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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Equality, Community and Continuity: Reviewing the UK Rules for Constituency Redistributions – Part 2

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. In this second blog based on their research Ron Johnston, David Rossiter and Charles Pattie outline why electoral quotas, rather than a reduction in the number of MPs, would be the primary cause of disruption in a boundary review.

The redistributions undertaken by the Boundary Commissions in 2011-2013 were aborted by Parliament for political reasons before their completion, so the 2015 general election will be fought in the current constituencies. But implementation of the 2011 Act was merely delayed until 2016 and a new set of reviews initiated then will, if conducted under the same Rules for Redistributions, be as disruptive to the current map of constituencies as those aborted in 2013. However, this will be primarily due to attempts to introduce electoral quotas, rather than any reduction in the number of MPs.

In seeking to reduce the number of MPs, from 650 to 600, the coalition government was less concerned with the impact on boundaries than in reducing the cost of Parliament.  But as MPs and others saw seats disappear from the map amid the general disruption, the two issues became somewhat conflated.  Surely this reduction had to be part of the cause?  Our research suggests the impact was slight, however.  A few more seats might have escaped change had the number of MPs not been altered, but the causes (and possible solutions) of the major disruption were elsewhere.

The imposition of a single electoral quota plus the reduction in the number of MPs meant that the formerly over-represented parts of the United Kingdom would experience larger decreases in their Parliamentary delegations than others: the number of Welsh MPs would decline from 40 to 30 (a 25 per cent reduction) and Scottish MPs from 59 to 52 (a 12 per cent loss); Northern Ireland’s decline was from 18 to 16 (11 per cent) and England’s from 533 to 502 (6 per cent).

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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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