On Tuesday the Boundary Commissions for England and Wales publish their provisional recommendations for Parliamentary boundary changes (the Northern Ireland commission published last week, Scotland is still to come). The review will replace the current 650 Parliamentary constituencies with 600 constituencies with more equal electorates. The recommendations this week will go out to public consultation, after which the Commissions will publish revised recommendations. The final recommendations won’t appear until the autumn of 2018 and then will have to be approved by the Commons and Lords to come into effect at the 2020 general election.
Why are boundary changes happening?
In theory boundary changes are a purely administrative necessity. Our electoral system is based on single member constituencies. For everyone’s vote to be worth roughly the same constituencies need to be roughly the same size and, since people tend to move about, constituency boundaries need to change to reflect that. Without reviews seats would, over time, become wildly uneven. Prior to the Second World War this was done on an ad hoc basis, since then it has been done using a statutory timetable and independent commissions. The exact time frame has shifted over time (we’ll come to that later), but under current legislation the boundary commissions are required to carry out a review every five years.
So why is it controversial?
The truth is that boundary reviews are almost always controversial. While on paper they are an administrative necessity carried out independently, because they have a direct impact on politician’s jobs and how difficult it is for each party to win an election they inevitably become politically contentious. Because boundary changes usually favour the Conservatives (I’ll come to that later too), it is normally a battle between a Labour party seeking to delay changes or relax the rules and a Conservative party seeking to speed the changes up and make the rules as tight as possible.
So for example, at the second review in 1969 the Labour party tried and failed to introduce only part of the review, then blocked the whole thing until Heath came to power the next year; in 1983 Michael Foot went to court to try and block the implementation of the third review; in 1992 the Conservatives changed the law to speed the fourth review up and get it done in time for the 1997 election.
The forthcoming review is a reboot of the abandoned review in the last Parliament, being carried out under new rules that the Cameron government introduced in 2011: while the reviews themselves are scrupulously neutral, overseen by High Court Judges, the rules they carry them out by are set by Parliament. While the Labour and Lib Dem vote in the last Parliament delayed the new review, it did not reverse the changes in the law and the new review will still take place under the new rules.
How did the Cameron government change the rules?
The 2011 Act introduced a lot of changes to the boundary review process, but many of these were either relatively technical or relatively uncontroversial. Among academics and the Commissions themselves there was a general feeling that the existing rules were not up to scratch, especially after the 1983 legal challenge (for a nice exploration of some of the issues around the old rules see David Butler and Iain McLean’s 2007 report for the Committee for Standards in Public Life). The new rules get rid of lots of those old problems, like the ratchet effect that kept increasing the number of seats and the lack of clarity as to how much priority the Commissions should give to the contradictory rules.
The most controversial issues though were the number of MPs, the frequency and strictness of the rules. The old rules aimed at producing a House of Commons of 630 seats, but the way they worked meant it was impossible for the Commissions to actually do this. The new rules have a set number of 600 seats, fifty fewer than the current House of Commons. In practice this means that the review is more disruptive than previous reviews – it’s not just a case of bringing seats into line with the quota, but rejigging the map to divide the country into 600 rather than 650. It also means that fifty MPs will see their seats disappear, making it that much trickier to get the recommendations passed.
On timing, under the old rules the Boundary Commissions were supposed to report between 8 and 12 years after the previous report, so boundary reviews normally took place every three elections. The new rules changed this to a five year timetable which, in conjunction with the Fixed Term Parliament Act, means there will be a review every election. Note that the last review was completed in 2007, so while this was an important change, we would now be due a boundary review anyway, even under the old rules.
Finally the Act made the rules stricter – under the old rules the Commissions were supposed to make the seats as equal as practically possible without crossing county or London borough boundaries, but they were allowed to break this rule to minimise disruption or protect local ties. The new rules are much stricter – seats must be within 5% of the quota, even if it means crossing county boundaries or splitting communities between seats. The only limited exceptions to the 5% rule are the Scottish islands, the Isle of Wight and under certain circumstances the Scottish Highlands and Northern Ireland.
Why do the changes favour the Conservatives?
Almost all boundary changes favour the Conservatives because of the pattern of population changes. In the last fifty-odd years in Britain we’ve tended to see the population in the old industrial cities in the North fall relative to the population in the London commuter belt. As a result, over time the electorate in inner-city Northern seats (which happen to be Labour) falls and the electorate in southern, suburban seats (which happen to be Conservative) rises.
This means the more out of date boundaries are the better they are for Labour (as they’ll still be returning lots of MPs from areas whose population has since fallen and who no longer deserve so many seats). To bring seats back towards equality, seats in Labour areas tend to be amalgamated and new seats are created in Conservative voting areas, meaning the more up-to-date the boundaries are the more it helps the Tories.
One might think having up-to-date boundaries is obviously desirable, but having frequent boundary changes has downsides. It means MPs keep seeing the areas they represent change, and voters get shifted from one constituency to another. There is also an administrative cost to all this chopping about with boundaries. There is no right answer to how frequently boundaries are updated, its a question of getting the right balance between equal representation and the disruption boundary reviews cause. Naturally the political parties have tended to favour the answers that suit them: the Tories have normally tried to make boundary reviews as frequent and brisk as possible, Labour have often tried to block or delay them.
It is a similar case with how much variance from the quota the rules allow. More relaxed rules mean the review will do less to correct the pro-Labour skew that develops over time, stricter rules will tend to favour the Conservatives. Having seats that are very close together in terms of electorate is good for equal representation, but can necessitate crossing local authority boundaries, splitting communities between different seats and putting together places with little in common, so again there is no “right” answer. The parties have tended to favour what helps them.
What happened with the review in the last Parliament?
In the last Parliament the review started in 2011, and had got to the stage of publishing detailed recommendations before the coalition partners fell out over House of Lords reform and Nick Clegg announced that the Liberal Democrats would not vote to implement the boundary recommendations. While at the time the Commissions were still obliged by law to complete the review, later in the Parliament Labour and the Liberal Democrats forced through an amendment to another bill that cancelled the review completely, delaying the next report to September 2018.
Because the abandoned review had got the revised stage by the time it was abandoned we can work out what the party partisan impact would have been. If the boundaries had been in place at the last election the Conservatives would have won 9 fewer seats, Labour would have won 28 less, the Lib Dems only four. Overall the Conservatives would have won a much healthier majority of 44 seats.
Will this review have a similar outcome to the abandoned review?
In broad terms, yes, it will. The trends in population change in Britain haven’t changed, so the review will still take away more seats in the north than in the south and will still tend to favour the Tories. It will still cut the number of seats in Wales by about a quarter. In specific terms it will be different though, it’s based on 2015 electorates, not 2010 electorates so the specific arrangements of seats will be different and here and there seat totals will be different. I wrote about what we could confidently predict that the Boundary Commissions would recommend here.
Note that this is a brand new review – the Commissions are all starting their work again from scratch, rather than just trying to adjust the abandoned review to the new electorate figures. That does not, of course, mean that they won’t learn from the experience of the last review, nor that faced with the same problems they won’t come to the same conclusions. What we have learnt is that the Commissions are likely to be more willing to split some council wards between seats. This extra freedom is likely to produce seats that better reflect and respect communities and avoid some of the more bonkers recommendations in the abandoned review (for example, because the large wards in Birmingham don’t fit neatly into the electoral quota the last review recommended lots of Birmingham seats that had a ward from outside Birmingham bolted on to make up the numbers – by dividing some Birmingham wards between constituencies this silliness can be avoided).
What about the “missing two million voters”?
Labour’s criticism of the review seems to be based upon the argument that the review is “missing” two million people. By necessity, a review that aims at getting equal electorates needs to be based on the electorate at a given point and in the case of this review that point is the 1st December 2015, the day that the electorate registers based on the 2015 annual canvas came into force.
The date is significant because it was the first register based fully on Individual Electoral Registration rather than household registration. Despite earlier worries, this does not appear to have led to very large numbers of people dropping off the register. The Electoral Commission report into the effect of the final transition to IER found that the completeness of the register had only fallen one percent (85% of people who should be on the register are, compared to 86% on the old method), but that accuracy had significantly increased (91% of entries on the register are genuine people at the correct address, compared to 86% on the old system). However there are still plenty of people who should be on the electoral register, and while the overall figure did not show a significant fall, the Electoral Commission report suggests that the decline was higher among young people and people in rented accommodation.
It also reflects a change in how people use electoral registration. The ease of registering online and the widespread publicity it means a large number of people do not register at in the annual canvas, but do register in the run up to an election. So, between Dec 2015 and Jun 2016 an extra two million people registered to vote in the referendum and May elections, but won’t be accounted for in the review.
The Boundary Commissions do not have any discretion to change the date they base their review on – the law requires it to be the Dec 2015 register. The only way it could be changed is by primary legislation and the review starting all over again from scratch, something that would probably mean the review not being completed in time for the 2020 election (hence why Labour are suggesting it, and why the Conservatives wouldn’t consider it!). For the record, if the review was based on the electorate in June 2016 rather than the electorate in December 2015 the effect would be one less seat in Northern Ireland, the West Midlands and the North West, one extra seat in the South East and two extra seats in London.
Will it go ahead?
The English and Welsh Commissions report this week with the Scottish recommendations still to come. These provisional recommendations will be followed by a consultation period and public meetings, after which the Commissions will consider the responses and make revised recommendations. The amendment passed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the last Parliament requires the Commissions to deliver their report by 1st Oct 2018, but no earlier than September 2018, so once the revised proposals are published we’ll probably hear nothing else till 2018.
Once the final report is delivered the government need to put secondary legislation before Parliament to implement the changes. Crucially this needs the support of the Lords and the Commons – neither of which is necessarily guaranteed. The government only has an effective majority of 16, so it doesn’t need many rebels to put the boundaries at risk.