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Doing democracy by the numbers

September 27, 2016

 

Although it may seem that we’re living through unprecedented times, there’s still actually little new in politics.

 

A case in point is all the recent palaver about redrawing parliamentary boundaries.

 

Back in 1812, Governor Elbridge Gerry pushed through a measure to redraw the boundaries of the voting districts that made up the US state of Massachusetts.

 

One of the bizarrely-shaped new constituencies, which just happened to benefit his own Democratic-Republican Party, was claimed to resemble a salamander. The phrase “Gerry-mandering" was duly coined by the Boston Gazette and the name has stuck ever since.

 

The practice entails arranging contrived lines around existing communities so that you have more electoral districts (or constituencies) liable to give one party an overall majority, even though voting loyalties are numerically evenly split.

 

Nowadays, the unenviable job of ensuring a more or less equal ratio of electors per MP is done by the Boundaries Commission – a notionally independent but nonetheless politically appointed body.

 

They’ve long been saying that Wales is over-represented in terms of the number of seats it holds at Westminster. Even so the status quo has remained.

 

What has changed however is a growing conviction in Downing Street that cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600 (which means from 40 to 29 in Wales) could produce cumulative UK electoral benefits. The move would essentially favour the party in government, who believe it or not, currently lose out under the current set-up.

 

In truth, and this is where I do my usual liturgy, it's much easier to ‘reconfigure’ constituencies under First-Past-the-Post to gain partisan advantage than with systems of proportional representation.

 

The imbalanced nature of FPTP means that votes cast overall don’t get translated into a commensurate number of representatives. Moreover, less than a quarter of seats ever actually change hands at any one time.

 

All of this is sure to be forgotten though when the claims start that new parliamentary boundaries will put people in the ‘wrong’ place.

 

It’s a fallacy. No-one loses out in a practical day-to-day sense from being shunted into another constituency. No-one gains either. It’s just a numbers games and lines on a map.

 

For all that, my impression is that the reforms are going to have a hard time getting through.

 

If Labour and other opposition parties find it all hard to swallow, many Conservatives have little appetite for the proposals either. The Welsh contingent in particular are aghast that they could see their newly-won prize of Gower go back into Labour hands and Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns’ own constituency scrapped.

 

There are also suspicions among tory backbenchers that it’s all a Treasury ploy to find a cheaper solution to renovation works at the Palace of Westminster. A saving from providing 50 less offices and whatnot would do very nicely indeed.

 

At the end of the day, as the political pundits are fond of saying, the numbers that will inevitably count most are the 12 seats that form Theresa’s May’s own slender parliamentary majority. Reform may yet have to wait a bit longer.

 

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Still paying for the past

 

There are plenty of mixed messages but the common theme from the financial gurus is that the overriding policy pressures upon Wales remain the austerity that stems from Westminster.

 

Public services are currently attempting to cope with ‘savings’ announced by former Chancellor George Osborne two years ago. The problem is that the projections he used were wrong. That means growth forecasts have been since been lowered which means cuts will go deeper.

 

It is in the face of all this that the Welsh Government has announced a five-year programme that includes better childcare, more apprenticeships, faster broadband, improved GP access, new schools plus an M4 relief road and South Wales Metro.

 

I’m sure we all wish them luck in their endeavours while we wait for the news of what will be cut from budgets to pay for this shopping list. So far the predictions are that social programmes could be the main casualty. I hope they’re wrong.

 

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Not just a matter of convenience

 

They say that travel broadens the mind. Maybe so, but I’d say that nothing focuses your thinking more when venturing abroad than a quest for the loo.

 

Spending a penny (or 50 cents) is obligatory. Free toilet facilities are as rare as an approachable Parisian waiter.

 

I tend to briefly settle at a café in order to use the facilities – thus prolonging the cycle - or else traipse to the top floor of some department store with a sense of hope.

 

There’s a gift shop just off St Peter’s Square in Rome. Having found that it has toilet facilities, tourists tend to return there or gravitate in that general direction. The store therefore does a brisk trade to say the least.

 

It’s in this same visitor-friendly context I reckon the proposal to re-introduce public toilets at Swansea Market is not just a matter of convenience but good commercial sense.

 

 

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