top of this ludicrous decision to separate one ward from its natural Barnsley and Sheffield area, it will see the name of Penistone eradicated from the House of Commons for the first time since the First World War.
Of course the government and the boundary commission care not a jot about electoral history or even sensible constituencies. The reasons given for the review and the changes are two fold. Firstly to reduce the cost of politics by reducing the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 MPs and secondly to ‘equalise’ constituencies around an average size of 75000 constituents – sold as making each vote count equally. Whilst both aims are laudable, as I will explain, neither will happen. What it actually is, is gerrymandering at its basest level.
The cost reductions from reducing the size of the Commons has been immediately offset by the unseemly increase in the number of peers appointed to the House of Lords by the current and previous government (40 in one go last month for example). The House of Lords is the second largest legislative assembly in the world after China’s and of course is totally unelected and undemocratic. So much for saving costs. So much for democracy.
The fairness tag really would be laughable if it didn’t have such serious consequences. This is just a crude effort by a political party to engineer a built in political advantage through a wholly unfair electoral system. Firstly, by reducing the size of the commons by a thirteenth you would expect, based on results from the wards in 2015, the effective majority of the currently government to be reduced by a similar proportion. Currently the Tories have a working majority of 12. Based on this, to be fair I’d expect a similar majority or one of about 10 based on the new boundaries. Electoral Calculus have done the number crunching and, based on the new boundaries the Tory working majority would actually triple to 36. Fair?
Of course the other argument is that by equalising the size of the constituencies each vote is worth the same. This argument can be shattered in two ways. Firstly the new boundary calculations are based on figures which exclude at least 2 million electors. These are mainly students, private renters and young adults where registration is relatively low. All are eligible for the support of their MP and their number inflate the actual size of a constituency well above the 75000 figure. Is it a coincidence that generally this will affect seats not represented by a Tory or am I just a cynic?
Secondly, however you tinker with the boundaries of constituencies you are not going to solve the problem that under the current first past the post (FPTP) system the election is decided in a small proportion of seats by a small proportion of swing voters. A Tory vote in Barnsley and a Labour vote in deepest bluest Surrey for example is most certainly not worth the same as a similar vote in a highly marginal constituency. Of course both major parties have form here and reasons to stick with the status quo. The FPTP system was developed for and worked well for a two party system which we essentially had up until 1983 when Labour and Conservative would get about 90% of the vote between them. In the last election the combined vote for Labour and Conservative was 67% which gave them 86% of the seats. In Barnsley Labour regularly get around 50% of the vote yet this delivers 90% of the council seats. No, until we change the way we elect our representatives to a fairer voting system, however the boundaries are tinkered with the value of our vote will depend on where we live.
Of course the other problem is that constituencies have to stay within a 5% tolerance of the 75000 figure. This means with demographic changes and large scale house building for example (like is happening in Penistone and Barnsley) this could result in the ludicrous position of boundaries changing for every election so in 2020 Penistone could be in Colne Valley but by 2025 our population could have risen to a point to take the electorate of Colne Valley above the upper limit and so we could be shifted back into a Barnsley constituency or something equally as daft as Colne Valley. This hardly allows the link to build between an MP and their constituents.
No, this boundary review is just an exercise by this government (and a Labour administration would probably do something similar) to gerrymander the next election and prop up a discredited and unfair voting system. It must be fought at all costs. We deserve our votes to mean the same thing whether we live in Barnsley, Surrey or a marginal seat and this can only happen if we look at introducing a proportional voting system.