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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

0800 7318496