Dead Constituencies, Rotten Boroughs

A Ballot Box in BrightonI live in a quiet, semi-rural area in which change comes slowly; the recent demolition of an old telephone exchange and the remodelling of the Butter Market required a great deal of discussion and numerous planning applications before they were allowed to proceed. An understated affluence is also a feature of the area: the designer fashion-clad “yummy mummies” drive brand new Mercedes and BMWs, country pubs are slowly surrendering to haute cuisine, and on many a summer evening, gentlemen in cricket whites can be seen playing on well-tended village greens. Given this context, perhaps it’s not surprising that this constituency has been electing only Conservative Members of Parliament since 1924. At the last election, the sitting MP had a majority of over 10,000; this is among the safest of safe seats.

The Liberal Democrats, Labour and UKIP are here, of course, but they soldier on to inevitable defeat every time: indeed, they appear not to care about my constituency all that much. I don’t recall seeing anyone donning rosettes or handing out leaflets at the last General Election; no doubt that scenario will be repeated this time. The only variation occurred during the European elections: some leaflets were stuffed through my letterbox (strangely, leaflets from the BNP outnumbered all others), but then again, as the Euro-elections implied a wider electoral region in which other parties might have a chance of winning seats, they had more reason to care.

In other words, my constituency, for all intents and purposes, is dead. There is no genuine contest; the polity is dysfunctional. Furthermore, there is no good reason for this lifelessness: I would be hard pressed to remember anything our MP has done for the area. Indeed, though I live in its major population centre, I recall only seeing him in the flesh once, specifically on Rememberance Day in 2004: he looked uncomfortable following a group of student cadets in a memorial parade. The opposition parties do not appear to have the will to alter this state of affairs: if Labour or the Liberal Democrats urged their supporters to vote tactically, then the Conservative advantage might be overcome. However their rivalry outweighs common sense: they won’t talk, it won’t happen, and things are likely to carry on this way unless our MP is suddenly caught selling arms to Libya in exchange for widows and orphans who then were forced to work in sweatshops assembling chemical weapons to be used by Iranian terrorists on a newborn kitten refuge.

I certainly do not feel isolated my predicament. The Electoral Reform Society estimates that 400 out of 650 seats are in a similar position. Dead constituencies are by no means exclusively Tory fiefdoms; the appellation is just as apropos for regions such as Rhondda which has been sending Labour MPs to Westminster since 1910. The Glasgow East by-election in 2008 was an extraordinary event as it was a dead constituency that suddenly became competitive: for those who may not recall how deceased it was, prior to this contest, Labour MPs were returned with majorities in excess of 10,000. However, Glasgow East’s revival is the exception; most of the time, many voters simply continue to cast ballots which are then rendered meaningless by the overwhelming mathematics of the precinct. Worse, dead constituencies have become places in which parties feel they can deposit politicians they deem important: a good example is Shaun Woodward, Labour MP for St. Helens South and currently Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is a wealthy defector from the Conservative party who has no links to the region he represents; popular gossip suggests he is the only Labour MP with a butler. Yet the Labour party establishment decided to reward his switch by providing him with continued employment, rather than allow him to face the wrath of his former constituents in Witney, Oxfordshire. Note what happened: the presence of a dead constituency provided a means by which a plum job could be distributed to a crony regardless of the feelings of the local party or population. This is hardly an expression of “popular will”, but without a mechanism to unlock constituencies of this type, it is a central feature of the status quo. Given this, it is not overstating matters to suggest that dead constituencies are the rotten boroughs of the 21st century. The surprise and delight that greets their fall in the course of an election should tell us something: for example, the loss of Enfield Southgate by Michael Portillo in 1997 has become the stuff of legend, viewed now as a catastrophic blow to the complacent Conservative establishment.

Gordon Brown has recently made noises which suggest that he has become more favourably disposed to electoral reform. More specifically, he has proposed that the present “first past the post” mechanism be replaced by a system that utilises the Alternative Vote; this is a familiar tune which has been sung more sweetly by his predecessors in office. Indeed, this reform was proposed at a less opportunistic moment by the Jenkins Commission in 1998. The Prime Minister’s sudden interest in the subject is likely a combination of blatant short-term calculus and a long-standing intellectual acknowledgement by most politicians that making one’s vote pointless is bad for democracy and undermines the long-term viability of our institutions. However, this is balanced against the raw urgency of the maintenance of power, and ambition is generally sufficient to ensure that the higher impulse is found wanting in attractiveness once the hustings are over. However, Enfield Southgate and more latterly, Glasgow East should have been warning shots across the establishment’s bow: if dissatisfaction is sufficient, dead constituencies too can change. Alienation may create conditions in which this phenomenon is more widespread; as far fetched as it may sound today, the present party system could fall. Comprehensive reform is the least disruptive and most rational way to revitalise the electoral process and to provide a means by which voter apathy can be addressed. While it is doubtful that the masters of the dead 400 want to understand this, circumstances thrust upon them by this General Election will hopefully make the need for change impossible to ignore.

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