1. Governance
November 16, 2015

Reducing the number of MPs in the House of Commons could disenfranchise Britain’s inner cities

By Ed Hickey

Last week the House of Lords backed a government proposal to bring forward reform to the UK’s electoral processes.

This electoral overhaul will take place on two fronts. The first is that the number of MPs will be reduced from 650 to 600, meaning a major overhaul of constituency boundaries. The second is a cleansing of the electoral register, as we move from a household to individual voter registration.

As part of this process, 1.9m names have been purged from the roll. According to the Cabinet Office, it will merely be the exorcising of “ghost voters” – people who have long since left the area, deceased, or who had never even existed. According to one government minister? “Individual electoral registration is absolutely key to tackling election fraud.”

There are indications that election fraud is a relatively minor problem at the moment. And arguments against the plan have been primarily about its short-term impact: Labour is currently whipping up its supporters to register in the hope that next year’s local elections will not be unduly affected.

But the long term significance lies not with individual voter registration in itself, but with the reduction in the number of elected MPs, and the direct role the revised electoral register will play in forming future constituency boundaries. For cities, the impact could be enormous.

The forgotten

When it comes to democratic engagement, suburban and rural areas shout loudest. Cities lag behind in terms of both voter registration and turnout. In the words of the Electoral Commission,  “Areas with a high concentration of students, young adults, private renters and home-movers.”

The demography of our cities suggests they’re set to become even less politically engaged. UK cities are getting younger, both due to high urban birth rates and an increasingly mobile student and graduate populace. But cities are also losing larger numbers of those citizens most likely to vote – the older, British-born populace.

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The case is at its most apparent in London. Thanks to its high birth and immigration rates, the population of the capital has grown by over 10 per cent since 2003; but in terms of internal migration alone, London has actually become an exporter of people during the same period, with a net of 70,000 moving away from the capital last year. And those leaving the capital are much more likely to be politically engaged – or indeed, able to vote – than its newer residents.

As in the past, electoral constituencies will be drawn up relative not to population, but  to the numbers of registered voters in an area. And herein lies the risk: that an increasing chunk of the urban populace will be underrepresented on the national political stage.

Across the country turnout in the 2015 General Election was around 66 per cent. But this drops significantly when you look at our big cities: constituencies in the centres of Birmingham, Sheffield and Liverpool barely crept above 60 per cent. Some, such as those in central Newcastle and Manchester, for example, scraped just over 50 per cent % – and even these represent a slight rise on previous levels.

In London, a rough delineation can be made between the relatively deprived inner city seats such as Hackney and West Ham, where turnouts dip to 55 per cent, and the wealthiest suburban pockets of the city. Finchley & Golders Green reported a turnout of 70 per cent; Wimbledon and Richmond Park both hit 75 per cent.

Voter turnout at the 2015 General Election. Red circles represent low voter turnout, green circles represent high voter turnout. The outer ring represents winning party colour. Image: Datashine Election/Oliver O’Brien.

Those constituencies mentioned have all been safe Labour ground on the one hand, and distinctly Tory-leaning on the other. But it is too simplistic to reduce electoral participation to party alignment. Take the constituencies of Chelsea & Fulham, Kensington and the Cities of London & Westminster: all are affluent, safe Tory seats, yet are further examples of inner-city constituencies where turnout was well below the national average.

And there are strong correlations between low turnout and low voter registration: inner London boroughs have had among the worst response rates to registration drives. Ahead of this year’s general election, the London boroughs of Haringey, Kensington & Chelsea and Lambeth were among the only local authorities to have at least 10 per cent of their total registers unconfirmed. So, further out, were Brent and Redbridge. Hackney had the highest level of any authority in the country, at 23 per cent.

In one sense inner-city voters have always been at a disadvantage when it comes to in parliamentary representation. City-centre constituencies tend to be strongholds (mostly Labour, but in a few cases within London’s wealth-dense core, Conservative), doing them few favours when it comes to electioneering and the inevitable targeting of swing seats. But now city dwellers are facing being ignored on grounds of their low participation too.

Frozen out

And as urban and rural politics becomes increasingly distinct that represents a problem. While national politics has swung rightwards in the last decade, the mood of our inner-cities has if anything moved further left. Metropolitan centres like London, Birmingham and Liverpool actually elected more Labour MPs this year than in 2005.

We know that the largest numbers of seats will be scrapped in the North East, the West Midlands and London, and it is their city centres which are supposedly overrepresented at present. When the new boundaries are drawn up we will likely see some urban constituencies amalgamated with each other, and some into neighbouring suburbs. We may now have an All-Party Group for City Regions, and another for London – but with fewer city-centre MPs sitting in Parliament, the government’s recognition of inner cities and their specific issues will be significantly diminished.

In some circles the new boundary reform has been painted as a political move, even anti-Labour gerrymandering. Others argue that the reform redresses an imbalance which had previously favoured Labour and the inner cities.

But whether or not we believe that our inner cities had previously enjoyed undue prominence, the impact of these changes will be lasting. In the long term the result may be ever strengthened allegiance to Labour among city-centre voters: as its chances of winning a General Election diminish, its prospects for urban local government could rise, partly as a protest vote.

And, depending on the direction the party takes, Labour policy could further align itself with primarily urban causes. We currently have a system of predominantly left wing city councils and mayors (London being the obvious exception), working fairly cordially with the Government and DCLG. But it is not outlandish to suggest that without the mediating effect of Parliamentary representation, these relationships could become increasingly strained.

Electoral registration for the 2016 local elections and the forthcoming boundary review closes at the end of this month. 

This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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