Challenging the Democratic Deficit

The Government's proposals for boundary reform make the current electoral system even more unfair.

Author: Steve Griffiths

The lost opportunity of the 2018 Constituency Boundary Review

What is an ‘elector’ in our democracy? 

This report, Challenging the Democratic Deficit, from the Centre for Welfare Reform examines the implications of legislation by the Coalition Government in 2011 which brought about a parliamentary election Boundary Review based on the notion that an ‘elector’ is a person who has registered to vote.

This excludes millions who are not registered, particularly young people, private renters, and a number of ethnic minority groups, all who are eligible to vote if they do register. It sets in concrete massive inequities in our representative democracy.

By its own measure – "the principle of greater equality in the value of each vote is at the heart of this Boundary Review" (Leader of the Commons, 2013) – it contains built-in obsolescence. For the Government’s continuing insistence that the ‘electorate’ is formed only by those registered in December 2015 excludes 1.75 million voters, who were newly registered in 2016, and 2.3 million who registered in the run-up to the 2017 election, of whom two-thirds were aged under 35. 

The Government acted against the advice of the Electoral Commission to bring forward the conclusion of the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration to December 2015, disenfranchising most of 1.9 million voters who were being transferred from the old household registration system to the new. The December cut-off also meant that student registrations were at their lowest seasonal point: they are at their peak in May. 

On this shifting, selective and already outdated foundation, our parliamentary boundaries have been redrawn.

Main findings

This report examines the impact of the Government’s use of a restricted definition of the electorate to exclude people who are eligible to vote but have not yet registered. It uses a range of population perspectives to evaluate the Government’s approach to the Boundary Review.

The current distribution of constituencies has profound inequities. At present, in terms of overall population, the ten MPs for the constituencies with the lowest ratio of registered voters to overall population represent half a million more residents than the ten constituencies with the highest ratio. This has major workload implications for MPs. The Member for West Ham, for example, represents a constituency population of 174,534 – 105,000 more people than the MP for Wirral West. But if we look at the constituencies proposed by the Boundary Review, the ten with the smallest adult populations will have on average 43,720 fewer resident adults than the ten with the largest adult populations.

The ratio of registered voters to eligible adult population in current constituencies was calculated. In Liverpool Riverside, almost a third of eligible voters were not registered. If the 50 constituencies with the lowest ratio were reallocated to new constituencies with the same eligible population as those with the highest ratio, they would gain 8 MPs. Thus a Boundary Review based on electoral registers will further entrench inequality of representation. 

The relationship between the voter registration levels of constituencies and their rankings in the 2015 Indices of Deprivation was examined. The mean deprivation ranking of the fifty with the lowest ratio of registered voters to adults eligible to vote was more than 200 places higher than that of the fifty with the highest ratio. Using registered voters as the population base for the Boundary Review will entrench a systemic democratic deficit affecting the most deprived areas.

Several studies have concluded that the political and economic case for reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 has not been made.

In addition the narrow and rigid electorate parameters adopted for the Review, resulting in splitting of wards and constituencies straddling two local authorities, will cause disruption of local government, confusion over democratic accountability, duplication, and waste.

A better solution

The proposals of Boundary Commission England are inadequate and unjust. The aim of this report is to inform and influence renewed consideration by the UK Parliament of the principles upon which boundaries are reviewed.

The recent report by The Commons' Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee calls for an urgent parliamentary debate to bring about a new Boundary Review to be implemented in time for the 2022 General Election.

The Private Member’s Bill sponsored by Afzal Khan, the Member for Manchester Gorton, addresses the number of MPs and partially addresses the narrow parameters of variation in constituency size. But it does not address the core issue of volatility in electoral registration and the exclusion of millions of unregistered voters.

There is a data resource already available, and a simple form of legislative amendment, will resolve this major flaw in the current proposal. This will deliver a solution consistent with principles of equal democratic representation, access to representatives by constituents and equal workload for MPs, using more robust and less volatile data to inform a Boundary Review more credibly based on the principle of universal suffrage.

The Office for National Statistics produce regular and robust estimates of adult population which can be adjusted to subtract the population of ineligible foreign nationals using Census data and the Annual Population Survey data on nationality. This creates a stable and viable dataset of eligible adult population to support a Boundary Review. Tables previously commissioned by Parliament demonstrate that this can be done, and the Scottish Government have recently published equivalent data.

Maintenance of this capacity should be a priority for the programme of research and trials by the Office for National Statistics regarding the future of the Census, since solid population data are fundamental to democracy and to the functioning of our society. With this in mind, future Boundary Reviews could be timed at two or three years after each ten-yearly Census.

The current terms excluding eligible but unregistered voters hinge on a definition of ‘electorate’ in Schedule 2 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 as amended in 2011 by the Coalition Government. This paper proposes a simple amendment of this definition to include ‘the total number of persons eligible to vote by dint of age and citizenship’. It should include persons aged 16 or over, both to lengthen the life of a future Boundary settlement, and in recognition of the rights of young people.

Since the Reviews initiated by the 2011 Act are not fit for purpose, this amendment should be adopted as a matter of urgency in order to develop a sustainable and inclusive parliamentary democracy.

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The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Challenging the Democratic Deficit © Steve Griffiths 2018.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.


Paper | 07.05.18

Constitutional Reform, politics, England, Paper

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