There was some pathetic Tory whingeing yesterday about losing the vote on lowering the number of parliamentary constituencies from 650 to 600, and on equalising constituency sizes. We all know that the real bone of contention isn’t fairness or the Coalition Agreement, by virtue of which the Lib Dems, who opposed the measure in the Commons and Lords, ought to have supported it. It’s about re-engineering the electoral system so as to make it more likely the Conservatives would win an overall parliamentary majority in 2015 on a minority share of the vote.
In 2010, the Conservatives won 47% of the seats UK-wide on 36% of the vote. The party cherished the dream that constituency changes would give it roughly an extra 20 seats, i.e. just enough to win over 50% of the seats on a similar share of the vote. In other words, it was a tweak designed to make a system that already unfairly favours the Conservatives even more favourable to them.
The real problem isn’t disparities between constituency sizes that supposedly reward Labour disproportionately but the divergent manner in which the electoral system used for UK-parliamentary elections – First Past the Post (FPTP) – rewards the main parties across the different nations of the UK. The unfounded nature of the Tories’ complaint is clearly illustrated when you compare the UK-wide figures to those for England only. In England, the Conservatives won 56% of the seats on 40% of the vote, i.e. 40% more seats than were merited by their share of the vote alone. By contrast, Labour won 36% of English seats from 28% of the vote: a 28.5% dividend. In other words, the system disproportionately favoured the Conservatives to an even greater extent than it favoured Labour in England.
It’s true that, across the UK as a whole, Labour enjoyed more of an uplift from FPTP than the Conservatives: Labour won 39.7% of seats across the UK from 29% of the vote (roughly 37% more than its proportionate share), while the Conservatives’ 47% seat share from 36% of the vote represents an FPTP dividend of some 30.5%. But the Tories’ relatively weaker, but still unduly favourable, performance across the UK derives from the way the party is extremely disadvantaged by FPTP in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in Wales. In Scotland, the Conservatives polled a surprising 16.7% of the vote. Surprising because this total netted it only one out of the 59 seats available, or 1.7%. By comparison, the SNP’s surprisingly meagre share of approximately 20% of the vote brought it six seats (10.2%), while the Lib Dems’ inferior 19% vote share enabled it to win 11 seats (a ‘proportionate’ 18.6% share). The beneficiary of this random relationship of vote share to seat share was of course Labour, which bagged an undeserved total of 41 seats (69.5%) from 42% of the vote, i.e. around 65% more than its proportional allocation would have been.
You’d think these disparities would turn the Conservatives into converts for proportional representation (PR). Indeed, in the Scottish-Parliament elections, where a proportional system is used, the Tories do manage to win a fairer level of representation. In the most recent elections, in 2011, the party won 15 seats overall (three constituency and 12 regional top-up). This represents an 11.6% seat share, whereas their share of the constituency and regional polls was approximately 14% and 12% respectively.
In Wales, the Conservatives do comparatively better out of FPTP in UK-parliamentary elections but are still disadvantaged by it. In 2010, they gained eight seats (20%) from 26% of the vote. By comparison, the Lib Dems won only 7.5% of the seats from 20% of the vote. However, Labour again unduly triumphed, with 65% of the seats from a mere 36% of the vote: an FPTP dividend of around 80%.
So the fact that the Conservatives did not win an overall majority in 2010 has little to do with any unfairnesses connected with constituency boundaries and sizes but was linked to their relatively poor performance in Scotland and Wales. The effect of the party’s comparatively lower vote shares in those countries was then further distorted by the same voting system that gave it a disproportionally high share of seats (56%) in England.
The irony is that if the Conservatives were able to govern England in some way separately from the rest of the UK, but within the Westminster Parliament – e.g. via some sort of English Grand Chamber or restrictions on MPs from non-English seats voting on English bills – they would have a whopping majority of 63, albeit one that was the product of an unfair voting system. However, none of the big-three parties cherish the idea of being a government for England alone: their eyes are fixed only on the big prize of forming a UK government. Hence, the Conservatives were obliged in 2010 to cobble together a UK majority via the coalition with the Lib Dems.
The consequence of this state of affairs is that parties of government in the UK must always have the option available to them of constructing their parliamentary majorities from MPs across the UK. This means there is a structural or systemic reliance on the possibility that MPs elected from outside England (and Wales) will be needed to pass legislation relating to England, or England and Wales, only, whether in any specific instance the support of those MPs is decisive or not. We’re familiar with this ‘West Lothian’ anomaly. But what it means is that MPs are inhibited from objecting to particular instances where (mostly) Labour’s disproportional share of Scottish and Welsh MPs plays a decisive role in passing legislation that doesn’t apply to Scotland and Wales. MPs can’t object to these particular cases because the whole system of government – the construction of parliamentary majorities on which UK government depends – relies on the West Lothian Question remaining unanswered.
This is the case, for instance, with the recent Bill to legalise gay marriage in England and Wales. Mostly via Twitter, I have been lobbying the Conservative MPs who are on record as opposing the Bill to object to Scottish and Welsh MPs – mostly, as we have seen, Labour, and therefore most likely to support the Bill – voting on it. It’s a free vote – i.e. not whipped – and therefore it is doubly inappropriate for MPs from outside England and Wales to vote on it. Triply inappropriate, in fact, as a separate draft bill to legalise gay marriage in Scotland has been presented to the Scottish parliament.
What business have particularly Scottish, but also Northern Irish, MPs voting on a bill to create gay marriage in England and Wales that doesn’t apply to their constituents, whereas a bill that does affect their constituents is being separately introduced by the Scottish parliament? None whatsoever. But I have received not a single reply to my solicitations from the Tory MPs who object to gay marriage, nor – by the way – from any person or institution I have contacted on the matter via any channel whatsoever. What is the Tory MPs’ problem? Apart from a fear of being seen to transgress political correctness, the issue is the one I’ve highlighted: you can’t object to a specific instance of West Lothian law making without objecting to the whole system that relies on it. And that’s the system that put the Conservatives into government on a 36% share of the vote UK-wide.
It seems to me that Conservative anger about the constituency-boundary bill being overturned by the coalition partner they drafted in to give them a UK-wide parliamentary majority is seriously misplaced. The problem is the gross differences in voting patterns and parliamentary representation across the UK’s three largest nations. Only a separate system of parliamentary governance for England, preferably using PR, can adequately address that. But because the present set-up relies on it, gay marriage could well end up being introduced in England and Wales through the votes of Scottish MPs.