John Marriott: It’s time to change voting boundaries, is it time to change the system?

Lincoln’s Labour MP has apparently ‘endorsed’ the statement from her party that the proposed Parliamentary constituency boundary changes, which include a proposal to link North Hykeham once again with Lincoln, are “undemocratic”.

It’s funny how people reach for this word when they disagree with something that, in this case, makes numerical and, I could argue, geographic sense and, given the built in Tory bias of a place like North Hykeham, could easily see Labour’s current tenure ending at the next election. Come to think of it, I’ve never got the MP I wanted since I started voting in General Elections nearly 50 years. Now that’s what I might call “undemocratic”.

The current proposed boundary changes, besides seeking to reduce the number of seats at Westminster, are also an attempt to equalise, as far as possible, the number of votes it takes to elect an MP. It’s hardly the kind of gerrymandering that is common in the USA; but, in areas like Lincolnshire, the result will undoubtedly reflect the demographics of an ageing population whose voting habits tend to be more to the right than to the left.

So, if these changes in Lincolnshire do occur, it’s quite likely that the county’s parliamentary representation will be entirely blue, as it was between 1979 and 1992, the last time that North Hykeham was linked to Lincoln City. Indeed, from 1983 to the present day, with the exception of the brief defection of Grantham and Stamford’s Tory MP, Quentin Davies, to Labour in 2007, the only area where Labour has actually won a seat in recent years has been in North Hykeham’s big neighbour.

Now I’m not arguing that Lincolnshire is not a ‘true blue’ county; but not that ‘true blue’. If I were a Labour supporter, in particular – but you could, until recently, have made the same case for UKIP and, to a much lesser extent, for the Lib Dems and the Green Party – I wouldn’t be happy about this ‘undemocratic’ situation. When we get over Brexit, one way or another, I really believe that we need to revisit how we cast our votes, particularly in General Elections.

We need a system that reflects how support for political parties is distributed in any given area; but, of equal importance, the country as a whole. At present, with our ‘winner takes all’ system, aka ‘First past the post’ (FPTP), which its supporters claim delivers strong governments with a clear parliamentary majority – really? – many people must feel disenfranchised, even in Lincolnshire.

I know that any change towards a more proportional system will tend to throw up coalition governments; but a country like Germany, for example, which has only had one brief majority administration since its foundation in 1949, doesn’t seem to have done that badly and nor have quite a few of our near neighbours, most of whom have some form of Proportional Representation (PR), including the Irish Republic. I also realise that changing the voting is not on most people’s list of priorities and, from those of you who know my politics, it won’t ever produce a Lib Dem government.

We had a half hearted attempt to come up with a different voting system a few years ago. The so called ‘Alternative Vote’ (AV) was neither proportional nor was it explained properly by its supporters, whose naive approach allowed the ‘No to AV’ campaign, run coincidentally by the same people, who master minded the EU ‘Leave’ campaign a few years later, to rehearse an early version of ‘Project Fear’. No wonder it failed to gain traction.

There are many versions of PR. Germany’s system, similar to the ‘Additional Member’ system for electing the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, gives you two votes – one for your favourite candidate in a constituency and one for your favourite party. Half the members are elected by vote one using FPTP and the others from vote two based proportionally on party lists (like the elections to the European Parliament). Another system is the Single Transferable Vote (STV) as operates in places like the Irish Republic, where electors in multi member constituencies, number candidates in order of preference and the ‘winner’ is the first to get 50% of the votes, usually by applying second and third preferences. Having said all that there is no doubt that under any voting system it’s likely that Lincolnshire would remain largely Conservative; but probably not by 100%. However, a party with around 7% of the popular vote, as the Lib Dems currently have, would get around 42 MPs in a 600 member House of Commons, which, I would argue, is a fairer reflection of their national support than the 12 MPs they have at the moment.

You can keep extremists out by doing what they do in Germany, where a party needs to get 5% of the popular vote to get any representation at all. Opponents of change argue that all alternatives to FPTP are far too complicated for the average voter. As John Cleese said in his Party Political Broadcast on PR for the SDP back in 1987 (still available on Youtube, by the way) “If any of you can’t count up to five, you’ll find it pretty bewildering, I’m afraid”. Isn’t it time to make any future General Election truly democratic and make every vote really count?