Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Gerrymandering is a threat to our democracy too

The United States’ midterm elections shows how easily democracy can be rigged, and there is a danger our boundary review could produce the same result, warns Afzal Khan

A review of parliamentary constituency boundaries is long overdue. Our current boundaries are based on data from almost 20 years ago, and they no longer reflect community ties or population sizes. In the United Kingdom, the process of drawing boundaries has always been kept separate from party fighting. This independence must be strongly protected.

We need only look at the United States to see the danger of allowing politics to creep into the process. The Democrats and Republicans have been locked in a battle over the political map for decades, and extreme gerrymandering has eroded confidence in their political system.

According to analysis by Electoral Calculus, if the 2017 election were run with the proposed boundary changes, the Conservatives would have won a majority of 18 seats, rather than being eight seats short

So it was very worrying that David Cameron, overambitious after his win in 2010, decided to open this can of worms by trying to stack the deck in his party’s favour. He changed the law to reduce the number of members of parliament from 650, as recommended by the independent boundary commission, to 600 – an arbitrary number – and changed the registration system to disenfranchise millions of people.

This move was deeply disturbing. First, because the motivation behind it was purely political. The Conservative party stands to benefit enormously from these changes. According to analysis by Electoral Calculus, if the 2017 election were run with the proposed boundary changes, the Conservatives would have won a majority of 18 seats, rather than being eight seats short, as they are now.

Second, to reduce the number of MPs without reducing the number of ministers would put even greater power in the hands of the government. It is essential for a healthy democracy that parliament can effectively hold the executive to account. Brexit already means we are losing 73 members of the European parliament. We are facing a crucial moment in our constitution’s history. This is not the time to dilute the power of MPs to scrutinise the government.

These boundaries will shape our democracy for decades, and it is unacceptable that even one elector is disenfranchised from this process.

Third, the current boundary review misses out over two million voters, mostly young people. The electoral register the commissions are using is from December 2015 – after 600,000 people dropped off the register when the government rushed the introduction of single voter registration, against the advice of the Electoral Commission. And it is before the huge surge in voter registration that took place during the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and the 2017 general election. These boundaries will shape our democracy for decades, and it is unacceptable that even one elector is disenfranchised from this process.

The Tories claim to be cutting the number of MPs to ‘cut the cost of politics’, but this is nonsense. They are stuffing the unelected House of Lords with their supporters and donors. Since 2010 the Conservatives have added over 260 new peers to the upper house. At £131,000 each, this totals £34m.

I have introduced a private member’s bill in the House of Commons which would retain the 650 MPs we have now, and make sure that the review takes account of newly registered voters.

My bill passed second reading unanimously in December 2017, but over the last 10 months the government has done everything in its power to block its progress. They have manipulated and abused of parliamentary procedure to avoid a defeat on my bill.

Read next: Is British democracy vulnerable?

We have been left in the absurd situation where a committee has met once a week for fourteen weeks to examine my bill but has had to adjourn without being allowed to discuss a single line of it. Not only is this a waste of time and taxpayers’ money, but it is a worrying reminder of the danger of executive overreach, which the new boundaries would further enable.

As MPs we are elected to represent our constituents, not to fight about boundaries or meet in pointless committees. It is vital that the government allows my bill to progress, so we can sort this mess out.

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Afzal Khan is member of parliament for Manchester Gorton and shadow immigration minister

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