Lesley Riddoch: UK voting system is broken and discredited

What a tantalising prospect for the beleaguered Theresa May. The latest Boundary Commission proposals could reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600 and kill a small flock of troublesome birds with just one stone.

Boris Johnson and his wife Marina arrive at the General Election count at Brunel University in London.
Boris Johnson and his wife Marina arrive at the General Election count at Brunel University in London.

Boundary changes would probably see off Boris Johnson and David Davis - the closest rivals for her top job. The total package would likely see the Tories win 306 seats to Labour’s 245, and reducing the number of Scots MPs from 59 to 53 would mean less interference from the SNP. Overall – according to pollsters –the next general election would see Theresa May regaining the majority she lost in the 2017 snap election, without winning a single extra vote.

Bonzer. The flailing Prime Minister must have viewed the Boundary Review as political manna from heaven – until she spotted one wee snag.

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This new political map of Britain will probably never see the light of day because her partners in government, the DUP, will simply veto proposed changes for Northern Ireland which aim to redress centuries of under-representation for the Catholic/Republican community.

What a shame.

According to Martin Baxter, who runs the website Electoral Calculus:

“With at least 50 MPs worried about losing their seats, including some senior DUP politicians, it is not clear these proposed changes will get final Commons’ approval. Overall the revised boundaries help the Conservatives, by equalising the size of seats throughout the country, but that may not be enough to get a majority for the new system.”

So near and yet so far for Theresa May.

And for taxpayers, a waste of £9.3 million financing a review to improve democracy that was destined to go nowhere from the start.

Does anyone even recall David Cameron’s rationale for instigating the review in 2015? His aim was apparently to fix a decaying boundary system that’s been in place for over 20 years.

Now that might suggest the Tories intended to bring the system bang up to date. Not a bit of it. The new boundaries are based on voter registration in December 2015, even though two million people have registered since then – most in Labour seats. Cute. And according to Electoral Reform Society (ERS) chief executive Katie Ghose, seats should be based on local population not numbers registered anyway, because the poorest areas with the greatest needs usually have the fewest official voters.

She might as well be talking to the wind.

The party that’s so unhappy with a 20-year-old boundary map, is entirely unperturbed by a more than 200-year-old first past the post voting system. Which matters more in restoring fairness and efficiency to British democracy?

The answer is obvious to all but the two main political parties at Westminster.

Thanks to FPTP half the votes cast in the 2015 Westminster election didn’t help elect an MP, making it the most disproportionate election in British history. Some 15 million votes had no impact on the result. It was the same in 2010, when 53 per cent of votes didn’t elect anyone. But hey. Who cares?

Furthermore, the only reason pollsters can predict the likely outcome of boundary changes is because FPTP delivers so many safe seats. The average Westminster constituency last changed hands between parties in the 1960s, with some safe seats controlled by the same party since the days of Queen Victoria. Safe seats are the 21st century equivalent of rotten boroughs, but again, since they deliver certainty for the main Westminster parties, who cares?

Prolonged use of FPTP means Britain is artificially divided, with whole regions becoming ‘electoral deserts’ where parties have real support but no representation (including Scotland). This means parties fight over marginal seats instead, leaving millions of people with almost no serious democratic contest locally. This is how Britain’s “winner takes all” electoral system has hollowed out democracy.

Yet David Cameron’s only proposal for improving things was fiddling with the size of constituencies in a bid to stiff Labour, silence the SNP and further reduce the collective clout of parliament.

If anyone really means to improve British politics there are two other and utterly obvious candidates for urgent reform; the unelected House of Lords whose numbers dwarf the Commons and the first past the post voting system itself.

In fact, the Boundary Commission proposals have demolished the main argument used to support FPTP – the importance of a constituency link.

How can voters in Highland North and Highland South - two proposed new constituencies with a combined landmass larger than Belgium – possibly feel connected to their distant MPs? And if the personal bond is now unimportant, why not reap the advantages of fairness that would accompany a shift to proportional representation?

But there is an even bigger downside to the broken, discredited FPTP voting system – the perpetuation of a political class with no experience of or respect for the important business of compromise.

The last few pitiful weeks of Brexit-related posturing by British politicians vividly demonstrate the democratic price of failing to overhaul our compromise-free, antagonistic, political system. The clash of ideologies embedded in FPTP has helped socialise generations of politicians, civil servants and voters. Compromise is regarded as weakness - not the inevitable way diverse interests are accommodated. Negotiating skills are hardly seen as skills at all. Indeed, David Cameron’s belated tour of Europe in 2015 showed only that he had left it too late to make allies, win concessions and avoid the fateful European referendum of 2016. By contrast, the Irish who’ve used PR since 1921, understand that making friends and influencing people requires protracted hard work rather than a single imperious click of the fingers. The ability to negotiate is not just in the foxy old Celtic DNA, it’s a skill produced by an Irish voting system that demands deal making and compromise not lofty grand-standing.

Britain is effectively reaping what it has sown – or failed to sow – in terms of genuine democratic participation over the centuries. It’s noticeable that the strongest supporters of Brexit come from the English regions furthest from power. The north of England and the Midlands must be the largest urban metropolitan areas in Europe without proper devolved government.

So even if the discredited Boundaries Review bites the dust, the tired, elitism of British politics will continue. And as the crisis surrounding Brexit unfolds, every constituency in Britain will be paying the price.