Nick Clegg’s decision to pull the plug on new Parliamentary boundaries appears to give us plenty to cheer. The Tories have been denied the extra seats that their outrageous gerrymandering would have delivered at the next General Election, the new frictions at the heart of the coalition create hope of their early demise, and we are spared the painful diversion of CLP reorganisation. But it would be a mistake simply to celebrate.
Cameron has said he will press ahead for ‘equalisation’ of constituencies, using the language of fairness to mask naked political partisanship. Most people are largely unconcerned about constitutional reform, but the equalisation of constituencies is an argument that has appeal. After all, what’s not to like about constituencies all being the same size? On face value it’s an argument that makes sense and sounds fair. Because of this, and because the Tories have a lot to gain, this argument won’t die a death along with the proposed boundaries.
But Clegg’s veto gives Labour an opportunity to get on the front foot on this issue. When I’ve discussed it with people, they’ve been surprised to find that so-called ‘equal’ constituencies are not based on population size, but on the number of registered voters. They are even more shocked when they discover what we know well – that there’s a huge disparity between the numbers registered in different constituencies. And that gives us a chance to make the case for real equalisation on the basis of population, which will serve the interests of progressive politics.
The Tories have a plan. They know that the five-yearly boundary reviews, which are now embedded in law, will give them the chance to reshape constituencies in their interests. On current registration patterns, wealthy areas with stable populations will have more MPs than urban areas with low electoral registration. And they know that Individual Voter Registration, which comes into effect in 2014, will exacerbate this impact. As the boundary review planned for each Parliament takes place, at the December low point in the registration cycle, more potential urban voters will drop off the register and more Tory seats will be created. Sheffield is a good example.
My constituency is at the heart of Sheffield. It is inner-city and multicultural, with large council estates and lots of houses in multiple occupation, nearly 32,000 students from our two universities, and a high electoral turnover. There are currently 76,000 registered voters, but around 17% of households already have nobody on the electoral register. Next door, Nick Clegg’s Sheffield Hallam is home to our leafiest suburbs; largely monocultural with high levels of owner-occupation and a stable population, has 71,000 registered voters and only 4% of households with nobody registered. There is therefore already a huge disparity between the number of people, as opposed to voters, in each constituency. On these figures, I represent at least 17,600 more adults and that will get more acute in each new Boundary Review.
Creating constituencies of equal electorates ignores the fact that the job of MPs is to represent everybody who lives in their constituency, and not just those who are on the register. Many of my constituents who contact me for assistance are not on the electoral register (and often it’s these people who need most help), but I can’t say to them that I won’t help with their problem or refuse to voice their concerns in Parliament. Democracy doesn’t work like that.
And punishing low levels of registration in inner cities won’t simply get rid of Labour-held seats. By disregarding people who aren’t on the electoral register, the Tories are denying a voice to those who arguably need to be heard the most. We will move towards a US-style democracy in which the urban poor and disengaged will lose their voice, as political parties are forced to focus on those who are registered, and politics shifts towards the Tory agenda.
But there is a progressive alternative, and it’s a simple one. We can turn the argument around by making the democratic case for equalisation of constituencies, on the basis of population. The 2011 census will be published soon and will give us an up-to-date picture of how many people live in each area. Let’s use the opportunity that this presents and pledge in our next manifesto that we would carry out a full boundary review based on the census and equalise constituencies on the basis of population. This isn’t rigging the system in Labour’s favour; it’s acknowledging the reality of the people and places we represent. Couple this pledge with a real commitment to voter registration campaigns and we can not only create fairer constituencies but strengthen our democracy at the same time.
Paul Blomfield is Labour MP for Sheffield Central and a Vice-Chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform. He is on Twitter at @paulblomfieldmp