Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Procedure Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 100-108)


27 JULY 2010

  Q100  Stephen Williams: I come back to this point of building blocks. Given that polling districts exist at the moment, is not the answer if a polling district is used to draw up a parliamentary boundary that thereafter that polling district itself cannot be changed if it is around the borders of a constituency which would take away the discretion of an electoral registration officer to change it arbitrarily, which is what happens at the moment? Is that not a clause that needs to be inserted in the Bill?

  Mr Gray: If that were to be done it would be an immense help. At the moment there is no proposal to do that. Obviously our concern is that you cannot use something that is liable to change just before you have a review or at the time when you are doing a review.

  Stephen Williams: So that would be a good amendment to the Bill you are saying?

  Q101  Chair: That is called leading the witnesses!

  Professor Johnston: On bias, on which I have written too much in the last 30 years, the operation of the British electoral system has been very biased over the last five elections and has very much favoured the Labour Party. This is for a number of reasons. One is, yes, Conservative constituencies have tended to have more electors than Labour constituencies and therefore there has been an advantage to Labour in that you need fewer votes to win a seat. There has also been a very large advantage in terms of turnout because the Labour constituencies tend to have much lower turnout on average and so, again, it takes fewer Labour votes to win a seat. There has been some advantage, although it has not been very large, which has come about because of the varying impact of other parties on the Conservative and Labour success rates. Finally, there has been what is called the efficiency of the vote, how well it is distributed. In general until basically the 1990s Labour lost out on that because they tended to have lots and lots of votes in the coalfields and in the industrial areas and the Conservative votes were more widely spread and did not have these very big safe seats with 80% of the vote or whatever as you would find in a place like Hemsworth. The coal mines have gone, the industries have gone and the Labour vote is no longer spatially concentrated. In fact, over the last three or four elections the Labour vote has been more efficiently distributed. You asked if this is a partisan Bill. The Conservative Party has been aware the system is biased against them. After all, in the 2005 election if the two parties had got the same percentage of the vote, about 34.5%, Labour would have won 112 seats more than the Conservatives. You understand why they are worried about it. It is very difficult to tackle some of those sources of bias that I have just outlined. The one that you can tackle is the size difference and the size difference is what this Bill is about. The reduction to the number of 600 is a separate issue I think. What the impact of removing the size difference between the two parties will be is to remove that advantage that Labour had, but it will not remove all of it by any means. The advantage to Labour this time when, let us say, the Conservatives got 36% and Labour got 28%, if we halve it they each got 32% in the election this year, Labour would still have got 54 more seats than the Conservatives. That is because turnout variation is much more important than size variation. Bias in the British electoral system is a very complex thing. This Bill will reduce a large part of a small part of it.

  Q102  Chair: Mr Gray, would you like to round up, as it were?

  Professor Johnston: I am sorry, I did not answer the other thing about Scotland and whether it would have been a good idea to review how well it works before we move on and create the same dog's breakfast in England. I think that was your term. The answer is possibly yes. There is now a constituency for the Scottish Parliament called Edinburgh Southern which comprises of the parts of six wards, there is no whole ward in that constituency. I guess it will take a few years before whoever becomes the MSP next year and for the electoral administrators to work out exactly how it will work out. There are going to be complexities of operating for the parties, for the administrators and for you as MPs.[2]

  Sheila Gilmore: And for the voters, of course.

  Professor Johnston: And for the voters.

  Q103  Sheila Gilmore: It will be quite differently constituted.

  Professor Johnston: Particularly if the elections are on the same day. You might have a referendum on the same day as well, but we are not here to talk about that.

  Q104  Chair: This proposal seems to emanate from a desire to make sure that MPs are more worthy of the position they hold, that there is a limit and there are spending reductions which accompany that. If it dislocates electors from known constituencies do you feel that it might actually erode the connection between Members of Parliament and electors?

  Professor Johnston: It could do, yes.

  Chair: This has the feel of trying to do the right thing, rather like IPSA, Government imposing something on Parliament and not quite thinking through all the machinery and the data processing and the rest of it and ending up with more unexpected consequences for Members.

  Nick Boles: That was a very partial view that you put.

  Q105  Chair: It is a question to the witnesses. Would that be your view?

  Professor Johnston: I think the more complicated you put the situation before the voters the more difficulty they will have in responding to it and you may therefore find they are less likely to participate. Most voters now, if they want to, have a clear notion of what constituency they are in. Whether they know who their MP is is less clear in some cases. If you are going to say for something you have got to go to the local authority and you go in that way with those people if you are promoting something for your area and if you are promoting something for your area at a different level you have got to go that way with your MP or MSP you are creating complexities and most people do not put as much time into that aspect of their lives as we do and they may well recoil from it and say it is too complicated to control.

  Mr Gray: Two quick things, one of which relates to what Ron has just said. What I think everybody has been trying to do in recent years is to secure more public engagement in political affairs and things and, whatever happens, what needs to be taken account of in this review is that what you are not doing is actually discouraging people from being interested and engaged. The other point I was going to make earlier on and I forgot, so I will just do it now, is electorates at the moment are volatile. What I mean by that is because electoral registration officers first of all went through a major period of cleansing electoral registers in taking people off who had not replied to the annual return they are now engaged in trying to encourage as many people as possible to get on the register. Being on the electoral register is becoming increasingly more important for every one of us because so many things now you will not get unless you can demonstrate that you are on the electoral register, whether that is a loan or being on this or that. They are volatile and it will affect what happens in these future reviews. It does not automatically mean when we go through this first one on the new basis that it is going to be plain sailing thereafter, I think there will continue to be quite a lot of changes.

  Chair: Final impartial word from Nick.

  Q106  Nick Boles: As impartial as yours were, Chair! The first thing I would like to say is that I represent a constituency where I have a split ward. Are you aware of anyone, other than a political anorak, in any way being remotely interested or affected or even really aware of that fact? I certainly am not. My second question is, is it not the case that a clear majority of the Members of Parliament were elected on manifesto commitments to reduce the size of the House of Commons actually by rather more than is currently proposed so the idea that this is being imposed on Parliament by the Government is wrong?

  Professor Johnston: Certainly the latter is my understanding, that the reduction in the size of the House of Commons was part of the main parties' manifestos.

  Q107  Nick Boles: On the previous point, are you aware of anyone other than political anoraks who really cares about being in a split ward between constituencies?

  Professor Johnston: I had a student some years ago who did some local work in Bristol who found that when a ward was split a lot of the ward activitists drifted away. They had lost their rationale to represent this place, this place no longer existed, it was in two parts and political activity declined.

  Q108  Chair: Last word, Mr Gray?

  Mr Gray: Nothing to add.

  Chair: Professor Johnston, Mr Gray, thank you very much for an extremely helpful session. Thank you for sparing the time to see us this morning. Thank you very much.

2   Note by Witness: There was a further item about Scotland that I failed to respond to in the oral evidence-whether the method of dealing with Scotland's two very small constituencies is the right one. This is quite difficult: certainly those two constituencies present particular difficulties for their MPs in terms of accessibility-both to them from Westminster and within them. A strong case can be made that they are very particular cases and that no other parts of the UK present the difficulties to the same extent. In effect, their special position is creating one additional constituency for Scotland and one less for England than might otherwise be the case, which I do not think is too high a price to pay for recognising their particular character. I also think that the proposed resolution of the problem of very sparse populations in other parts of northern and western Scotland is a sensible one since it does not further increase Scottish over-representation; instead it means that if one or more constituencies of 12,000 sq km are created with electorates below the size constraint (i.e. more than 5% below the UK quota) the remaining Scottish constituencies will have an average electorate slightly above the UK quota. These are `special geographical considerations' as they have always been understood and previously the four Commissions have all been able to exercise their discretion to create constituencies with relatively small or large electorates. That is now not possible, and it could be argued that all Commissions should be given some discretion that could be applied in particular situations (such as Ynys Mon and the Isle of Wight). Back

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