Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill - Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (PVSCB 07)

    — Labour reformers support the AV referendum.

    — There is more need for discussion on various other aspects of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill as outlined below.


  The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform (LCER) is in favour of much of the substance of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill but does not believe that a change in the electoral system and changes to constituency boundaries need to be dealt with in one Bill. We believe that the proposals on implementation of "reduce and equalise" are flawed, that the reduction of seats has not been adequately discussed and that the consequences may be a worse service for the electorate from overworked politicians. Putting all these issues together in one Bill seems to forget the democratic need on constitutional reform to move by discussion and consensus, across party and involving the citizens it will affect.

  There is no philosophical, legal, practical or parliamentary reason for combining the referendum with boundary changes. While no one can dispute the principle of equalisation, there is no evidence that the current boundaries cause a major distortion of the electoral system. Nothing justifies such a hurried non consensual review. We support the idea of holding the AV referendum in May 2010.

  LCER believes that the following issues need to be thought about separately:

1.   The AV Referendum

  Labour reformers fought for the AV referendum to be legislated upon before the General Election. On 9 February 2010 nearly 300 of the 365 MP who voted AYE to the amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance (CRAG) Bill were Labour MPs. Unfortunately this fell at Wash Up but made it into the Labour 2010 Manifesto as a promise to the electorate. Labour MPs can be expected to support the principle of holding of an AV Referendum to let the people decide, though as we shall argue, this does not mean endorsing the composite Bill tabled by the Coalition.

2.   The Timing of the Referendum

  It is important to maximise turnout in the referendum and this is likely to happen if the referendum is held on the same day as other elections. When asked in a questionnaire Labour reformers were keen on holding different elections in the same year on the same day. However we do note that this may create problems for colleagues in Wales and Scotland. They have not been consulted in any real manner during the drafting of the current Bill. who should have been involved in the discussion leading to the Bill. We recognise also that in English local elections, there may be some confusion but maybe more for the Parties fighting each other but agreeing in the referendum than for the voter. LCER therefore neither endorses nor rejects the current proposal.

3.   The Alternative Voting system

  An overwhelming majority, seven to one, of those who responded to our questionnaire in 2008 would support a one line bill changing "X" to preference voting (1, 2, 3 |) and most thought this should be done before the General Election or failing that in Labour's manifesto. Many supported the idea that this should be done with the Liberal Democrats in either case.

  The most powerful argument for Alternative Vote was thought to be that it would unravel tactical voting. The LCER membership also judged that AV was the greatest level of reform that could win the support of the then Labour leadership. AV would have different effects depending whereabouts in the country we were discussing. The majority felt AV favoured the Lib Dems, but almost as many felt it was politically neutral, with favouring Labour coming next and favouring the Conservatives only backed by a few. (The role of UKIP may not have been factored in at that time.) There was a sizable minority which thought that AV does not solve the problem on its own without a top up, as in AV+, and that in order to give first preferences a weighting they could be used to assess the parties popularity and rights to state funding.

  There was split support for the Australian Model because compulsory attendance is included as well as AV for the lower house and STV for the upper house. Some voted for it without the compulsory element and some voted against it because of that. However there was majority support for AV/STV being the way forward, by seven to four, ie doing it "the Aussie way".

  There is no reason to expect an increase in spoilt ballots with AV as a single X is still a valid vote, a first preference. In the Scottish local elections in 2007, voters used the X, rather than the one, and parties seem to prefer that voters only voted for their candidates, and where two to give only a one and a two.

4.   Supplementary Vote

  Questionnaire consultation on Alternative Vote versus Supplementary Vote (or as Professor Patrick Dunleavy calls it "London AV") showed overwhelming preference for AV to the extent that people wanted to change SV to AV in mayoral elections.

5.   Reduction of number of MPs

  LCER, probably along with a significant proportion of the electorate, fear this is a knee jerk reaction to the MP expenses scandal and is being sold as cost cutting. We believe that the reduction by 50 seats to 600 is not only arbitrary but will, together with the boundary changes, massively disrupt relationships and representation, the logic of which lie at the heart of single member constituencies. As many have pointed out this would be the most dramatic reduction of MPs since the 1920s when Irish MPs left the House of Commons. Voters may as a result of this process end up disappointed by the larger constituencies with less logical boundaries and less support from their MP. Patronage will also increase with a larger percentage of MPs seeing their role to support the government rather than to scrutinise legislations and keep government accountable to the people.

6.   The Trade Off with Devolution

  The UK was until 1997 the most centralised western democracy. We note that when the Scottish Parliament was created there was a reduction in the number of Scottish Westminster seats. In principle a similar argument could be advanced if the Welsh Assembly were to receive significantly enhanced powers.

  This process however seems to be proceeding without any consideration of the relationship with devolution or the lack of devolution within England.

7.   Equalising of constituencies

  LCER and the Labour Party supports the principle of equal constituencies as set out in the People's Charter drawn up by the Chartists. However we believe that equalisation should be based on the population over 18 rather than the registered voters. This may be about the same figure in settled communities but will diverge widely in urban and particularly inner city areas where mobility is high. It would be a good exercise to check mobility against constituency size. Population mobility has implications ranging from changes in parliamentary representation, impact on local economic growth, housing markets and demand for local services, including the workload for MPs and capacity to resolve casework. The argument that Labour in government did nothing to increase registration does not apply because there is a fundamental and continuing underestimation of the actual population in some areas. This may amount to as many as 3.5 million who for mobility, multi-let accommodation, language, age, ethnicity or disability reasons are not reflected in current registers of voters. This does not apply only to Labour constituencies. Some MPs say that the majority of those who contact them and visit their surgeries are not on the register, while living in their constituency. It has been suggested that there is need for a new statutory body to work proactively with local councils to increase voter registration. Voter registration is not part of the Electoral Commission's remit and local councils will be unable to invest much in it in the current climate of spending decisions. Although councils have a vested interest in an accurate estimate of residency numbers as this affects their funding from national government.

8.   Representation in Parliament

  Following the Speaker's Conference, it has been suggested by the Fabian Society and the Centre for Women and Democracy, that the proposed reduction in seats following the "equalise and reduce" policy may mean that women, ethnic minority and other underrepresented groups lose out. We would argue that impact assessments are important in relationship to equality of participation and representation as well as budgets.

9.   Local identity and distinctiveness

  It is important that boundaries are not imposed according to an arbitrary formula but which respect established patterns of community and form coherent geographical units. Ignoring local authority boundaries, will dilute the very local characteristics which lie at the heart of the argument for the need for single member constituencies. We can see no principled case for the proposal in the Bill which seeks to protect County boundaries but to ignore District and Unitary boundaries, or to ignore ward boundaries. The likely outcome of this process is to reduce the extent to which Parliamentary constituencies are seen to relate to identifiable communities or MP are able to work closely with local government. It is worth nothing that one reason often given for choosing AV over more proportional systems is that voters prefer MPs to represent an identifiable area. It is ironic that this Bill effectively encourages the Commission to destroy seats based on identifiable and often urban centres.

  While it is impossible to predict with any accuracy the outcome of this process it is at least a real possibility that the it will reduce the diversity of representation in the South East, South West and East of England, particularly it could contribute to virtually eliminating Labour in regions where nearly 20% of the vote already gives Labour only 5% of the seats. We are as reformers also concerned about the lack of Conservative representation in urban areas, the north, Wales and Scotland.

10.   Boundary Reviews

  In the absence of Public Inquiries, the recommendations of the Boundary Commissions will not be properly exposed to full scrutiny and counter-proposals to scrutiny and cross-examination. This may lead to more judicial reviews should people believe this infringes the European Convention of Human Rights. Although Inquiries have been seen to be mainly about party interest in fact with so many changes planned genuine local considerations could be missed under the proposed arrangements. The Coalition's decision to remove any weighting to ward, District or unitary boundaries makes it much more likely that proposals will be produced which offend the local sense of identify with their MP that most voters prefer to see. There are also concerns being raised about the ultimate role of the Minister in deciding whether or not to accept these boundary commission recommendations (in England).

11.   Bias in the current system

  Although at first glance the current voting system seems to help Labour it may be that adding up the votes received for each party is not a meaningful exercise. The vote for any party means different things in different categories of constituencies because we are not voting for a Prime Minister or even a government party but an individual MP. In most constituencies, except for rare three-way marginals, there are two clear parties in contention except in majority (safe) seats. This means, in England at least, we have three two-party systems, Conservative v Labour, Conservative v LibDem, and Labour v LibDem. In safe Labour seats, turnout is low which underestimates the Labour total vote. Settled and more middle-class voters may vote even where their vote does not count under the current voting system. In Conservative v LibDem seats, Labour tactical voting squeezes the third placed Labour candidate's vote. Only in marginal constituencies where Labour is in contention do we see an honest reflection of Labour support. These changes will not change this bias unless we introduce AV where at least the tactical vote can be seen for what it is. A similar analysis can be done for the other parties' vote. Larger Conservative seats with settled communities may well reflect the actual population whereas the argument for smaller urban Labour seats is that the registered vote is not the same as the population were mobility is higher.

12.   The inevitability of this Bill being passed

  For the first time in recent years there is a historic majority for this Coalition Government in both Houses of Parliament so there are few checks and balances. It is likely therefore that the Bill will go through without much amendment. It is therefore important that specific objections to individual parts of the Bill are subject to scrutiny and given the time they need to be discussed at every stage and not written off as party tribalism or oppositionalism for the sake of opposition. We incidentally agree with the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that the Government's timetable for the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill has denied an adequate opportunity to scrutinise the Bill before second reading.

3 September 2010

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