For all his Bunterish affability and charm when appearing on ‘Have I Got News For You’ one should never make the mistake of forgetting that Boris Johnson is a Tory MP and is therefore at election times no less prone to economies of fact than any other Member of Parliament - or rather parliamentary candidate as on the dissolution of Parliament he, temporarily at least, lost his status as an MP until the results for his constituency are announced sometime in the early hours of May 6th. Still as the Tory candidate for Henley, formerly Michael Heseltine’s constituency, and with a comfortable 8,000+ majority at the last election there’s little doubt that Boris will be safely back on the opposition benches in due course.
All of which brings me to his most recent on-line musings in which he propounds the theory that Britain’s current electoral system is not so far removed from the undemocratic travesty put in place by the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe for us, the electorate, to feel comfortable and secure in the certain knowledge that we live in a fair and democratic society.
One of more interesting facets of this election is the extent to which the main opposition parties are taking the time and trouble to get their excuses nicely bedded in well in advance of their almost certain defeat on May 5th. Given the crushing nature of the Labour win in 2001 both the Tories and, to a lesser extent, the Liberal Democrats, will be aware that success in the upcoming election will be measured not in terms of victory but in terms of how big a dent they can put in the existing Labour majority in the Commons.
This is, of course, familiar territory for the Lib Dems whose only real hope of power would be to find themselves in the position of ‘king-maker’ in a hung Parliament. For the Tories, however, still desperately clinging to their ingrained, if outdated, belief that they are the ‘natural party of government’ there is the painful reality that their very best expectations can be measured only in terms of the extent to which election results may suggest that they ‘turned the corner’ and begun the long haul back to electability.
Even then there can be no certainty that that a good result, one which cuts Labour’s majority enough to bring Blair within reach, in the Commons, of dissenting elements in his own party, could be considered as evidence of a renaissance in Tory electoral fortunes. In other circumstances the Tories would more than willingly take the personal unpopularity of Tony Blair on issues such as the Iraq war for what it is, an electoral ‘gift horse’ which will almost certainly see their parliamentary numbers increase after May 5th but any tendency they may otherwise have had to rejoice in the prospect of profiting from Blair’s personal misfortunes must surely be ameliorated by the sure and certain knowledge that, unlike the situation the Tories found themselves in during the dog days of the Thatcher era, Labour has its heir apparent in place and, in Gordon Brown, has a successor to Blair who is more than capable of crushing any upswing in fortunes they might accrue from this upcoming election. No Tory who gains a seat from Labour this time around can genuinely sleep safely in their constituency while knowing that as little as one or two years down the line, the most successful Chancellor in British political history is waiting for them and for his seemingly inevitable ascendancy to the top job in the land.
So with that in mind we find both opposition parties working hard at one of their more important electoral strategies, the pre-emptive excuse, and in taking their lead from the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho, such excuses eschew the simple admission that their ‘team’ was outplayed and their side not good enough in favour of ‘blaming the referee’ - we were the better team but the odds were stacked against us before the game even started.
The Lib Dem’s own ‘biased linesman’, postal votes, has already been well identified and picked over which means its now the Tories turn to cry ‘foul’ and start pointing fingers at the ref - or as Boris colourfully puts it ‘one of the most gerrymandered systems in the western world’ and ‘Labour’s Rotten Boroughs”.
Boris’s beef, such as it is, is that the current structure of constituencies and constituency boundaries creates an innate bias in the electoral system of the UK which favours Labour. If Boris is to be believed, not only do the Tories have to win the popular vote and come out of the election have gained a greater percentage of the overall number of votes cast in order to beat Labour but they have to win that vote by more than 10% and to back up his argument he notes, darkly, that while the average number of voters in Labour held constituencies sits at a figure of 66,000, in Tory constituencies is 72,000 and rising.
What is this, then? Are we to believe that quietly, covertly, the Labour government has been redrawing the boundaries and packing Tory supporters into even more tightly confined electoral ghettos, Mugabe style, in order to ensure that it and only it can come out on top.
It’s an interest theory but one which, if investigated, ranks up their in credibility with the notion that Elvis is alive and well and working in the MacDonald’s in Esher.
Part of Boris’ problem in putting forward his ‘Zimbabwe Thesis’ is that, unlike Zimbabwe, the manner in which electoral boundaries are determined in the UK is well documented and open to public scrutiny merely by paying a visit the website of the Boundary Commission. In actual fact, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each has their own commissions - the link provided relates to the Boundary Commission for England but has links to the other three.
In fact not only can the public scrutinise its work but, at such times as boundaries are being reviewed, any concerned citizen may participate in the process and submit their own thoughts on exactly how particular boundaries should be drawn up. The Commission(s) also, very helpfully, explain not only the rules to which they work in drawing up boundaries for electoral constituencies but provide a wealth of helpful background information on the complexities of making such judgements and the difficulties they sometimes face in carrying out their duties.
In reality its extremely difficult if not impossible for any single party to gerrymander the system as the process by which boundaries are drawn up is open throughout to public scrutiny and in many cases, done alomost entirely by consensus amongst the main political parties. The Boundary Commission places considerable weight in its consultations on situations where the main parties are in unanimous agreement with its proposals - in short, if the Commission proposes a particular set of boundary changes and these are agreed by the main parties during the public consultation then those proposals will almost certainly be accepted and put into place.
The few direct anomalies in the system, itself, relate directly to drawing of boundaries in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland - although the latter is less of an issue as of the three main parties only the Tories field candidates over there - where the ratio of MP’s to overall population is higher than in England. Constituencies in Scotland and Wales are significantly smaller, in terms of total electorate, than those in England and as these are areas in which Labour has done very well and the Tories extremely badly in recent years, these have a disproportionate effect on the figures quoted by Boris for the average size of electorate in Labour and Tory constituencies.
Can this be considered evidence of gerrymandering?
Well its certainly the case that the current Labour government has had a hand in maintaining the status quo regarding representation for Wales and Scotland at Westminster by setting a minimum figure for the number of constituencies - and therefore MP’s - at the time of last enactment of Boundary Commission regulations in 1998. However, before we go pointing the finger on this we also need to remember that Labour’s clear advantage arises as much, if not more, from the almost total collapse of the Tory vote in Wales and particularly Scotland during the Thatcher years, something for which the Tories have no one to blame but themselves and have never really been forgiven for making the Scots the guinea pigs for the Poll Tax - talk to enough Scots on that subject and you’ll find that even today they still take that one as personally as the people of Liverpool, a subject on which Boris has some expertise, take the Sun’s appalling comments in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster.
On its own, however, the situation with regards to Scotland and Wales is not sufficient to account for the apparent disparity in size of electorate between Labour and Tory constituencies - except there’s something else Boris has omitted to mention which most certainly does.
One of the ‘givens’ of drawing up electoral boundaries is the ongoing effect of population shifts - people move house all the time and, in particular, relocate in order to ‘follow the work’. It’s not just the unemployed who have to ‘get on their bike’ in order to further their employment prospect and personal circumstances and its for this reason that electoral boundaries are routinely and periodically reviewed and adjusted.
Reworking constituency boundaries in line with population movements is, like the census, an involved and time consuming process and equally, like painting the Forth Bridge, the kind of job where you never actually finish. Its a system that will, inevitably, always be out of step and lag behind trends in population movements - how far out of step being a function of how long it is since the last time that boundaries were redrawn. In this case the last raft of parliamentary boundary changes came in at the 1997 General Election but would have been drawn up and consulted as much as four to five years previously - it should be noted that as we go into this upcoming election, the Boundary Commission are in the process of conducting the ‘next’ review which will lead to significant boundary changes before the next but one general election which should be sometime in 2009/10 unless anything dramatic happens in the meantime.
From this it should be apparent that the existing constituency boundaries are now some 12-13 years old in conception, a period of time in which much can happen in terms of shifts in population.
Much of Labour’s apparent ‘advantage’ is therefore not the product of gerrymandering or manipulation of the electoral system but simply a function of population movements arising the ongoing North/South economic divide - as manufacturing has declined in the North and been replaced, in the main, by jobs in the service sector in the South, and particularly South-East, so people have followed the work and found themselves ’shipping up’ in what are the traditional Tory heartlands - there are more people in Tory held constituencies quite simply because over the last 12-15 years that’s where people have had to go to find work.
From this we might reasonably conjecture that the next round of boundary changes might be likely to actually favour the Tories were it not for the fact that many of those moving south are likely to be traditional Labour voters. However, in practice, these things will balance themselves out thanks to the role that political parties play in consultations on boundary changes and, in particular, on the importance that Boundary Commission places on political consensus in its consultation process.
Each of the political parties will have already carefully scrutinised the Commission’s initial proposals and being ‘doing the number’ to try to work out what effect, if any, the proposed changes may have on the security of tenure of their MP’s and their chances of engineering a shift or two which might turn and otherwise safe seat into a marginal and give the best possible shot at winning through next time around. After that the political horse-trading begins in earnest, which parties trading off advantages in one constituency for disadvantages in another until, broadly speaking, a set of boundaries emerge which will pretty much preserve that status quo - all a bit like choosing a new Pope, really.
The very public and open manner in which the Boundary Commission operates is what ensures that any changes it makes will have, at best, an extremely margin effect on the outcome of elections as it would only be where one or more parties were entirely derelict in their efforts to influence the process themselves that another party would be able to work the system to its overall advantage…
There is one final and most salient fact which Boris neglects to mention in his thesis on the similarities between the electoral systems in the UK and Zimbabwe. Indeed it is the single fact which undermines his whole argument and which demonstrates most clearly that in drawing comparisons between the UK and Zimbabwe he’s engaged in nothing more significant that a little political showboating rather than having any pretensions of offering the electorate a serious political analysis on this issue.
As noted earlier, the present boundaries came into effect at the 1997 general election, having been drawn up and consulted upon during the period from 1992 to around 1995/6…
… under the Conservative government of John Major.
For Boris to now suggest, as he has, that the present electoral system has been thoroughly gerrymandered in Labour’s favour is, quite simply, to accuse his own party, while in government, of perpetrating one the most spectacular acts of electoral incompetence in Parliamentary history - Is that really what you’re suggesting here, Boris? Shurely Not…