Sunday, 1 May 2011

Will Hutton's Hypocrisy: Electoral and constituency reform.

 Will Hutton opens his latest article in the Observer thus: "Only the Chinese Communist party, my old professor used to say, comes close to the British Conservatives in its understanding of power." His overall line of attack is that the Conservative Party is an effective, ruthless, power-fixated machine, and is committed to maintaining an unfair franchise for narrow party advantage. After meandering some, he finally concludes that the solution for this is full-blown PR, and that we should vote Yes to AV as a consequences.

 Naturally I disagree with him over some of that, but that paragraph of common-enough left-wing sentiment is not what I'm writing about. It's only relevant when compared to the section that did raise my ire: Mr Hutton's condemnation of the Coalition's plan to equalise constituency sizes. I've been meaning to comment on this topic for a while, and this seemed as good an opportunity as any. Here is what Mr Hutton has to say:
"Legislation to reduce Britain's constituencies to 600 while standardising their size, overriding geographical or historical ties, was a priority... The system had to be in place by the next general election to help confer the required Conservative parliamentary majority... Tacked on to this bill, meeting the demand of the Lib Dems, was the provision for a referendum on the alternative vote to replace first past the post, the price of mounting what is an unashamed Conservative constitutional land grab."
 Powerful stuff.  Those three sentences highlight a key aspect of Mr Hutton's argument that I take issue with. He appears to assert that an unfair franchise can be justified by history, and that the Conservative manoeuvre to try to ensure that every vote of a UK citizen is weighted the same* is an act of grotesque "gerrymandering", to borrow Jack Straw's ridiculous phrase. The first seems to me to contradict progressive principle, and the second a highly unfair charge that - given the tone of the rest of his article slamming the Tories apparent desire to maintain unfair systems that favour them - make Hutton appear outright hypocritical.

 It should be an obvious principle of a democracy that citizens should be equally enfranchised. It certainly seems contrary to progressive teachings that our relative democratic empowerment should be determined by quirks of geography, culture or birth. Yet that is exactly what Mr Hutton appears to advance in his column. Let us take the most extreme example: is it fair that the Isle of Wight constituency should have 5.6 times the population of the Western Isles - technically Na h-Eileanan an Iar for Westminster elections as of the 2005 General Election - while each only returns one Member of Parliament? Is it fair that Labour's industrial strongholds return more MPs per head of population than the Conservative shires? I don't think so, and I don't think if the positions were reversed many in the Labour Party would think so either. 

 Living on the Isle of Wight is not a good reason to erode the value of any citizen's franchise. On the level of principle, opposing the equalisation of constituency sizes is to support a geographical franchise lottery. Yes, it is important that an MP represent a geographical area where they can be held accountable by the residents of a clearly-delineated constituency. To believe otherwise is to support Israel-style total PR. But there is always a compromise to strike. To argue that we should operate a system where someone in the Western Isles exercises a franchise nearly six times that of someone in the Isle of Wight, or that being Cornish is sufficient to entitle someone to more franchise power than their neighbour in Devon - is to take communalism far too far.

 It is not the principle of it that got me really riled up, though. That fell to the naked hypocrisy in attacking the Conservatives for trying to ensure that the vote of a country voter matches the value of an urban voter in the same article that attacks the Conservatives for trying to maintain unfair constitutional aspects that are to their advantage. You can either attack the Conservatives defence of FPTP or you can defend the entrenchment of Labour advantage via the deep exaggeration of their urban vote. You can't do both.

*To FPTP critics out there: by 'count the same' I mean that the same number of constituents - or as close as possible - should be represented by every MP and have a say in choosing that MP. I do not buy into the idea that the votes of people living in safe seats count for any less than the votes of people in marginals - a seat is only safe because the party that always wins commands great support amongst the equally enfranchised electors of that constituency. The supporter of another party in a safe seat is not disenfranchised, merely defeated.

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