Thursday, 9 September 2010

What price electoral reform?

I must apologise for adding to the sheer number of Devonwall blogs but here it is, any comments feel free to leave below.

Electoral reform has been one of the most consistent policies and aspirations of the old Liberal party and the current Liberal Democrat party. Their argument runs that First Past the Post is an archaic system and does not produce representative results. There are many statistics to prop up this argument, for example the number of recent governments that have been elected with a majority of seats but lacking a majority of people voting for them. A particular bugbear of the Lib Dems is the fact that the number of people that vote for them is vastly underrepresented by the current FPTP system. For example, in the 2010 election the Liberal Democrat party polled 23% of votes throughout the UK but only 57 seats, a stark comparison to Labour's 29% vote share and 258 seats, and the Conservative's 36.1% resulting in 307 seats. The reason for the lack of seats won by the Lib Dems is the fact that their electoral support is widely spread, in other words they do not have concentrated support enough to translate vote share into seats.

Cornwall is an exception to this rule from the days of the late great David Penhaligon the Liberals and later Liberal Democrats have been in the ascendancy. Here in the Duchy support for the Liberal Democrats is concentrated, the Liberal Democrat party has prided itself on continuing Penhaligon's legacy of putting constituents first. Taking the needs, fears and battles of the Cornish people and voicing them in Westminster. People have liked this formula of representation and have time and again relied upon the Liberal Democrats to represent them.  (Here I am obviously talking in general terms and to state the Lib Dems have always kept step with Cornish opinion is a generalisation that ignores the amount of elections that party has lost.) But nevertheless listening to the people and serving them has been a useful combination that has made Cornwall one of the great bastions of Liberalism in the UK.

 I believe that Nick Clegg risks electoral suicide for his party in Cornwall if he continues with his electoral reform ideas. In particular I am talking about Devonwall. (Although it must be said that an AV electoral system is long way from the PR reform that has been widely sought by rank and file Lib Dem party members). This idea of reducing constituency sizes resulting in a cross Tamar seat is anathema to most Cornish people and there appears to be no supporters of the scheme in Cornwall. It presents a great break from Liberal tradition in Cornwall and rather than representing people's opinions, it really goes against them. Not only that, it also goes against the Lib Dem MP's in Cornwall who not long after the election published a programme for Cornwall highlighting their aims for Cornwall; link. These aims are completely at odds with the idea of forsaking Cornwall's political integrity.

Just to clarify Nick Clegg is leading the electoral reform campaign and bill, although there have been attempts to claim that allocation of constituencies is out of political hands and dealt with by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) that is not strictly the case. For example the BCE published their justifications for recent boundary changes in their newsletter (link) written last year it reads:

"1. When we met on 22 July 2009, we considered whether we should commence an interim review. We were mindful that sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 (as amended) require us to keep under continuous review the representation of England in the House of Commons and that section 3(3) permits us to conduct a review of any particular constituency or constituencies. In the normal course of events, we conduct interim reviews to ensure that the boundaries of the constituencies are kept in alignment with county, London borough, and district boundaries, and that local government district wards are contained within constituency boundaries and are not divided between them. However, an interim review may also be conducted to consider the allocation of an extra constituency to an area resulting from a significant increase in that area’s electorate." (Deputy Chairman's Report; link)

Nothing above suggest that a Devonwall seat could be an option, these criteria was used to justify the recent changes to Cornwall's constituencies so what has changed between now and then? Well there is this:

"1. On 27 May 2010, the Prime Minister announced those areas of political reform for which the Deputy Prime Minister would have direct responsibility. This resulted in the transfer of responsibility for the Elections and Democracy Division and the Constitutional Settlement Division of the Ministry of Justice to the Cabinet Office, with effect from 2 June 2010.

2. At the same time, the Cabinet Office also took responsibility for the sponsorship and funding of the Boundary Commission for England from the Ministry of Justice. The staff that form the Secretariat to the Boundary Commission for England have transferred to the Cabinet Office, although they will for now remain located on the Ministry of Justice estate." (BCE Newsletter no1 2010; link)
In defence of Clegg the same newsletter does end with the words:
"the Commission wishes to confirm that it will not affect its independent status or its working relationship with Government."

Call me a cynic but if the Cabinet Office is paying the bills and the Deputy Prime Minister is calling the shots then this grates with any kind of 'independent status'. It would seem that with the change of sponsorship at the Boundary Commission and it coming under the Deputy Prime Ministers aegis has resulted in a change of tack where centuries old borders can be overridden at will. Nick Clegg generally has betrayed the Liberal Democrat tradition of a bottom up approach whereby taxpayers influence politicians and they influence government to a top down situation whereby he decides and everyone below has no choice but to be bewildered.

The Liberal Democrats should bear in mind that if AV passes it is not PR, and their future electoral success will be decided on the constituency system, and if their disregard for Cornwall is symptomatic of wider trends then the price of electoral reform will be rejection at the polls.