By Richard Pooley
Cartoon in the Boston Gazette , 26 March 1812, probably by Elkanah Tisdale
Gerrymandering is a fun word for something so pernicious to democracy. I have always loved the story of its origin. In 1812 the Governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, who would go on to become briefly Vice President of the USA, agreed to a bill which redrew the boundaries of the senate election districts in his state for the benefit of his Democratic-Republican Party. Those supporting the opposing Federalist Party were concentrated into a few districts so that many more districts had Democratic-Republican-supporting majorities. This led to districts looking very odd. One in the Boston area was so contorted that it resembled the salamander of Greek mythology when drawn by the designer and engraver Elkanah Tisdale. Hence the portmanteau word combining the name of the governor with the second half of the amphibian. So common did gerrymandering become in the USA that the Oxford English Dictionary listed it in 1848 and has done so ever since. My Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as manipulating “boundaries of a constituency etc unfairly so as to secure disproportionate influence at election for some party or class”. A US professor and journalist, Wayne Dawkins, has a wider and catchier definition: “politicians picking their voters instead of voters picking their politicians.”
As US American readers will know only too well gerrymandering is still widely practised by both main political parties in their country and frequently decides the outcome of elections to state and national bodies. We Brits are luckier. We have four boundary commissions, one for each nation within the United Kingdom, who are totally independent of government and who decide every eight years what changes need to be made to parliamentary constituency boundaries. The commissions must each ensure that constituencies have roughly the same number of voters (within 5% more or less of the national average) and must be no more than 13,000 sq. km. in area. Once their proposals are published there is an eighteen-week consultation period during which anybody, including politicians, can express their opinions. In the most recent Act of Parliament on this issue, the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 2020, it was made impossible for any government minister or indeed Parliament itself, to modify a commission’s recommendations. The aim was to eliminate “any scope for gerrymandering.”
I have been thinking a lot about gerrymandering over the past three Saturdays, while knocking on doors and telling voters that their constituency has changed. I live and vote in Bath, one of the very few constituencies in the UK where there is an Member of Parliament from my party, the Liberal Democrats. Completely circling the city is the constituency of North-east Somerset, whose MP is the right-wing Conservative Brexiteer, Jacob Rees-Mogg. He has been its MP since it was created in 2010.
I have never been able to discover what made the boundary commission think having one constituency surround another was a good idea, nor why it didn’t change its mind after some vociferous criticism, especially from people living east of Bath, during the consultation stage. Anyway they have now seen the stupidity of it and have proposed more rational boundaries. I am not suggesting that any gerrymandering took place. But several voters I have met think it did. One reacted last Saturday by telling me how “They are doing it all over the country.” By “they” she meant the Conservative government.
“They” have only themselves to blame. Last year they introduced new ID rules in time for May’s local elections. They claimed they wanted to stop voters pretending to be someone else and voting more than once, despite the fact that in elections in the previous year there had been just seven allegations of fraud and no convictions. It was a crude attempt to stop non-Tory voters from voting. Student cards and young person’s railcards are invalid ID but old people’s bus passes are acceptable. As I mentioned in an article last May, this attempt at voter suppression backfired spectacularly. I met people who were voting against the Tories mainly because of their anger at the new ID rules. “You are undermining democracy”, said one to the hapless Tory teller beside me. And there is anecdotal evidence that many elderly Tory voters were put off voting at all. None other than Jacob Rees-Mogg berated his own government:
"Parties that try and gerrymander end up finding that their clever scheme comes back to bite them, as dare I say we found by insisting on voter ID for elections…We found the people who didn't have ID were elderly and they by and large voted Conservative, so we made it hard for our own voters and we upset a system that worked perfectly well”
Note that Rees-Mogg has widened the meaning of ‘gerrymander’.
But it seems Rees-Mogg’s colleagues have not listened to him. Last month they fulfilled a promise the Tories had made in their 2019 election manifesto: all UK citizens living abroad will be able to vote in the UK’s general elections. Previously, only those who had lived overseas for fewer than fifteen years could do so. This means, according to the government’s own figures, that an extra 2.3 million British citizens living abroad will be eligible to vote. So some 3.3 million UK expats, a third of whom live in the European Union, can now vote in the next general election. In the fortnight after the new law came into force on January 16th, 21,000 newly-eligible expats registered to vote. Not many out of 2.3 million. But that may be because the new law got so little publicity in the mostly Tory-supporting mainstream media. They must have realised what most Tories have not: this could be another “clever scheme” which will come “back to bite them.”
Historically, even those expats who were allowed to vote seldom registered to do so. Just under 25% of them registered to vote in the 2019 general election. Many, especially those living in the EU, bitterly regretted their apathy after the 2016 referendum which led to the UK leaving the EU. I was living in France at the time and could see that the Remain campaign was losing the argument. My wife and I voted to remain but I believe many of our British expat friends didn’t bother to vote at all.
Did the Tories believe in 2019 that most British expats are, almost by definition, rich businesspeople or retirees who are natural Conservative supporters? Do they still think that? Maybe that was once the case. But research done by Professor Paul Webb and Dr Susan Collard at the University of Sussex in early 2020 says otherwise, at least for those expats living in the EU. Their key finding is as follows:
“Only 17% of those who voted for the Conservative Party in 2015 [UK general election] and then for Remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum (that is, some 95% of all 2015 EU-based Tories) still supported the Conservatives in 2019; by contrast, 90% of Leave-voting Tories stuck with the party in 2019.”
This huge drop in Tory support among British expats living in Europe made little difference to the result of the 2019 election which the Tories won resoundingly. But that is because so few registered to vote and their votes must have been spread quite widely across 650 UK constituencies. Next time could be different. Sure, I doubt if those many UK expats in Australia and New Zealand who can now vote in the UK will bother doing so. But those in Europe? I have seen first-hand (from “Liberal Democrats in France” and UK expat online media such as “Local”) that the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National Party expat organisations are urging those newly eligible to vote to do so.
It’s not just Brexit which has infuriated UK expats. Recent changes in migration rules mean that, for example, the minimum income requirement for UK citizens wishing to return to the UK with their foreign spouse and children will rise in April from £18,600 to £29,000. Even the Tory-supporting media have been full of stories of tearful British citizens saying they are now unable to return to the country of their birth.
However, the really astonishing thing about this latest example of Conservative Party gerrymandering is how easy the new law will make it to commit electoral fraud, just the thing that the Tories tell us they are trying to stop. British expats are now able to vote by proxy or by post in the last UK constituency where they lived. But if they cannot provide proof of address, an acquaintance can “attest” that they lived in a certain constituency. So, dear reader, if you are a British citizen living outside the UK and you wish to vote in a way which will have the most effect – i.e. to vote in a marginal seat – get in touch with me at Only Connect and I will attest that you lived in a constituency where the Conservatives are defending a small majority…provided, of course, that you promise me you will vote for whichever party is most likely to defeat the Tory candidate. After all, if you read my articles, we are surely acquainted. But if that is too much hassle, please post this article to as many British expats as you know and urge them to register asap. And if you are a British expat too, don’t forget to do so yourself. If proof were needed that this Conservative government is both corrupt and incompetent, its inability to gerrymander competently proves it beyond doubt.