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.