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The Rules Of The Game


What is this talk of gerrymandering?

"I have never believed in questioning or second-guessing the decision of the referee." The words appear in the final paragraph of David Laws' book Coalition and the referee he is referring to is the British electorate which so brutally rejected his party in May 2015. Obviously Laws himself must have regarded the decision as a very disappointing one but his acceptance of the verdict made in accordance with the system is refreshing, and a pleasant break from the usual whinge that rules which produce the wrong result (according to the preferences of the speaker) must in some way be wrong or unfair. The proposals for changes in constituency boundaries have brought the whingers out in force.

"An affront to democracy", "A dog's dinner", that is the very least of it. No lesser person than Emily Thornberry, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, is reported as saying, "it's very obvious gerrymandering. The whole thing stinks". Well that sounds terrible, doesn't it? No one suggests that the Boundary Commissioners themselves have misbehaved, of course. They are an independent body under the control of the Speaker but in practice chaired by a High Court Judge, so it must be the rules which they have to apply in making their recommendations which are wrong. Yes, that must be it, a recommendation made in accordance with wicked Tory rules to be forced through in due course by a wicked Tory majority. Labour's prospects at the next election unfairly trashed. No wonder that it has given the Thornberrys of this world indigestion.

Most normal people have better things to do than read the rules which the Boundary Commission use to make recommendations. Still, in view of the appalling threat to our democracy, perhaps it would be a good thing to take a peep inside the Guide to the 2018 Review of Parliamentary Constituencies which sets them out at schedule D. Well no, they won't win the Booker Prize and the lack of racy language betrays that they are simply copied from the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, but they are short and fairly clear. For those with a taste for such things here is a link.

Of course the fact that the rules are in the 1986 act does not make all of them thirty years old. They were added to in 1992 and 2011 and it is the latter changes which require that the current review should reduce the number of constituencies in the UK to 600 and provide that (save in certain exceptional circumstances - e.g. constituencies of over 12,000 km², etc.) no constituency may have more than 95% or less than 105% of the average number of electors. As the average is 74,769 that sets a maximum of 78,507 and a minimum of 71,031.

This requirement, which must be strictly applied, can be contrasted with a number of factors which the Boundary Commission may take into account if they think fit. Those include existing constituency boundaries, special geographical considerations and things of that sort; but, although that may help the Commissioners to select boundaries, they cannot override the maximum and minimum limits.

It is these limits on constituency size which seem to have caused the outrage. For obvious reasons the review process has to work from historic data, and the law requires that the calculations are done by reference to the register of voters two years and ten months before a final report has to be presented to the House of Commons. The final report arising from the present review is to be presented in 2018 and so boundaries are to be drawn on the assumption that the number of electors in any area is the number who were registered in December 2015. No account is taken of those who have registered since or, indeed, of foreigners living in the area who are not entitled to register. MPs from areas where there is more than the usual number of these think this unfair. If unregistered voters were included, or if the rules had set a later date, their area would have more representation.

One would like to say that these protests arose from aspirations to achieve the purest possible form of democracy but, alas, it is hard to do so. For many years a failure to update the system biased it heavily against the Conservatives and the fact that the latter could not outvote the combination of Labour and the Liberal Democrats blocked any reform in 2013. Labour MPs did not protest then, of course. They simply sat on the advantage given them and toasted the fact that Tories did not have the majority they needed to level the playing field.

This article is not about hypocrisy, however, but about something rather different. Maybe you would get a different result if the "review date" was a month or two later. Maybe it would be better if foreigners without votes were counted. Perhaps it would or perhaps it would not, but the fact is that we have a system which on the face of it is reasonably fair, and it is no good ranting on about it being unfair if the result doesn't happen to suit you.

We have seen much of the same in relation to the Brexit referendum, of course. I have always been a Remain and didn't particularly care for the result, but I accept that the referendum was the route chosen to decide the matter, that that route has been followed and that a decision has been made. It is tedious in the extreme to hear those who argue for a second referendum biased towards a Remain view by giving votes to 16-year-olds (after all they have to live with the system for longer, poor dears), weighting the vote against those who are sixty-five (after all they haven't got long to go, poor dears) or simply removing the vote from everyone who lives south of the River. Maybe these would be wonderful systems or maybe they would not, but they don't happen to be the one chosen.

There comes a stage, of course, when systems of decision-making have to be updated. Sometimes that means wholesale change, as with the 1832 reform act or the introduction of female suffrage; more often it is just a question of adjusting rules or changing their application. At that stage a decision has to be made as to what the optimum rules will be and usually there is a choice with much to be said for one version or another. Once that choice has been made it will dictate the results when the rules come to be applied.

That is how rules work and for the system to be successful it is important to keep to the order. First you make the rules. Then you apply them. If you cry "foul" and start changing the rules every time the result of their application does not suit you, you might as well not have rules at all. Then there would be nothing to stop the strongest from imposing their will on the weakest. That would be a bad result in a country which claims to work by the rule of law.

The Report of the Boundary Commission is the beginning of a process of consultation and that process will no doubt throw up a number of changes to the plan before it is finally adopted. What cannot be changed, however, are the minimum number of electors in a constituency and how that number is measured. Emily Thornberry and her friends should accept that. It is one thing to argue in the consultation how the rules should be applied. That is what the process is for. It is quite another to start shouting "gerrymandering" or "disgraceful" simply because on this occasion the result of applying the rules does not suit you.

Frst oublished in the Shaw Sheet.

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