In defence of constituencies

Following on from the previous post, some more notes on a somewhat odd article on FiveThirtyEight.

The bulk of the article seems to be criticising the system for drawing parliamentary boundaries on four points:

  1. …the census data used is quite elderly
  2. …the boundaries take account of things other than population distribution, such as council areas
  3. …some geographical oddities like islands are dealt with as special cases
  4. …Wales, Scotland and NI are required to have fixed seat numbers

The main objection here – barring the first point, which I broadly agree with, but which is hard to improve on in most cases – seems to be with the use of non-demographic boundaries in drawing the lines, and I’m just not sure why that is a problem. When electing a representative, the key point is that they be able to represent a constituency; that it be practical for them to find (and be found by) their constituents, that they can identify a distinct section of the population, etc.

Taking the Isle of Wight as an example, it’s big, but how would we split it? We could split it in two – but these would be unusually small constituencies. We could carve off a third and put it in with a Hampshire constituency – but this would disadvantage that third, who would find it more difficult to be in contact with their MP than those who remained insular. In the north of Scotland, you could easily add Caithness to Orkney and Shetland – total population thus “correct” at around 60,000 – but would this have any effect save to further marginalise voters in Lerwick, already pretty distant from the seat of power, and make it vastly less likely they’d ever see an MP?

Political boundaries matter in the same way as geographical ones; if you have existing subnational boundaries like counties or local authorities, then matching the constituencies to these where possible saves a lot of work. People know, much more easily, who their MP and their constituency are; the MP is much more able to focus on issues relevant to a given city or county rather than two or three. In a more practical sense, constituencies have names not numbers; if you’re going to have constituencies with a fixed name, it cries out for a certain degree of geographical coherence.

This is, of course, saying that the absolute “each vote should count equally” principle doesn’t work, that constituencies shouldn’t be made an absolute size and that some people have a theoretically “more powerful” vote than others. This is true – but it’s endemic in the system anyway. If we were going to carefully sculpt constituencies so as to be identically-sized, and demographically balanced, then we may as well drop the constituency idea altogether and go to proportional representation, as in the Netherlands – an ideal case of a balanced constituency.


All this may seem like a bit of overemphasis on some pretty trivial points, but I think those points are telling. FiveThirtyEight ran excellent, intelligent, detailed and basically interesting studies of the last US election; plenty of people outside the US read it avidly for this, myself included. We had to take a lot of its basic assumptions on trust, though; we didn’t have the underlying understanding of the system to do a quick sanity-check and know whether they sounded right or not.

So, come this election, they write about here, and the problems start becoming apparent. To pick a quote from a subsequent article:

Supporters of the Liberal Democrats, while not ordinarily inclined to vote Tory, may do so to push through proportional representation.

This is the sort of thing that… well, hands up, who’s ever met many committed Lib Dems who say, hey, I might just vote Tory to stop those evil Labour people getting in? Um.

Yes, there will be swing voters from LD to Conservative – though not as many as sometimes thought – but those will be classic swing voters; they’ll swing based on the economy, or other overall political issues, or simply because they no longer see the Tories as… quite as messy as they used to be. They won’t be core LD voters, devoutly wedded to PR, who are trying to produce a hung parliament in the hope that this will somehow extort PR from the resulting trainwreck.

In a comment on the last post, cim points out another delight from the same author:

And then there was this one from the EU elections where they decided that it was meaningful to group Plaid with the BNP as “nationalists”. I conclude that they don’t actually know anything about UK politics, and look forward to more amusement as their election coverage continues.

I think that last comment says all I was tempted to, really.

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