Equal-sizing constituencies is gerrymandering through ignorance, as well as cynicism, says Kevin Meagher

In last week’s Guardian, Martin Kettle, accused Labour of ‘playing fast and loose on AV reform’ following the Shadow Cabinet’s  decision to oppose the bill paving the way for next year’s referendum on electoral reform. It got me shouting at the cat.

Of course the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill also has bolted on to it measures to reduce the number of MPs and comprehensively redraw parliamentary constituencies, hence Labour’s objection.

But in a passage that sent dear old Puss heading for the cat-flap, Kettle cited the Chartists’ call for equal-sized parliamentary constituencies and asked whether Labour ‘is any longer a party of reform at all’ given that it is ‘no longer willing to go into the Parliamentary lobbies in September to advance the equality of representation for which the Chartists campaigned.’

Of course, we are comparing apples and oranges here. The Chartists’ aim of securing equal-sized constituencies was an attempt to expunge the multi-seat rotten boroughs from parliament, not to disenfranchise the poorest people in the land.

The crude, arithmetical ‘equality’ that Cameron/ Clegg think is ‘fair’ is anything but. Their proposals will reduce the number of seats in areas where there are fewer registered voters. But these are precisely the same places where the 3.5 million hidden voters live; which make some seats appear to have fewer voters than in more affluent areas.

It is this point alone which provides the intellectual justification for their assault on our democracy. But it is the logic of the madhouse. If the poor are not registered, then they must not exist. Let’s remember who we are talking about. These are the marginalised who removed themselves from the electoral register at the time of the Poll Tax and never went back on. These are the poor who are too ill-educated and socially excluded to have ever sent back the form. And these are the hopeless and utterly dispossessed, who don’t see the point in the first place. But they all have the right to be represented.

Of course, the Tories think this is a wheeze and people out in the real world will hail the idea of cutting the number of MPs. But that, in part, depends on who you are and where you live.

If you are a Labour MP representing a poor, inner city constituency, or a former coalfield seat, or an old manufacturing town, you undoubtedly think this is a lousy idea. You will intuitively understand the real reasons some seats have smaller electorates and lower turnouts. But these missing millions will still find their way to your surgery each week for help with their dramatic and dreadful problems.  And you don’t want to hear that your casework will increase, while your ability to make a difference to their lives will decrease because the size of your constituency will grow under these reforms.

If, however, you are a Conservative or Liberal Democrat representing a rural, or semi-rural seat where the issues you deal with are fairly parochial and the main pressure on your time is trying to show your face around as many summer fetes as possible, then you probably don’t understand the fuss.

Take Nick Clegg. He is my local MP in Sheffield Hallam. It’s a nice place. It doesn’t fit the picture some people will have of Sheffield. It contains a big chunk of the Peak District National Park. It is a university seat with two teaching hospitals. In fact, it has the highest percentage of people with a Phd degree in the country. But the ‘real’ Sheffield is not far away. This is the city where the gap in life expectancy between the ‘posh’ bit Mr Clegg represents and the poorer end of town reaches 14 years. No decimal point missing there; that’s 14 years. Yes, you live 14 years longer on one side of the city than you do on the other due to myriad inequalities that pervade all aspects of your life. Now I’m sure Mr Clegg has serious issues that come across his desk, but I’m guessing they are not – literally – as life or death as the ones David Blunkett deals with on the other side of town.

How about another example? Jake Berry is the new Conservative MP for Rossendale and Darwen in east Lancashire. He beat Janet Anderson by a whisker back in May. The Lancashire Telegraph recently reported that Mr. Berry is to present a petition to Speaker Bercow about a pressing local issue. What portentous matter of state demands his attention, I hear you ask? Well, the paper reports that some residents are unhappy that council workmen have left a mound of silt in a park after dredging a pond. Oh, and it’s unsightly. And, er, that’s it. But it’s such a matter of overwhelming local concern that a staggering 100 people have signed the petition.

Mr Berry gets marks for enthusiasm. But then has them deducted for time-wasting. And, to place a shiny red cherry on the top, it’s a Tory council he’s complaining about.

This is why Conservative and Liberal Democrats are so blithe about reducing the number of MPs. They have a different experience back in their constituencies and simply don’t deal with the extremis cases that Labour MPs do. By and large. I’m not claiming Labour MPs are necessarily better at dealing with their constituents’ problems. Not at all. Neither am I saying Tory and Lib Dem MPs are idle. But Labour MPs – again, by and large – represent seats where there are greater social and economic problems and where the intervention of the local MP really matters. On real issues. Not on a pile of shit – either metaphorical, or real, as in Mr Berry’s case.

Jack Straw has called the government’s proposals “gerrymandering”. That is not too strong a term. These plans will disenfranchise the poor and stack up unfeasible workloads on the remaining MPs in areas of greatest need. Doubtless the government is motivated by political opportunism; a chance to use an illusory sense of “fairness” to erode Labour’s political base. But I would like to think there was a fair chance that some Conservative and Lib Dem MPs simply do not fully understand ‘the lives of others’. Here is an opportunity to appeal for them to care about the democratic rights of the people at the bottom of the pile.

If not, can I suggest that we try to objectify MPs’ workloads? Perhaps we should rank casework on a scale of severity, starting with acute human need, all the way down to judging the most kissable sow in the annual Affluent-on-Sea agricultural show. Perhaps we could pay MPs on that basis too? That might get their attention.

To conclude where I came in, I’m sorry for those AV campaigners who are frustrated with Labour’s position on the bill; but there really is no choice but to oppose a piece of naked partisanship. The shadow cabinet has made the right call.

And as the government begins its mission to stack the House of Lords with its supporters, it does not, apparently, see the hypocrisy of its own position. We can have scores more unelected chinless wonders in the upper House, but we get fewer elected Members of Parliament in the bargain.

What do you think the Chartists would make of that, Mr Kettle?

Kevin Meagher was special adviser to the Labour secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

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14 Responses to “Equal-sizing constituencies is gerrymandering through ignorance, as well as cynicism, says Kevin Meagher”

  1. Richard Nabavi says:

    Oh dear, what extremely confused special pleading!

    So it’s about case-work loads, is it? In that case, where is the evidence that the current boundaries are optimised to equalise case-loads? And when did Labour ever campaign to change constituency boundaries to equalise case-loads?

    As for this little gem:

    Their proposals will reduce the number of seats in areas where there are fewer registered voters. But these are precisely the same places where the 3.5 million hidden voters live; which make some seats appear to have fewer voters than in more affluent areas.

    Er, no. They don’t appear to have fewer voters, they DO have fewer voters. By definition, someone who is not a registered voter is not a voter. The number of non-voters in the constituency is completely irrelevant to the question of making constituency sizes, for electoral purposes, fair.

    But please do continue with this line. The sight of Labour desperatedly trying to argue, on the flimsiest of pretexts, that the current boundaries which benefit one party (guess which…) should be maintained is both hilarious to watch, and a reminder to everyone of the anti-democratic instincts of New Labour. That, combined with the even funnier U-turn on AV, helps remind people of just how corrupt, self-interested, and cynical the party has become.

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  3. Rachel says:

    Are you a Lib Dem, Richard? Because the rhetoric does sound very familiar.

    For the record, life expectancy in the poorest parts of Cumbria is 20 years – yes 20 years – shorter than in the wealthiest parts of the county. Even Cumbrian Tory MP Rory Stewart concedes this.

    I have seen the “missing millions” queuing up around the block of my local MP’s constituency surgery. I have helped out with casework that is a very long way from being minor. I have seen my MP work literally 100 hours a week and be unrelentingly criticised for everything he doesn’t get around to doing during his busy work schedule. I have seen his family – and health – suffer.

    The whole concept of reducing the number of constituencies is based on the assumption that the current job of being an MP isn’t hard enough. I find this assumption – quite frankly – sickening.

  4. Guzzibasher says:

    I was under the impression that a constituent is someone who IS registered, and that MPs do not represent those not registered. My MPs have usually asked for my name and address to check that I am on the electoral roll in their constituency before they will deal with me. More importantly, Labour have thrown away millions of votes by simply not listening: Illegal wars, useless nuclear weapons, privatisation of things like London Underground, money wasted on PPP schemes, third Heathrow runway, 10p tax fiasco, cavalier regulation of casino banks, etc. etc. A few votes lost on boundary changes is negligible compared with that lot. And of course, there are no poor people in the countryside!

  5. DevonChap says:

    Why doesn’t Labour concentrate on getting the unregistered registered. Then when the boundary commission check the 2010 roll there won’t be an issue, will there?
    Are Labour activists too lazy to bother?

  6. Richard Nabavi says:

    Rachel – but reducing the number of constituencies is not the real issue, is it? Kevin Meagher in this article, and senior Labour politicians in other articles and interviews, are bandying around the word ‘gerrymandering’. That is to do with the voting arithmetic; the issue of MPs’ workloads is a completely different one. If the impact on MPs’ workload is really the objection, the word ‘gerrymandering’ should never have been used.

    The whole question of MPs’ casework is quite another matter. If that really is a genuine objection, then logically you should be arguing for much larger Westminster constituencies in Scotland, where this kind of work is shared with MSPs.

    Surely the sensible thing is to put in place equalised constituency sizes, as the coalition proposes, and provide whatever extra administrative support MPs in more difficult areas may need. Or, better still, address the issue of why so many constituents need to seek personal help from their MPs; I believe in many cases this is because of failure by other branches of (local or central) government to be responsive and helpful.

  7. Rachel says:

    Au contraire, Guzzibasher. C

    Cumbria is a rural county and its poorest wards (in Labour constituencies) are on a par with Tower Hamlets and Hackney for deprivation. The equalising of constituencies will have a particularly adverse effect on rural constituencies because, traditionally, the geographical size of constituencies was taken into consideration when redrawing boundaries.

    Geographical size will still be taken into consideration but only at the Highlands and Islands level.

  8. Alun says:

    “that the current boundaries which benefit one party (guess which…)”

    Not this nonsense again. Labour polled about 29% across the UK and won something like 39% of seats. The Tories polled around 36% and took 47% of seats. This fact is something that Labour ought to emphasis whenever the subject comes up for discussion.

  9. Richard Nabavi says:

    Alun – That’s not the whole story. You can’t just take one data point. For example, you need to look at what percentage each party would need to win a majority.

    It really does stretch credulity for Labour to claim that (a) The current system does not benefit them, and (b) that they are opposed to the eminently fair proposals for any reason other than wanting to retain the de-facto ‘gerrymandering’ built-in to the current boundaries.

    That is why all these spurious objections are being made – it is because you know the current distortion is utterly indefensible.

  10. Guzzibasher says:

    Er, Rachel, I was being sarcastic about poor people in the countryside. Interesting that this discussion carries on about the detail of boundary changes instead of the bigger picture of Labour comprehensively failing its core principles.

  11. Rachel says:

    @ Richard

    Actually, it IS the reduction in the number of MPs that is the issue – an issue that will result in the redrawing of boundaries without any local consultation (and it’s Labour that gets branded undemocratic!) – and the abitrary equalising of electorates without any reference at all to the number of unregistered voters – or, indeed non-voters (ie. children, migrant workers, prisoners etc.)

    It also undermines (almost certainly deliberately) the impact that a hard-working and effective constituency MP can have on their community. After all, this alone, prevented the Tories securing an overall majority at this election. More distant and impersonal figureheads are more likely to be dislodged on the basis of national swings.

    My local MP has been kept more than busy with significant policy issues (eg. nuclear new build in the constituency) but it is precisely BECAUSE he is willing to talk to non-voting types about the problems that matter to THEM that many more turned out to vote for him than would otherwise be the case. I, personally, think this is a *good* thing though I can understand why Conservatives would beg to differ.

  12. Guzzibasher – your impression is wrong. A constituent is somebody who is resident in the constituency. That’s why you get MPs doing casework for the homeless or asylum seekers in their constituency. Or, for that matter, for children. Because they’re all constituents.

    An MP is a representative of a particular geographical area, not just of its registered voters.

  13. Guzzibasher says:

    Fair enough Edward, I was not sure of the legality, but how does someone qualify as resident if not registered? I thought it was a legal requirement to complete the registration form. After all, how can you expect support from a system if you are not prepared to be part of it? Why can an MP not register them if they come to him/her? This could help ease the problem of MPs working for invisible constituents.

    Still doesn’t alter the fact that Labour lost far more votes through crass right-wing policies than they ever will through ‘gerrymandering’ (see August 5th Thursday News Review post on this website for confirmation!)

  14. matt Lincoln says:

    It is almost as ridiculous as argung that millionaires should keep their council house tenure to assume that people who don’t register to vote should be given a Labour MP because that is what they would vote for if they were registered.

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