To keep constituency populations roughly even, we have four Boundary Commissions (one for each nation in the UK). A reorganisation of constituency boundaries is currently underway with the intention that each parliamentary constituency will contain approximately 70,000 electors.
The idea behind this is to ensure that each vote is given equal weight. Such an objective is laudable but it will have little effect because we elect our MPs using the First Past The Post system (FPTP).
This article seeks to show that:
- FPTP with single-member constituencies doesn’t work
- Changing boundaries can greatly change election results and FPTP constituencies can divide communities
- Proportional Representation (PR) allows more voters genuine representation
FPTP with single-member constituencies doesn’t work
If the four Boundary Commissions do their work with diligence, the nation will have 650 constituencies, each containing 70,001 electors.
Assume we have two parties – A and B.
Party A could win every constituency by 35,001 votes to 35,000 and so have 100% of the seats for 50% of the votes.
If just one A supporter in each constituency changed sides at the next election, party B would be “IN” and party A would be very much “OUT”!
So, FPTP is both unfair and unstable in the sense that a change in the way very small numbers of people vote can cause wild swings in outcome.
Also, as the number of parties competing in an election increases, FPTP is even less able to produce a fair result. If there were three parties, for example, one of them could win 100% of the seats with less than 34% of the votes.
In the real world, at the 2019 election in Staffordshire, the Tory party received 62% of the votes and won all 12 seats! Over a third of the electorate was effectively disenfranchised.
And it gets worse. It is possible, under FPTP, for party A to win an election even if it gets less votes overall than party B. This happened in 1951 when the Conservatives won and in 1974 when Labour was the “wrong winner”.
Changing boundaries can greatly change election results and FPTP constituencies can divide communities
FPTP elections are inherently unfair and this is nicely illustrated in the article entitled ‘The Gerrymander Wheel’. It demonstrates that “although the electors don’t move or change their minds about the party that they are going to vote for, the winners change as the constituency boundaries change.”
The Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 charges the four Boundary Commissions with drawing constituencies which contain roughly the same number of electors and which also coincide with natural communities. To that end, they are encouraged to follow local authority boundaries.
Under FPTP, equal numbers of electors and natural communities can be mutually exclusive because natural communities come in many sizes. Sometimes, one local authority will be too big for one MP and therefore one constituency, but too small for two and so on.
So, to create constituencies with roughly equal numbers of electors
, the Boundary Commissions often divide natural communities; they put part of one local authority with part of another local authority to create a constituency that is not a natural community but is about the right size.
Then, because some areas grow and others decline in population, constituency boundaries are redrawn again. This process tends to weaken the precious constituency link so prized by supporters of FPTP.
Proportional Representation (PR) allows more voters genuine representation
There are many kinds of PR but what they all have in common is that each constituency is represented by several MPs rather than one. To keep the total number of MPs more or less the same as now (650), multi-member constituencies would have to be much larger than those we currently have.
With large, multi-member constituencies, it becomes far easier to arrange that recognised communities are kept together.
So, if a community or local authority is too big for one MP but too small for two, it does not matter. A group of two or more whole local authorities can form one multi-member region or constituency to elect a number of MPs together and, of course, using PR.
The larger that constituencies are in both area and population, the less they will be subject to rapid and significant population changes.
Professor Denis Mollison of Heriot Watt University has prepared a schedule of multi-member Single Transferable Vote (STV) constituencies based on local authority areas, which is a good example of what can be done.
You can see his schedule here and then click on “STV for Westminster”.
Although there are other ways of drawing multi-member STV constituencies and indeed other PR systems, two major advantages of this scheme are that:
- Using local authority boundaries as the basis preserves local communities which, in turn, should enhance constituents’ feeling of being represented
- Boundaries will only rarely, if ever, need changing as demographic changes can normally be allowed for by changing the number of MPs rather than the boundaries. As well as saving the public expense of boundary changes, this strengthens the link between MPs and their constituents, and improves the stability of representation.
- First Past The Post with single-member constituencies is inherently unfair and unrepresentative
- Multi-member constituencies enable more people to be genuinely represented
- Proportional Representation (with multi-member constituencies) is the only way forward
Anthony Tuffin is a Make Seats Match Votes FB admin, a Make Votes Matter FB moderator and Chair of Make Votes Count in West Sussex. Special thanks to Bob Hercliffe and Richard Godfrey for their excellent editorial assistance. Glyn Goodwin once again pulled off two artistic “crackers”.
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