On Tuesday 13th the provisional recommendations of the Boundary Commission for England are due to be published (Scotland is due in October, Northern Ireland sometime this month, Wales not for a long time), the headquarters of the main political parties and members of Parliament will receive an embargoed copy of the report sometime on Monday. I suspect that, with 650 copies of the report banging around Parliament, we’ll get some details emerging then.
There will be 502 constituencies in England. Two of these must by statute be wholly upon the Isle of Wight, and don’t have to fit within any quota of electorate. The other 500 must all have between 72,810 and 80,473 voters – based on the number of people on the electoral register on the 1st December 2010. The boundary commission does not have any leeway on these rules, apart from the Isle of Wight seats all other seats in England must be within these quotas.
Beyond that, the Boundary Commission should take account of geographical considerations, like the size, shape and transport connections in a constituency, local ties, local government boundaries and the current constituency boundaries. We know already that the Boundary Commission for England is regarding regional boundaries as pretty sacrosanct – they have allocated seats per region, and while they will consider proposals that cross boundaries, they say it would take compelling reasons for them to adopt them. We also know that the Boundary Commission have said that they will only split council wards if there are compelling reasons. We’ll know how compelling they need to be in practice on Tuesday.
The main change from previous boundary reviews is that the quota is fixed. Previously the Boundary Commissions aimed at getting seats close to the quota, but some seats diverged from it to some degree – a minority being over ten percent above or below quota. A second major change is that England, Scotland & Wales will all be using the same quota. Previously Wales in particular had a much lower quota. This means that Wales will lose 10 seats from the 40 it currently has.
Beyond that the rules are not much changed. For this review only the rules no longer require minimal disruption, but the Commissions do have to give regard to current Parliamentary boundaries, which will have a similar effect. However, while the rules never formally prevented Boundary Commissions from crossing county boundaries or splitting wards in the past, in practice they gave great weight to these considerations, and hence rarely or never did it. Under the new rules having an electorate within quota takes precedence over other considerations, so in some cases county boundaries will be crossed, and wards will be split.
The provisional recommendations will give us the proposed details of the 502 seats in England, as proposed by the independent Boundary Commission. We’ll be able to work out the partisan impact of this for England, though obviously won’t have a full picture till Scotland and Wales report. It is worth remembering that the boundary changes in England will be the least beneficial towards the Conservatives, because it’s there they have the most to lose. In contrast, Scotland will lose 9 seats and by definition a maximum of 1 can be Conservative!
So for those of you interested in to what extent the new boundaries are better or worse for the parties, remember that the plusses and minus are not evenly distributed around the country. To take Lewis Baston’s estimates of the effects (we’ll know how good they were in a week!) as an example, in England Lewis had the Conservatives 10 seats worse off to Labour’s 9 seats worse off… but then in Scotland & Wales he had the Conservatives 4 seats worse off, but Labour 9 seats worse off.
We will also have a good idea of which MPs are likely to see their seats chopped up and where there will be interesting selection battles. Remember that it’s not always clear which seats have been “abolished” and which seats are the successors to other seats. A seat can change names, but actually be largely similar to another seat. A seat with a similar name is not necessarily the successor. For example, in the last boundary review the Essex North and Harwich seat was not the successor to Harwich: it was mostly Essex North. Despite the different name the new Clacton was in fact overwhelmingly made up of the old Harwich seat.
Also bear in mind that lots of the gains and losses will actually be very minor changes to ultra-marginals. If you are an MP with a majority of 50, then a very small change could flip your seat to another party… but unless the next general election is a carbon copy of the last one, it will make no difference to who wins the seat. You’d have held or lost that seat anyway depending on if your party goes up or down. The more important measure of the impact of the boundary changes will be the swing/lead needed by each party to win. Currently the Conservatives need to be about 11 points ahead of Labour to win an overall majority, while Labour need to be about 3 points ahead of the Conservatives for an overall majority – the important question is to what extent that changes (don’t, I hasten to add, expect it to even up completely. A lot of that difference is down to factors other than boundaries). Again, we’ll need some provisional Scottish and Welsh boundaries before we can update that fully.
Finally, remember that all of these are provisional recommendations. The next step is a twelve week consultation period, during which there will be several public hearings in each region, which will also see the main political parties argue the case for their own proposals. At the end of the twelve week period all the submissions to the consultation period will be published, and then there will be a further consultation period for people to respond to other people’s submissions. Finally the Assistant Commissioner appointed in each area will take away the submissions and come up with some amended proposals, or confirm the provisional ones as final. The final recommendations will not turn up till next year at the earliest.
UPDATE: The recommendations will apparently be released to MPs at 12 noon next Monday, and embargoed until midnight.