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Constituency Sizes

Jack Straw on Gerrymandering

Via The Talking Clock, my attention has been drawn to Jack Straw's uppity speech on constitutional reform, reported by the BBC here.

Jack Straw told the Hansard Society on Tuesday that the Conservative's plans to cut the number of MPs was a "dangerous, destructive and anti-democratic" piece of gerrymandering. The full speech is up on the Hansard Society website, here's the relevant section:

The apparently virtuous call to cut the cost of politics is actually camouflage for a dangerous, destructive and anti-democratic piece of gerrymandering. Their proposal is not about cutting the cost of politics; it is about advantaging the Conservative party. Boundaries drawn on the basis of registered electors, rather than the population as a whole, already distort the electoral map because registration rates are lowest among specific groups congregated in specific locations.

According to the Electoral Commission's recent estimate, most of the three million-plus people who are eligible to vote but who are not registered are to be found in our inner urban areas. Cutting 65-80 seats by crudely equalising registered voters would disproportionately reduce representation in urban areas and would also disadvantage Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And it would hit every island community. Orkney and Shetland would be amalgamated with a large part of the highlands. The Isle of Wight would be amalgamated with a large part of Hampshire.

In stark contrast to Labour’s agenda for moving towards a new politics on the basis of popular consent, the Conservatives aim to butcher scores of constituencies for sordid political ends. I don’t think that’s the right way to go about significant constitutional change, and I don’t think it’s any
way to build public confidence in Parliament and the political process.

In summary.

  • The Conservative's policy is "dangerous, destructive and anti-democratic" because it reverses the Labour Party's inbuilt advantage and makes a Labour government less likely.
  • Equalising constituency sizes would disproportionately reduce representation in urban Labour-voting areas.
  • Equalising constituency sizes would disproportionately reduce representation in Labour-voting Scotland and Wales (where MSPs and AMs handle much of the constituency work previously handled by MPs).

My obvious disdain for Jack Straw should not be taken as an indication of support for the Conservative policy. Straw does have a point about island constituencies. It would be daft in my opinion to break up the Isle of Wight, the UK's largest constituency, or to amalgamate Orkney and Shetland into mainland constituencies (if that is indeed what the Tories advocate). And I see no particular reason why there should be a strict equalisation of constituency size according to population. But it is deeply hypocritical of Jack Straw to accuse the Tories of planning to gerrymander electoral boundaries that are at present so biased in favour of his own party.

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