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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A new electoral map for the UK: fewer voters, many changed constituencies – and Conservative prospects for 2020 enhanced?

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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.

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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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50 fewer MPs: Challenges for the constituency boundary review

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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.

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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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