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The price of British democracy

The price of British democracy

🕔16.Aug 2013

When I were a lad, August used to be the beach/mud at Southend-on-Sea, bucket, spade and bathers. Now it seems you’re ill-equipped without your inflatable crocodile, snorkel set, waterproof playing cards, and doubtless your iPhone. In which case, I have a new toy for you: ‘How much is your vote worth?’

Don’t scoff! It may lack the crude instant appeal of an XLR Water Blaster, but it’s less anti-social, much more mentally stimulating, and free. No, not an app, but it is what its creators, the Electoral Reform Society, choose to call an ‘online tool’.

Just insert your postcode and you can find out, in microseconds and to the last penny, how much was spent by all candidates in your constituency at the 2010 General Election. Plus – wait for it – the number of electors who actually voted, and thus, without having to do the sum yourself, how much your personal vote was worth to the parties who were battling to win it. Now don’t try telling me that’s not pretty exciting.

Certainly, albeit with my somewhat sheltered lifestyle, I was excited – because it turns out my vote was one of the most valuable and sought-after in Birmingham; yes, including Sutton Coldfield, and Solihull, and indeed virtually the whole metropolitan West Midlands. Total candidate spending of £58,690.71, divided by a turnout of 41,571 voters, equals £1.41 per vote.

I’m obviously chuffed, but, to be honest, I also feel a little like Ronnie Barker in the timeless sketch from The Frost Report satirising the British class system. I look down on lots of Ronnie Corbetts, because their votes, even just along the road in Northfield and Selly Oak, were worth less than a half or even a third of what mine was. However, I have to look up, at least a bit, to John Cleese with his £1.43 vote in Hall Green.

And that, of course, is the point that the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) wants to make with its study underpinning the ‘How much is your vote worth?’ toy – Penny for your Vote?.  If one of the basic principles of democracy is that all votes are of equal value, it’s one that in this country we totally fail to meet. In our single-member constituency, winner-takes-all system, the value of your vote to the parties and candidates who are competing for it depends entirely on where you live, indeed on your postcode.

It’s not that Hall Green and Edgbaston are posher – although in Edgbaston we are quite posh – but that the drawing of our current constituency boundaries made us, at least in 2010, one of that minority of marginal seats whose outcome was likely to decide the whole election.

Hall Green, you may recall, was a three-way marginal. Labour’s Roger Godsiff eventually won with something to spare, but throughout the campaign both the Lib Dems and the Respect Party’s Salma Yaqoob were felt to be in with a definite shout. It’s not that surprising, then, that the contest produced both Birmingham’s highest turnout and highest candidate spending per voter.

In Edgbaston the Lib Dems were rather squeezed out in the head-to-head and media-attractive contest between Labour MP Gisela Stuart and the Conservatives’ Deirdre Alden. The Conservatives slightly outspent Labour in both the so-called ‘long’ and ‘short’ campaigns, but, as if to prove that money can get you only so far, Labour won by 1,274 votes in what was easily the city’s closest result.

In no other Birmingham constituency was the eventual majority less than twice that total. These seats were generally perceived and treated by the parties as either relatively safe or almost unwinnable, and so the electorate’s votes weren’t fought over as fiercely as in Edgbaston and Hall Green. In short, they were worth less: in 6 of the 7 constituencies between 40p in ultra-safe Ladywood and 64p in Lib Dem MP John Hemming’s Yardley.

Which leaves Erdington, the seat that had been vacated by Labour’s Siôn Simon, but for which the two principal challengers were both relatively well known in their own right: trade union leader Jack Dromey and prominent local city councillor Robert Alden. In this instance Labour was the bigger spender and, as if to prove that there’s no limit to what money can buy, Labour won. But it was another of those contests that for much of the campaign looked closer than it finally proved, which may account for its vote value of £1.14.

The overall and sadly familiar message of the ERS study, however, is that, if you want to be really valued, go somewhere other than Birmingham. The seriously high rollers in this election were scattered around a diverse range of constituencies, sharing in common only that they were either three-way marginals or seats targeted by a third party or Independent or both.

Topping the table by miles, with spending of £3.07 per vote, was Luton South, Labour seat of one of the more outrageous parliamentary expenses fiddlers, who faced no fewer than 11 challengers. These included TV presenter, Esther Rantzen, whose 4.4% vote share of 1,872 votes cost her nearly £13 a time.

Other constituencies whose voters proved worth more than £2 each included Aberconwy, Barking and Poplar/Limehouse in East London, and Northampton North. More predictably, least valued votes, at or around 20p each, were all in ultra-safe seats for either Labour – Bootle (14p), Halton, Sheffield Heeley, Knowsley – or the Conservatives – Ruislip/Northwood/Pinner, South Leicestershire.

Taking the two extremes, the candidates in Luton South spent 22 times as much those in Bootle, which the ERS would surely not be alone in finding a pretty shocking and depressing measure of an electoral system that we passed up the opportunity to change a couple of years ago.

The term ‘postcode lottery’ is wildly overused – frequently for variations between policy choices consciously and collectively made by elected local councillors. The value of your vote, though, that really is a postcode lottery.

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