Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Proportional Representation in Bristol

With an election approaching, the subject of how we elect the people who are our representatives in the House of Commons has been the focus of much attention - for some, like the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, the subject of electoral reform has been a long standing issue, others appear to have had an almost Damascene conversion to its merits perhaps brought on by concerns of self-preservation, whilst for some the concept that most voters should actually have an impact on the election of our representatives is a custom that appears to be more honour'd in the breach than the observance.  I suspect that a few lament the passing of rotten boroughs where all this campaigning business was largely unneccessary, and they could get on with the important business of running the country without pandering to the public sensibilities of the less politically capable.  Consensus politics is for wimps, after all.

Unfortunately, progress being what it is, and the result of the upcoming election being somewhat uncertain for the two main parties - and it is a well-documented fact that the more uncertain an election, the greater the  interest in electoral reform because nobody almost certainly guaranteed of an election win (whether at national level or at constituency level) has much enthusiasm for giving a greater say in that election to those who will in the current system be the losers - electoral reform is on the agenda.

The map above, is one suggestion for how the country might be divided into constituencies for an election to be decided by Single Transferable Vote (STV) - explanation here.  Below is the Bristol area in more detail with colour used to define different constituencies;

The system above is based on a system supported by the Liberal Democrats which also reduces the number of MPs by 20% to 500.  It proposes that Bristol and South Gloucestershire be combined to create a single constituency electing 5 MPs (for the forthcoming election 7 MPs will be elected to cover individual portions of Bristol and South Glos.).  My own feeling is that that it would be better for Bristol and South Glos to be treated as separate constituencies, and that the proposal to reduce the number of MPs to be retained for a time when greater levels of governance are devolved to local communities.

So in my adaptation of the above, I would have a constituency of Bristol electing four members of parliament.  This is actually quite conservative - because a conservative view is one of maintaining the traditional approach, and for much of its political life Bristol has been a single constituency electing multiple members to represent the city as a whole.  For 225 years from 1660 Bristol had two MPs who represented the entire city between them, it has only been for the last 125 years that Bristol has been subdivided by bad mathematicians into discrete areas apparently on the premise that Southmead has more in common with Stoke Bishop than it does Hartcliffe, or that Stockwood has less in common with Bishopworth than it does Hillfields.

So, thanks to the bean-counters, Stockwood is in Bristol East not Bristol South and Easton (the name's a clue) is now not in Bristol East but in Bristol West (which actually covers Central Bristol) and the largely Conservative voting residents of Stoke Bishop have been transferred, in the interests of equal democracy, from the constituency of a Lib Dem MP to the constituency held by a Labour MP (which most Stoke Bishopians presumably hope will soon be a Conservative constituency much to the dismay of the largely Labour voting Southmead electorate).  The situation is absurd.  The constituencies as defined bear no relation to the reality of any functional adminstrative and organisational boundaries.

The political party that appears to be most set against any move away from the First Past The Post system that, in my view, currently makes a mockery of much of the democratic process in all but a few marginal seats, is the Conservative Party.  It is strange therefore to report that it is the Conservative Party that has, potentially, the most to gain in the Bristol and South Glos area from electoral reform.

In the 2005 election the four Bristol seats saw, roughly, 79,000 votes cast for Labour, 52,000 for the Lib Dems, and 46,000 for the Conservatives.  Another 12,500 votes went to the other parties, about half of those for the Greens.  The MPs elected were one Lib Dem and three Labour.  If the election had taken place under STV rules, the result would almost certainly have seen the nearly 25% vote for Conservatives getting the result of 1 Lib Dem, 2 Labour, and 1 Conservative MP.  In addition at least 93% of those who voted would have seen their residential area represented in parliament by a candidate from the party they voted for.

For South Glos, the MPs sent to Westminster in 2005 were 1 Lib Dem and 1 Labour despite a voting pattern that saw approx 40,000 vote Lib Dem, 33,000 vote Labour but 38,500 vote Conservative.  STV would have almost certainly seen the Labour MP replaced by a Conservative MP whilst the increase to three MPs in 2010 would be likely to allow 96% of voters to be represented by the party they voted for.

In summary, a STV system would have seen the Bristol area elections that sent 4 Labour and 2 Lib Dems to parliament replaced by an election that sent 2 Labour, 2 Lib Dems, and 2 Conservatives to Westminster.

So why are the Conservative so set against any changes to the electoral system?  Are they willing to sacrifice the votes of Bristol Conservatives in the cause of greater gains elsewhere?  Or do they simply believe that the FPTP system is the best system there is, despite the fact that the British failed to recommend it when determining the most democratic political system for the new Germany in 1945?


  1. To quote Adeela Shafi, you ned to break down the words conservative - most people were thinking 'con' but she was thinking conserve - keep things as they are.

    Also I guess your scheme only covers a small part of the country, the tories would lose seats in the Home Counties under this system and gaining a couple in CUBA would offer little consolation.

  2. This also shows however why STV is not proportional. Parties like the Greens still have no representation, which is why the German AMS (Additionlal Member System - which was put in place by the Allies after they controlled Germany at the end of the Second World War). STV puts the threshold which parties have to reach to get elected very high - about 12.5%. AMS allows flexibility and in Europe the threshold is usually 5% (as it is in the Euros)

    As a by the by, It is not true to say that the parliamentary constituencies in Bristol do not reflect the administrative boundaries any more. It was true, but under the boundary changes coming into force next month the new constituency boundaries in Bristol will exctly mirror the city council ward boundaries.

  3. Hi Anonymous,

    My comment about parliamentary constituencies not reflecting the administrative boundaries was in regard to their internal boundaries as much as their external ones.

    My point was that there is no specific administrative unit that reflects any of the individual constituencies - they are merely designed to try and establish a roughly equal number of electors per single member MPs. So there is nothing that particularly unites all the wards that make up, for example, Bristol East, that outweigh the links of individual Bristol East wards with other wards within the city that are currently in a completely separate constituency.

    I take your point about STV not being as proportional as AMS.