On Elections

How people elect parliaments

UK Conservatives’ early election call cost them majority

Had UK Prime Minister Theresa May waited several months to call an election, her Conservative government might have retained its House of Commons majority in a smaller Parliament, even on the same votes cast, according to new research.

For some years the Conservative government has been working on a plan to reduce the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 members.

The reduction in the size of the House was a measure proposed by the Conservatives for the 2010 elections. It was assumed to be popular with the public after Parliament’s reputation was trashed by the 2008 MP expenses scandals.

The proposal had legitimate aims; the Tories rightly claim that Scotland and Wales have relatively too many members in the Commons for their voter populations. They also point out that voter populations in the the hundreds of specific constituencies in England have drifted apart over the years since the last review of boundaries.

Both situations happen to disadvantage the Conservatives and favour their opponents.

Scotland and Wales have long been strongholds of Labour votes – although Scottish voters have in recent elections swing behind the centre-left Scottish National Party (SNP).

It is likely that at June’s elections the structural advantage to non-Conservative parties amounted to them having an additional 15-20 seat advantage in the House. Despite that underlying effect, the Conservatives have still secured government after each of the last three elections, although twice only in minority.

The situation now sees all UK boundaries being more than a decade old, itself resulting in population malapportionment across the nation as population change varies in different regions.

But during the 2010-15 coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, disputation between the two partners over electoral reforms meant that little was agreed to.

The Liberal Democrat desire for voting system reform was diverted sideways into an unloved, eventually failed proposal to adopt preferential voting for the single-member electoral divisions (known as the Alternative Vote).

The Conservative party plan to shrink the House was initiated, and legislated in 2013, but has proceeded very slowly.

Improvements to the system for registering voters were also successfully legislated, and these have bourne fruit with noticeable higher registrations in recent years.

Technically, the legislated drop to a 600-seat House is still going ahead under the 2013 legislation. It would now take effect for elections due in 2022.

The Boundary Commissions (one for each of the four UK countries) that were charged with determining the new constituency boundaries for the 600-member House are close to finalising their work (not for the first time).

This week boundary proposals for England, Scotland and Wales were released for last rounds of public comments, triggering anxious inspection by sitting MPs. Consultations for new Northern Ireland seat boundaries were finalised a few weeks ago.

But all the final proposals will still need to be presented to, and passed by, Parliament once more.

None of the non-government parties now support the House reduction plans. Labour and the SNP oppose them outright. UKIP and the Greens call for proportional representation to be adopted. The Northern Irish parties (including the government’s supportive Democratic Unionist Party) are leery of their region losing one seat, as the redrawing of boundaries would also trigger the loss of 5 seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly (where the electoral system maps onto the House of Commons boundaries).

Even the Tory backbench is now unsupportive, and the Government itself is considering dropping the whole project.

When the Conservatives had a significant (and possibly growing) majority, Conservative MPs could just have been persuaded to support a proposal which eliminated about 15 of their own number while their opponents lost 30-35, the relative advantage being obvious.

But at this point the government backbench – roiled with disunity over Brexit, leadership and the government’s general performance – are far less attracted to career-terminating proposals and the disruption and internal pre-selection conflict that would be triggered.

The situation also shows up in hindsight the error of Prime Minister May in calling last April’s early April election.

Political pollsters Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher have now released estimates that had June’s election results been extrapolated onto the new 600-seat boundaries, the Conservatives might have emerged with a 25 seat majority.

Had May waited 9-12 months for the boundary review to be completed, her political fate might have been very different.

After a dreadful Conservative election campaign, the overall election result was both complex and close, with the significance of tactical voting across the single-member divisions such that a few thousand different votes in either direction might have yielded very different political outcomes.

In response to the pollster report, the conservative Daily Telegraph has bitterly complained that the Conservative Party was robbed by the electoral system. The complaint is ripe with irony, as the Tories have benefited from the distortionary effect of plurality voting for a century or more.

The Conservatives only won 42% of the national vote in June, but on the current boundaries that yielded them 49% of the seats in the House. The pollsters’ analysis imagines they would have won around 52% of the seats under in the 600-seat alternative – an even more distorted outcome.

The Conservatives are right to complain that mis-weighting of the England seats happens to favour Labour at present, and that over-allocation of seats to Scotland and Wales favours Labour and the SNP.

But all of these effects would not occur if the electoral system was shifted away from a single-member district basis, which the Conservatives staunchly defend.

The single-member system is robbing many millions of Britons – of all political parties – of fair representation in the House.

Moreover the boundary reform process still unfolding has one final serious problem.

The voter registration data on which it was based under the existing legislation is now a few years old.

This means it is missing the impact of large surges in registration resulting from events of the past year – Brexit, an official household canvas in late 2017, and the June 2017 election, which saw a surge of new registrations by young people.

So even the newly proposed boundaries – which would be in use in 2022 and possibly for at least a decade – will now be mis-weighted, devaluing the influence of voters of areas with higher concentrations of young Britons – yet another consequence of the single-member district basis of the current electoral system.

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