Sorry, the Boundary Commission is not Gerrymandering

By Craig Murray, former British ambassador to Uzbekistan and Rector (i.e. president) of the University of Dundee.

There is no point in declaring yourself of independent mind if you proceed to try to ingratiate yourself with any particular group of people or defined set of political opinions. Occasionally I express opinions which are not palatable to many of my readers, and I am afraid this is one of those times. But the plain fact is, that the boundary review of Westminster constituencies is neither deliberate gerrymandering nor unfairly favourable to the Tories.

The starting point for any sensible discussion must be that the first past the post system will virtually never produce any kind of fair representation, especially in a multi-party system. I detest UKIP, but a system which gave them just 0.15% of the seats for 9.5% of the vote is not equitable. Between the two “main” parties, FPTP in modern times had always advantaged Labour, as boundary changes lagged behind declining populations in old industrial areas. But the 2015 trouncing of Labour by the SNP changed this and it took more votes to elect each Labour MP than each Tory. But in a sense this is all pointless – FPTP is not meant to be fair. Its theoretical advantage is in ensuring the proper representation of individual constituencies.

It is difficult to answer against the principle that the constituencies should therefore be of approximately equal size. Special interest arguments are most strongly put forward in Scotland, where island areas are distinctive cultural communities. But there are obvious problems with arguing that every community that can argue to distinct cultural or geographic coherence should get an MP irrespective of size, and it is hard to explain why the reverse also does not apply – if size does not matter but coherence does, why does Birmingham or Leeds not get just one MP? In general, I accept the argument as fair that if we are stuck with FPTP (and I dearly wish we were not), then constituencies should be more or less equal in size.

Once you accept this, the rest follows fairly automatically. I give no time to arguments that anything other than the electoral register should be used – you are looking to create equal sized blocks of voters. It is an election. If you don’t register to vote, you cannot vote and cannot get considered in parcelling up the voters. Not registering to vote is an opt-out from the democratic process, and one which people ought to be allowed to take. But if opted-out, you are opted out. Nobody will ever know how the unregistered would have voted. Presence of unregistered voters is not a reason to allow a smaller constituency, or you are in effect assuming their wishes in representation.

This argument has been varied recently by the addition of almost 2 million newly registered voters since the register on which the review was undertaken, a combination of the ordinary churn of young people coming on to the register, and expanded registration for the EU referendum. But a register is always a snapshot of the electorate at a particular time. The Electoral Commission, whose cycle of work takes years to complete, is always working on historic data. The newly registered, assuming they stay on, will count in the next review, which will soon be along. Besides, the House of Commons library has researched the new registrations and come to the conclusion that they cannot be viewed as disproportionately concentrated in Labour urban areas. They estimate that if the exercise were based on the current registrations, Scotland would lose two more seats, Northern Ireland would lose one. London would gain two and SW England one. The probable net result would be a Labour gain of 2 seats, a Tory gain of one seat, an SNP loss of two and a DUP loss of one. So it is not in any way the game changer that is being claimed.

Finally, I entirely support the reduction of the House of Commons from 650 to 600. There has been much gnashing of teeth here too, with the comparative size of the ridiculously inflated House of Lords the focus of much comment. But the answer to that is to reduce the Lords, not increase the Commons.

Scotland will see its detailed proposals published next month. Expect the Lib Dems to wail about the disappearance of Carmichael’s seat, and the SNP about the reduction of Scottish representation by 6 seats (England is losing 32 and Wales 11). But I strongly advise the SNP to bite their tongue and concentrate on Independence. Our aim is no seats at Westminster at all.

I see no reason to impugn the integrity of the members of the Boundary Commission, and I feel that has been done in an unfair and concentrated way. They have done their job fairly and conscientiously. It is ludicrous to judge them by the yardstick of whether the result helps the side you wish to win. FPTP is a dreadful system that has contributed massively to the appalling governance of the UK. I hope to see fundamental constitutional reform – including Scottish independence. For the UK I should love to see STV elections and a fully elected upper chamber, not to mention a republic. But whatever we may wish, in terms of their current task working with FPTP, more equal size constituencies will make it a little fairer. If the English electorate continue to vote Tory in large numbers, the answer to that from the left is not the retention of accidental distortions in constituency size.

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