diamond geezer

 Thursday, November 08, 2018

This week's American midterm elections have shone a spotlight on the very different way the US organises its national politics. We have an elected House of Commons, an unelected House of Lords and a hereditary monarch, which is clearly unfair. They have an elected Senate, an elected House and an elected president, which is clearly fairer. Could we learn from the American way of doing things? What if UK politics were to be remodelled along American lines?

First of all, an elected second chamber has got to be an improvement, right? The Senate is simplicity itself, two senators per state, as defined in the US constitution. The USA has 50 states, so that's 100 senators, which is a nice round practical number. What's more every state is represented equally, be that California (population 40 million) or Rhode Island (population 1 million), so that's very fair.

If we were to mirror this with a UK Senate, we'd need two senators per county. Alas local government reorganisation since 1974 has messed up our county structures, chopping some into unitary authorities while leaving others whole. For example, it wouldn't be fair to give former Berkshire six times the representation of Oxfordshire nextdoor, simply because it's been broken up into half a dozen bits. The only fair thing would be to adopt ceremonial counties, as defined by the Lieutenancies Act 1997, bringing back traditional subdivisions we can all unite behind. What's more England has 48 ceremonial counties, which would mean 96 senators, which is an almost perfect total.

Although English counties have very different sized populations, the US experience confirms that such disparities are incontrovertibly fair. Indeed counties like Somerset, Derbyshire and Cheshire have very similar populations, as do the much smaller Cornwall, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, which would be very fair indeed. Rutland arguably gets an over-generous deal, with two senators for only 40000 residents, but they've suffered enough under local government reorganisation so we must leave them be. Meanwhile 8 million Londoners might be unhappy at being grossly under-represented, but in fact the City of London and Greater London are each defined as ceremonial counties, so that'd be twice as good, hence much fairer than expected.

As for the Home Nations, their plurality of administrative divisions is ridiculous, and we must not permit over-representation. Scotland's 32 unitary councils almost outnumber England's, adopting Northern Ireland six traditional counties would be inflammatory, and recognition for all of Wales's 22 counties and county boroughs would be excessive. Instead the only practical measure is to consider each nation as a single unit, contributing two senators apiece, making a grand total of 102. That's ideal.

UK Senate - number of senators
EnglandScotlandWalesN IrelandTOTAL

By reviewing the last set of General Election results county by county, it's easy to translate a potential UK Senate into each party's seats. For example, County Durham's voters preferred Labour, while Essex's voters preferred the Conservatives, thus balancing out at two senators each. Wales would send two Labour senators to Westminster, and Scotland two SNP senators, because winner takes all. What's more Northern Ireland now would be represented solely by the DUP, because Sinn Fein are in the minority across the province, so that'd solve the peace process at a stroke.

UK Senate 2017 (notional result based on county boundaries)
Conservative72Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Cambridgeshire, City of London, Cornwall, Cumbria, Derbyshire, Devon, Dorset, East Riding of Yorkshire, East Sussex, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hampshire, Herefordshire, Hertfordshire, Isle of Wight, Kent, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, North Yorkshire, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Oxfordshire, Rutland, Shropshire, Somerset, Staffordshire, Suffolk, Surrey, Warwickshire, West Sussex, Wiltshire, Worcestershire
Labour26Bristol, Cheshire, County Durham, Greater London, Greater Manchester, Lancashire, Merseyside, Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire, Tyne and Wear, West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Wales
DUP2N Ireland

It may look from this table as if the Conservative party would have a built-in advantage, with shire counties dominant at the expense of larger metropolitan areas. On day to day matters of political business, yes, this would be the case. But residents of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire would suddenly find themselves in "swing counties" where their vote genuinely mattered, and where the vast majority of campaigning would take place, leaving the rest of us in peace.

In conclusion, the map below shows that the area of blue is easily outnumbered by the rest of the country, especially when the vastness of Scotland is taken into account, proving that a UK Senate would be much fairer than it looks.

As for elections to the US House of Representatives, these are structured along very different lines, utilising arbitrarily defined areas better balanced for population. This is a lot closer to the UK model of Parliamentary constituencies, except that ours are defined by an independent body operating to nationally-defined rules. Americans adopt a more practical system whereby each state legislature is able to redraw its congressional districts as it sees fit, a process sometimes called gerrymandering. Local boundaries lead to local results which better prioritise local priorities, creating a fairer outcome for all.

Gerrymandering allows parties to claim the greatest number of seats even when the overall public vote is against them, by grouping together their opponents so that as many as possible of their votes are 'wasted'. The state of Michigan is particularly adept at this, constructing wild sinuous boundaries to corral as many unwanted voters as possible, whilst spreading out the minority vote to give it the best possible chance of taking seats. Such creativity can keep parties in power for years, creating certainty and stability, which are qualities to be applauded.

Adopting the American approach in Britain would allow the full process of ingenuity and resourcefulness to be embedded in our electoral process. For example, the county of Leicestershire could redraw its parliamentary boundaries so that each of its constituencies included a slice of Leicester, ensuring that urban characteristics were dominated by the rural vote, thereby removing three Labour MPs at a stroke. For balance, some extremely careful subdivision on Merseyside could ensure that Southport is never again able to elect a Conservative MP, guaranteeing a red clean sweep.

Or take Croydon. This London borough currently has three constituencies - North, Central and South - most recently returning two Labour MPs and one Conservative. But a little cunning and forethought could tip the balance, American-style, simply by redrawing constituency boundaries elsewhere. Let's start by giving Croydon one extra MP, making a total of four, which cannot be anything other than positively advantageous. Next let's draw fresh boundaries in wholly natural locations, linking areas of undoubted similarity, to create four much fairer constituencies, thus:

Each dot on the map represents approximately 1000 voters at this year's council elections - red for Labour and blue for Conservative. As you can see, each new constituency contains exactly 20 dots, representing an equal number of voters, and must therefore be perfectly fair. The constituency of Croydon North would be a red stronghold, providing much greater confidence for Labour going forward. Meanwhile the three other new constituencies, through deliberate design, would lean convincingly to the Conservatives. Never mind that there are six more red dots than blue, the overall blue majority would be a much fairer reflection of the intended outcome.

The triumphant results of the US midterms have clearly shown the benefits of a seemingly perverse electoral model, which could easily be adopted in Britain. A UK Senate based on UK counties would be transparently fair, certainly more so than a room full of hereditary peers, bishops and obscenely political appointments. As for a UK House of Representatives with suitably gerrymandered districts, the advantages to the incumbent party are undoubtedly clear. Throw in an onslaught of voter suppression, coupled with deliberate disenfranchisement, and the superior US electoral model could be ours.

Then all we'd need to do is vote for a president to replace the Queen, and nothing could possibly go wrong there.

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