The number of ‘safe’ seats should be reduced to strengthen UK democracy and increase participation


Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and David Rossiter have argued that an IPPR report’s proposal that constituency boundaries should be gerrymandered to produce more marginal seats would be neither feasible nor sensible. The authors of the report, Sarah Birch and Mathew Lawrence, respond here. They suggest that a boundary delimitation outcome entailing more competitive results would not necessarily be more ‘political’, but it would be more democratic.

The UK has become significantly more unequal politically over the course of the past 30 years. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s there were only small differences in rates of electoral participation between young and old,  advantaged and disadvantaged groups, by 2015 these differences had turned into gaping chasms. Fewer than half of 18–24 year-olds voted in the recent general election, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of ‘AB’ individuals who were registered to vote actually did so, against just over half of ‘DE’ registered voters.

Differential electoral participation matters for democracy. If certain sectors of the electorate are known to vote with lower frequency, politicians are less likely to consider their interests when making policy. The result is policy that fails the inclusivity test, and also increased disaffection among members of those groups who – rightly – feel neglected by politicians. Disaffection in turn strengthens alienation and reinforces electoral abstention, generating a vicious cycle of under-participation and under-representation.

In our recent report The Democracy Commission, we set out a number of possible remedies for this situation, including introduction of the single-transferable vote electoral system for local elections in England and Wales (following its successful introduction in Scottish local elections), reforms to electoral registration procedures to prevent disenfranchisement, and the establishment of a ‘democracy commission’ to facilitate democratic participation and deliberation.

Another of our proposals is to reduce the number of uncompetitive (‘safe’) seats at elections by giving the UK’s boundary commissions a new duty to consider the electoral competitiveness of a seat when reviewing constituency boundaries – a process that begins in the spring of 2016. At present these commissions have a duty to consider only the geographic coherence and electoral size of a constituency. Where these two duties can be met, the responsible commission should seek to redraw a ‘safe’ seat to make it a ‘marginal’. Designing safe seats out of existence where possible will help increase the competitiveness of elections and reduce the oversized electoral power that voters in marginals currently have, and as a result it is likely to improve participation rates.

We are pleased that our proposal for more competitive constituencies has sparked debate, and we welcome the constructive comments on this proposal posted on this blog by electoral boundary experts Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie. They maintain that the scheme we propose for making constituencies competitive would be difficult to implement, and that it would politicise the boundary review process.

We are aware that the technicalities of our proposal could quite possibly benefit from improvements, and if the precise means we have suggested of achieving more competitive seats is not viable, we are certainly happy to consider alternatives.

We also wholeheartedly acknowledge that tinkering with the current electoral system is very much a second-best option that would have limited impact, and that the ideal electoral reform would be a move toward a fairer electoral system. We do not suggest that our proposal would make electoral outcomes more proportional (the impact of increased competitiveness on proportionality is inherently difficult to predict), but that this measure would spur electoral participation.

That said, we are not convinced that the introduction of competitiveness as a (secondary) principle of boundary delimitation would necessarily make the process more political, as argued by Johnston, Rossiter and Pattie. The Boundary Commissions are as impartial as their members are professional. There is ample scope for politicisation under the current system, but we are fortunate in having commissioners who maintain their independence. The additional principle we suggest would not change that. The impressive research of Professors Johnston, Rossiter and Pattie themselves attests to the fact that under the current system there is a great deal of input from partisan actors during boundary review consultations. If this is what is meant by ‘politicisation’, then the current system is already political.

It is worth noting that our proposal does not constitute ‘gerrymandering’ in the sense of bias. In their seminal work on constituency delimitation, Cox and Katz distinguish between boundary revisions which increase bias and those which increase responsiveness. While the introduction of bias into the electoral system would be extremely unfortunate, this is not what we meant by our usage of the term ‘gerrymandering’; our proposal calls instead for increases in responsiveness, which we believe would be normatively beneficial to British democracy.

We are also puzzled by the idea that having competitive seats should be seen to be a more ‘political’ outcome. If we look at other first-past-the-post systems that have heavily politicised boundary review processes, such as the US, we find that the so-called ‘bipartisan gerrymander’ is very common. Under this system the two main parties collude to maintain safe seats so as to minimise the resources required to contest elections in certain areas. In this sense, the preservation of safe seats can itself be seen as ‘politicised’. Johnston, Rossiter and Pattie acknowledge as much when they note that also in the UK context ‘the parties want, and press for, as many safe seats as possible’. A boundary delimitation outcome entailing more competitive results would not necessarily be more ‘political’, but it would be more democratic. It is for this reason that we believe that a reduction in the number of safe seats would strengthen UK democracy and increase electoral participation.

A version of this post was originally published on Democratic Audit UK and is re-posted with permission.

About the authors

Sarah Birch is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Glasgow.

Mathew Lawrence is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research.

One thought on “The number of ‘safe’ seats should be reduced to strengthen UK democracy and increase participation

  1. Thank you for an interesting and thought-provoking article.

    I have two comments/questions:

    Firstly, you say that one of the reasons for low participation in elections is the high number of safe seats and that increasing the number of marginals would therefore increase participation. I am sceptical of this conclusion. There seems little correlation between the ‘safeness’ of the seat and voting levels. Nuneaton, the key constituency in 2015, had a turnout not much removed from the national average, whilst most of the seats with the highest turnouts were amongst the very safest. Also, since the Second World War there is little correlation between turnout and the closeness of the national result. There seems to me to be little evidence to suggest that turnout could be increased by making the result of the election (either nationally or in any given constituency) less certain.

    Secondly, I am concerned that one side-effect of making individual seats more marginal would be to make regions or even the entire country less so. Take a nominal English county. It has ten seats. Four are safe Labour seats, four safe Tory seats, two are marginals. At a general election, the Tories win the county-wide vote by 6 points. They win their four safe seats and the two marginals; Labour retain their four safe seats. The result is six seats to four – perhaps not entirely proportional but roughly in line with the voting. Now, imagine skilful boundary changes had made all ten seats marginal with the voting ‘fairly’ spread across the ten. In this scenario, the Tories win all 10 seats and Labour none. The result of creating more marginals is, perversely, to make the end result anything but marginal. Something of this effect can be seen in California. The responsibility for drawing district boundaries was taken from the Democrat-controlled legislature and given to an independent body, tasked with reducing the number of safe seats. The result was an increase in Democratic seats, not the expected fall, as more marginals actually helped the dominant party by spreading its votes more evenly.

    Of course, I’m not arguing that every seat in the country should be ‘safe’. Only that increasing the number of marginals is, it seems to me, unlikely to achieve the aims that you set out.


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