It’s not just the boundaries that need reviewing – it’s First Past the Post

Doug Cowan
Author:
Doug Cowan

Posted on the 11th September 2018

The four national Boundary Commissions have now announced their results. If parliament accepts them, these will be the constituencies that the next general election in 2022 will be fought on.

The election specialists Rallings & Thrasher have worked out that, if the votes cast in the 2017 election results were cast in these boundaries, the Conservatives would have a majority of 16 – despite no votes changing.

So if the review helps the governing party…is this ‘gerrymandering’?

Gerrymandering is the process whereby politicians pick the voters they want to elect them. The word originates from 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry redrew the state to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. One of the districts in the Boston area was so contorted it looked like a salamander – hence ‘gerrymander’.

The big difference between Elbridge Gerry’s maps and the situation in the UK, is that constituencies here are not designed by politicians themselves. The Boundary Commissions run an open process, with public feedback at each stage.

But in theory, you could design hundreds of different constituency maps that would all result in a different makeup of Parliament. Where the lines go can directly change who represents you in Parliament, and how many MPs each party has.

You could design hundreds of different constituency maps that would all result in a different makeup of Parliament. Where the lines go can directly change who represents you in Parliament, and how many MPs each party has. Click To Tweet

That’s not to say that it’s been entirely free from government choices. The new 2022 boundaries are going to be based on the electoral roll from December 2015 – seven years out of date by the time they are used.

Since then we’ve had the sign-up surges associated with the EU referendum and 2017 General Election. These surges likely increased registration levels among young people and marginalised groups.

Does this account for the 16-seat lead given to the Tories by the new boundaries? While some regions will lose out, the biggest culprit is the voting system in Westminster.

First Past the Post is simply not designed to give each party a fair amount of seats based on their vote share.

Westminster suffers from something called electoral bias. The ‘bias’ is the difference in seats between the two main parties if they both got the same number of votes. From 1992-2010 this helped the Labour party, in 2015 and 2017 it helped the Conservatives (although governing parties often tend think it’s biased against them…).

In Westminster, if the two main parties both got the same number of votes, they'd get wildly different amounts of seats. From '92-'10 this helped Labour, in '15 and '17 it helped the Conservatives Click To Tweet

The bias is caused by the fact each constituency only has one MP. These constituencies have different numbers of people in them, meaning you can win a small one with fewer votes than a big one. But, this isn’t the only source of bias.

Turnout is different around the country, so you need fewer people to vote for you if fewer people in general vote in your constituency.

But General Elections are not only Labour vs Conservative battles. The more people there are voting for third parties (as long as they don’t win), the easier it is for the major parties to win a seat – the threshold for winner gets lower. You just need one more than the second-place candidate. In Belfast South, a candidate in 2015 won on 24.5%.

Of course, few MPs win with one vote more than their main opponent. Some MPs pile up massive majorities while others sneak a win by a handful of votes. These thousands of extra votes are wasted as they don’t make any difference to the make-up of parliament.

Efforts to equalise constituency sizes are therefore a red herring: Westminster’s voting system ensures a dramatic inequality in the number of votes it takes to elect an MP. Click To Tweet

UKIP won nearly 600,000 votes but zero MPs last year – while the DUP needed just 27,930 votes per MP elected. The Greens won over 500,000 votes in the 2017 GE but just one MP, while the Lib Dems secured an MP for every 197,336 votes.

Whichever way you design the boundaries, Westminster’s voting system will mean our Parliament only barely represents the UK. To solve this, we need to abandon the idea that each constituency should only elect one MP.

Instead, proportional electoral systems like the Single Transferable Vote elect groups of MPs from slightly larger constituencies. Rather than trying to divide a town or county into three arbitrary but equal-sized lumps, each with their own MP, you add the constituencies together into one big constituency with three MPs. The group of MPs reflect the variety of political opinion in that area.

And by ranking candidates on the basis of preference, you get not only political diversity but ensure that if your first choice can’t win, your vote isn’t entirely wasted.

The fact that the new boundaries will change election results isn’t a sign that it has been gerrymandered – it’s a sign that Westminster’s unfair system is working just as expected.

The fact that the new boundaries will change election results isn’t a sign that it has been gerrymandered – it’s a sign that Westminster’s unfair system is working just as expected. Click To Tweet

It’s high time we got rid of this outdated, unequal voting system. Let’s scrap First Past the Post once and for all.

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