Ministers are ignoring the elephant in the room when it comes to boundaries

Darren Hughes
Darren Hughes

Posted on the 3rd January 2018

The government’s Minister for the Constitution has claimed that millions of voters living in oversized constituencies are being under-represented.

Speaking about the current boundaries, Chris Skidmore MP said: “It is an affront to democracy that 27 million people are under-represented.” 

But it’s a red herring – there are far deeper problems of under-representation going on.  Ones which Ministers have been ignoring.

Of course, Mr Skidmore is right about the importance of having fair and up-to-date boundaries: a situation where constituencies vary from having between 41,000 and 93,000 electors is clearly undesirable. 

And revised boundaries are required that balance the need for equal constituency sizes with flexibility to help seats reflect actual communities.  

But when we are talking about insults to democracy, then there is a much bigger elephant in the room. 

Because of the current winner-takes-all voting system for electing Members of Parliament, 22 million votes were wasted at last year’s General Election – that’s 68% of the total votes cast.

So no matter what the size of your constituency is, most votes went into the black hole of our voting system.

That means 22 million people not just being under-represented – but not being represented at all in Parliament’s elected chamber.  

Their votes are being thrown on the scrapheap – and the result is a highly distorted legislature that fails to represent the country.   

Another consequence of First Past the Post is that people are forced into feeling they must vote tactically, if their vote is to count.  

A report by the Electoral Reform Society following the last election found an estimated one in five people held their nose and opted for a ‘lesser evil’. .  

That is 6.5 million people voting not for who they want to represent them in Parliament, but voting against those candidates they do not want to see sitting in the House of Commons.  

This figure was double the rate of 2015, indicating a worrying surge in tactical voting.  

In his comments on fair boundaries, Mr Skidmore added it is time to ensure “fair and equal representation” for all voters.  

It’s good to see Ministers concerned about ensuring real representation. The next step is to achieve this: by replacing the hugely undemocratic electoral system currently in place with proportional representation.

  • Huw Jones

    While I prefer STV over pure PR.

    Constituency sizes should be calculated using census data rather than simply counting the electoral roll. Access to the services of an MP is not confined to those who vote or register to vote. The entire population has a right to enlist aid from their MP whether they are registered or not. The current government are content to ignore this ‘elephant in the room’ as their party benefits from boundaries drawn based on the electoral register. The higher ‘churn’ of population in urban areas as compared to the Tory’s rural heartland is among a number of factors that result in a lower proportion of the population registering in ‘inner cities’.

    • Dave Beakhust

      I agree with this.
      To decide constituency boundaries based on the Census makes complete sense. It also provides an “opportunity” at census time every ten years to tweak the boundaries if population growth in 2 adjoining constituencies get out of step by more than a certain margin. Instead of, as now, leaving it so long that constituency sizes are very uneven.
      (If it is just the SIZE of constituencies that are affected by the census, but the eligibility to vote decided on personal registration, as now, we need not go to the lengths that apply in many other EU countries (for example the Netherlands) where ID cards are in use, and mandatory registration for all purposes makes separate censuses and electoral registers rather unnecessary.)

  • dred

    There are far too many safe seats where the sitting MP`s party has no need to bother consulting their constituents.Voting strategically wont make a difference if whatever the turnout the sitting tenants party always win.

    • Frankedl

      You’re not kidding. How on earth has Dianne Abbot managed to hang on for 30 years??

    • barrydavies

      It’s not always the case, Stafford was always considered a very safe Tory seat, but when the tories parachuted a certain David Cameron into it, he not only lost it but it took two further elections before they got it back

  • CharmianL

    Good to see this being brought to the foreground. A more local issue around democracy relates to the methods in use by the Boundary Commission in choosing the proposed new boundaries. It transpires that the redrawn boundaries are much more likely to favour Conservative votes than Labour, judging by the numbers of each party likely to loose their seats.
    In addition there appears to be no account being taken of local culture and sentiment in choosing the new boundaries. For example in Cornwall, which has had a boundary with England set for one thousand years, the Boundary Commission proposes a cross border boundary. This is regardless of the many representations they received against this idea, some presented in Cornish (with simultaneous translation). Such a lack of understanding makes the Cornish voter like me feel even more disenfranchised.

    • Allan

      Did I miss the bit of legislation where Cornwall became a separate country?

      • CharmianL

        In lots of ways Cornwall is separate legally – a Duchy rather than a county and with Stannary Law- now largely ignored but still theoretically existing. Mainly a separate cultural thing these days, not to say that some folk would like to blow up the bridge and tow us out into the Atlantic a bit more!

      • Jori Ansell

        The Cornish border was declared by King Athelstan in the year 1000 as the left bank (i.e. Eastern) of the Tamar. This has been repeated by numerous authorities over the centuries. The celtic culture and history of Cornwall must be respected, and this will not be achieved by having divided loyalties. I support some form of PR but on a basis that repects local feelings of belonging. For example, the MEPs are unknown to Cornish people as they represent a ‘South-West’ region of 7 ‘counties’ stretching as far as Wiltshire, plus Gibraltar!

  • Arthur Blue

    It’s all very well to talk of equal constituency voter numbers, but there are other matters to consider. There are some constituencies – such as my own – where it can take all day to get from one end to the other, and possibly more if you miss a ferry. This can greatly increase an MP’s workload. On the other hand there are city seats where you can walk across in half an hour. There should be some commonality of interest in the constituency too, as two widely different populations just lumped together to make up numbers is likely to result in one or the other being under-represented, and under FPTP there is no alternative representation for these.

  • Twinkle Wunderkind

    . . . I used to be a solid FPTP voter . . . the mantra was FPTP gives you govt with working majorities and anything else gives you continuous coalition . . . well, FPTP hasn’t done to well recently with regard to majority government . . . and PR (of a sort) seems to work ok in Germany . . . however, neither FPTP or the German style of PR are really ideal . . . PR in Germany tends to give you candidates that you never see, except on billboards; they are all party place men working their way up the list . . .
    . . . I live in Tyne and Wear where all 12 parliamentary constituencies are represented by labour in Westminster; now, I haven’t done the maths but I am pretty certain that amongst all those who didn’t vote labour, their must be enough votes to elect at least one MP from a different party, and their are probably areas in the South of England where the same can be said of the Conservatives . . .
    . . . in my opinion STV applied to enlarged multimember constituencies would ensure a fair distribution of votes to seats; this would suggest that Tyne & Wear would have 2 constituencies each of between 5 & 7 members being returned to Westminster . . . and the constituency size should be based on the population, not the electoral role
    . . . in areas where the population is such that multi-members cannot be supported, it would be fair to use AV with a single member being returned, as this is only an extension of the STV principle . . .
    . . . the advantage is that no vote is wasted, and no seat can be claimed as safe . . . if you want to be an MP, you have to get out and meet the people that you want to vote for you . . . and if you are a party with pretensions to power, you need to put real policies and principles in front of the electorate and not just rely on the claque of core voters to get you in . . .
    . . . party lists may theoretically be proportional, but they effectively leave the control of the voting system in party hands . . .

  • Jonjo

    A “Swiss style” system (ie PR combined with frequent binding referendums on major issues) is practical, proven and by far the most democratic solution yet it is rarely discussed. However, the real problem we face with trying to introduce anything new is that FPTP favours the two biggest parties and they will continue to do their utmost to prevent any sensible change. It is a ridiculous situation but how can it be changed?

  • Allan

    To move away from first past the post will change the 22million votes being ignored to 40 million votes being meaningless. Tories and About will oppose each other on many issues leaving the entirety of the decision making with minor parties such as UKIP, the Greens and any future extremist parties that may form. The present situation is not ideal, but it does give some sort of stability.

    • Jonjo

      I fail to understand how you can describe the position we have been in for at least the last decade (after many years of FPTP) as giving “stability”! Also, I do not understand what .. “Tories and About” .. means and can you please explain EXACTLY how a switch to PR would mean .. “40 million votes being meaningless”!..

      • chris W

        I agree; and ‘instability’ can be a symptom that voters don’t feel properly represented by either of the options promoted by the main parties. It cuts out dissenting opinion which might leading the way towards formulating more appropriate policy directions.
        We shouldn’t leave it to the background party thinktanks to decide our options for us, even their input is welcome as groundwork.

        • blestsense

          Although I understand and appreciate some of the basic merits of the argument, I feel the original post and some of the subsequent comments fail to take into account that this is no longer a time when there is minimal policy difference between the two main parties. Therefore talk of people ‘holding their nose’ to vote for the ‘lesser evil’ is a)not especially representative (yes even the supposed 20%) when the 2017 evidently provided a surprising result and saw many people (especially the youth) vote/become politically active for the first time b) might reflect that those ‘holding their nose’ didn’t really know very much about the policies on offer in the first place and might very well be basing this view on media (mis)representations. I’d also be interested to know how ERS framed some of the questioning in regards to eliciting a response that justifies their position.

          I realise that ERS is stinging from Labour’s ambivalence towards the idea when one could assume they’d be more willing than the Tories but give credit where it’s due.

          That’s not to say that there is not lot more work to be done on the ground in regards to engaging with people on their doorsteps.

    • Alexander Scott

      Presumably “About” is an Auto-Incorrect for Labour.

  • Alan

    We once had larger constituencies which each returned two members, that is the top two candidates. Might not this be a possible option for those who don’t want to move to a PR system which (as with every such system) gives activist insiders and career politicians enormous control over who can be elected by fiddling their lists?

    • willowandy

      It would be better with two or three, yes, particularly if done by STV.

      Remember that we don’t select MPs under FPTP now, parties do, just like you say for PR systems.

  • barrydavies

    As has been shown by the outcome of the referendum those who supported the losing side feel under represented, indeed they think the minority should be listened to above the majority, with elections unless you get the mp you want and the party you support is not in power, you will feel unrepresentative, even a PR system does not alter this, and is being shown in Germany can leave the nation rudderless for a considerable amount of time.

    • willowandy

      Well yes, because parties supporting staying in the EU are currently underrepresented in Parliament!

      With elections it is not a question of feeling – it is very clear and not hard to understand from the numbers.

      • barrydavies

        That is because the Lib Dem’s made it clear that the dem part is not what they believe in and wanted to ignore the outcome,

        • M Lyndon

          How would having another referendum be undemocratic?

          Nigel Farage: ““In a 52-48 referendum this would be unfinished business by a long way.”

          David Davis: “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”

          The latest YouGov tracker has this:
          “In hindsight, do you think Britain was right or wrong to vote to leave the European Union?”
          Right: 42%, Wrong 46%

          Every such poll since September has “Wrong” ahead.

          The only three people I know who would change their vote all voted Leave btw.

          • barrydavies

            Let’s just keep voting until there is a unanimous decision then, or do we just adopt the eu vision of referenda only accept the vote the unelected commission expect. We were told it would be a once in a generation binding vote, remain supporters expecting an easy win accepted that, now they didn’t get the result they wanted they want to move the goalposts, that certainly is not democracy.

          • Alexander Scott

            Nor is it exactly democratic to pit a single ‘devil you know’ against quite literally ‘anything else’, and refuse to countenance checking the decision once the ‘anything else’ takes an equally definite shape. That’s standard practice in any other field: an initial decision point when the concept is proposed, setting the mandate to spend the time and effort on working out the details, then a confirmatory decision point once those details are defined, to decide whether the concept lives up to its promise.

            Perhaps an analogy will help to explain things. Let’s say I were to offer you a trip to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics, complete with event tickets, food and accommodation. Now imagine that after you’d accepted, it turns out I can only swing tickets for events you’re not interested in, the accommodation is a dive, the transport is terrible – and you’d have problems at work if you were away for that long. Are you still obliged to follow through on this trip? Or do you have the right to withdraw?

          • barrydavies

            Clearly the devil we knew wasn’t what the majority wanted, it was the dreadful hotel, bad food, and events we didn’t have interest in, so we decided we had been sold a pup by the Heath government. We have decided to withdraw.

          • Alexander Scott

            ‘A pup’ you may consider it, but it’s being replaced by a pig in a poke. Might be a prize porker, might be an even worse pup, nobody knows – and many will have quite contradictory opinions about which is which.

            If you promise business as usual with extra principles to one person, and an unregulated predatory tax haven to another, then somebody is going to be very disappointed with whatever compromise you bodge together. If they consider it worse than what they started with, should they not be allowed to say so?

          • M Lyndon

            No-one would expect a unanimous decision for anything, and I can’t imagine anyone wanting a third referendum. I suspect there were at least a million people who voted leave or didn’t vote at all because they weren’t expecting Leave to win though. Plenty of people in my area (64% leave) saw it as a protest vote against the Conservatives or against politicians in general, and very few knew much about what leaving the EU would actually look like. Plenty of people seemed to believe that there’d be £350M extra per week for the NHS, even though Farage said this the day after:
            ““No I can’t [guarantee it], and I would never have made that claim. That was one of the mistakes that I think the Leave campaign made,” he said.
            When it was pointed out that Vote Leave emblazoned the £350 million claim onto the side of a tour bus and drove it around the country, Mr Farage said: “It wasn’t one of my adverts – I can assure you! I think they made a mistake in doing that. ”

            Most people would vote the same way as last time, but I’d expect a lot more defectors from Leave than from Remain, and a higher turnout from the Leave voters. One of the people I know who voted Leave said he regretted it the morning after, and hadn’t thought that Leave had any chance of actually winning.

          • barrydavies

            Well anyone can pull any figure out of the air and claim it is the case, there is no evidence that anyone voted leave thinking remain would win, unless you are saying remain supporters are stupid.

            No one was voting to protest anything other than being in a democratically deficient club.

            No one had any idea what staying in the democratically deficient club would be like in a couple of years, what we did see was Cameron blatantly lying that he had got us a good deal by giving away even more money and sovereignty to the eu. We saw the Blair//Brown lies that somehow the Lisbon treaty was not the constitution so they could sign us up for it without asking the public.

            Why does everyone, I.e. remainers, think that mentioning Farage is part of the argument about what was written on a bus by a group he had absolutely nothing to do with, you’ll be using the Nazi word next. Additionally I am sick and fed up of remainers asking why we are not using this money on the NHS now, are they really so stupid that they do not realise we are still in the eu and are still using this money on exactly what they voted for it to be used on?

            I know people who voted remain because they were clueless, but having seen the antics of barmier tusk and macron and the mass media being so pro eu biased, but actually promoting the idea we are going to be punished/bullied by the eu, have begun to understand they voted the wrong way, just as they did not long after the 1975 vote.

        • willowandy

          Sounds like the winner takes it all mentality..?

          In either case, I am not sure what it has to do with the problem of underrepresentation in Parliament. They aren’t just a minority, if that is what you mean – they are an underrepresented minority.

  • grandfather74

    No system is perfect but I do not agree that FPTP automatically means that those who voted for a candidate other that the one elected are not represented. The idea behind FPTP is that one individual is elected to represent ALL the people in a constituency, not just the ones who voted for him or her. Some MPs do not seem to be aware of this but this is down to the poor quality of the candidate (or their party). This is the problem which needs to be addressed. Party leaders please note.
    MSPs in Scotland are elected under a system which goes some way to addressing the concerns addressed below. The List system is not itself ideal but goes some way to giving a party representation for those who vote for a party rather than an individual, which, given the size of some constituencies, is probably most of us.

    • willowandy

      This is a problem as you say.

      “this is down to the poor quality of the candidate (or their party). This is the problem which needs to be addressed.”

      Fixing the voting system ie. dealing with safe seats *is* an effective way of addressing this. Perhaps one reason it isn’t done.

  • Alexander Scott

    Slightly ironic, really, given the mastodon in the ERS’s room when it comes to electoral systems.
    It’s true that STV gives a better representation than FPTP between the MPs returned and the opinions expressed on the ballot paper. But that comparison ignores how accurately the opinions expressed via the ballot paper – as actually interpreted by the electoral system – actually reflect the opinion of the voter.

    Single-cross systems such as FPTP or ‘conventional’ PR are notorious for forcing the voter to effectively declare “I adore candidate X unconditionally, and all the others are equally contemptible”. Hardly accurate, for any other than the most blindly idealistic voter.
    Preferential systems such as STV or AV give the illusion of being more nuanced, but are not in reality. The system translates the preferences given by the voter in remarkably similar terms: “I adore candidate 1 unconditionally, and all the others are equally contemptible”; “Now that Candidate 1’s not available, I adore the formerly contemptible Candidate 2 unconditionally, but all the others are still equally contemptible”; and so on. If anything, even more ludicrous.

    It gets even more absurd when we acknowledge that the motives behind many voters’ choices are essentially negative rather than positive: not “I want that one”, but “I don’t want that one”.
    In a single-cross system, the voter must simply try to guess (or be told by a hardly unbiased source) which rival has the best chance of beating the Worst. Guess wrong, and there’s the potential penalty of splitting the opposition and letting the Worst through the gap.
    A preferential system again offers only an illusory improvement. The voter is free to bury the Worst in last place, and pile the entire ballot paper above them. Feels great, I’m sure. But that opinion – the most important on the paper in the eyes of the voter – will in all probability never be seen. Even if by some miracle the count does come down to the Worst and another head-to-head for the last seat, the workings of STV mean that the vote is hopelessly diluted by that point.
    And it gets worse! In order to get to the point where the Worst can be put last, the voter has to declare preferences for a string of candidates that they don’t care for, simply in order to oppose the last one. The counting system can’t tell the difference between place-filling and genuine opinion, and takes this forced perjury as the voter’s heartfelt desire.

    A quantitative system, such as Range voting, removes both these problems. It allows the voter to indicate how much they support or oppose each candidate individually, and then treats these opinions in parallel so that all are taken into account. It’s even amenable to returning multiple MPs in a manner broadly proportional to voter sentiment – with a bit more maths than the single-seat version, true, but then the same goes for STV compared to AV. One’s support for a second-favourite is counted even when the favourite remains in the race, which is often presented as if it were a downside, but it also means that the continued presence of the favourite doesn’t stop one supporting the second favourite against the worst.

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