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.

123 Responses to “This week’s boundary review”

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  1. That’s what we love about the new (not ‘New’) Labour party. On the same as they report the ICM 13% lead and Labour languishing on 28%, the Guardian has an article by MP Rebecca Long Bailey, with has the strap line “As a member of his diverse shadow cabinet, I have watched Labour’s leader inspire a new mass movement and force the Tories into retreat”

    That’s ‘retreat’ as defined by being 13% ahead in the polls, presumably?

    With the boundary review forthcoming, there’s another quote that might be worth holding onto, where she says –

    “But as the result of this year’s leadership contest draws nearer, I have increasing faith that Labour will come together again. Even those who oppose Corbyn’s politics must understand their basic moral duty to hold Labour together.”

    So Corbyn’s opponents have a moral duty to keep Labour together, but do O’Donnel and Corbyn don’t have a moral duty to ensure all backbenchers get a fair crack at representing the new seats? That might be a good one to watch.

  2. Will that be the first time that there is no former serving PM in parliament?

  3. I guess I mean the period from 2013-2016 being the first time.

  4. Alec,
    Whilst I largely agree with your analysis , it is worth pointing out that ICM is showing the Tory lead dropping a point to 13% compared with 14% at the end of August. ICM has also made adjustments to its methodology the effect of which is to add several points to the Tory lead. On a like for like basis – re – the last Parliament etc – the lead would probably still be in single figures were an unchanged methodology being applied.

  5. Alan (3.37)

    When did Alec Douglas-Home leave the House of Commons?

  6. ‘Look it up yourself’


    So we may be going back to the end of Gladstone’s last term for an answer to Alan’s question.

  7. John B

    Wikipedia says 1974.

  8. Thanks Anthony, I find your blog very helpful and informative, Thank you.

  9. ALAN
    Will that be the first time that there is no former serving PM in parliament?

    Unless I have forgotten someone, wasn’t there no former serving PM in parliament from the 2015 [when Brown stood down] until Cameron resigned?

  10. John B

    I guess technically Gladstone was never Prime Minister but First Lord of the Treasury.

    Bannerman was the first Prime Minister to have it as an official title.

  11. Barbazenzero

    Yes, I tried simplifying what I asked and created an inaccuracy in the statement.

    Mea Culpa.

  12. I think it’s a mistake to separate the issue of constituency boundaries from electoral reform.

    In a majoritarian system there is a risk that minority interests are ignored or overlooked, to the eventual detriment of social cohesion or the legitimacy of the electoral system. Some regimes have deliberately introduced various measures to try to protect minority interests. Unequal constituency sizes can be viewed as one such measure (I think this is probably part of the reason why island constituencies tend to have smaller electorates). In a completely proportional system you have the opposite problem: it is possible for minorities to wield disproportionate influence.

    If we are to have constituencies of roughly similar electoral size we ought to do something to safeguard minorities. That would hopefully entail a proper debate about what minority interests need special protection, why and how best to provide it.

  13. ALAN
    Mea Culpa.

    Fair enough. I think there are a number of times when this happened. Major and Heath both stood down in UK GE 2001, although Thatcher was still in the HoL. If you count either chamber there won’t be many to date.

  14. Barbazenzero

    I did mean both chambers.

    I can’t see Cameron heading to the Lords. “I’m only 49” seems to imply he wants to do something else, he has enough time to decide what that is going to be. I’m not sure the lecture trail is what he has in mind either.

  15. ALAN
    I’m not sure the lecture trail is what he has in mind either.

    Fair comment. I’m not sure who would want to listen to him either.

  16. Witney. Just the kind of seat Corbyn needs to win.

    If Labour slips up here, there needs to be a coup.

  17. I’m warming to the idea… maybe we should randomly remove some seats every parliament. Shake things up a bit. This is just what democracy needs…

    We can always add a few at random too…

  18. So.. Brexiteer or Pro-European as candidate in Witney?

  19. “I’m not sure who would want to listen to him either.”


    I’d quite like to hear him explain the storage tax…

  20. Alec – “the DT reports boundary changes will remove – Jeremy Corbyn’s seat….”

    Yeah – apparently, three seats, Islington North (Corbyn), Islington South & Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) and Hackney North & Stoke Newington (Dianne Abbot) will become two.

    Looks like it will be Emily Thornberry falling on her sword – 60% of the new Finsbury Park and Stoke Newington constituency is currently in Islington North. However there are also some reports that Stamford Hill, which is currently in Diane’s constituency, will be in the new Finsbury Park and Stoke Newington constituency.

    Stamford Hill is half jewish. So Corbyn might be in for some karma, and it might be the good ole voters that deliver Lab from it’s woes!

  21. I actually think that for a safe seat, Witney is going to be an very interesting marker.

    I haven’t checked, but I assume this is one of the southern areas that backed remain, and while Labour came second on 17% in 2015, this was before Corbyn and largely as a result of the collapsing LD vote, which slumped to fourth place on 6.8%, down from second place 19.4% in 2010.

    I’m pretty sure the LD’s will make this vote about Brexit, and play the classic by election hand of ‘lend me your votes….’. They will seek to hoover up Labour pro EU and anti Corbyn votes, while appealing to Con voters to vote for the EU and keep May on her toes.

    The LD’s don’t really have a chance of winning in the current climate, but it’s going to be very interesting to see if we can pick out any sign of a Lib Dem revival, and if so, whether they are taking votes from Con, Lab or both. I have an outside hunch that this might be a little closer than some think.

  22. Muddy

    “He could sit on the floor.”


  23. I assume this is one of the southern areas that backed remain ..
    Witney comes under West Oxfordshire, which voted 54-46 for Remain.

  24. O/T Regarding Mrs Clinton’s illness – I think this actually helps the Dems.

    Focus on the age of the two candidates will draw attention to the vice presidential picks. Tim Kaine for the Dems manages to be both boring and likable at the same time, and he has an Ike-style smiley face. It will probably be a great relief to a big chunk of middle america to think of their country in his safe hands.

    John McCain’s age and potential illness were only a problem because his veep was Sarah Palin and people balked at the thought of her in charge.

    P.S. Eisenhower might have mastermined the D-Day operation, but he didn’t run on his obvious competence. Instead he ran on likeability. Here’s his famous campaign ad, with cheery cartoons singing “You like Ike, I like Ike, Everybody likes Ike for President…”


  25. Alec,

    “Cameron resigning as an MP immediately, ICM give Cons a 13% lead, and the DT reports boundary changes will remove – Jeremy Corbyn’s seat….”

    … Maybe Corbyn could stand in the by-election?

  26. David Carrod

    It looks as if Dan Hannan is a racing certainty to become the next
    MP for Witney then!

  27. Am i right in thinking that Labour still haven’t moved the writ for spen? If the conservatives arrange the Whitney by election quickly would that put pressure on labour?

  28. I’m not sure that any bank would want to put David Cameron on the board (except, perhaps, a water one) byt if he does get some position that May thinks is inappropriate, will she strip Cameron of his privileges (Ooh, err, missus) – as Juncker has done to Barosso?


  29. @Oldnat

    but [sic] if he does get some position that May thinks is inappropriate…

    …it’ll be fine as long as the pig has given its written consent. beforehand

  30. @CR

    Labour are now advertising for Candidates.

    Shortlisting interview Monday 19th September.

    Hustings and selection Friday 23rd September.

    Men are invited too, so not all-women shortlist.

  31. . “I’m only 49” seems to imply he wants to do something else, he has enough time to decide what that is going to be.
    Cameron wants to do something else.

    Hillary Clinton may have to step down as Democrat nominee, due to illness.

    How quickly could a US citizenship application be rushed through?

  32. CMJ

    Ahh so David Miliband could come back! Unlikely but an amusing thought

  33. David Carrod

    “How quickly could a US citizenship application be rushed through?”

    Pretty quickly – though arranging for his mother to have been in the USA when he was born would be a little trickier. :-)

  34. Putting together the last few ideas on this thread ……

    If pigs could fly, Cameron would have created a time travelling pig to take his pregnant Mum to the USA, in time for him to be born, then stayed in readiness to transport David Milliband back to England for the Batley selection, when Owen Smith looked likely to win the Lab leadership.

    Having used his joystick to successfully pilot the pig, he could then head back to Witney to lodge his nomination papers as the Labour candidate in the by election simultaneously with being the Democrat candidate for US President.

    The new trans-Atlantic Empire would be secure!.

    I’m sure there’s a flaw in that somewhere. :-(

  35. Oldnat

    That makes more sense than most of this year’s politics. It could happen.

    Having used his joystick to successfully pilot the pig…

    LOL! Eeew.

  36. OldNat

    A very good outline of realist novel :-)

    This is how Balzac probably started the Human Commedy.

  37. Its going to be interesting to watch the US polls over the next few days. There have been rumors about HC’s health for over a year now which have been strenuously denied, now it looks like they may be some true to them. It probably won’t do hillarys trustworthyness numbers any good but they are already pretty low, I’d say rock bottom but trump has that honor.

    Of course if the Donald does manage to pull ahead again he will come up with a crazy stunt to blow up his campaign, yet again.

  38. The boundary commission appear to have put their recommendations on a server made from old valves and duct tape. How much longer will the fate of Mersey Banks remain out of reach?

  39. Wintergreen

    Those over the water didn’t even want to share the area telephone code with Liverpool :-)

    There will be quite a few challenges.

  40. Indeed, the Commission’s server is not available …

  41. I think Cameron badly misread the public mood over Brexit and didn’t expect to lose. After that, a withdrawal into obscurity seems the best option for him.

    As for the boundary changes above, it’s looking as if we are going to see the Conservatives in or near power for a long time… Labour will almost certainly need a centrist leader to displace them.

    Meanwhile in Spain the deadlock continues, Rajoy still can’t win a confidence motion, so it seems they’re heading for a third election. The polls there suggest this won’t help much. Perhaps after another 20 elections he might actually get a majority. Maybe.

  42. @Rach

    “Of course if the Donald does manage to pull ahead again he will come up with a crazy stunt to blow up his campaign, yet again.”


    In a curious case of life mimicking summat or other, you know how Donald has been on about how “We’re gonna build a great big wall… and it’s gonna be beautiful, and they’re gonna pay for it!!…”, enthusiastically satirised by John Oliver??…


    Well, it turns out we’re gonna beat him to it, becoz we’re buiding one in Calais…


    Now, it did occur that some on the board might have seen this already, but then one pretty obviously reasoned that had this been the case, the board would have been plastered with much wailing and gnashing at the thought that we’re now getting our policies from ole Trumpy.

    …Anyway, I checked, and no, it isn’t dated April 1st. And no, Frenchies aren’t paying for it, we are…

  43. “I think Cameron badly misread the public mood over Brexit and didn’t expect to lose. After that, a withdrawal into obscurity seems the best option for him.”


    When he first entertained the idea, he prolly wouldn’t have lost. But a few years of pressing the immigration button over and over, while it may have driven numerous Labour voters into the arms of Ukip, it also meant peeps more likely to vote to leave.

    As for the obscurity thing, over at the Beeb…


    “But his decision is a total about-face from his previous commitments to stay on as an MP. What’s changed since then?

    Well, Theresa May has proved that she is quite prepared to divert from David Cameron’s agenda, to distance herself from some of his ideas, and to dismantle the political careers of many of his friends and allies.

    A senior Conservative told me today that there are ‘lots of non-persons’ around at the moment. One former minister close to David Cameron told me “a lot of people are quite cross” at the extent to which Theresa May has sought to move on from the Cameron era.

    There has been surprise and irritation among David Cameron and George Osborne’s political circle at how fast and how far the new prime minister has gone to dissociate herself from his government in which, after all, she was home secretary for six years. “

  44. For Wales, cutting the number of Westminster constituencies down from 40 to 29 must have made this review a particularly challenging one for their Boundary Commission,

    Presumably that’s why the report seems even more tentative than usual for such documents in outlining what alternative strategies might have been.


    Makes little squabbles across the Mersey seem very parochial in contrast. :-)

  45. Altrincham and Tatton Park is interesting … Brady vs Osborne? I guess Brady gets it so Osborne needs a new home.

  46. OldNat,

    “arranging for his mother to have been in the USA when he was born would be a little trickier”

    People (including myself) have tended to underestimate Cameron.

    Seriously, though, I think he’s unusually balanced for a PM in terms of having a functioning private life that he’s passionate about, and he was less obsessed with staying in power than most of his predecessors for that reason. I suspect that Cameron’s top priorities for his future involve spending lots of time raising his kids and hanging out with his wife. I’m lucky to not have had the experience of losing a child, but I imagine that it can help you value family life.

  47. Bill Patrick

    I wasn’t a fan and cannot forgive him for the gay marriage legislation like many of my generation, but I think your post is spot on. I wish him and his family well.


    “I think it was @Colin who memorably said he felt Cameron’s leadership would be ‘transformational’.
    I begged to differ then, and I claim my £10.”

    I think that’s wrong Alec and you don’t get the £10. Cameron made the Tories electable again in their own right so he does have his place in history..

  48. TOH

    Thanks :-)


    He got us out of the EU-how “transformational” does he have to be ? :-)

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