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

The number of ‘safe’ seats should be reduced to strengthen UK democracy and increase participation

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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. They suggest 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.

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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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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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