Beating the boundaries? The stalled debate on how to draw up the UK’s parliamentary constituencies

A major 2011 shake-up of the rules governing how the UK’s parliamentary constituencies are drawn has proved controversial. While the new rules deal with the long-standing issue of substantial inequalities in constituency electorates, they also threaten frequent major disruption of the country’s constituency map. But attempts to square the circle by revising the 2011 legislation seem stalled, and the new rules themselves have yet to result in new constituencies. Charles Pattie, Ron Johnston and David Rossiter offer their view of where we are, and where we should go from here.

Largely unnoticed outside Westminster, an important debate has been going on over how to redraw the UK’s constituency map. The current rules for doing so are enshrined in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 (the Constituencies Act). But since the start of this year, two major proposals have been made to revise aspects of the Act. In February, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report setting out its proposals (and in late May, the government responded). And a private member’s bill sponsored by Labour MP Afzal Khan, containing a different set of recommended changes is still making its way through parliament. Continue reading

Plus ça change – or déjà vu all over again: the proposals for new, and fewer, parliamentary constituencies

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Proposals for new parliamentary constituencies have now been published by three of the four UK Boundary Commissions. Ron Johnston examines the nature of those recommendations and their likely impact, on both individual members of the current House of Commons and their parties. The Conservatives are likely to gain significantly over Labour as a result of the changes, but there is much debate over the electoral data that the Commissions have to use, as laid down in the rules approved by parliament in 2011.

The Boundary Commissions for England, Northern Ireland and Wales have now published their initial recommendations for new parliamentary constituency boundaries. These are implementing the revised rules for such exercises introduced in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. An earlier exercise deploying those rules began in 2011 but was ended prematurely by parliament in 2013. That decision delayed the procedure by five years; the Commissions now have to deliver a final set of proposals for new constituencies by October 2018, which it is anticipated parliament will approve for use at the expected next general election in 2020.

Those new rules introduced two major changes to the United Kingdom’s electoral cartography, each with a potential substantial impact on the composition of the next House of Commons. First, the number of MPs is to be reduced from 650 to 600: England will have 501 compared to its current 533; Scotland’s contingent will be reduced from 59 to 53 and Northern Ireland’s from 18 to 17; Wales will experience the greatest reduction, from 40 to 29 MPs. The second change is that with four exceptions (two for Scotland – Orkney & Shetland and the Western Isles – and two for England – for the Isle of Wight) all constituencies must have electorates deviating by no more than five percentage points from a UK average of 74,769; all must therefore have electorates between 71,031 and 78,508.

The combination of those two changes accounts for the bigger cuts in Wales than elsewhere. Currently Wales has 40 constituencies with an average electorate of 54,546, compared to an average of 70,234 for England (excluding the Isle of Wight) and 67,416 in Scotland. Only one of the current 40 Welsh constituencies has an electorate within the specified range, and so the current map has to be completely replaced.

The Scottish Boundary Commission will not announce its provisional recommendations until mid-October, at the request of the political parties there.

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Gerrymandering for democracy: An impossible goal?

In a recent report by Mathew Lawrence and Sarah Birch the Institute for Public Policy Research has made several proposals for improving the quality of British democracy. One of them involves politicising the traditionally fiercely independent and neutral Boundary Commissions, by requiring them to gerrymander constituency boundaries to produce fewer safe and more marginal seats. Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and David Rossiter consider this proposal, and find it neither feasible nor sensible. Alternative reforms which encourage greater public participation in the electoral process are needed.

In their recent IPPR report The Democracy Commission Mathew Lawrence and Sarah Birch propose four ways to improve the quality of British democracy, ranging from introducing the single transferrable vote in local government elections in England and Wales to establishing a ‘Democracy Commission’ to facilitate participation. Their proposals seek to tackle the unrepresentativeness of the House of Commons, brought about in part by the first-past-the-post system, which produces disproportional electoral outcomes with some parties substantially over-represented there relative to their vote shares and others even more substantially under-represented; one party predominates in the complement of MPs returned from most regions, even though it lacks even a majority of votes there.

One of the reasons they suggest for this disproportionality is that there are too many safe seats and too few marginal ones. Electioneering focuses very much on the latter as there is little incentive for parties to encourage participation in places where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. So one of the IPPR proposals is that the rules implemented by the four Boundary Commissions that recommend the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies should be changed. In effect, the Commissions would be instructed to undertake a form of gerrymandering by seeking:

‘… to redraw a ‘safe’ seat to make it a ‘marginal’. ‘Gerrymandering’ safe seats out of existence where possible will increase the competitiveness of elections and reduce the oversized electoral power that voters in marginals currently have, and as a result is likely to improve participation rates.’

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Changing the Commons: How many MPs? How equal their electorates? Part 2

Yesterday, in part one of this blog, Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie outlined the challenges that are likely to make the 2016 boundary review as (if not more) disruptive than the aborted 2012 review. Here the authors consider how issues around the accuracy and completeness of the electoral rolls will impact the review process and make the case for amending the Bill in line with PCRC recommendations made in March.

Can any of the potential disruption of the 2016 boundary review be avoided? Is it possible to maintain the general principle of greater equality of constituency electorates but modify the rules and Boundary Commission practices, so that a new constituency map can be created that differs less from the current one than in the 2012 recommendations? In research that we did in 2014, published by the McDougall Trust, we showed that there would probably be much less disruption if: (1) the tolerance was increased from +/-5% to at least +/-8%; and (2) the Boundary Commissions, especially the Boundary Commission for England, were more prepared to split wards when creating constituencies.

That research also showed that the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 did not exacerbate the disruption. Even if the number had been retained at 650, substantial changes would have been needed across the four countries within the UK, and then within them, because of the adoption of a single quota and the +/-5% tolerance.

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Changing the Commons: How many MPs? How equal their electorates? Part 1

How much disruption do we want to the UK’s electoral map? We want constituencies to be equal in size – but how equal? And do we want fewer MPs? An article in The Independent on 11 July 2015 suggested that some Conservative MPs are already concerned about the impact on their constituencies if the number of MPs is reduced but unless these questions are addressed quickly another very disruptive exercise in redrawing constituency boundaries will start early next year. In part one of this two-part blog, Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie consider the review that was aborted in 2012 and outline the challenges currently lie ahead for the 2016 review.

The Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election included a statement that:

‘We will also continue to reform our political system: make votes of more equal value through long overdue boundary reforms, reducing the number of MPs…’

This was not a commitment to do something new; legislation is already in place to achieve those goals and the manifesto commitment was thus simply one to ensure that they were achieved. But what do the Conservatives want to achieve, and what will it mean for the next election?

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011 introduced a number of fundamental changes to the way in which Parliamentary constituency boundaries are defined. Under the previous legislation they were reviewed every 8-12 years; each of the four nations of the UK had a guaranteed minimum number of MPs – which meant that some parts, notably Wales, were significantly over-represented relative to others (at the 2015 election, the average Welsh constituency had 57,057 registered electors whereas the English average was 72,853, the Northern Irish 68,705 and the Scottish 69,403); and the Boundary Commissions were only required to try and make constituency electorates as equal as practicable when they had taken account of local government boundaries and communities of interest and, as far as possible, kept change to a minimum.

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What the Queen said – and what she didn’t say

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Following yesterday’s Queen’s Speech, Robert Hazell considers the constitutional issues that featured, as well as those which were notable in their absence.

There were few surprises in the Queen’s Speech announcing the new government’s legislative programme. Like his admired predecessor Tony Blair, David Cameron knows that the public have little interest in constitutional issues, so the constitutional items came last, just before foreign affairs. England got mentioned first, with devolution to English cities; then more powers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; English votes for English laws; the EU referendum; and a British bill of rights. What are the key issues to look out for in relation to each of these items? And what other items didn’t get a mention?

The Scotland Bill will be introduced early, because that was promised in the Vow, and the coalition government published draft clauses in January. It will implement the proposals of the Smith Commission, but go no further. It appears to be a done deal, but will be attacked on both sides. The SNP attack is predictable: they will say their resounding victory in Scotland is a mandate to go much further. But the bill also risks being attacked on the government side. The Smith proposals are based on no underlying principles and were very hurried, with no consultation amongst the political parties and endorsed only by the three main party leaders. When the details are examined, unionists on all sides may start to worry about their feasibility, and compatibility with the union. Whitehall was bounced into Smith like everyone else, and no one can confidently say how the fiscal arrangements will work in practice.

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Party manifestos fail to offer clear commitments on the redrawing of Parliamentary boundaries

Will the rules for the redistribution of Parliamentary constituencies be changed by the next government – as recommended by a House of Commons Committee? Or will another disruptive exercise reducing the number of MPs begin within a year of the 2015 election, as currently scheduled? As Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie show, there are no clear commitments in the parties’ manifestos.

In 2010 the Conservatives were convinced (correctly) that the operation of the electoral system for the UK House of Commons was currently biased against them: they get a smaller share of the seats than Labour from the same percentage of votes cast. They were also certain that variations in constituency electorates were a major cause of this anti-Tory bias. So, meeting one of their manifesto commitments, one of the first bills introduced by the coalition government in 2010 – the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill – proposed that for the first time all UK constituencies should have an electorate within 5 per cent of the average. It also proposed a reduction in the period between redistributions by the Boundary Commissions to every five years (fitting the timetable of the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, 2011) and changes to the nature of the public consultation procedure during those redistributions – whilst at the same time reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600.

Commentators and the Boundary Commissions had both indicated that these changes would be very disruptive to the constituency map. This turned out to be the case when the Commissions’ provisional recommendations for new constituencies were published in late 2011-early 2012. The subsequent public consultations stimulated many alterations to that map, but merely rewrote the disruption. Many existing constituencies were dismembered, and new ones were proposed that bore little resemblance to the pattern of communities on the ground: a large number of MPs and their local parties were not very content with the likely outcome of the drive for greater equality of representation.

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