GOD’s gift: The then Cabinet Secretary Gus (now Lord) O’Donnell welcomes Samantha and David Cameron to 10 Downing Street in 2010 (photo: Stefan Rousseau/AFP/Getty Images)
The general election of 2015 may turn out to be the most damaging to British democracy of modern times. Regardless of the party platforms, the campaign rhetoric and the results, the legitimacy of the contest will be open to question. The election is being fought on the basis of unfair constituency boundaries; the voting rolls have a staggering number of errors; and there is a culture of non-enforcement of election law. On top of these administrative defects, political debate in 2015 is suffering from a lack of ideas and vision.
Moreover, there is a danger that the wrong lessons will be drawn from the results about the future of the British constitution. The unpopularity of the two main parties will reinforce the arguments of constitutional reformers for root and branch changes which will bring the UK system into line with continental Europe. If they achieve their aim, coalition government will become the norm despite the rocky experience of the Conservative-LibDem government of the past five years.
Election rules and administration receive little public attention. Yet they are essential for democratic integrity.
First, given that the elections are based on single-member constituencies, it is essential that there is approximately the same number of electors in each of them. Small variations are legitimate if they ensure that local community boundaries are respected. If gross inequalities are permitted, they mean that voters have a smaller voice in constituencies with above-average electorates than those in those with below-average ones. They may also result in systematic unfairness between the major parties. In 2010, the 110,924 electors in the Isle of Wight elected a single MP as did the 21,837 electors in the Scottish constituency of Na h-Eileanan an Iar (formerly the Western Isles) and the 33,755 in Orkney and Shetland.
Nor is maldistribution limited to a few exceptional constituencies. Average electorates in England were considerably larger than those in Wales. Since Conservatives tended to hold suburban constituencies with above-average and growing electorates, the existing boundaries work to their disadvantage. The cynical decision of the Liberal Democrats in the current coalition government to vote with Labour in refusing to agree to the equalisation of constituency electorates (analysed below) means that the bias in the system against the Tories has remained. According to the website UK Polling Report, “If you leave the Liberal Democrat share of the vote unchanged then the Conservatives need a lead of 11 percentage points over Labour to win an overall majority, while the Labour party can achieve an overall majority with a lead of about 3 percentage points.”
A second requirement of fair elections is also missing. As the Committee on Standards in Public Life rightly put it in 2007, the electoral roll needs to include qualified voters and to exclude unqualified ones. This may seem to be a truism. Yet, by 2014, the number of errors in the UK registers had reached a staggering 13-15.5 million. Between 8 and 9 million people entitled to vote were missing from the rolls at their qualifying address while the rolls still included 5.2-6.7 million names of people who had moved, died or been unqualified in the first place.
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