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.
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: