The coalition’s boundary changes will disenfranchise millions

The new boundaries will ignore the 3.5 million voters not on the electoral register.

The coalition's Constituencies Bill returns to the Commons today, offering MPs another chance to scrutinise its many flaws.

In its rush to reform constituency boundaries, the coalition will in effect disenfranchise the 3.5 million voters not on the electoral register. The new constituencies (equalised at 76,000 voters apiece) will be based on the current roll, producing a skewed electoral map that ignores millions of eligible voters.

Among those most disadvantaged by the reforms will be young and ethnic-minority voters. An Electoral Commission investigation found that under-registration is concentrated among 17-to-24-year-olds (56 per cent not registered), private-sector tenants (49 per cent) and ethnic minorities (31 per cent).

Conveniently for Cameron and Clegg, many of the missing voters are in historically Labour-voting areas.

At the very least, as the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, has argued, the government should delay the changes for a year and launch an intensive voter registration programme. As things stand, the coalition will compound the problem by abolishing public inquiries into boundary changes – an extraordinary act of non-consultation.

Meanwhile, there is little evidence that the changes will correct the electoral bias in favour of Labour. At the last election, it took 33,000 votes to elect a Labour MP, 35,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP and 119,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP. But this disproportionality is not the result of unequal constituencies.

A recent report by the University of Plymouth concluded:

The geography of each party's support base is much more important, so changes in the redistribution procedure are unlikely to have a substantial impact and remove the significant disadvantage currently suffered by the Conservative Party.

Professor Michael Thrasher added: "[Labour's] real advantage currently stems largely from a better-distributed vote – it acquires fewer surplus and wasted votes than its rivals. It is also benefiting more than other parties from the general decline in electoral turnout, requiring fewer votes for its victories."

The coalition's decision to bundle its partisan boundary changes with the AV referendum has poisoned the electoral reform debate. Its arithmetical rigidity reflects a profoundly unconservative disregard for historic boundaries and old communities. It should think again before passing a bill that will do much damage and little good.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.