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Is ‘reduce and equalise’ a solution in search of a problem?

The Coalition's proposals to reshape the UK's electoral geography by reducing the number of MPs and equalising the size of constituencies, may inflict more pain than gain, as a report by the British Academy shows.

Nick Clegg is a man in a hurry; in fewer than 100 days of Parliamentary time he has steered both the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill and the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill past their respective second readings in the Commons. We can’t say he didn’t warn us – when Clegg unveiled his 100 day action plan ‘to save our democracy’ in May 2009 he insisted that ‘reform must be swift and decisive’.

Nonetheless, Clegg’s urgency has left the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee playing catch up. With both Bills receiving their first reading in the Commons within a week of the summer recess, the scope for a committee which first met on 14 July to undertake pre-legislative scrutiny has been highly limited. The frustration of the committee’s chair, Graham Allen MP, who has argued that legislation will suffer from this ‘scrutiny bypass’, is both obvious and understandable.

Allen’s select committee did manage to produce a report on the seven page Fixed-term Parliaments Bill in time for its second reading on 13 September, taking the view that ‘it is unacceptable that a Bill of this legal and constitutional complexity has not been the subject of any prior consultation or pre-legislative scrutiny’. Unsurprisingly, the committee could not pull it off for the 158 page Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - which simultaneously provides for a referendum on the Alternative Vote, a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and boundary reviews to equalise constituency electorates. Quite what the committee will be able to say about the Bill before it enters the committee stage on 12 October remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, one aspect of the Bill has received close scrutiny from another source. At the beginning of September, the British Academy Policy Centre published a report on the Bill’s proposals to equalise constituency electorates, written by a team of five academics, based principally at Oxford University and led by Professor Ron Johnston of Bristol University.

Also prepared in great haste, the report is an impressive undertaking, presenting complex material in an accessible and even-handed manner. It makes a number of sensible, necessarily technical recommendations for changes to the wording of the Bill in the sections dealing with the proposed boundary reviews. However, its remit is very much restricted to considering the Bill’s proposals for the equalisation of constituency electorates. The other aspects of the Bill - a reduced number of MPs and a referendum on AV - are simply noted, and accepted.

A key consequence of the report’s very clear focus on just one aspect of the Bill is its silence on some of its more controversial aspects. No view is offered, for instance, as to whether there is a clear case for reducing the number of MPs – although this measure necessitates more radical changes to constituency boundaries than ‘equalisation’ would on its own.  Similarly, no comment is made on whether there is a policy rationale for combining provisions for the referendum and the boundary reviews in the same Bill. Although, the authors do note that: ‘a referendum on AV could be held (as could a general election using AV) without either reducing the number of MPs or redrawing the country’s constituency map’.

The reader is required to read between the lines when it comes to the report’s description of the problem which ‘equalisation’ is intended to address. From the evidence they present, the authors show that unequal constituency electorates were a genuine concern in 2001 but, by 2010, it seems the situation had improved greatly – owing largely to the outcomes of the Boundary Commission’s fifth periodical review. 

The report also suggests that pro-Labour bias in the electoral system has been reduced substantially over the past decade. In 2001, the average number of votes per seat won was 26,111 for Labour and 50,625 for the Conservatives. But, by 2010, this had narrowed enormously to 33,468 for Labour and 35,058 for the Conservatives.  Even then, as the authors note, factors other than unequal electorates are just as important in explaining the differential – notably lower turnouts in seats won by Labour and the tendency for Labour majorities to be numerically smaller than Conservative ones.

Certainly, there are constituencies with either very small or very large electorates. The contrast between the two extremes of Na h-Eileanan an Iar (22,000 electors) and the Isle of Wight (110,000 electors) is often used to justify the need for equalization. But the British Academy report recognises that these ‘outliers’ are few in number and, under the existing rules, have obvious geographical justification – they are overwhelmingly islands, or sparsely populated mainland areas on the Celtic fringe.

The difficulty of what to do with such areas will remain under the new proposals – and three exceptions have already been granted, in effect, to three ‘small’ Scottish constituencies (including Na h-Eileanan an Iar). Public pressure is mounting to make a further exception for the Isle of Wight – where 17,500 residents have signed a petition to request the island be permitted to remain a single parliamentary constituency. Meanwhile, there are signs of ‘local difficulties’ in Cornwall over the prospects of a constituency which would cross the Tamar - the historic division between the Duchy and Devon. 

None of this is to suggest that the British Academy report is misleading. Considered in isolation from other issues, and judged against its stated objectives, the Bill’s equalisation proposals are essentially sound – as the authors of the report conclude. Yet, a deeper reading of the report highlights the risks associated with ‘swift and decisive’ reform. Members of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee would surely have wanted to ask the report’s authors if their evidence confirms the need for such a radical redrawing of the UK’s electoral geography, and whether the ‘gain’ is really worth the ‘pain’.

About the author
Dr Stuart Wilks-Heeg is Executive Director of Democratic Audit.


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