Messing about with the boundaries of constituencies to make our first past the post electoral system “fairer” is a ludicrous own goal that is only going to highlight how manifestly arbitrary the results is produces are.
One of the few benefits FPTP offers is providing communities of electors with a representative in Westminster (and it’s not even an exclusive benefit, the superior AV system that the electorate in all its wisdom slung out in May also offers this). Tinkering with the boundaries to try to make all constituencies fall within 5% of the quote of 76,641 electors is destroying cohesive community-based groupings, as this mornings report from the Boundary Commission for England shows.
As an example, take Lewes, Brighton and Hove, three towns on the South Coast. Currently there’s an MP for Lewes and an MP for Hove, and two for Brighton. The BCE are proposing constituencies for Lewes-and-one-edge-of-Brighton, a bit-of-Brighton-and-a-bit-of-Hove and another bit-of-Brighton-and-another-bit-of-Hove. And the absurd exemption for the Isle of White makes the case for preserving the link with coherent geographical communities, but only if they are surrounded by sea.
But why do it? The whole point of FPTP, we were told, is that what matters is that there is a decisive winner. And with a couple of exceptions from over 30 years ago, the largest number of seats has always gone to the party with the largest share of the vote. The changes proposed would make seats more proportional to vote share if we had a two party system, but we don’t. And because under FPTP if you don’t vote for one of the two front-runner parties in your constituency, your vote is effectively discarded, the unfairness of of using it in a multi-party system is so massive that any anomalies arising from the variations in constituency size are rendered negligible. However, the practical effect of these boundary changes will be to benefit the Conservatives at the next election…
How will it benefit the Tories? Because a lot of the smaller constituencies are in Labour areas (eg. in cities, Scotland or Wales). Also there may be other coincidental benefits from the changes through disrupting tactical voting: for example in Lewes, the Tories narrowly failed to win the seat from Lib Dem Norman Baker; with a chunk of East Brighton in the mix where their main opposition is Labour they will be able to consolidate their support against a Lib/Lab split.
And then what? Over time, as birth rates fluctuate and people move, the constituency sizes will grow in variation again. We’ll still be using the same electoral system, so the only remedy will be go through the whole daft and expensive process again.
Two things console me. Firstly, the government have inadvertently scared their MPs into rebelling. Many of them, needing to secure a new seat, will find this the most effective way of grabbing attention and getting selected. Secondly, weakening the link between communities and their representatives at Westminster may be a small contribution to prompting people to reconsider whether genuine electoral reform might not be a better idea after all.