Redrawing the boundaries: Contentious but crucial to fair elections

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Patrick Tomison considers evidence submitted to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee inquiry which is assessing where the challenges lie when it comes to redrawing electoral boundaries in the UK.

On 16 February 2011, the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act received Royal Assent. It sought to pursue the dual aim of reducing perceived over-representation of certain areas while setting out plans for the AV referendum in its Schedules. Despite, and perhaps due to, an over-ambitious timetable for implementation by the 2015 General Election, the Boundaries Commissions of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales had to abandon their Sixth Report and the redrawing of boundaries was put on hold until after the election. The Political and Constitutional Reform Committee agreed on 17 July 2014 to hold an inquiry into the redrawing of constituency boundaries. In essence the inquiry asks what could be improved with the current rules.

This blog post guides readers through the dense wood of constituency boundaries using the Committee’s terms of reference as a breadcrumbs to keep us on the right path. Evidence submitted to the inquiry will be used to highlight the direction (and sticking points) of the debates.

The first crucial question the inquiry seeks to answer is what are the advantages and disadvantages of setting constituency boundaries within 5% of the ‘electoral quota’? The quota referred to is the requirement in the 2011 Act that constituencies do not vary by more than 5% from the ideal average in electorate size. In his oral evidence, David Rossiter identifies the primary culprit of the difficulties found by the Boundary Commissions in 2013 as being the 5% targets. He recommends a more relaxed 10% quota that would allow other factors, such as continuity and community, to be considered. Tony Bellringer, the secretary of the Boundary Commission for England, agreed with this assessment in oral evidence. A theme throughout the written submissions is that the strict 5% tolerance must go if other factors are to be respected.

The second major issue is whether wards could be split in redrawing constituencies. During the process of creating the Sixth Report the Boundary Commissions presumed that wards could not be split. This presumption caused a lot of difficulties. The Boundary Commissions explained that lack of mapping data led them to take this decision, but Tony Bellringer said that they would be more open to ward-splitting in the future. Professor Ron Johnston stated that although continuity is an argument against ward-splitting, more continuity could be ensured by allowing it.

A third question is the accuracy of using the registered electorate as the basis for redrawing boundaries. Manchester City Council’s written submissions raised the central issue: the registered electorate does not accurately reflect the population, and using the registered electorate creates a inequality, as certain demographics tend to be under-registered. Inner cities and urban areas have the greatest prevalence of under-registration. Professor Ron Johnston believes that this is a case of philosophy versus pragmatics. MPs represent everyone, so this is a strong case for the census being the basis. On the other hand, John Cartwright dismisses using the census as the basis: ‘MPs are supposed to be elected by equal electorates, not by equal populations.’

The final major issue is the number of MPs. The 2011 Act proposed a reduction from 650 MPs to 600 MPs. Gateshead Council believe that this measure was introduced due to popular disaffection with politics, but doubt whether reducing the number of MPs will address this. In a joint paper, Professor Ron Johnston, Dr David Rossiter and Professer Charles Pattie approve fixing the number of MPs, but did not express an opinion on the number. David Boothroyd, a member of Westminster City Council, would rather have around 645 MPs, but would allow for this to be altered in exceptional circumstances. It is therefore fair to say that opinion is split on this issue.

A message which comes from Tony Bellringer’s evidence, as well as that of Professor Ron Johnston and Dr David Rossiter, is the enormity of the task faced by the Boundary Commission for England in assessing and redrawing 500 parliamentary constituencies. Although many of the recommendations of Professor Johnston are recognised as valuable in principle by the Boundary Commissions, the practical realisation is doubted. In relation to ward-splitting, this is both because the Boundary Commission does not have the necessary maps and because the workers in the Boundary Commission for England live and work in London, thus having no feel for the local ties in other parts of the country.

The flavour of the evidence overall is that this area is both contentious and crucially important to ensuring that our elections are fair. Everyone’s vote must be equal.

The deadline for written submissions to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee is 15 January 2015. The evidence submitted to the inquiry so far can be viewed here.

Patrick Tomison  is a research intern at the Constitution Unit, working on the Judicial Independence Project.

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