Today’s big political topic in Scotland is the first draft of the Boundary Commission for Scotland’s proposed Westminster constituencies, which you can find here. I’d been awaiting these keenly after the proposals for England, Wales and Northern Ireland were released – partly because I’m just that kind of person, and partly because the boundary change process and the inevitable controversies surrounding it act as a reminder that First Past the Post is an utterly dire electoral system.
The specific changes that have been proposed for Scotland make a mockery of one of the key arguments for retaining FPTP, namely that it gives people a single, approachable, “local” representative. The reduction in the number of seats and the narrow band of allowable variance from the average number of voters per seat (only 5%) has led to some seriously odd constituencies that barely qualify as local.
At the moment, Scotland’s 59 constituencies include 9 that cross local council boundaries. One of these actually covers parts of 3 councils. And of those 9 constituencies, 5 cross historic boundaries; that is, reach beyond Scotland’s traditional counties and regions as well. That shows that even with 59 constituencies, it’s hard to adequately represent long established and well recognised local identities across Scotland – but at least it only affects a small proportion of our seats.
The proposals for 53 new constituencies now have 18 such cross-council constituencies – though, as a small mercy, in all cases it’s only 2 councils. And 11 of these constituencies would cross traditional boundaries. Losing 6 constituencies, and under tighter constraints, there’s basically no way for the Boundary Commission to avoid proposing such monstrosities.
Looking at some of the detail of these, it gets even stranger. The North-South division of the present Stirling constituency doesn’t merely affect the rural portions of the wider Stirling area, but also splits Stirling city itself in two. This is one of Scotland’s smallest cities, which for decades had a single MP as part of a unified Stirling constituency – it’s utterly bizarre to propose cutting it in two. Meanwhile, the Cunninghame East constituency stands out as one of the weirdest creations, combining most of East Renfrewshire with a chunk of East Ayrshire. Cutting the Irvine Valley area off from Kilmarnock and tying it in with Newton Mearns is an odd way to go about ensuring local representation.
Even those constituencies that don’t cross council boundaries have potentially fatal flaws. Inverness and Skye is a particularly strange pairing. The present Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey constituency is an unwieldy beast, combining the busy Highland capital with a large rural area, but at least this area forms part of the Inverness hinterland. Skye quite clearly does not, and the concerns of the islanders may diverge significantly from the city dwellers.
Another major issue with FPTP that we’re reminded of every time there are boundary changes is that those changes can have a significant effect on the outcome of elections. As each constituency only elects one representative, the result is sensitive to demographic changes caused by moving a boundary. In terms of the number of seats this could flip, this is more of a worry in England than Scotland. The proposed changes here might see Labour and the Conservatives lose out, which would be a big deal politically, but with only one seat apiece barely affects parliamentary arithmetic.
You can find any number of examples of how different boundaries drawn around the same group of voters can give different results, but my own might be a large town, Exampleton. It’s surrounded by an extensive rural area, Exampleshire, with a few small commuter towns and villages fairly even spread about. Typically, Labour would find significant support in Exampleton, whilst Exampleshire would lean more Conservative. Let’s imagine the area has 4 MPs in total.
One way of drawing boundaries might be to simply quarter the whole area, into Exampleshire North, East, South and West, divvying up portions of the Exampleton and combining them with the neighbouring bit of Exampleshire. It’s likely in this case that all four constituencies would return a Conservative MP. If, instead, Exampleton was a constituency and the rural surrounds divided into Exampleshire North, South East and South West, the area as a whole would more likely elect 1 Labour MP and 3 Conservatives. If the same pattern was applied to similar areas nationally, the net effect can amount to dozens of seats gained by a given party without a bit of campaigning, simply by being lucky with boundary changes.
To be clear, we can at least be thankful from the outset that constituency boundaries in the UK are drawn by external commissions, so boundary changes that advantage one party or another as in the above example aren’t generally intentional, although the rules governing the commissions can tilt in one party’s favour. We don’t have the history of gerrymandering that the United States does where in the overwhelming majority of states, the state legislature sets the boundaries for congressional districts and does so to partisan advantage. For the masters at this art, see Maryland’s congressional districts, particularly the 3rd.
Nonetheless, for all that our process is far less partisan when it comes to the actual drawing of lines on the map, the same reality applies – where you draw those lines can have an enormous impact on the outcome of an election. That isn’t particularly good for democracy. As far as possible, an election held according to a particular set of rules should give the same overall outcome regardless of how you’ve divided up the country.
It’s important to bear in mind that these are only initial proposals – and proposals drawn using what are now old council ward boundaries as the base. With new wards signed off for 25 of Scotland’s 32 councils last month, I’d expect the revised proposals to change a fair bit to account for that and for public feedback – though the room for manoeuvre is limited, so whilst the boundaries may shuffle some more the breaking of local ties will remain in some form, and they’ll still demonstrate how flawed FPTP is.
By contrast, systems of proportional representation accept that the cost of adequately representing the spread of opinion across the country is less local representation, and doesn’t pretend otherwise. And when a boundary change in a PR system happens to shift a bunch of voters with a particular party leaning from one constituency to another, the result is more likely to be that party losing a seat in one constituency and gaining one in the other, making it extremely unlikely the net effect of changes can alter the course of the election.
There is now really no excuse not to introduce PR in some form, except that doing so would break the Conservative-Labour stranglehold on government. That there remains resistance to the idea simply reminds us that politics in the UK has become more about the existing political class protecting itself than democratic representation of the people.