Earlier in the week the Boundary Commissions of England, Scotland and Wales (but not Northern Ireland) published their revised recommendations for the boundary review. This is the next stage of the review that started before the last election – the rules are that the Boundary Commissions need to report every five years, so the early election hasn’t had any impact on the timeable.

The process of a Boundary review is that the Commissions start by working out some provisional recommendations which go out to public consultation. The Commissions then publish revised recommendations taking into account all the comments they’ve received, and there is a period of consultation on those. Finally the Commissions put out final recommendations. We’re now at the revised stage, and the final report will be in September 2018.

At each stage I work out some notional figures* on how the previous election would have looked if fought on the new boundaries. The initial recommendations wouldn’t have made a huge difference to the result of the 2017 election (the Conservatives would still have been just short of an overall majority), but would have made it a little easier for the Conservatives to win. The new revised boundaries are a little more positive for the Conservatives – if the votes cast at the 2017 election had been counted on these new boundaries the Conservatives would have won 307 seats (ten less than currently), Labour would have won 234 seats (twenty-eight fewer than currently), the Liberal Democrats 8 (four less than currently) and the SNP 30 (five less than currently).

More importantly the new boundaries would make it a little easier for the Tories to win, a little harder for Labour to win – albeit, not by very much. The lead in vote share that the Conservatives need to win falls by just under 2 percentage points, the lead that Labour would need to achieve rises by less than a single point.

  • On the the new boundaries the Conservatives would need a lead of 1.6 percentage points to win an overall majority, compared to 2.8 on the initial proposals and 3.4 on current boundaries
  • On the new boundaries Labour would need to be 3.9 points ahead to become the largest party, compared 3.6 on the initial proposals and 0.8 on current boundaries
  • On the new boundaries Labour would need a lead of 8.2 points to win an overall majority, compared to 7.8 points on the initial proposals and 7.4 on current boundaries

The full notional results for each seat are set out here.

As ever, they need a few caveats. The first is that this is based purely on the reallocation of votes from current constituencies to new ones by a formula. It assumes the distribution of party strength within Parliamentary constituencies is in the same sort of proportion as local elections – if that isn’t the case, it will produce slightly odd results. Areas where local elections have a lot of independents are particularly ropey, so notional figures in places like rural Wales and Cornwall should be taken with a pinch of salt. The second caveat is that these figures are based on how the votes in the 2017 election would have translated into seats if counted on the new boundaries. They cannot predict if people might have voted differently on those new boundaries – for that reason, I think notional election results do often understate Lib Dem strength. A ward in a Con-Lab marginal might have voted very differently if it had been part of a Con-Lib marginal in 2017.

Readers will probably have noted that both before and after the review the Conservative party needs a smaller lead to win than the Labour party. This may well seem counter-intuitive: why would a review that is supposed to be about making boundaries fairer apparently skew it further in the direction of a party that already has an advantage? The reason is because partisan skews in the way votes translate into seats is due to several different reasons – differential turnout, malapportionment, vote distribution and the effect of third parties. Malapportionment (seats not having the same sized electorates) does actually favour Labour at the moment – their seats do tend to have a smaller electorate than Conservative held seats, so a review aimed at equalising electorates ends up favouring the Conservatives. However other factors, largely the distribution of the vote, favour the Conservatives, producing that overall skew. To give one easily illustrated example of how this works, think of ultra-safe seats. A party still only gets one MP regardless of whether it wins with 50% of the vote or 80%, those extra votes just go to waste. Labour currently has far more of these ultra-safe seats – the Conservatives won 55 more seats than Labour in 2017, but the Conservatives won only 88 seats with 60+% of the vote, compared to 115 for Labour. Labour has 37 seats where it won with over 70% of the vote, the Conservatives don’t have any at all.

That’s not to say there are not partisan interests at play here. As all regular readers will know, the Coalition government changed the rules in 2011 to make boundary reviews stricter (requiring a strict 5% threshold) and more frequent (every five years in theory) – both changes that will generally make things more favourable to the Conservatives. In practice, of course, it hasn’t made it more frequent at all – it injected extra partisanship into the boundary review and gave Labour and the Liberal Democrats the causus belli to block it. If the coalition government had left the old boundary rules in place then we’d be seeing a review about now.

The review remains contentious and as things stand the government seems unlikely to get it through, and the next general election may very well take place on the same boundaries we’ve got now. There are probably two things that could change that.

The first is if the DUP support it. The provisional boundary recommendations for Northern Ireland were very good for Sinn Fein and very bad for the DUP, who were consequently extremely critical of them. If the revised recommendations are better then the DUP attitude might yet change. The best chance for that might well be if the Boundary Commission of Northern Ireland are persuaded by the submissions they’ve received to return to a plan that is based on splitting Belfast into four seats, rather than three seats in their initial proposals. That said, the DUP were also critical of the reduction from 18 to 17 seats, which will not change. It will still be worth keeping an eye on the revised Northern Ireland recommendations when they appear.

The other alternative would be to scrap the current review and seek a more consensual one. The newspapers earlier this year reported that the government were indeed considering going back to a 650 seat review, rather than the current 600 seat one. Given the rules are set out in law, this would require primary legislation to do so, and may be an opportunity to switch the rules to ones that can win cross-party appeal. In the last Parliament the Labour party backed a private members bill from Pat Glass that would have changed the rules that would have replaced the strict 5% quota with a 10% one made reviews every ten years rather than every five years. Labour also oppose the current review on the grounds that it is based on the 2015 electorate, before the boost in registration at the time of the EU referendum. Starting a new review based on 650 seats would likely involve starting work based on the current electorate, so there might be the possibility of a compromise on the quota and frequency of reviews and having a boundary review that both sides support. On the other hand, such a review would still almost certainly still favour the Conservatives, so Labour may find another reason to oppose. Either way, a review takes three years or so and it would take time to pass legislation changing the law from 600 seats to 650 seats, so the government would still need to move relatively quickly for it happen before the next election.

(*The method is very similar to the one used by Professors Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University for the notional figures the media use. The Boundary Commissions generally use local council wards as the building blocks for seats. General election votes are not counted by ward however, so to work out notional election results I work out notional general election shares for each council ward in the country. To summarise it briefly, it works by taking the local election results in the wards that make up a constituency, comparing the total for each party to that party’s general election result in that seat, working out a ratio for local election vote to general election for each party in each seat, and then using that to create notional general election vote shares for each council ward in the council. Then I put the council wards into their proposed new seats, tally them up, and it provides notional figures.)

UPDATE – Small correction to the seat numbers – the Lib Dems are on 8, the SNP on 30 (not 7 and 31 as I’d previously put)


At midnight on Monday the Boundary Commissions release revised recommendations for the boundary review. A few notes to aid in understanding what it means.

Firstly, and probably most importantly, they are still pretty unlikely to happen. The Boundary Commissions are obliged by law to continue with the review, it doesn’t mean the government have the support to implement it. When the review produces its final recommendations next September the recommendations need to be approved by Parliament before coming into force. This would have been tricky for the Conservatives to do with a small majority (there were a few Tory MP threatening to rebel), it will be all the harder to do without a majority at all. They cannot currently rely upon the support of the DUP to push them through – the initial recommendations in Northern Ireland were very favourable to Sinn Fein, very unfavourable to the DUP, and the DUP were very critical of them. Of course, it’s possible the revised recommendations may be less offensive to the DUP, but we shall see – in that sense, probably the most interesting recommendations will be those for Ulster.

Two – this is not a new review, it’s a revised version of the one that started in the last Parliament. The current rules for the Boundary Commissions require them to deliver a review every five years, the fact that there has been an early election doesn’t affect this at all. The recommendations published today are based on the ones from last year, taking account of all the comments the Boundary Commissions recieved during their consultation period.

Three – they are still for 600 seats. There were reports in the press that the government were intending to scrap this review and start again with a new review based upon 650 seats. These reports have not been confirmed and at the moment the old 600 seat review is going ahead. Neither the Boundary Commissions or the government have the power to change the rules from 600 to 650 at will; it is set in law. If the government do want to change the rules and go back to a 650 seat review, they’ll need to get primary legislation through Parliament (and then the Boundary Commissions will have to start all over again).

Four – I will, as ever, seek to work out notional figures for what the 2017 election would have been on the proposed boundaries. That will, however, take a couple of days. I can tell you now that the changes will almost certainly favour the Conservatives, at least a little. This is not because the Boundary Commissions are partisan – they are resolutely and genuinely neutral. However, the pattern of population movement in Britain means that boundary reviews almost always favour the Conservatives. Generally speaking, the population in Northern inner cities (that tend to vote Labour) is falling relative to commuter areas in the South (that tend to vote Conservative). Therefore over time the electorate in the northern cities falls, the electorate in the home countries rises and we end up with Northern urban seats having lower electorates than Southern commuter ones. That means when boundary reviews take place, it tends to result in seats in northern cities being abolished and new seats in the south being created.

Fifth – MPs whose seats are “abolished” are not necessarily in any trouble. When boundary recommendations come out the first thing lots of people look for is big name MPs who appear to have lost their seats. It’s normally more complicated that that – parts of their seat will have gone into neighbouring seats and it will often be easily to work out a place for everyone to stand with a few retirements or peerages to help ease the way. While the reduction from 650 to 600 would make this review a little more challenging than usual, in the case of past reviews the vast majority of MPs who have seen their seats “abolished” have actually ended up staying on in a neighbouring seat. In short, Jeremy Corbyn is unlikely to struggle to find a Labour seat willing to take him.


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The Times this morning report that the government are to drop the 600 seat boundary review and start again with a 650 seat review. A few technical points on this:

  • The rules and timetable for the Boundary Commission are set out in statute, meaning that any changes will require primary legislation. Until the law is changed the current review will continue, based on 600 seats and a deadline of 2018. To go back to a target of 650 seats the government will need to pass new legislation changing the rules to 650 seats, and starting up a new review from scratch.
  • That legislation will be an opportunity to change other boundary rules. In the Times article there’s a quote from Labour saying they’d support the change back to 650 seats, but no doubt they’ll have some other recommendations too were the government to try and get cross-party support for the Bill. Even if the government aim to change only the 600 seat rule, there will be opportunity for the Bill to be amended in other ways as it passes through the Commons and Lords. Two things to really keep an eye on are how close to the quota the boundary review requires seats to be (currently 5%, but the Private Member’s Bill that Labour supported last year would have changed that to 10%) and how often they need to happen (currently 5 years, but the Labour Bill last year suggested ten years). Either change would make things a bit better for Labour – as a general rule, strict equality requirements and frequent reviews favour the Tories, more flexible equality requirements and less frequent reviews favour Labour.
  • Timing will be a little tight, especially if the Bill doesn’t get cross-party support and gets tied up in the Lords. On the current rules it takes three years to carry out a review, and that was achieved by cutting the process down as much as possible. If the government want a review conducted in time for 2022 they need to get that legislation going soon so the Boundary Commissions can scrap their current review and start again on a new one next year.
  • If the review happens it will still favour the Tories a bit, regardless of tweaks to the rules. The current constituency boundaries are based on the electorate in 2001, so updating it for sixteen years of demographic change is still going to move things about quite a lot. Taking the electorates from the 2017 general election, by my reckoning a boundary review on 650 seats would still produce 7 extra seats for the South East, 3 extra seats for the South West and 3 in the East (presumably mostly Tory), and seats being lost in the North East, North West, Scotland and especially Wales.

Meanwhile there are two voting intention polls to update on:

YouGov for the Times had voting intentions of CON 41%(nc), LAB 42%(nc), LDEM 6%(-2), UKIP 4%(+1). Fieldwork was Wednesday and Thursday last week and changes are from a week before. Full tables are here. YouGov also released some interesting European polling on Brexit, asking other EU countries how they’d react if Britain did an about face and decided that we did, after all, want to remain in the European Union. This would be welcomed in Germany – 49% of Germans would rather we stayed, 25% that we left and the most common emotional reactions to Britain staying after all would be “Relieved” (23%) and “Pleased” (22%). Contrast this with France – 32% of French respondents would prefer that Britain stays, but 38% would rather we go. The most common French reaction to us changing our minds would be “Indifference” (23%) (tabs for the EU polling are here.)

Meanwhile Survation in the Mail on Sunday had an online poll in the Mail on Sunday with topline figures of CON 38%(nc), LAB 43%(+2), LDEM 7%(-1), UKIP 4%(-2). Fieldwork was Thursday and Friday last week, and changes are from Survation’s last online poll in July. For the record, there is a very minor method change in the Survation poll – UKIP are no longer prompted in the main question. Full tables are here.


Boundary update

This is largely for the sake of completeness, since as things stand I doubt the boundary changes will take place, nevertheless I thought I should really update the notional figures for the provisional boundary review.

Calculating how the votes cast at the 2017 election would have translated into seats using the proposed boundaries the Conservatives would have won 298 seats (19 less than currently), Labour would have won 244 (18 less than currently), the Lib Dems would have won 8 (4 less than currently), the SNP 30 (five less than currently), Plaid 2 (2 less than currently). As you can see, the Conservatives and Labour would lose about the same number of seats, but the Conservatives would have been nearer to an overall majority and once you’ve taken away Sinn Fein MPs, may have been able to avoid doing a deal with the DUP.

Regular readers will recall that before the election it looked as if the boundary reviews would have favoured the Tories more – I suspect this change is largely because the 2017 election happened to produce a lot of very marginal seats, and that small boundary changes have flipped some of these in Labour’s favour. If you look at how it affects the swings the two parties would need to win a majority it’s clear that the boundary changes would still help the Tories:

  • On the the new boundaries the Conservatives would need a lead of 2.8 to get an overall majority, compared to 3.4 currently
  • On the new boundaries Labour would need to be 3.6 points ahead to become the largest party, compared to 0.8 currently
  • On the new boundaries Labour would need a lead of 7.8 points to get an overall majority, compared to 7.4 currently

Some of you may be wondering why, if the boundary changes are about evening out the size of constituencies the result is still a system that seems to favour the Conservatives over Labour. This is not a sign of something being afoot – the four boundary commissions are genuinely independent – rather it’s because differently sized constituencies (“malapportionment”) is only one of several factors that can produce a skew in the electoral system, and the current Conservative advantage comes not from seat size, but from the impact of third parties and the Tory vote being more efficiently distributed. For example, when it comes to translating votes into seats huge majorities in safe seats are “wasted” votes. At the 2017 election there were 89 Conservative seats where they got over 60% of the vote, but 115 Labour seats where they got over 60% (and 37 seats where Labour got over 70%). None of this is set in stone of course – up until 2015 the system tended to favour Labour – if a party outperforms in marginal seats it can do better than uniform swing suggests, if it gains votes in safe or unwinnable seats then it would do worse.

The new boundaries are rather irrelevant if they never come into force – when the Boundary Commissions report in Autumn 2018 there then needs to be a vote in both the Commons and the Lords to implement their recommendations. That would have been challenge enough with a majority given that there is every chance of a few Conservative rebels. Without a majority it’s going to be very difficult indeed, especially since the DUP have so far opposed the changes (at the provisional stage the changes were thought to hurt the DUP and benefit Sinn Fein).

Nevertheless, for anyone who wants them notional figures for the 2017 on the provisional boundary recommendations are here.


An update on the boundary review. Back in September I published notional figures for the proposed boundaries in England & Wales. I’ve now updated those to include Scotland as well (this is partly because the Scottish boundary Commission published later, but it also took much longer to do – the Scottish Commission are much happier to split wards between constituencies, which probably leads to constituencies that better follow communities… but it makes it trickier to work out notional figures.)

Notional figures for new boundaries for England, Wales and Scotland

The partisan effects in Scotland are no great surprise. The SNP won 56 of Scotland’s 59 seats in 2015, so it was inevitable that most of the losses will be SNP. That aside, on the new boundaries they will be even more dominant. Orkney & Shetland is a protected seat so the sole Liberal Democrat constituency is retained, but Labour and the Conservatives will both see their single Scottish constituency disappear on the new boundaries.

Edinburgh South, the lone Labour seat in Scotland, is split between the new Edinburgh East and Edinburgh South West & Central seats. Both will notionally have an SNP majority of over 4000 – Edinburgh East will be a SNP-Lab marginal, with a SNP majority of 7.9%, Edinburgh SW&C will be a three-way marginal with the SNP in first place, the Conservatives in second place and Labour close behind them.

Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale & Tweeddale, the lone Tory seat in Scotland, mostly goes into Clydesdale & Eskdale, with the rest of the seat split into several much smaller parts. The new Clydesdale & Eskdale seat will have a notional SNP majority of about 5000. On paper the best seat for the Tories will be the new Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk seat, with a notional SNP majority of only 1.3% (though that’s an increase from 2015).

Now we have notional figures for the whole of Great Britain we can work out national totals and what sort of swings would be needed for parties to win a general election on these boundaries.

The 2015 general election had results of CON 330, LAB 232, LDEM 8, SNP 56, Others 24.
On the proposed boundaries the 2015 general election would have been CON 319, LAB 203, LD 4, SNP 52, Others 22. The Conservatives lose 11 seats, Labour lose 29, the Lib Dems 4 and the SNP 4.
Note that on the boundaries proposed for the abandoned review in the last Parliament the results would have been Con 322, Lab 204, LD 4 and SNP 50 – so this new boundary review is actually marginally worse for the Tories than the one that was blocked before the election.

I should add my normal caveat that these notionals are an accounting exercise – projecting how people voted in each ward, moving them into their new seats and totting up the votes. It does not take into account that some people might have voted differently in 2015 if they’d lived in different seats, for that reason I suspect it may slightly underestimate the Liberal Democrats (and it’s possible that the Greens might actually have saved their seat).

We can also look at what difference the boundaries would make to the leads each party needs to win an election.

  • Currently the Conservatives need to have a lead of 5.7% to get an overall majority (hence the 6.5% lead they actually got translating into only a tiny majority). On the proposed boundaries the Tories would get an overall majority with a lead of only 1.9%.
  • In contrast Labour currently need a towering lead of 12.6% to win an overall majority, and the boundary changes would move that target even further away, requiring a lead of 13.5%. To even be the largest party Labour would need a lead over the Conservatives of 4.7% (up from 3.9% on the current boundaries).

(One might reasonably wonder why, if the review makes nearly all the seats the same size, it still leaves the Conservatives in a better position than Labour. This is because different seat sizes is only one part of how votes translate unevenly into seats. The crucial part in explaining the present Conservative advantage is the distribution of the vote and the impact of third parties. The collapse of the Liberal Democrats and the growth of the SNP and UKIP means the system now favours the Conservatives. The Lib Dems are primarily strong in areas that would otherwise be Tory… but now win very few seats, UKIP have largely taken votes from the Tories, but this has not translated into many seats. In contrast the SNP are now utterly dominant in an area that previously returned a large number of Labour MPs. What this means if that if there is a Lib Dem revival or a Labour revival in Scotland the skew towards the Conservatives will unwind.)

These are only provisional recommendations – the boundary commissions will revise them based on the consultation period, so much of the detail will be tweaked before the final recommendations. It’s also far from a certainty that they will actually be implemented when they are complete. Earlier this month Pat Glass MP had a Private Members Bill which if passed would tweak some of the rules of the review, requiring the Commissions to start the process again from scratch and therefore probably delaying it beyond the election. I doubt the Bill will go far – it is nigh on impossible to pass a Private Members Bill in the face of government opposition. However, second reading did highlight some opposition to the boundary changes. Firstly, the DUP spoke against the boundary changes – there had been some speculation around conference season that there had been some sort of deal and the DUP were onside. They are apparently not. Secondly two Conservative MPs (Peter Bone and Steve Double) voted in favour of the Bill. It doesn’t take many rebels to stop the boundary changes progressing…