Equality, Community and Continuity: Reviewing the UK Rules for Constituency Redistributions – Part 1

The review of Parliamentary constituencies that ended prematurely in 2013 would have resulted in most of the 600 seats contested at the 2015 general election being very different from the current 650. The potential disruption alarmed many MPs and party organisations. In the first blog based on their recently published research, Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie assess whether changing the rules for defining constituencies could reduce the disruption to the map of constituencies.

Concern regarding variations in constituency electorates, coupled with a drive to cut the cost of Parliament in the wake of the 2009 expenses scandal, stimulated Conservative Party commitments in its 2010 General Election manifesto to legislate to ‘ensure every vote will have equal value’ and reduce the size of the House of Commons.

Legislation passed in 2011 put that intention into practice and the Boundary Commissions commenced their task of producing a new set of 600 constituencies all, with the exception of four special cases, having electorates within +/-5% of the UK average. They consulted on their proposals and revised them accordingly, but their work was halted by Parliament before its completion because of disagreements within the coalition on the programme of constitutional change. By then, however, MPs and party organisations had become aware that the new system, with its emphasis on electoral equality, disrupted the existing map of constituencies very significantly. Fully 54% of the current seats would be subject to major change, compared to only 30% at the last review, and many more constituencies would cross local government boundaries than previously.

The Boundary Commissions are currently required to begin their task again in 2016, in order to produce a new set of constituencies for the 2020 general election. But the very disruptive consequences of the previous exercise generated questions regarding the nature of the new procedure. Would it be possible to reduce the disruption substantially, yet maintain the general principle of electoral equality, with a more relaxed tolerance around the average? And would there be less disruption if the number of MPs was retained at the current 650, rather than reducing it to 600?

Our research answering these two questions has been recently published, and can be downloaded from the McDougall Trust website. It found that a more relaxed tolerance would reduce the disruption somewhat, but at least one-third of all constituencies would almost certainly have to experience major change – regardless of the size of the House of Commons.

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The variations in constituency electorates stimulating the Conservatives’ commitment to ‘ensure every vote will have equal value’ are illustrated by the latest (December 2013) data on the number of electors in each constituency, which ranges from 22,084 in Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles) to 111,800 in the Isle of Wight. The average was 71,578, but one-quarter of all seats had fewer than 65,000 and one-tenth less than 60,000, whereas a further one-quarter had more than 76,000 and one-tenth more than 80,000. Furthermore, the larger and smaller constituencies were not evenly distributed across the UK. Of the 42 with fewer than 60,000 voters, for example, six were in Scotland, eight in England, and the remaining 28 were all in Wales: of the 60 with more than 80,000 voters, five were in Scotland and the remaining 55 in England.

The Conservatives’ proposed changes to remove these inequalities were realised by the coalition government in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011. This introduced a new set of Rules for Redistributions that: (a) mandated a UK-wide norm for constituency electorates; (b) required the four Boundary Commissions to create seats within +/-5% of that norm (usually termed ‘the quota’); and (c) cut the number of constituencies from 650 to 600.

The main factors influencing the Boundary Commissions’ deliberations at previous redistributions were the map of major local governments and continuity with previous sets of constituencies. Each local authority’s entitlement to a number of constituencies was determined by dividing its electorate by the relevant country’s quota (equivalent to the national average electorate: there was a separate quota for each of the four countries), which was then rounded-up or -down. Where that produced major differences between adjacent authorities some – mainly in Scotland and Wales, where many local authorities are small, plus London and the Metropolitan Counties – were combined, leading to constituencies containing parts of two (rarely more) local authorities. But such boundary-crossings were relatively rare.

Having determined each authority’s entitlement, the Commissions then recommended constituencies as groups of contiguous local authority electoral wards. As far as possible they recommended new constituencies as close as possible to those currently in place, so as not to disrupt the pattern of representation and party organisation unless necessary. Only then did the Rules require them to ensure that, ‘as far as is practicable’, constituencies had equal-sized electorates. Equal representation and equality of MPs’ workloads were not the major criteria in determining the new constituency map.

The new Rules for Redistribution implemented in the 2011 Act reversed the priority for the various criteria. There was a single UK quota (76,641) and – with four exceptions – all constituency electorates had to be within 5% of that figure (i.e. between 72,810 and 80,473). That rule was virtually unbreakable, and only within that constraint could the Commissions take continuity of representation and not crossing local government boundaries into account. (The Act allowed for special treatment by the Commissions for areas of very low population density – in effect, the Scottish Highlands only – and in certain circumstances in Northern Ireland; neither was applied in the review that started in 2011.) Consequently the recommended constituencies (both the Commissions’ initial and then, after public consultation, revised proposals) differed starkly from those in previous redistributions: fully 54 per cent of the revised recommendations were major changes from the previous set, for example.

These very different maps of constituencies from those currently in place generated a somewhat belated realisation that what had been gained in arithmetic terms had come at the expense of continuity and geography.  The variability amongst constituency electorates was halved compared with previous reviews, but most existing seats experienced major change and across urban Britain a match between local government and constituency boundaries had become the exception rather than the norm.

Wider disagreements within the coalition over constitutional reform eventually led to the Liberal Democrats joining with Opposition parties to block implementation of the Commissions’ recommendations (indeed, their final versions were never published).  The legislation remains on the statute book, however, but its details have been questioned: ‘Is there a better way to balance the competing demands of arithmetic, continuity and geography?’

The full report of this research – Equality, Community and Continuity: Reviewing the UK Rules for Constituency Redistributions – is available on The McDougall Trust website.

Ron Johnston is a professor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol; David Rossiter is a retired Research Fellow who formerly worked at the Universities of Bristol, Leeds, Oxford and Sheffield; and Charles Pattie is a professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield. They have written together on the Boundary Commissions and constituency definition in the UK since the early 1980s and co-authored The Boundary Commissions: Redrawing the UK’s Map of Parliamentary Constituencies (University of Manchester Press, 1999).

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