17 September 2011

Waking the Dead

The proposed changes to the UK parliamentary constituencies have brought to light some interesting political debates that usually lie under the surface. The presumption behind the review was that the previous system was biased in favour of Labour, since the constituencies they held contained fewer voters, on average, than those held by Conservative MPs.

Labour MPs have objected to equalisation on the grounds that their constituents are more deprived and therefore require more time from their MP, compared to comfortable voters in the Tory shires. This seems a bizarre example of special pleading, and lends support the unhelpful ideal of the MP as gold-plated social worker rather than respected legislator.

Emily Thornberry in the Guardian makes a more congent political point, arguing that in her Islington constituency 10,000 of her potential 'constituents' are not included in the count because they do not have British nationality. This represents more than 10% of her potential electorate and makes clear that changes to the law on nationality and citizenship are more pressing than revisions of constituency boundaries.

But how about other people who can't vote because they are dead? I have been wondering how constituency boundaries, not to mention elections themselves, might change if Labour and Conservative voters had the same life expectancy. A couple of years ago the Scottish Daily Record reported that men living in Glasgow east end have a life expectancy of 54. This compares with the 82 years that men living in the prosperous constituency of Lenzie can expect. That represents an additional 28 years of voting.

These huge health disparities can be assumed to have affected the outcome of the Scottish parliamentary election, benefiting the SNP, whose voters are more affluent compared to those in Labour's industrial heartlands. And what about if we compare Hartlepool's expected 76 years with the 85 of Kensington and Chelsea? How are these health inequalities, and the additional voting years they represent, affecting the outcomes of elections to the Westminster parliament?

Danny Dorling and colleagues published an article in the BMJ questioning the relationship between the way health inequalities had widened under Labour and the outcome of the 2010 election:

'National statistics show that the gap in life expectancy between the worst and best local authorities in the United Kingdom grew from under nine years in 1997 to almost 13 years by 2007. This suggests that during the period of the New Labour government the “political participation expectancy gap” between these local authority areas grew—because of differences in mortality—from roughly two to three general elections.'

Democracy is about representation and participation, not bureaucratic boundary changes. If the Electoral Commission took their job seriously they would themselves be raising these questions and considering how government refusal to deal with the open sore of health inequality is a greater threat to democracy than a slightly misplaced line on a map.

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