Back in the early 19th century, one of the major points of agitation for those campaigning for voter reform was the existence of the so-called “rotten boroughs”. These were districts of the country that, in the past, had been important enough to warrant the election of their own Member of Parliament.
However, over the course of time, they had been subjected to relative, and in some cases absolute, decline while other areas that had previously been of little importance had, conversely, grown in population and stature.
Thus, in 1831, Old Sarum in Wiltshire with just three dwellings elected two MPs via the votes of just 11 landowners, none of whom actually lived in the constituency, while the thriving industrial town of Manchester with a population of some 250,000 had no direct representation and was included in the Lancashire constituency which also elected two MPs.
Bristol was somewhere in between, with a population of 120,000, of which some 10,000 were eligible to vote for two MPs – however, a “gentleman’s agreement” between the Whigs and the Tories that each would only put up one serious and one paper candidate usually meant that election results were largely predictable.
These massive discrepancies in the size of electorates meant that that Old Sarum’s 11 voters each had a vote almost 900 times as powerful as that of a Bristolian voter.
The 1832 Reform Act abolished some 50 or so of the worst “rotten boroughs”, and later reforms further reduced the inequalities in voter impact but the problem of trying to ensure that each constituency has a relatively equal number of voters remains.
In 1885, there was a move away from multiple-member parliamentary constituencies and Bristol was divided up into geographically separate constituencies.
Thus the city now has four MPs each representing different areas of the city. One result has been that in an effort to draw boundaries around similar population areas, areas of the city like Stockwood in south Bristol find themselves in the Bristol East ward, whilst Easton is currently in Bristol West, and Lockleaze is in Bristol North West with many people left wondering where Bristol North East is. Bristol West itself is increasingly looking like Bristol Central.
Despite this, there remains quite large discrepancies in the size of the electorates. In December 2011, Bristol West had an electorate of 89,826, some 23% larger than Bristol East’s 72,977.
In an attempt to resolve the discrepancy in size of electorate between Bristol West and Bristol East, Easton, having been transferred to Bristol West in 2010, will be transferred back to Bristol East for 2015, meaning the discrepancy in size will be just 2.5%.
However, the transfer of Easton ward serves to highlight a discrepancy at another level – that of the inequality in size of several of the inner city council wards compared to some wards in the suburbs.
There are 35 council wards in Bristol and the electorate for the mayoral referendum in May 2012 was 318,893 (compared to the December 2011 electorate of 322,659 for a General Election). This gives an average ward electorate of 9,111.
However, as for Parliamentary constituencies, this hides some considerable differences in the relative size of certain wards. The Kingsweston ward has an electorate of just 7,795 – the smallest in the city. The neighbouring ward of Henbury has the second smallest electorate of 8,107. Westbury on Trym, which borders both, is larger but still low at 8,504 and adjacent to Westbury is Henleaze, with the third smallest electorate in the city of 8,117.
Four suburban wards in Bristol North West, all forming a geographically contiguous area with an average electorate of 8,130, returning 8 councillors.
Let’s compare this with the situation in the more inner city wards of Bristol West. Here we find Cabot ward, electorate of 11,477, the largest electorate in the city half as large again as Kingsweston. Adjacent to it is Lawrence Hill, second largest electorate in the city at 10,970. Ashley, which borders both, has the third largest electorate at 10,798, and adjacent to Ashley is Bishopston with the fourth largest electorate at 10,144.
Four inner city wards in Bristol West, all forming a geographically contiguous area with an average electorate of 10,847, a third higher than the average for the Bristol North West wards mentioned above, but returning the same number of councillors.
To put it another way, if the four Bristol West wards were divided into FIVE seperate wards, their average size would be 8,678 – still higher than the average for the four Bristol North West wards.
The Bristol North West wards are not “rotten boroughs” but there is certainly a case to be made that the electorate of Cabot, Lawrence Hill, Ashley and Bishopston are under-represented in the council chamber.
This under-representation will become even more obvious once Easton is transfered back to Bristol East. The result of this will be that each of the three “outer” constituencies – Bristol East, South and North-West will have nine wards within their boundaries, whilst Bristol West will have just eight.
As Bristol moves forward in introducing considerable changes to the way local democracy works in the city, firstly with the election of an Elected Mayor, and secondly with the likely change in the frequency of local elections to either all-out elections every four years, or biennial elections, there is also an opportunity to address the under-representation in the core of the city by creating a new ward.
The creation of a new city centre ward will also allow for some other structural changes to the way the city is governed. At present the Neighbourhood Partnerships (NP) are also unequal in size, with some consisting of just two wards while others are made up of three.
The introduction of a new ward in Bristol West would mean that each of the parliamentary constituencies will have nine wards, and this in turn will lend itself to the reduction of the number of NPs down to 12, each consisting of three wards with a six-person “executive” of councillors able to make devolved decisions.
The next stage would then be to find a way of further increasing and democratising the involvement of local residents in the NP in order to scrutinise the decisions of this “executive” in the same manner that most of those council members who will make up the NP “executives” will themselves be required to scrutinise the Elected Mayor and her/his executive.
The decision to elect a Mayor to govern the city, with the opportunity to make major changes at the top level, should not stop us from simultaneously addressing the need for changes from the bottom up in a manner that allows every citizen equal representation and an equal vote.