Is Shrinking the Number of MPs from 650 to 600 back on the Cards?

It had seemed that the proposal to shrink the number of MPs in the UK parliament from 650 to 600 had been mothballed through lack of a majority to drive it through parliament. In particular the DUP were very unhappy with the proposed changes and were very unlikely to offer support. Developments in Northern Ireland, however, are raising suspicions of old fashioned gerrymandering and a secret deal between the Tories and the DUP.

The proposal to reduce the number of MPs is sold as an opportunity to reduce the cost of parliament and to equalise the size of constituencies, which currently vary widely in size, ranging from the Isle of Wight with an electorate of c 105k and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Western Isles) of c 21k.

Whereas I have no objection to equalising the number of voters in a constituency, the cost argument is strange. Good governance is of vital importance, particularly at the current time with the Brexit negotiations being probably the most critical event since Suez and possibly the 2nd World War. Given the size of the British economy the cost of 50 MPs is vanishingly small. It is strange also that the number of MPs is dropping at a time of considerable population expansion and that the 600 figure seems totally arbitrary. It seems however, that many more Labour than Tory seats will disappear and the effect will be to increase the number of Tory seats by about 20 more than Labour. This leads to the suspicion that the change is more motivated by the gain of narrow political advantage rather than a genuine desire to improve democracy. The UK does indeed need electoral reform, but the change needed is towards proportional representation, ideally using the single transferable vote as advocated by the Electoral Reform Society.

Northern Ireland has had an inglorious history of Gerrymandering with the textbook example being the Londonderry Corporation where a Catholic/Nationalists majority city produced a majority of Unionist councilors by drawing the electoral boundaries such that the Catholics were largely crammed into one of the three wards as explained in this classic clip from Robert Key. Northern Ireland is a dream for anyone who wants to use electoral manipulation as there are easily identified voters and a tribal loyalty which has much diminished in England.

Moving forward 50 years and the focus has moved to Belfast. (Derry is now so overwhelming a catholic city that no amount of gerrymandering would work). The Belfast situation is broadly similar to Londonderry in the 1960s but there are now 4 constituencies as opposed to 3 wards.The other complication is the electorate is more sophisticated, with many voters opting for non aligned parties such as Alliance or the Greens.

Belfast has a Catholic majority population but with the constituency boundaries drawn such one constituency, West Belfast, has a very big Catholic majority. The 2017 GE results will give an idea of what is going on:

  • West Belfast (WB) had an overwhelming SF majority (2017 GE SF 27,107, DUP 5,455).
  • North Belfast (NB) is split closer to 50-50  (2017 GE SF 19,159, DUP 21,240). Indeed North Belfast is even closer as the other nationalist party the SDLP polled 2,058 votes.
  • South Belfast (SB) is one where tactical voting would have given a Nationalist majority (2017 GE DUP 13,299, SDLP 11,303, SF 7,143).
  • East Belfast (EB) is a constituency with a very strong Alliance candidate and where tactical voting was used in an attempt to keep out the DUP (2017 GE DUP 23,917, Alliance 15,443).

In summary there is one seat with an overwhelming Nationalist majority, WB, two fairly evenly split, NB and SB, and one with decent Unionist majority, EB. Indeed, if the surplus vote in WB were spread over the rest of Belfast it would have been a Catholic/Nationalist clean sweep. This has the hallmarks of gerrymandering, the issue has been is this by accident or design?

As part of the reduction in UK wide seats from 650 to 600 it is proposed that NI drops from 18 to 17 seats. The  boundary proposal in 2017 was to reduce the number of seats in Belfast to three, using less gerrymandered boundaries. Other  changes were made which made the constituency boundaries more favorable towards Nationalists. This produced howls of protest from the DUP as illustrated by Ian Paisley Jr’s tweet as illustrated in Fig. 1.

 

Fig 1. DUP reaction to proposed 2017 boundary changes.

 

On Wednesday a revised version of the NI constituency boundaries (Fig 2) was leaked which went back to having 4 Belfast constituencies and had a number of more subtle changes which were very suspicious. As Gaygael (a commentator on Slugger O’Toole) put it:

“Quick read is – DUP safer than ever in North, South and East Belfast. Lady Sylvia gone in North Down. And does that small segment of North Belfast (Shankill) moving into West shore up a DUP Assembly seat?

Looks like the worst of Gerrymandering by the DUP – Did they learn nothing in the last century?

Keen to see rationale.”

The Lady Sylvia referred to is Lady Sylvia Hermon who is an Anti-brexit independent Unionist widely respected by many moderates in both communities and will be a great loss.

The map was removed from the NI Electoral Commission after a few hours but the consensus seems that if one had given a pen to the DUP, then the boundaries would have ended up similar to this leaked proposal. Needless to say if this goes ahead it greatly improves the odds of the DUP  lending support to the Tories if they wish to proceed with the proposed shrinkage of seats.

It may be entirely innocent but rumours abound of a secret deal between the Tories and the DUP.

 

 

Fig.2 2018 proposal for constituency boundaries.

 

Comments

  1. Ivan Horrocks -

    A really interesting post, Sean, which supports my argument that having an island of Ireland specialist on Progressive Pulse is a boon.

    Regarding your argument, it goes without saying really that there are many in the Tory Party (a lot of the ‘behind the scenes’ people, SPADs and the like) who are well aware of how effective the Republican Party has been in the US with gerrymandering through boundary changes based on ethnicity, age profile, etc. The upshot is that at both state and local level (districts) democrats often have an overall majority of votes but that doesn’t translate into seats. I think I’m correct in stating that in some states democrats need to poll over 10% more than republicans to win a seat because of the nature of gerrymandered boundaries.

    The second strand to this policy is various forms of voter registration – generally recognised to actually be aimed at voter suppression. For example, making it impossible to vote without producing limited (ie. specified) forms of identification. In some cases this has to be a form of photo ID and only certain forms of photo ID are accepted. As these cost money such laws often act to exclude poorer people and certain ethnic groups from voting.

    On this last point, note that this year see various pilot projects where photo ID will be required before a person is able to vote adopted in the UK. And, as in the US, this is being rolled out supposedly as a response to ‘fraudulent’ voting – whereas in reality there is no such problem. However, this is straight out of the Republican playbook, and we can expect exactly the same impact here as in the US – voters suppression, largely across sections of the population that tend to vote Labour.

    As I was always told when I was young, what happens in the US ends up here about five years later. Well, the US Supreme Court struck down many of the provisions of the US Voting Rights Act in 2013 (on a 5 to 4 vote with the 5 Republican appointees voting in favour) despite the fact that the Act had been reaffirmed in 2006 (under Bush), thus allowing much of the gerrymandering seen since. 2013 to 2018 is five years, so it’s no suprise that we see the same policies being adopted by the Tories in the UK now – an example of which you illustrate so well in your blog.

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Ivan

      the US has been a big influence not only in the UK but in Ireland. This was probably a its height about 50 years ago with JFK and Robert Kennedy being very much admired as indeed was Martin Luther King. Indeed this is the 50th anniversary of the birth NI civil rights movement in 1968 to get equal rights for the Catholic population, very mush inspired by the US one the time, which was pretty brutally crushed giving rise to the troubles.

      Somehow the US seems to bring out the best and worst in humanity. On your original point I agree, I keep a close watch on the US and am in close touch with friends and former colleagues whom are all staunch Democrats and are abhorred by Trump and the Republicans. There is no doubt in my mind that the Tories will use any legal means to suppress the Labour vote. In a NI context however the people without ID etc are most likely to be working class Loyalists, so that method would not work in their favour.

    2. Peter May -

      I was told the same when I was young! I’d hope it’s not the case, much as the right wingers hope it is. Britain is European – and indeed ability to work in Europe was the first worry of a recent youth survey on the difficulties with Brexit. I’m completely against Tory gerrymandering but there is a case for reduced representationn fo Scotland, Wales and NI because they have their own legislatures. English MPs have a bigger workload in consequence of having nothing devolved.
      It’s a great pity more of this wasn’t considered before sanctioning devolution – particularly as Whitehall has probably written more constitutions than anywhere else in the world!

  2. Sean Danaher -

    Peter
    If I remember correctly when Stormont was closed down in 1972 and direct rule was introduced the number of NI MPs went up from 12 to 17 to cater for the increased workload. It makes sense that this should be done in reverse.

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