By Babak Moussavi
Around the time of the AV referendum last year, Robert Hazell, director of the Constitution Unit, said that he was very confident that AV would fail because, having polled the public on their interest and knowledge of constitutional matters, he came across “deep wells of ignorance”. Having attempted to engage in a recent debate on ConservativeHome, I noticed that this is a problem that does not appear to extend to the general public, but to numerous activists too.
In a recent article, the well-informed Tim Montgomerie suggested that Nick Clegg was trying to link support for the Conservative policy of constituency boundary reform with an elected House of Lords. In order to give the Tories the first, he would have to be helped with the second. It seems too early to tell whether this was something Mr Clegg was simply musing about, rather than insisting upon, as Mr Montgomerie’s article seemed to suggest. Even so, the comments field exploded, with the Liberal Democrats being blasted for their alleged duplicity. But what struck me is that the boundary reform issue is being swallowed unthinkingly as the proven method for increasing ‘fairness’ in the UK’s electoral system. Indeed, the reform was deemed by Mr Montgomerie to be “incredibly important” to Conservative prospects. It was claimed to be a simple act of rectifying an alleged pro-Labour bias in the system. One commenter was lauded by others for writing:
Let’s not forget that the intention of the boundary revision isn’t to make the new boundaries “Tory-friendly”, but to eliminate the anti-Conservative bias systemic in the current boundaries. We ought to make that clear in every discussion of the subject.
So, according to this thinking, the boundary reform is to eliminate bias, and, by extension, is supposed to create fairness in Britain’s electoral system. Rarely does one hear such ill-informed nonsense.
The perceived pro-Labour ‘bias’ in the electoral system is to do with geographical distribution of voters, where concentration is what matters. The Conservatives are slightly over-concentrated, meaning they win large victories in safe seats, which is inefficient; ideally for a party, their candidates would win a large number of seats by just a small number of votes, rather than a few seats with a big number of votes. Labour’s distribution, by this measure, is more efficient, and the Conservatives believe this to be unfair. But, as Jenni Tomlin wrote brilliantly in a different context, they are “wilfully ignoring the massive whacking great plank sticking out of their collective right eye.”
For the ‘bias’ is not against the Tories at all. The Conservatives, in fact, do extremely well out of the current system. The real losers are the smaller parties, starting with the Lib Dems. As I wrote in a previous post on the Lib Dems, “at the last election, it took 33,468 votes to elect a Labour MP, and 35,028 votes to elect a Conservative MP. But to elect a Liberal Democrat MP, it took an enormous 119,780 votes!” And lest we forget, the Lib Dems actually increased their share of the vote at the last election compared with 2005, but lost five seats. In addition, UKIP can feel aggrieved that their 919,471 votes did not translate into a single seat.
If anyone has reason to complain about the current system then, it is the small parties whose distribution of the vote is so diluted that, under First-Past-the-Post (FPTP), they will be at a permanent disadvantage.
Under FPTP, the problem of voter geographical distribution is not addressed, nor is the inherent disadvantage of the smaller parties. Only full PR would solve both problems entirely, but that is a system that both Labour and the Conservatives find unpalatable and is therefore highly unlikely to be enacted anytime soon.
AV would have had some effect in addressing the latter problem, as it would probably give the smaller parties a small boost in the vote share, but would have made little change to the former. That said, it would have gone some way to addressing the phenomenon of tactical voting, as people could then reveal their true preferences first, rather than simply their negative choice (wanting X, but voting Y because he has a better chance of beating Z). Furthermore, tactical voting is a fairly new phenomenon made possible by FPTP which is designed for a different era: FPTP suited the 1960s when 95% of people voted Labour or Tory, and there was an average of roughly 2.2 candidates per constituency. Nowadays, only about 65% vote for the ‘Big Two’ and there are around six candidates per constituency.
When it comes to dishonest campaigning, the No campaign’s mendacious efforts in the AV debate makes this boundary reform debate seem angelic. Counting to three was deemed “fiendishly complicated”. The sad – and unjust – thing is that this sort of campaigning worked.
There will always be a bias in the electoral system if FPTP is persisted with. But this is not a problem that the Conservatives advocating boundary reform are worried about, as the real bias is against the smaller parties. In theory, the brazen dishonesty of claiming that the boundary reform will remove bias should be astonishing. But then again, when even apparently fired-up activists don’t understand (or don’t want to understand) the root of the problem, we can tell that those deep wells of ignorance extend beyond the general public.