The government is seeking to fundamentally change how local constituencies for Parliament are drawn up. Its alleged ‘reform’ bill returns to the House of Lords shortly for a final look. Comparing its proposals with the requirements used in other liberal democracies, Lewis Baston shows that the UK already has some of the most equally sized constituencies in the western world. In trying to solve a non-existent problem, Conservative ministers in particular are bent on requiring unworkable levels of equality in constituency sizes. The government is pursuing an extreme solution that will fatally damage the organic unity of local communities, which both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have traditionally protected and valued.
It may seem a matter of obvious common sense and fairness that constituencies should be ‘equal sized’ – the government certainly insists that it is so. They propose that constituencies for the House of Commons should have the same number of registered electors, within plus or minus 5 per cent of the national average (and with only 2 or 3 allowed exceptions).
Yet in fact no other country in the world has actually achieved this degree of equality without adopting proportional representation and multi-member seats. Even apparently highly equalised systems for drawing constituency boundaries in Australia and the United States involve more variation in constituency sizes than the government proposes to allow within the United Kingdom.
When introducing the Second Reading of the government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in September, Nick Clegg said this about the proposal to ‘equalise’ the size of the registered electorate in each constituency:
On the broken scales of our democracy, 10 voters in Glasgow North have the same weight as 17 voters in Manchester Central. That is not a single anomaly, because those differences are repeated up and down the country. As of last December, Wirral West, Edinburgh South and Wrexham had fewer than 60,000 voters. Falkirk, Banbury and West Ham had more than 80,000. That unfairness is deeply damaging to our democracy.
Yet by this standard, boundaries in many of the principal countries using single member constituencies must be ‘deeply damaging’ to democracy, since my Table below shows that current UK system in now way performs particularly poorly by international standards.
Variations in constituency sizes across liberal democracies using single member seats
|Basis||Variation in seat sizes (standard deviation)||Smallest seat (as % of average)||Largest seat (as % of average)||% of seats within 5% of national limit||% of seats within 10% of national limit|
|UK proposed system -2015||Electorate||2.2||29||105||99||99.5|
|USA - 2012||Population||-||74||140||86||97|
|England current System - 2010||Electorate||8.6||77||153||44||79|
|Australia - 2010||Electorate||9.1||64||132||67||87|
|UK current system - 2010||Electorate||11.1||32||157||37||69|
|Canada - 2008||Population||21.3||26||166||22||40|
|Jamaica - 2007||Electorate||24.8||65||154||3||25|
|France - 2007||Population*||-||7||163||-||-|
The key column in the Table is the ‘Variation in seat size’, which is a measure called the standard deviation of the size of constituencies. Here the national relevant population is divided by the total number of constituencies (being given the value of 100 to allow comparable results). The Table shows that the outcome of the government Bill would not be to make Britain level up to a common standard already being achieved elsewhere. Instead it would require the UK to reach a level of arithmetic equality that is unknown in comparable national legislatures, (and that would also be based of course on severely flawed UK electoral registers).
There are two broad dimensions to equalising constituencies:
- What to do with the anomalies – islands and national minorities – and how many particularly small or large constituencies should be tolerated because they are special cases.
- The level of uniformity imposed on the majority of ‘normal’ cases.
The different measures in the table capture different dimensions of equality – how far out of line the anomalous cases are, and how unequal the system is as a whole. It also shows the proportion of seats that meet two criteria that have featured in debate in the UK, namely being 5 per cent or 10 per cent away from the national quota. The government’s bill requires that over 99 per cent of constituencies are within 5 per cent of the national quota (the exceptions being two Scottish island seats and perhaps one in the Highlands). No other comparable legislature hits 90 per cent. In terms of the overall deviation from the standard size, the government’s proposal is twice as ‘equalised’ as the US House of Representatives.
It is worth asking why, despite legal and constitutional rules about equality, Australia and the United States fail to equalise their constituencies. The answer is that both countries respect the boundaries of their component states and territories when drawing up national legislative districts. Australia divides its 150 House seats into 8 states and territories, and the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives are divided into 50 state delegations. Some states in each country are small – seven American states have single seats, and five more have an allocation of two seats. The result is that Montana comprises a single Congressional district of 994,400 people, while the slightly bigger state of Rhode Island has two small districts with around 527,600 people in each. Ten voters in Rhode Island have the same voting power as 18 Montanans. If the United Kingdom respected proportionally as many sub-national units in a 600-seat Commons as the US does for its 435-seat House, then there would be 69 localities with boundaries that could not be crossed.
The government legislation proposes that there should be just six recognised sub-divisions in across the whole of the UK – namely the four component nations, plus Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney and Shetland. In fact, the English boundary commission will probably respect the boundaries of the nine government standard regions for England. Ironically then, the already existing UK boundary system is closer to American and Australian practice, because respecting county boundaries in England outside London involved 46 units with established community identities being given whole numbers of seats.
Taking the powerful elected Senates of Australia and the United States into account only widens the huge differences in voting power. In terms of total members of Congress (House and Senate), an inhabitant of Wyoming has 10.3 times as much power as a Californian, a differential that makes the gap between the Hebrides and the Isle of Wight appear small. The inequality in voting power in the United Kingdom caused by constituency size is therefore patently not deeply damaging to British democracy.
Constituency equalisation that was about as good as that for the US House of Representatives could be achieved for the Commons with a much less extreme legislative definition of equal size that would work with the grain and attract more political consensus. For instance:
- The law could allow 10 per cent deviation from the national average, which would mean that county boundaries could nearly all be respected.
- The law could recognise other special cases. such as the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and Anglesey,
- And the final Act could allow some latitude for urban seats where population is grossly in excess of the registered electorate.
The government has portrayed its scheme as a modest, tidying up job. In reality it is a radical and extreme shift towards requiring a level of equality in constituency size that no other country in the world attempts, at the expense of riding roughshod over virtually all organic local identities. It has so far escaped proper scrutiny. The House of Lords forthcoming deliberations on the Bill will provide a last opportunity for the true nature of the coalition’s proposals to be exposed and a last chance for its worst and most unworkable features to be ameliorated.
For further analysis of how the constituency proposals will affect the parties see:
Ron Johnston, ‘Pursuing a passion for parity, the coalition government is axing one in every 4 MPs in Wales, but less than one in 14 in England. How the UK draws its electoral map will never be the same again’.
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