Gerrymandering – change Tories can believe in


1:27 pm - May 4th 2010

by Unity    


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On Friday, I received an offer of a ‘contract’ from David Cameron – on which I think I’ll pass.

I don’t make a habit of agreeing to anything that doesn’t set out the payment terms in full and, as ‘contracts’ go, this one’s pretty risible, especially when it comes to the Tory’s offer to ‘change’ politics, which is desperately short on substance, if rather longer on blatant self-interest and gerrymandering:

If you elect a Conservative government on 6 May, we will:

1. Give you the right to sack your MP, so you don’t have to wait for an election to get rid of politicians who are guilty of misconduct.

2. Cut the number of MPs by ten per cent, and cut the subsidies and perks for politicians.

3. Cut ministers’ pay by five per cent, and freeze it for five years.

4. Give local communities the power to take charge of the local planning system and vote on excessive council tax rises.

5. Make government transparent, publishing every item of government spending over £25,000, all government contracts, and all local council spending over £500.

Okay, so let’s run through the list and give it a light fisking.

Recall elections… are, as promised here, a meaningless piece of political theatre.

To cut right through the bullshit, MPs aren’t going to back a system under which they could face a recall ballot for anything other than the most serious acts of misconduct – and if an MP behaves that badly then why fanny around with recall ballots when they could simply be impeached and barred from public office.

Recall ballots could be a good way of dealing MPs who turn out to be lazy, stupid and/or incompetent, but that’s not what’s on offer here, and that makes this a worthless proposal.

I’ll come back to the proposal to cut the number of MPs at the end and skip on to the plan to cut Ministerial pay by 5% and then freeze it for the next five years, which is a non-offer from the Tories when you consider that, back in 2008, the then-Shadow Cabinet were estimated to be worth almost £60 million – and that’s without taking into account the Cameron family’s future expectations and the sizeable inheritances to come from both sides of the family.

For some of the current Shadow Cabinet, particularly David Cameron, a Ministerial pay cut/freeze is loose change compared to what they’ll gain from their Inheritance Tax plans.

At first sight, giving local communities the “power to take charge of the local planning system” looks like a NIMBY’s charter. However, if you look at the detail of what’s actually in the Tory manifesto you’ll find that ‘offer’ includes a hefty dose of bait and switch.

Local people may get more of a say in the creation of local development plans but, because the Tories are also planning to amend the ‘Use Classes Order’ to allow buildings to be used for any purpose allowed in the local plan, they’ll also be losing most of their rights to object to specific business developments.

If you’re at all concerned that your local High Street is being overrun with charity shops, letting agents or fast food outlets then you can more or less forget about using the planning system to do anything about it, if the Tories get in, unless your prepared to spend days, if not weeks, drawing up local plans in the minutest and most exacting of details.

The right to vote against excessive council tax rises does nothing whatsoever to devolve any real power to local people. Central government will still determine the amount of formula grant given to local authorities, which makes up the vast bulk of their income, and will also decide what does and does not count as ‘excessive’ when it comes to council tax rises.

What this would actually do is hand the Tories, in government, a means of effectively rate-capping councils without getting their own hands dirty and taking the heat for the negative impact that has on local services.

Before going back to the proposal to cut the overall number of MPs in Westminster, we should deal with the proposal to publish “every item of government spending over £25,000, all government contracts, and all local council spending over £500”.

As good as this might sound on paper, the fact is that the Tories have been hawking this idea around for the last couple of years and yet, even now, appear incapable of putting any ballpark costs to the project let alone any real detail. That doesn’t inspire any confidence, least of all when you find that the Tories are still, hypocritically, pitching the line that they’ll publish everything despite having already admitted that defence and security service contracts will be excluded from the system.

If you’re going to put up proposals about transparency and open government, you really should make the effort to ensure that you communicate those proposals openly to the electorate without leaving out any important details.

Last, and definitely least in terms of offering any real political change, we come to the ‘offer’ to cut the number of MPs by ten per cent, which is being pitched as a cost-saving measure but which would also, conveniently, gerrymander the electoral system in the Tory’s favour.

The ‘how’ of this can be readily figured out if you take the time to read this paper by Johnson et al, which looks at the issues of disproportionality and bias in the results of the 2005 General Election, particularly if you pay close attention to its ultimate conclusion:

In sum, except for variations in constituency size, the workings of the FPTP system cannot be ‘blamed’ for delivering two landslide victories to Labour with less than 45 per cent of the votes in 1997 and 2001 and a third in 2005 when a 25 percentage points lead in seats over its main opponent emerged despite only a 3-point lead in vote share. Geography is key to those biases, but not the geography of constituency definition. Rather it is a combination of the geographies of party support, turnout and party campaigning within that geography which produces most of the bias, currently favouring Labour because of where its supporters live, where they turn out, and where it campaigns for their support. The geography of constituencies (i.e. the ‘system’) provides the template for this, but it is how voters and parties act within that template which generates the disproportionality and bias.

Voter distribution and behaviour are the major factors that bias the current system.

At the last three elections, Labour have gained significantly from having their core support concentrated in urban areas with a relatively high population density, not just in Inner London but across the North of England where, contrary to tabloid opinion, the North-West is still the second most densely populated region of England – after London – not the South-East.

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, consistenty lose out because the geographical distribution of much of their support is too diffuse, under FTPT, to deliver anything like the number of seats they’d get under a proportional voting system, even if they have some recent success in consolidating their support in specific areas of the South and South-West.

Cutting the number of MPs by 10% (64-65) would significantly reduce the advantage that Labour has had from way in which its core support is distributed, which might not sound so bad if you’re looking at this in a non-partisan way, until you realise that it would also screw the Lib Dems over as well and, just from a visual inspection of the current electoral map, go some considerable way towards wiping out most the gains that the Lib Dems have made over the last 10-15 years, especially in the seats they’ve taken from the Tories across Southern England.

The only party that would actually gain anything from a reduction in the number of MPs, under the current FPTP system, is the Tories.

That should really tell you everything you need to know about the kind of ‘change’ that the Tories really stand for – of the five numbered pledges put forward for reforming the political system, the only one likely to have any discernable impact is the one that would allow the Tories to gerrymander the current electoral system in their own favour.

Oh well, looking on the bright side, at least Cameron’s ‘contract’ offer send a very clear message to the electorate…

– if real political change is what you’re looking for, then don’t vote Tory.

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About the author
'Unity' is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He also blogs at Ministry of Truth.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Conservative Party ,Elections2010 ,Our democracy

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Reader comments


The only party that would actually gain anything from a reduction in the number of MPs, under the current FPTP system, is the Tories.

In the same way that the only party that would actually lose anything from a switch to AV voting is the Tories. Political parties advocate changes that benefit themselves and disbenefit opponents. Film at 11.

Is this really what it’s going to be like for the next five years chaps? Should we stock up on sedatives?

2. Mike Killingworth

From politicalbetting.com:

550. I remain fascinated by the belief that Tories appear to hold that NuLabour is in some way related to the Labour Party.

If you had experienced life as a member of both organisations you would not embarrass yourselves with such nonsense.

Let me briefly explain:

The Labour Party was a left-wing party organised to look after the interests of the working poor and those that were discriminated against by business and vested interests. It was a beautifully messy democratic party where decisions were taken by the membership.

NuLabour is a right-wing statist party whose main interest is to find ways to remain in power for as long as possible. It has embraced the vested interests and ignored the poor. It is an undemocratic party as its members’ views are totally ignored because the leadership believes it knows best.

I will be as delighted at the death-throws of thise right-wing party as I was crushed by the murder of the Labour Party by Blair, Brown and Mandelson.

I am happy to forgive those of you who confuse the two as you display the ignorance of those who cannot possibly know the reality of the situation.

by Malcolm May 4th, 2010 at 2:01 pm

Nuff said

“Political parties advocate changes that benefit themselves and disbenefit opponents”

Which is why its important for an informed and fair debate to occur over which system we should have, rather than snide and childish comments.

Gerrymander in their favour, or redress the balance of Labour’s blatant gerrymandering?

Which is why its important for an informed and fair debate to occur over which system we should have, rather than snide and childish comments.

You mean like accusations of gerrymandering?

Is this really what it’s going to be like for the next five years chaps? Should we stock up on sedatives?

Heh. I really hope you’re not displaying faux-outrage of some political partisanship Tim, because that really would be ironic. for you and cjcjc.

Anyway – I’m not even sure if there’s any point us publishing an article asking people not to vote Tory!

Heh. I really hope you’re not displaying faux-outrage of some political partisanship Tim, because that really would be ironic.

No no, I’m just worried for you is all. I’m not sure you’ll be able to maintain this golden thread of rather breathless outrage for a whole parliament – you’ll need to take a deep breath at some point!

I’m not sure you’ll be able to maintain this golden thread of rather breathless outrage for a whole parliament

Cheers for the concern 🙂 though, there are a lot of us, and Tory bloggers have managed it for the last 5-6 years

“You mean like accusations of gerrymandering?”

It’s a fairly accurate term to use for one party changing the system blatantly in its favour (like Labour’s attempt at AV).

What needs to happen is, following the election, the more honest members of all 3 parties (maybe add the nationalists and UKIP/Greens as well) need to sit down and design a system more appropiate for a multi-party system, where no party has an obvious advantage.

10. Watchman

Presumably ensuring that all constituencies have the same number of voters would not be gerrymandering, unless the lines were drawn to favour certain parties? After all, the current system whereby inhabitants of the Isle of Wight (population c. 102 000) have one MP, whereas the inhabitants of the Northern Isles (population c. 35 000) have one MP is blantantly fair. In no way does the current system give someone from Shetland or Orkney three times the democratic power of someone from the Isle of Wight…

Regardless of which system is used, if we have constituencies, is it not democratic to insist that there is a certain equality in the number of voters? And accepting this point (which I hope we all do) then the question of gerrymandering becomes less relevant. If by reducing the number of seats and evening out their population size, one party loses out because it is winning more ‘small’ seats, so be it. Democracy is not there to be fair to parties, but to be fair for the voters.

11. Watchman

“What needs to happen is, following the election, the more honest members of all 3 parties (maybe add the nationalists and UKIP/Greens as well) need to sit down and design a system more appropiate for a multi-party system, where no party has an obvious advantage.”

Why? Perhaps you are confusing politics with sport, where fairness is required. Parties have political advantages for various social and political reasons (Labour voters who cannot vote for anyone else because of family tradition, Conservative voters who believe Labour are socialists and therefore evil etc), and this is reflected in their votes. To try and even up these ‘advantages’ would be gerrymandering – ignoring the actual opinion of the voters in favour of providing the hypothetical ‘level playing field’ for the parties. Even sport recognises there will be home advantage (familiarity, support) so why politics cannot live with this is beyond me.

And if by fair you mean ‘PR’ or some such, this may be fair to parties. I remain to be convinced it is fair to voters. Above all, I question whether anything that institutes parties (currently convenient groupings) as an actual legal factor in politics is sensible. AV might avoid this, but is hardly fair to people who only have one vote (one of the parties competing for the majority) whilst those who vote for other parties have multiple votes. Still, a view of democracy where everyone has the same number of votes and the same right to elect an MP is perhaps going to fall foul of those who think we need to be fair to parties, forgetting that the party is an aid to democracy (mostly) not an integral or necessary part of the process.

12. Flowerpower

At the last three elections, Labour have gained significantly from having their core support concentrated in urban areas with a relatively high population density

Or, to put it another way:

After more than a decade of Labour gerrymandering, the system is skewed so as to make it very hard for the Conservatives to win more seats than Labour – even when Labour comes third in the popular vote.

The Tories as currently constituted are quite incapable of doing anything else other than behave in this way. They will fight tooth and nail to avoid reform of the electoral system, because they forsee years in opposition due to a “left-liberal” majority.

Like many others recently I’m inclined to agree with Mill: “Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.”

With luck, the Tories will wake up on Friday having failed to gain anything like a majority. Only then might the more thoughtful (not-stupid?) amongst them start the long process of constructing a right of centre movement that doesn’t scare the horses, could realistically appeal to the centre, and doesn’t wander off into the long grass of far right purity.

14. Watchman

Galen10,

“The Tories as currently constituted are quite incapable of doing anything else other than behave in this way. They will fight tooth and nail to avoid reform of the electoral system, because they forsee years in opposition due to a “left-liberal” majority.”

Or years in government due to a ‘right-liberal’ majority. The thing with the centralist parties, see, is that they aren’t left or right. They are both. Don’t think the liberals in the Liberal Democrat are liberal in the American sense (that would be the Social Democrat wing); they are classicly liberal, and therefore opposed to socialism as much as corporationism. So they could equally easily work with either wing. Hence the objection to changing the voting system – that it gives an almost permanent balace of power to small central parties, regardless of who actually gains most support.

Also to note: the fact most voters do not see right/left as an issue. If a hereditary Labour voter overcomes that urge, do they automatically vote for the Greens (doing best in middle-class, small urban areas with high student populations), Respect (doing best amongst certain immigrant communities) or the Conservatives (in second in many northern industrial towns) or the BNP (see Stoke and Barking). Some may even vote for the Liberal Democrats, as seems to be expected here. So there is no natural ‘liberal-left’ block, in that many voters of parties in that supposed alingment will go to parties outside it quite happily. Whilst we sit here discussing theoretical groupings using a dated model (and I know I’m as guilty as anyone), voters construct their own models by casting votes as they wish, not as we predict.

@14 Watchman

I agree with you upto a point. I think SOME people aren’t that concerned about left/right, don’t actually know (or care?) much about the differences, and will vote or not based on a host of different issues and subjective “feelings”. How else can one account for the woman I heard interviewed on the radio the other day who was trying to decide between the LD’s and BNP in her constituency, having previously voted Labour!? Stupid people clearly aren’t confined to the Tory party.

I wasn’t saying that there is a “natural” left-liberal majority: I think there IS a current left-liberal majority. I can forsee a point where a “right-liberal” majority operates, as it frequently has in other places, and at other times in this country.

I hear what you say about PR giving small parties overdue influence, and agree it can be problem. However it can also work as a stabilising influence, as some would argue happened in West Germany in the years of the FDP holding a fairly constant position as arbiter between the SPD and CDU/CSU.

Given the vagueries of our system.. I think I’d settle for reform rather than the status quo, as it seems would an increasing amount of the UK electorate.

16. Watchman

Galen10,

As you might guess, I’m not in favour of reform (no-one has proved the current system is broken, unless they are going to appeal to fairness, which is the party political equivalent of crying that someone won’t let you play with his toy…). But, since you’ve just trumped my best experience of the election (someone trying to decide between Liberal Democrats and UKIP – I can’t help thinking that describes Conservative…), I can’t see any actual disagreements other than over reform, and that would hopefully require a referendum.

Watchman: I find it revealing that you describe the electoral system of our parliamentary (and thereby theoretically representative democracy) as the ‘toy’ of, not the political classes, but specifically of the Red and Blue right-wing parties.

It has been their toy too long.

Watchman, I think you’re demonstrating about as much knowledge of electoral systems here as you do with climate science (10 months now is it?).

In any democracy worthy of the name, a strong element of fairness is always required. Otherwise you end up with the pseudo-elections that characterise 3rd world nations where the incumbant always rigs the election (“home advantage” as you put it). And then you get the associated unrest and possibility of civil war. Democracy requires that the losing party has faith that the other party will stick to the bargin of keeping the game open and the playing field reasonably level. Britain has undergone numerous changes to the electoral system in its history – and now that the 2 party system has truly broken down its about time for another one.

“hat it gives an almost permanent balace of power to small central parties,”

As opposed to the permanent duopoly of power FPTP has given to the centre wings of the major parties, who often excerise power without accountability based upon a minority of the vote.

I can’t honestly see how anybody politically literate could think it is remotely democratic for 2 parties who combined are polling at less than 2/3 of the electorate (and even that support is largely tactical and based on fear of the other) to screw over their competitors – it’s like you’ve looked at the last 13 years of new labour and concluded the lack of accountability, and the associated bad legislation, has been a plus. And your characterisation of people who object this as simply “crying that somebody won’t let you play with his toy” just demonstrates you don’t really take the idea of democracy seriously – its like you discussing zimbabwe and claiming the MDC are just cyring that Mugabe won’t let them play with his toy.

@16 Watchmen

If you don’t think the current system is broken, you presumably think that it is “better” than the possible alternatives. Thankfully, I’d say you are now swimming against a fairly strong tide.

Altho’ only the actual results will prove it, there is ample evidence from polls, from what people are saying in the coverage, and yes even just in terms of “gut” feeling, that the wind of change is about to blow the whole rotten system down.

The current system isn’t just broken, it is irreparable. The “fairness” anaolgy isn’t accurate either, it’s a “fitness for purpose” argument both for the voting system and the larger political system more broadly. I’d say we disagree fairly fundamentally.

20. Mike Killingworth

[19]

There is ample evidence from polls… that the wind of change is about to blow the whole rotten system down.

No there isn’t. Polls have to be interpreted, just as the pollsters themselves adjust their raw data to allow for the fact that it is a lot easier to find people who will admit to voting to left of centre parties than it is to find those who intend to vote for the right.

Despite tweaking their methodology after every election they still can’t find right-wing voters. That’s why Smithson’s Law applies: the most accurate poll is the one most favourable to the Tories. And remember that 10% of voters (historically) change their mind in the secrecy of the polling booth. Why do they do this? Because they vote in a way that they find shameful and wish to be able to deny afterwards. (This is an important reason why the pollsters still have problems.) Because of the volatility this time it may well be a lot more than 10%. And very very few of them will vote Labour, Lib Dem or Green.

I will stick my neck out and call the national vote share (other than for Plaid and the SNP, I haven’t a clue outside England really) at Com 39, Lab 27, LD 22 and the others will include 4% or so for the BNP, who will win a seat in Stoke.

That is not a hung Parliament, nor is it a call for electoral reform. It is a vote for anger, it is a vote for racism – and it is a green light for the police to ignore violence, up to and including rape and murder, against “educated leftie scum”.

That’s why Smithson’s Law applies: the most accurate poll is the one most favourable to the Tories.

We’ll find out soon enough Mike, but you’re over-exaggerating this. The pollsters already take into effect the shy-Tory syndrome. YouGov did fine during the London Mayoral vote last year.

[20]

Yes there is. Of course polls have to be interpreted, and parties love to say they never pay attention to them, or that they won’t be accurate, but experience has shown that (over the long term) they are fairly accurate – 1992 notwithstanding!

Of course there could be a last minute swing to the Tories (awful thought that it is…), and they could possibly gain an absolute majority. This only goes to support the point I was trying to make above however, that even a lot of people who hadn’t thought too much about the issue now see that the current system is broken.

This may be partly on “fairness” grounds which Watchman @16 above thinks is wrong, but I and many others think is fair enough. It is also a reflection in my view that people now believe that the risks of reform are outweighed by the dangers of the status quo, and the failures it has engendered in the past.

@1 Tim J: In the same way that the only party that would actually lose anything from a switch to AV voting is the Tories.

Actually, I think the Tories would gain in the present election from AV. This is because the lower priority preferences of UKIP, BNP and (to a lesser extent) Lib Dem voters would go more to them than Labour.

But over the long term, AV would destroy the hegemony of the 2 big parties. This would be because they’d face challenges from similar-ideology candidates that voters could back safe in the knowledge that it wouldn’t split the vote. So you’d get quite a lot of UKIP and Green candidates doing well. And it would be a lot easier to unseat unpopular major-party candidates: every election would bring its crop of Tattons, Wyre Forests and Blaenau Gwents. And party whips wouldn’t be able to use the threat of deselection: a major party sitting MP standing as an independent would probably increase their majority, if they could claim they’re standing up for local people against the system. For all these reasons, Cameron loathes the idea.

So while AV isn’t as proportional system, it would be a positive change.

@20 Mike Killingworth: the BNP […] will win a seat in Stoke.

No way!

25. Mike Killingworth

[24] Has there been a local opinion poll, or are you 33.333% of the membership of the Stoke-on-Trent Labour Party?


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  9. Angel LaLand

    Almost wish I held back on the shredding and read my personal contract from that whippersnapper Cameron. Not. http://bit.ly/9HgivM

  10. huwspanner

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  11. Adrian Hollister

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  12. Liberal Conspiracy

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  13. Unity

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  22. Keith Wilson

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  24. Joe Thomas

    have finally read the word 'gerrymandering' in #ge2010, by far my favourite political term – http://tiny.cc/z8kzg

  25. What the rags say: The Daily Express « Left Outside

    […] change the Express obviously mean gerrymandered electoral systems and economic policies rubbished by Nobel Laureates, The Financial Times and The Economist then yes! […]

  26. Liberal Conspiracy » Why a Con-Lib coalition might be good for the Left

    […] A parliamentary commission is a dead-end, obviously, but what if he could kick the Tories’ gerrymandering “reforms” into touch and secure fixed parliamentary terms plus a binding, BC-style Citizen’s Assembly […]

  27. Oh, how existential risks focus the mind « Freethinking Economist

    […] abusing the core voters.   If the Tories had had a large majority, they might have been able to gerrymander them into relative oblivion.  These risks must have changed the frame within which they each judge […]

  28. links for 2010-05-13 « Embololalia

    […] Liberal Conspiracy " Gerrymandering – change Tories can believe in I don’t make a habit of agreeing to anything that doesn’t set out the payment terms in full and, as ‘contracts’ go, this one’s pretty risible, especially when it comes to the Tory’s offer to ‘change’ politics, which is desperately short on substance, if rather longer on blatant self-interest and gerrymandering: (tags: tories local.government 2010election) […]





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