In the same way that the guest facilities of the Watergate Hotel are not much remembered, neither is the political career of Elbridge Gerry, 9th Governor of Massachusetts and 5th Vice-President of the United States. Both have managed to have their names remembered down the years by having them attached to a particular form of scandal. Thus, every account of potential political wrongdoing and cover-up finds itself with ‘-gate’ stuck on the end of it, and any complaint about changing electoral boundaries is almost certain to call it a Gerrymander. (The original ‘Gerry-mander’ was a constituency for the Massachusetts State Senate, said to resemble a salamander, and drawn in order to bolster the chances of Gerry’s supporters being elected)
‘Gerrymander’ is being thrown around a lot today as the Boundary Commission for England have announced their proposed boundaries for new constituencies in England. As these reflect new rules on the total numbers of MPs (down from 650 to 600) and the way in which constituencies are made up, there are plenty of major changes on the electoral map. Many existing constituency names disappear, others merge and mutate into new ones, and wholly new entities are formed. Compounded to this is the general and ongoing effect of population movement and change in the UK, which means that every boundary review leads to a reduction in ‘Labour constituencies’ and an increase in ‘Conservative constituencies’.
To some, all this represents a gerrymandering of constituencies. To which I say no, this is a gerrymander:
(you might need to click on it to see it in its full ridiculous detail)
That’s how the thirteen congressional districts in North Carolina are allocated. The fourth, ninth and twelfth are all classic examples of the art of gerrymandering, meandering ribbon-like constituencies with only tenuous connections between the various parts of them, but the whole state has been divided up in bizarre and unusual ways to create a certain end result. North Carolina’s not the only state that looks like that – it’s a common feature across the USA, where most states have their boundaries drawn in an explicitly political process run by the state government, not an arms-length boundary commission.
(One point worth making here is that the aim of a successful gerrymander is not to create ‘safe’ seats for the party seeking to benefit from it. If a population is divided 50-50 between Party A and Party B, 50% of the seats where party A wins 90%-10% and 50% seats where Party B wins by the same just gives us a deadlock. However, if Party A can make 75% of the seats ones it’s sure of winning 60-40, Party B can have the remaining 25% of the seats to win 80-20, but will have no chance of winning overall power, despite both parties having the same number of votes.)
The Boundary Commission works within the rules its set by the government (which are flawed) but the constituency boundaries themselves are not gerrymandered. Yes, there are some odd boundaries in there, but that’s almost always going to happen when trying to make natural communities fit within artificially imposed boundaries. The population of the country doesn’t live in a bunch of obvious communities that are all within the electoral quota needed to make a Parliamentary constituency, so boundaries are going to end up doing odd things.
The problem comes from the boundary review being part of a system that’s fundamentally broken at the national level. Claims from the Tories and Labour that the review might under or over-represent them as a result miss a fundamental point: our electoral system massively over-represents both of them. On the present – supposedly unfair to the Tories – boundaries, 37% of the vote got them 51% of the seats, while Labour got 35% of the seats in Parliament with just 30% of the votes and the SNP managed 9% of the seats on just 5% of the vote.
Complaining about gerrymandering in constituency boundaries is truly missing the wood for the trees (or the zoo for the salamander, if we’re trying to keep our metaphors straight). Why bother gerrymandering individual seats, when you’ve already got a system that’s massively biased in favour of you? If you want to reform the process, you need to remember that odd constituency boundaries and reviews like this are a necessary feature of our electoral system, not a bug. If you want a system that truly represents people, don’t get distracted complaining about non-existent gerrymanders, work instead to get us a better electoral system.