The main focus of media coverage of the Conservative manifesto has been on the party’s controversial social care policy, but it also includes some surprising and significant proposed changes to do with the conduct of elections – the abolition of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, first past the post to replace the supplementary vote and requiring proof of ID to vote. Andrew Cook discusses these proposals and their implications.
The polls still suggest that the Conservatives are heading for victory in next month’s election. Nothing is certain. Nevertheless, the Conservative manifesto – Forward Together – is worth examining in detail. The media focus has been on the party’s controversial social care policy, but a section of the manifesto called ‘The Home of Democracy and the Rule of Law’ also includes some surprising and significant proposed changes to do with the conduct of elections. This post concentrates on these, while a larger comparison of the constitutional pledges of all the parties will follow on this blog later in the week.
Abolishing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act
The first issue is the fundamental question of when elections can be held. The manifesto commits to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which was enacted into law by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2011.
This Act was supposed to constrain a Prime Minister from calling an early election at a time of her or his convenience. But it certainly did not do that this time round: as Alan Renwick argued here earlier this month the ‘Act really has changed only the choreography, not the underlying pattern of power.’ May easily cleared the bar of two thirds of all MPs voting for the snap election and if the Act is repealed it will be remarked that it served little purpose. On the other hand, there may be more to the story. Under different circumstances, different political incentives could have seen the Act constrain the choices of a future Prime Minister. If the Conservatives form a government and fulfil their commitment, that will no longer be the case.
The question remains as to what will replace the Act (a replacement is needed, as simple repeal would abolish any limit on the length of a parliament). There is some disagreement as to whether you can ‘revive’ a prerogative power through legislation, allowing a reversion to the status quo ante, or whether an entirely new system for calling an election will need to be created.
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.
The boundary review process began last week following the publication of the electorate figures that the Boundary Commissions will use. Ron Johnston digests the numbers and looks ahead to the likely outcomes of the review. He suggests that, barring very large alterations in the patterns of party support, it is likely to enhance Conservative prospects in 2020.
An exercise to redraw the United Kingdom’s electoral map started on 24 February with publication of the number of people registered as electors on 1 December 2015. These figures determine the number of parliamentary constituencies allocated to each of the four countries and across England’s nine regions for the next general election (due in 2020), plus the size and nature of each constituency.
These allocations, and the subsequent redrawing of the map of individual constituencies, will use rules designed to ensure equality of representation across constituencies. They were introduced by the 2011 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, which also fixed the number of constituencies at 600 (replacing the current 650). The Boundary Commissions’ initial implementation of those rules would have produced a new set of constituencies by October 2013, to be used for the 2015 general election. That exercise was halted by parliament in January 2013, however; it is now being restarted with no change to the rules.
Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and David Rossiter have argued that an IPPR report’s proposal that constituency boundaries should be gerrymandered to produce more marginal seats would be neither feasible nor sensible. The authors of the report, Sarah Birch and Mathew Lawrence, respond here. Theysuggest that a boundary delimitation outcome entailing more competitive results would not necessarily be more ‘political’, but it would be more democratic.
The UK has become significantly more unequal politically over the course of the past 30 years. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s there were only small differences in rates of electoral participation between young and old, advantaged and disadvantaged groups, by 2015 these differences had turned into gaping chasms. Fewer than half of 18–24 year-olds voted in the recent general election, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of ‘AB’ individuals who were registered to vote actually did so, against just over half of ‘DE’ registered voters.
Differential electoral participation matters for democracy. If certain sectors of the electorate are known to vote with lower frequency, politicians are less likely to consider their interests when making policy. The result is policy that fails the inclusivity test, and also increased disaffection among members of those groups who – rightly – feel neglected by politicians. Disaffection in turn strengthens alienation and reinforces electoral abstention, generating a vicious cycle of under-participation and under-representation.
Work on the parliamentary constituency boundary review is set to begin next March. At a seminar jointly organised by The Constitution Unit and the House of Commons Library on October 27 Tony Bellringer, the Secretary to the Boundary Commission for England, outlined the boundary review process and Ron Johnston spoke about some of the challenges likely to be faced. Daniel Goldstein and Matthew Rice provide an overview.
As a result of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act of 2011 a review of parliamentary constituency boundaries is now required to occur every five years. After the first of these was abandoned in 2013, following an amendment to what became the Electoral Registration and Administration Act , the first official revised review is scheduled for completion in 2018. On October 27 the Secretary to the Boundary Commission for England, Tony Bellringer, and the foremost academic expert on constituency reviews, Professor Ron Johnston, came to Parliament to discuss the process and implications of the review at an event jointly organised by The Constitution Unit and the House of Commons Library’s Parliament and Constitution Centre.
Law and process
Tony Bellringer began by explaining how the constituency review process has changed since the 2011 law. Prior to 2011, a review occurred every eight to 12 years. While preserving constituency stability, this timetable permitted the size of the electorate in each constituency to vary significantly over time. One advantage of that structure was that it allowed the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) to work over time across the country with a small, experienced staff. Reviews are now regularly scheduled for every five years. This better mitigates drift but carries the cost of more frequent constituency change. Further, interim reviews are now prohibited, compressing work into the two-and-a-half years prior to a review deadline. This presents budgeting as well as staff retention issues for the BCE.