5 most popular blog posts of 2012

And by Their Friends Ye Shall Know Them

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As the Taiwan presidential campaign enters its final week, one striking development has been an outpouring of support for President Ma Ying-jeou by some of Taiwan’s leading businesspeople, including Evergreen Group President Chang Yung-fa 張榮發 and Far Eastern Group Chairman and CEO Douglas Hsu (徐旭東).

On the one hand, it is perfectly understandable that commercial and industrial heavyweights should wish to speak out for Ma, as KMT rule has witnessed a growing rapprochement with China that has greatly enhanced Taiwan’s business environment. This cozy relationship between the party and big business can be traced back to Republican-era China, and may be best represented by the “Aladdin” classic “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me”. On the other hand, the impact such enthusiastic expressions of support may have the general populace remains to be seen, and reports have already begun to emerge of tensions between management (“suits”) and labor (“shirts”) over which candidate to support. Read the full post…

Who benefits from a Lib Dem collapse?

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The Liberal Democrats have now been flatlining at or just below 10% of the vote for nearly two years. The decision to join the Conservatives in a Coalition government looks more electorally toxic with each passing month. It is thus no surprise that bloggers and strategists for both major parties have begun to speculate about the implications of a Lib Dem collapse for their parties. Some have argued that the Conservatives stand to gain disproportionately, owing to the large number of seats in the South East and South West where the Lib Dems compete with the Tories, with Labour a distant third. If Lib Dem votes in the South East and South West head over to Labour, the Tories are the big winners, or so the reasoning goes.

This reasoning is misleading – such arguments focus on where the Lib Dems are most competitive and ignores the fact that they win large numbers of votes in places where they are not electorally competitive at all. For example, there are around 50 marginal seats with Tory MPs and Labour challengers where the 3rd place Lib Dem vote is more than twice the margin of victory. If the Lib Dem vote heads red in these seats, Labour are big beneficiaries. And there are other combinations, such as Lib Dem seats where Labour are the main challengers. Read the full post…

The Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions

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We’ve been producing end-of-session reports detailing the rebellions of government backbenchers for several years now – but we’ve never had to produce one quite so large before.  The Bumper Book of Coalition Rebellions is available free of charge in pdf format (at the end of this post). It details every rebellion and every rebel. How much more fun could you want on a miserable Tuesday morning? But in case you don’t have the time, or the inclination, to look at more than 100 pages of info, here’s 20 key points about the behaviour of Coalition MPs in the last session.

1.      The last session saw 239 rebellions by Coalition MPs.  This is higher than the number of rebellions by government MPs in any other session in the post-war era.  Indeed, a figure of 239 is higher than in all but three entire post-war parliaments.  And there were more rebellions in the 2010-12 session than in the period from 1945-1966 combined, taking in 21 years, six parliaments and six Prime Ministers. Read the full post…

The Lords vote: notes for a rebellion

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One of our rules for studying voting in the House of Commons is that the government usually wins.  No matter how much trouble they appear to be in, they usually get out of it.  Eight years ago, when Tony Blair’s government were attempting to pass the legislation on student top up fees, the whips’ calculations on the morning of the second reading vote still put them behind by more than 20.  In the end, they won by five.  So it is sensible never to under-estimate the ability of any government to get its way.

But still, over House of Lords reform the Coalition look to be in a whole heap of trouble.  The key vote is not the Bill’s Second Reading.  Given Labour support, that will pass fairly easily, no matter how large the government backbench rebellion.  The key vote is the Bill’s programme motion, which sets out its timetable.  Lose that – as looks likely at present, with 70 Conservative MPs calling for ‘full and unrestricted scrutiny’ of the bill – and the government is no longer in control of the timetable of the House, with the possibility of gumming up its entire legislative programme.  The fact of there being two votes gives the government some room for manoeuvre – which we explain below – but it also allows for a lot of chaff to be thrown up. Read the full post…

The Redistribution of Parliamentary Constituencies (and What It Means)

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The 2001 and 2005 general election results convinced the Conservatives that they were treated unfairly by the electoral system. Compared to Labour, they got a much smaller share of the seats than of the votes cast. A major reason for that unfairness, the Conservatives reasoned, was that they tend to win seats with larger-than-average electorates. In contrast, Labour tend to win those with smaller-than average electorates. Because of population movements, this difference – and the subsequent anti-Conservative bias – is exacerbated over time (although research shows that other factors contribute much more to that bias than variations in constituency electorates).

To remove this unfairness, revised Rules for Redistribution are to be implemented by the Boundary Commissions, and these are included in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011. The revisions include:

  • The introduction of a UK-wide electoral quota rather than a separate one for each country (Scotland and, especially, Wales – both Labour heartlands – currently have smaller constituencies relative to England);
  • The requirement that all constituencies (with four exceptions) have electorates within +/-5 per cent of that quota (for the current redistribution this is between 72,810 and 80,473), and only within that range could the Commissions take into account factors such as local authority boundaries, communities of interest and previous constituency boundaries (the previous rules prioritised representation of communities over electoral equality – they made no stipulation regarding the permissible range of constituency electorates, which merely had to be ‘as near the electoral quota as is practicable’) Read the full post…

The Redistribution of Parliamentary Constituencies (and What It Means)

The 2001 and 2005 general election results convinced the Conservatives that they were treated unfairly by the electoral system. Compared to Labour, they got a much smaller share of the seats than of the votes cast. A major reason for that unfairness, the Conservatives reasoned, was that they tend to win seats with larger-than-average electorates. In contrast, Labour tend to win those with smaller-than average electorates. Because of population movements, this difference – and the subsequent anti-Conservative bias – is exacerbated over time (although research shows that other factors contribute much more to that bias than variations in constituency electorates).

To remove this unfairness, revised Rules for Redistribution are to be implemented by the Boundary Commissions, and these are included in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011. The revisions include:

  • The introduction of a UK-wide electoral quota rather than a separate one for each country (Scotland and, especially, Wales – both Labour heartlands – currently have smaller constituencies relative to England);
  • The requirement that all constituencies (with four exceptions) have electorates within +/-5 per cent of that quota (for the current redistribution this is between 72,810 and 80,473), and only within that range could the Commissions take into account factors such as local authority boundaries, communities of interest and previous constituency boundaries (the previous rules prioritised representation of communities over electoral equality – they made no stipulation regarding the permissible range of constituency electorates, which merely had to be ‘as near the electoral quota as is practicable’);
  • Increase the frequency of redistribution to once every five years (it is currently every 8-12 years); and also
  • Fix the number of constituencies at 600 (currently 650).

The Boundary Commissions published their initial proposals under these new rules in late 2011-early 2012. As anticipated, they incorporated much less continuity in the pattern of constituencies than previous reviews – most existing constituencies were dismembered and many new ones incorporated parts of two, if not three, local authorities.

But the fracturing of the country’s electoral map was much greater than many – including MPs – expected.

In a paper  published by Parliamentary Affairs, we analyse these proposals and show that:

  • The greatest fracturing has been in England’s major urban areas (examples are given from Birmingham, Leeds, London, and Sheffield);
  • This is because the building blocks for constituency-formation (wards) there are too large relative to the task; the average Sheffield ward has 13,804 electors, for example, and Birmingham, 18,294, whereas the range between the largest and smallest allowed constituency electorate is just 7,663. (Haringey is entitled to 2 constituencies but it is impossible using the 19 wards to create two constituencies within the specified range.)
  • In Scotland, the Boundary Commission was prepared to split wards where it considered it impracticable to create constituencies otherwise; with 29 split wards it proposed many constituencies that fitted within local authority boundaries (as in Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow) – without negative reactions from either the political parties or the general public.
  • The Boundary Commission for England decided to split wards only where ‘exceptional and compelling circumstances’ made it impossible to ‘create constituencies that meet the statutory electorate range without dividing them’. It identified no such cases and rather than split wards it created many seats combining large city wards with smaller ones in surrounding areas.
    • Birmingham, for example, currently has ten constituencies each comprising four of the city’s wards: the Commission proposed seven entirely contained within the city’s boundaries and a further six which each contain one or more Birmingham wards plus smaller wards from neighbouring authorities (in two cases, wards from two authorities are combined with a single Birmingham ward); and
    • In London, 37 of the proposed 68 constituencies comprise wards from two adjacent boroughs (this was the case with only 10 of the 73 constituencies at the previous redistribution); nine boroughs lack even a single constituency comprising wards in that borough alone; and only two have no constituency which does not include wards from a neighbour.
    • In an experiment the authors created alternative sets of constituencies: (a) in Scotland with no split wards; and (b) in metropolitan England with 65 split wards. With ward-splitting the constituencies were both much less disruptive from the previous pattern and involved much less crossing of local authority boundaries: in metropolitan England they halved the amount of disruption compared to the Boundary Commission’s proposals.

If the Commissions’ proposals are implemented – or some variant of them with very similar characteristics (which is very likely) – it will start a process whereby – because a numerical criterion is paramount and geographical criteria secondary – the MPs’ representative role will change. The long tradition that UK MPs represent places and communities will be rapidly eroded; many will just represent numerical aggregates.

Some anticipate that when this exercise is repeated after 2015 there will be much less disruption. However:

  • The allocation of seats across the four countries and England’s nine regions may change, requiring extensive remapping (an extra seat for Northern Ireland could generate significant change to most if not all of its constituencies, for example);
  • With population changes, individual constituency electorates may fall outside the required electorate range and necessitate alterations that ripple through neighbouring areas;
  • Many local authorities are being re-warded by local government commissions; and
  • If the introduction of Individual Electoral Registration is successful and the electoral rolls are more complete, the allocation of seats could change considerably (London, for example, could get up to eight more than the current allocation with consequent losses elsewhere).

In conclusion, the nature of the UK’s Parliamentary representation is being changed as an unintended consequence of a decision to tackle a source of unfairness in the operation of the electoral system – which research has shown to be only a minor cause of the anti-Conservative bias at Labour’s three recent election victories.

David Rossiter, Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie. Access the full paper via Parliamentary Affairs here.