4 August 2010

John Denham - A Fisking

After an excellent analysis by Martin Kettle on Labour's cynical political games over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, it was inevitable that Labour would send a Welterweight spokesperson into the ring to respond.

John Denham strapped on his boxing gloves, and produced this effort. Sadly his argument has more holes in it than machine-gunned Emmental.

Off we go:

I've been an electoral reformer all my political life. Chairing the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform, I'm hardly likely to "play fast and loose" on this issue, as Martin Kettle alleges

Martin didn't criticise you personally in his article, John. (By the way, check out that link - their website hasn't been updated for 5 years. Rather telling...)

Our support for a simple AV referendum bill is unconditional. But there is no philosophical, legal, practical or parliamentary reason for combining the referendum with boundary changes: it's simply that the changes favour the Tories, who won't support the Lib Dems' referendum without them.

What? First there's no "practical or parliamentary reason", but then John concedes that the Bill needs to stay in its current form to get the Tories to support the referendum - that's an excellent practical reason to have a single Bill. By the way, the suggestion that the changes will favour the Tories is highly contestable.

But he's right to say that the case for reducing the number of MPs and equalising constituencies should be considered on its merits, not from party advantage.


It does take more Tory votes to elect a Tory MP.

True. There are 33,000 votes per Labour MP, and 35,000 per Tory MP. Oh yeah, and 120,000 votes per Lib Dem MP. It is that third number (and the equivalent numbers for the other minor parties) which is the outrageous discrepancy that needs be removed from Britain's electoral process.

The real answer is the more proportional system that the Tories won't countenance.

Sorry, are you saying Labour will? Ha! Why did Labour do nothing about it for 13 years, despite promise after promise in your manifestos? Why did Labour vote against the proportional STV system earlier this year?

Most electoral reformers have concluded that AV for the Commons and an elected House of Lords is the best attainable constitutional reform at the moment,

You'd best vote for it then, John.

but this pragmatic response doesn't allow the Tories to use "fairness" as the basis for rigging the boundaries.

I repeat: the suggestion that altering the boundaries will favour the Tories is highly contestable.

Kettle (and Nick Clegg) seem to argue that if Labour tried and failed (as we did) to register these voters, no other party need even bother.

Blatantly untrue. The coalition will be introducing individual voter registration in an attempt to tackle this problem left by Labour.

Voters want their MP to represent an identifiable community: current constituencies are mostly centred on real places.

This is a minority concern at best. Most voters don't know who there MP is, never mind which constituency they live in or where the boundary is drawn. I know of no empirical evidence that backs up John's claim, so it is just as valid for me to argue this: what voters really want is to ensure the electoral map is drawn up in a way that ensures a fair level of representation, no matter where you live.

But here is the most outrageous claim:

And the coalition parties will instruct the Boundary Commissions to respect the boundaries which favour them.

This is a smear, pure and simple. There is no reason to believe this to be true. No-one has any idea of what boundaries the Commission will come up with, so it is ridiculous to assume dishonour of this kind before the process has even begun. The only time any political party has engaged in gerrymandering of this scale was the Labour Party in the late 60's.

It is to John Denham's discredit that he has sunk so low.


NoetiCat said...

I think one thing Labour don't get is how much resentment there still is in our party over how Blair screwed us over in 1997 over electoral reform and coalitions.

Phil said...

I agree with the majority of your points except for the "minority concern" response to voters who want MPs who clearly represent an identifiable community. This is my very real concern and the reason why I still favour FPTP.

I want an MP more beholden to their constituency than their party; PR (which is what the Liberals really want) centralises power in the hands of the parties. Given the sometimes brilliant work that the Liberal party does locally I'm astonished how they repeatedly miss (or dismiss) this point.

Duncan Stott said...


"I want an MP more beholden to their constituency than their party; PR (which is what the Liberals really want) centralises power in the hands of the parties."

I want exactly the same! That's why I specifically favour not just PR, but STV.

FPTP makes aspiring politicians beholden to their party. The way to get up the ladder in politics is to (a) be offered become the candidate in a party's safe seat when it becomes vacant, and (b) be loyal to the party whip to gain promotions to (Shadow) Ministerial and Cabinet positions. Neither of these behaviours require any degree of concern for your constituents.

Closed list PR (used in European Elections) also requires lots of sucking up to the party in order to get your name high up the list and get elected. I agree this is just as bad.

STV is better than both these systems because you vote for a specific candidate out of several standing from the same party. So if you wanted to vote for the Purple Party, you still have a choice of which Purple Party candidate you want.

STV takes power away from the party and creates a stronger link between MP and their electorate, because the voters didn't just choose the only Purple Party candidate, they chose that specific Purple Party candidate.