Seduced by the lure of averages

Hywel Roberts argues that the Boundary Commissioners should undertake more than a head count when deciding where communities begin and end

The Parliamentary Boundary Commissioners for Wales have recently published their proposed boundaries for 30 new constituencies to replace the current 40 constituencies in Wales. The result will be that some constituencies will cover a huge area. This is the direct consequence of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 which had the objective of reducing the number of Parliamentary seats from 650 to 600 and ensuring that all constituencies had roughly the same number of electors, currently an average of 76,641.

To have all constituencies representing roughly the same number of electors may appear a reasonable objective. However, this simplistic belief that one size fits all takes no account of population density. Electors in a rural constituency can communicate with their MP by post, phone or email, but if they wish to have a face-to-face meeting they may have to travel up to 100 miles, usually on poor public transport, to the Constituency Office.

A conscientious MP will, of course, try to arrange surgeries in strategic villages across the rural constituency but an elector may have to wait several weeks for a meeting with the MP in his or her own area. The MP also has to travel huge distances to different parts of the big rural constituencies to fulfil other constituency duties.

Compare this with a geographically compact urban constituency with good public transport where the Constituency Office is within reasonable reach of all electors and the travel time of the MPs in carrying out of their duties within the constituency is negligible. The imbalance is enormous for both the electors and the MPs but the approach of the 2011 Act takes no account of the needs of electors or the workload of MPs and is driven by the obsession to make all constituencies conform to the target of having the same number of voters.

Many complaints about the bill were made during its progress through Parliament, to little avail. Now the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales has bound itself to the same misguided idea. It proposes multi-member wards for the Anglesey County Council with the objective of ensuring “that each councillor represents around the same number of people”.

Again this may appear a sensible objective but, particularly in the case of multi-member wards, it is the approach of the simpleton. Take, for example, the proposed Central Ward covering a rural area with 4,829 electors to be represented by 3 councillors, say A, B and C. To the simplistic mind this means that each councillor represents an average of 1,610 electors.

But this isn’t how real life works. Each elector is a free agent and can contact whichever councillor he or she wishes. A group of 1,610 don’t naturally form and decide that they will always approach Councillor A, another group of 1,610 opting for Councillor B and the final 1,610 going for Councillor C. It is possible that the majority of the 4,829 will, because of his or her personality and reputation, always go to Councillor B, with very few going to the other two – hardly fair on Councillor B who will have a massive workload compared to the other two. Neither is it fair on the electors whom he or she is trying to serve.

Likewise, each councillor will not be able to focus on a particular group of 1,610 electors. He or she will have to communicate and canvass all 4,829 electors, or at least the households where they live. So to say that the councillors represent an average of 1,610 electors is mathematically true but electorally nonsense. The Commissioners may understand basic arithmetic but they have no understanding whatsoever of statistics and completely misuse the word ‘average’. Neither do they understand the role and work of councillors nor the needs of electors.

Hywel Roberts is a statistician and management consultant and a member of Caernarfon Town Council.

One thought on “Seduced by the lure of averages

  1. An interesting article, and yes wards should represent communities and yes there are difficulties with rural areas, however the general principle is right that wards/constituencies should be of roughly the same population (note not electors). Where the constituency review went wrong, and that isn’t their fault – it was mandated by parliament, was a rigid adherence to that rule, hence some very peculiar constituencies. Multi member wards are appropriate if we move to STV as an electoral system, something I hope happens soon now we have the power to change the local government electoral system.

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