Redrawing the boundaries: Contentious but crucial to fair elections


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.

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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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The size of a Scot-Free House of Commons

The effect of Scottish independence on the United Kingdom is being discussed in all sorts of contexts, such as division of energy reserves, military resources, national debt (and probably even the Royal Yacht Britannia at Leith!).  One interesting effect will be the size of the House of Commons when there are no Scottish MPs.

The present boundary reviews, giving effect to the new legislation reducing the overall size of the Commons, will see 52 Scottish seats out of a total of 600 after the next election, set for 2015.  So, if and when Scotland departs the Union – whether this is before or after the next general election – there will be just 548 MPs.  This will be, I think, the smallest number since the Union of 1707.

Will this be viewed as an added free bonus for those seeking significant cuts in the number of MPs, or an opportunity for restoring any dilution of representation caused by the current cut of 43 MPs in the remaining UK?  Has this even been discussed seriously amidst all the constitutional debates and legislation of the last 2 years, or is this another example of ‘non-joined-up’ constitutional reformism?

How will the relatively few MPs from outwith England feel in a Union Parliament even more dominated by English MPs?  Will it be an English Parliament in all but name?  Might this new scenario arguably justify some greater degree of compensating ‘over-representation’ for Wales and NI?  As noted in my previous post (here), is any of this within the narrow remit of the McKay Commission on the ‘West Lothian Question’, and, even if so, would it want to look at just the Welsh and Northern Irish aspects? And wait until someone raises the ‘Lords WLQ’, ie ‘Scottish’ peers – however defined! – continuing to sit, and to speak and vote on all UK matters….

Boundary Reform: the end of community representation?

The Constitution Unit was pleased to welcome Professor Ron Johnston, Professor Charles Pattie, and David Rossiter on Wednesday 11 January to discuss the Parliamentary Boundaries Review, the proposals to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons from 650 to 600 and to ‘equalise’ the size of these seats.

While there was empathetic understanding of the sheer difficulty of the task at hand in redrawing the political map of the UK to meet an inflexible target; there was considerable criticism for the methodology imposed by the English commission. The golden rules for the English commission were to not create new constituencies which overlapped between different local government areas, and not to split existing wards. To equalise the size of the seats, the goal was to create constituencies of 76,641 voters with a five per cent margin of error.

This dogma resulted in a map of England with unfamiliar looking new constituencies. In London, for example, 37 of the 68 created constituencies are cross-borough, creating combined areas which have relatively little in common, save their mathematic ability to add up to the stated target range. This led Ron Johnston to question whether “the notion of a place being represented in parliament has become secondary to the notion of a constituency with 76,641 constituents”.

One of the major problems in redrawing the map was the refusal to split existing wards, as the Scottish Boundary commission has. Wards vary in size dramatically, and the larger the ward, the more inflexible it is with regards to fitting it under the constituency size limit. The only alternative to splitting wards is to poach smaller wards from neighbouring counties within the same local government areas, meaning that some previous constituencies have been divided up between several new constituencies. It’s a reasonable assumption that some of these ‘sub-optimally placed” electors may feel disenchanted or confused; and voter turnout in the most radically affected constituencies may tell its own story about the utility of these reforms.

The alternative implemented in Scotland, of dividing up existing wards to create optimally sized constituencies which overlap local government areas creates constituencies which are far less radically changed and more recognisable to local electors. With this in mind, the question was posed: are wards still fit for purpose in their current form?

The Boundary Commission is engaging in a process of public consultation which overlaps with a 12 week written representation period before finalising its findings. The hearings however, have been mandated and not driven by public demand and subsequently the interest level has been varied throughout the country. The process has also been dominated by the local political parties rather than by individuals, another sign of the creeping disconnect between the project and the people it aims to represent.

We are left to consider the utility of the Parliamentary Boundaries Review as a whole for several reasons.

  1. It may not become law in time for the next election; in which case its findings will be obsolete as population distribution will already have altered the equations used to establish these new constituencies.
  2. Population shifts, growth in urban areas in particular, will mean that the whole process will start anew after the next election and boundaries will need to be redrawn once more. For many voters, this may be their third radical displacement in three elections and risks serious disenchantment with the process.
  3. The question becomes ‘Do communities and continuity matter?’ – do people still consider themselves as part of a locale, is knowing who their local MP is important to them? The coming danger is letting a mathematical equation create a democratic deficit which disconnects the public further from those who would claim to represent them.