Myth Busting: The Constituency Link

“The Constituency Link” is often claimed by opponents of reform to be a vital element of the operation of representative democracy.  By this they mean single member constituencies.

But how real is this link and to who does it matter?  I suspect that outside the politorarti it is far less sacrosanct than claimed. The “link” has to be to a geographical area (“the constituency”) and to the people of that area (“the constituents”).  However, what these really mean can vary.

The (Single Member) Constituency

Some constituencies are “natural areas” – such as the Isle of Wight, but others are mash ups such as Morley & Outwood (the bits in between Wakefield, Leeds and Dewsbury) or Penrith and The Border (East Cumberland, minus most of Carlisle, plus a bit of Westmorland) or Hackney North & Stoke Newington (the Rest of Hackney is in Hackney South & Shoreditch).  If you look at Ponteland in Northumberland (which is an upmarket dormitory of Newcastle), it is in Hexham Constituency but the village of Belsay just north of it is in Berwick upon Tweed Constituency!

Interestingly David Cameron is committed to equalising the sizes of constituencies – which means even more breaking up of “natural areas” (we might have bits of Newcastle in a Gateshead Constituency again).  Maintaining this equality will also mean frequent changes undermining any identity that a constituency may gain.

To claim the link is an affinity with a particular area is specious.

(You can look at constituencies and their boundaries on the Ordnance Survey Election Maps website.)

The people of a constituency

A more probable link is a link with people in that constituency.  We need to explore what this means.  Most MPs do not know the majority of their constituents; they know (and value) their local activists, they may recognise some (if not most) of their local party members, and they will know various officials in the area and they will have contact with constituents who bring case-work to them.

In many areas the political parties are not organised by constituency but often by local authority areas (for instance Labour organises across the whole of Hackney). Organising for Westminster constituencies must sometimes be problematic as activists strain to relate to the constituency.  For instance I wonder how the parties organise in Penrith and The Border (which looks a bit like the white of a roughly fried egg – with the separate Carlisle Constituency being the yolk)?  Penrith, the major town is in the Central / South, and I suspect those settlements to the North of Carlisle feel more affinity with Carlisle than with Penrith.

Often case work relates to problems with the local authority.  The move to unitary authorities often means that the local authority area is now bigger than Westminster constituencies (as was already the case with many London and Metropolitan Boroughs) – so relationships are built across areas bigger than constituencies.

The MP link

What about relationships the other (arguably more important) way? Our links with our MP or MPs.  I have never met my Westminster MP (neither the recently retired one or the new one selected for us by the party selection committee), so I cannot claim any relationship with him.  I happen, however, to have met and had a conversation with one of my MEPs (In the North East we have a small Euro-constituency of only 3 seats).  If I had a European issue, I could choose which of my MEPs to take it to (we have one from each of the main three UK parties); I suspect that I would form a better link with him or her than I would with my single Westminster Constituency MP (who may not be of my political persuasion).

Likewise multi-member council wards or divisions have not caused “linkage” problems (even if the means of electing multiple members is flawed – see next section).

Multi-member Constituencies

Multi-member Westminster Constituencies are usually proposed for “natural areas” and tend to have between three and five MPs (i.e. three to five constituencies grouped together).

This could mean:

  • single constituencies for all but the very biggest urban areas: thus “Sheffield” (5 seats: Sheffield Central, Hallam, Heeley, South East, and Brightside & Hillsborough), or “Brighton & Hove” (3 seats: Brighton Kempstown, Pavillion and Hove), and
  • rural constituencies that might consist of the whole of less populated counties: thus “Northumberland” (4 seats: Berwick, Blyth Valley, Hexham, and Wansbeck), or
  • parts of the more populous counties: thus possibly “Surrey West” (4 seats: Guildford, Surrey Heath, Surrey South West and Woking), “Surrey East” (4 seats: Epsom & Ewell, Mole Valley, Reigate, and Surrey East), “Surrey North” (3 Seats: Esher & Walton, Runnymead & Weybridge and Spelthorne).

Would constituencies this size give significant problems to our MPs and those with whom they deal?  People are more likely to know which constituency they are in (far fewer odd kinks in the boundaries to get the size right) and with multi-member constituencies people can take their case-work to which-ever MP they think will be the most responsive.

One consequence of multi-member constituencies is that First Past The Post no longer works effectively.  If each voter has one vote, there is a danger that a party’s vote could all concentrate on their most popular candidate (who would be elected), but the election of the second member may be anomalous.  If each voter has one vote per seat, there is the distinct possibility that the largest minority takes all.  Two main alternatives have been suggested:

  • Party controlled lists (as used in England Scotland and Wales for Euro-Elections)
  • Transferable Voting (as used in Northern Ireland for Euro-Elections and in Scotland for Local Authority Elections)

The former fails my first test – of being able to express a preference between individual candidates.  If I consider the candidate placed at the top of a party list is a complete pillock, I will get him – if I vote for that party list; I can’t vote for the second person on that list.

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