Planned changes to electoral system 'risk further weakening democracy'

By agency reporter
May 9, 2018

The rules for the distribution of Parliamentary constituencies were changed by the Coalition government in 2011, but the proposed changes have never come into effect. The Boundary Review due in 2013 was cancelled, but another Review is due to be published by September 2018. The proposed changes to the current system are based on new rules which mean that:

  • There will only 600 - not 650 MPs
  • The number of registered voters for each seat should be within five per cent of the UK average

A new report by Steve Griffiths for the Centre for Welfare Reform finds that the Reviews have comprehensively failed to meet the aspiration claimed by the Government, that "the principle of greater equality in the value of each vote is at the heart of this Boundary Review" (2013). Huge swings in levels of electoral registration mean that the population measure used to redraw boundaries will already be out of date when it is implemented.

Using the shifting population of registered voters to define constituency boundaries excludes millions who are eligible to vote but have not yet registered – particularly young people, private renters, and a number of ethnic minority groups. It is thus inconsistent with the notion of universal suffrage in our representative democracy.

There is a viable remedy: this paper proposes a simple amendment to the definition of ‘electorate’ to include ‘the total number of persons eligible to vote by dint of age and citizenship’. It should include persons aged 16 or over, both to lengthen the life of a future Boundary settlement, and in recognition of the rights of young people.  

The report says the proposed changes are dangerously undemocratic. In particular:

  • MPs are meant to serve all citizens in their constituency. But fewer people register to vote in some areas than in others, so inequality of representation will just be replicated in a different form
  • The areas with low voter registration also tend to be the more deprived areas, so social inequality will be further entrenched by political inequality
  • Levels of voter registration change much more quickly than changes in the population does: the vary basis of the Review has instability built into it.
  • The five per cent rule is unprecedented, and makes it very difficult to align constituency boundaries with local authority boundaries: Cross boundary confusion, waste and duplication will increase.

Steve Griffiths author of the report said, "Frankly, this is a ‘keep digging’ Boundary Review. The sudden year-to-year lurches – by millions – in the numbers registering to vote mean that ‘registered voters’ are a completely unstable basis on which to re-design our constituency boundaries. In fact tying that basis to the numbers registered in 2015 will mean that the Review will be already out of date when it is implemented.

"My research shows wild variation between the overall populations of constituencies, the adult populations, and particularly the adult populations eligible to vote, excluding foreign nationals. This is not ‘greater equality in the value of each vote’ as the Government claims: it is quite the reverse.  

"The solution is already there, in robust figures which can be produced annually by the Office for National Statistics. The simple remedy is to change the definition of ‘electorate’ in the legislation from the ‘number of persons registered to vote’, to the ‘number of persons eligible to vote by dint of age and citizenship’. There is a vehicle to do this waiting in parliament: a Private Member’s Bill waiting for its Committee Stage. Let’s admit it, what we have now is not the democracy of universal suffrage we hold up to the world. But it can be fixed."

Simon Duffy, Director of the Centre said, "Our democratic system already suffers from a set of severe handicaps: the House of Lords, the lack of a written constitution and hyper-centralisation, which leaves local areas with pitiful powers. The current plan to create even larger constituencies, linked – not to population and not to real communities – but to highly variable electoral registration rates will make a bad system much worse."

Professor Danny Dorling, of Oxford University said, "The British cannot claim to be a great democracy while its leaders go out of their way to help maintain and even worsen a system that ensures that so many people who should get a vote and representation in proportion to their numbers are not counted."

Lucy Allan, Conservative MP for Telford, speaking in Parliament at the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill, which awaits its Committee Stage said, "I serve a population with pockets of significant deprivation. People come to see me when they have nowhere else to go. My weekly surgeries are full, despite best efforts to resolve problems over the phone, of people dealing with issues relating to benefits, debt and eviction. They have complex lives, tussles with the council and problems with their housing. Most… are not registered to vote. The Boundary Commission, however, is not much interested in any of that – the fact that they are not registered does not count. I know that the Government and the Boundary Commission would not suggest that these people should be excluded by their representatives, so they should be included in this process…. The Boundary Commission wants to add another 20,000 people of voting age to my Telford constituency. That would make it a super-sized constituency that significantly exceeded the parameters, when all along the objective has been to create constituencies of equal size…. That makes a real mockery of the process.  ...we need to update the position and redraw boundaries at some point, but we must get it right, and I think that, for all sorts of reasons, we have an opportunity to do that now."

A report from Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee proposes that in order to avoid the General Election in 2022 being based on boundaries using population data that will be over 20 years old, there should be an urgent parliamentary debate with a view to carrying out a new Boundary Review with a truncated consultation period, to have it ready for 2022. While it recognises the volatility of electoral registers, it does not address the negative implications of this, as demonstrated in Griffiths’ report. Griffiths shows that the homework has already been done for a solution that:

  • would avoid the proposed geographical rigidities that are set to cause disruption of local government confusion over democratic accountability, duplication, and waste
  • is fair, stable and sustainable. 

The Select Committee report is right to identify a ready vehicle for a viable solution: amendments to Afzal Khan’s Private Member’s Bill, which currently proposes limited improvements in the flawed terms of the Reviews, and awaits its Committee Stage. 

* Read Challenging the Democratic Deficit here

* Centre for Welfare Reform http://www.centreforwelfarereform.org/

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