Why the Chartists wouldn’t support Cameron’s boundary changes

Cameron’s intentions have very little to do with progressive political reform.

David Cameron has once again cheekily invoked the Chartist democracy movement from the 1830s and 1840s as a justification for his boundary changes. The Chartists did indeed demand equal constituencies, but there was no banner at Kennington in 1848 reading "Equal constituencies for all! No variation of more than five per cent in registered electorate (with the exceptions of the Isle of Wight, Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan An Iar)". Even after the Great Reform Act of 1832 there were still differences in constituency electorate of the order of 100:1, and huge systematic differences between industrial areas and market towns. It is insulting to compare the previous work of the Boundary Commission, which has produced more or less equal constituencies, with the grotesque differences that existed at the time of the Chartists.

When the Chartists complained about unequal-sized constituencies, they were thinking about gross injustices like the 243 electors of Andover in Hampshire having two MPs between them in 1847, the same representation as the 23,630 electors of Lancashire (Southern). A few odd cases like the Isle of Wight and Orkney & Shetland are hardly in the same league. The "Chartist" argument also ignores the differences between adult population and the number of people on the electoral register. This was, of course, enormous in 1847 – but more or less a match by the 1970s. Since then, particularly since 2000, there have been increasing numbers of people left off the electoral registers – this time not through deliberate legal disqualification but because the machinery cannot keep pace with the speed at which some people move house, and the alienation of young people in particular from any official channels. Cameron’s intentions have very little to do with progressive political reform.

The problem of the difference between registered electors and the real number of people in a locality entitled to vote is acute. The worst-affected are the young, the poor and socially marginal; already in 2010 the average Labour constituency in England probably had more people qualified to be on the register than the average Tory seat. This is likely to get worse, because a more complicated and expensive system of individual electoral registration is being introduced from 2014. The government’s new law on boundaries requires a disruptive boundary review every parliament, and the next one may take place in 2015 on the basis of particularly inaccurate electoral registers.

It is worth recapitulating what the new boundaries mean, and how they compare internationally. Other than in a few exceptions granted for islands, constituencies will now have to be within five per cent of the UK average size, i.e. between 72,810 and 80,473 electors on the register in December 2010. This may sound reasonable, but it is the most extreme implementation of "equal size" in a national legislature that uses single-member districts.

There are two broad dimensions to equalising constituencies.

  • What to do with the anomalies – islands and national minorities – and how many particularly small or large constituencies should be tolerated because they are special cases.
  • The level of uniformity imposed on the majority of "normal" cases.

The government’s bill requires that over 99 per cent of constituencies are within five per cent of the national quota (the exceptions being two Scottish island seats and perhaps one in the Highlands). No other comparable legislature hits 90 per cent. In terms of the overall deviation from the standard size, the government’s proposal is twice as "equalised" as the US House of Representatives.

It is worth asking why, despite legal and constitutional rules about equality, Australia and the United States fail to equalise their constituencies.

The answer is that both countries respect the boundaries of their component states and territories when drawing national legislative districts. Australia divides its 150 House seats into eight states and territories, and the US House of 435 is divided into 50 state delegations. Some states in each country are small – seven American states have single seats, and five more an allocation of two seats. The result is that Montana comprises a single Congressional district of 994,416 people, while the slightly bigger state of Rhode Island has two small districts with around 527,623 people in each. Ten voters in Rhode Island have the same voting power as 18 Montanans – a bigger variation than the divergence Nick Clegg called "deeply damaging to our democracy" back in 2010. I am pleased that he seems to have changed his mind.

 

"Cameron’s boundary changes have very little to do with progressive political reform." Photograph: Getty Images.

Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit, and former director of research at the Electoral Reform Society.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle