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.


Yesterday the review of the Parliamentary boundaries for the next general election kicked off – not that there is much to see yet. The English, Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Boundary Commissions announced the beginning of the review, the electorate figures which they’ll be working off, and the number of seats that each country and region will be divided up into.

The review will be based on the same new rules as the review that was abandoned during the last Parliament. The amendment passed by Labour and the Lib Dems didn’t reverse the changes that the government had made to the rules on boundary reviews, they just delayed the next review for five years. This means the new review starts up now and will report in 2018, ready to be implemented for the 2020 election. This is not a case of the aborted review from the last Parliament being implemented, it’s a brand new review based on updated electorate numbers. However in terms of the broad strokes the proposals will be quite similar.

The boundary review will reduce the number of seats from 650 to 600, and go from boundaries based on 2001 electorates to boundaries based on 2015 electorates. Comparing the current boundaries to proposed new ones there will be some very substantial changes – it’s inevitable when fifty seats are being chopped. Comparing the numbers to what would have happened under the aborted review in the last Parliament the changes will be more modest.

Scotland will see its current 59 seats fall to 53 (compared to 52 in the aborted review), Wales will see its seat numbers fall from 40 to 29 (compared to 30 in the aborted review), Northern Ireland will get 17 seats (compared to 18 currently, 16 in the aborted review). Across the English regions the South East and East will lose 1 seat each, the East Midlands will lose 2 seats, North East 4, Yorkshire 4, London 5, West Midlands 6 and the North West 7. In most cases these figures are the same as the aborted review – the differences are that the West Midlands will lose an extra seat (probably in the Metropolitan area), the Eastern region will lose one less seat (it looks to me like Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire will no longer require a cross-county seat and the loss there will no longer happen, so Nadine Dorries will be reprieved) and the North East will lose an extra seat.

My calculations last year were that if the 2015 election had been fought on the boundaries from the aborted review it would have given the Conservatives a majority of 44. The Tories would have won nine fewer seats, Labour 28 fewer, the SNP six fewer and the Lib Dems just four. The impact of this new boundary review will likely be broadly similar, but perhaps a little worse for Labour: the extra seat reductions in the North East and West Midlands are likely to be Labour, the relative gains in the East Midlands and Scotland will be Conservative and SNP.

Those won’t the only differences though – we’ve had five years of population drift and the change in registration since then, so many of the proposals the boundary commissions made in 2012 would no longer add up anyway. Unavoidably, the detailed proposals will be different from what we saw in 2012. These won’t be extra seats created or abolished, just boundaries drawn in different ways. To give a couple of examples –

Coventry currently has three seats, and at the aborted review it still had just the right population to retain three seats for itself. Its electorate has now fallen to the point where it’s impossible to draw three seats that hit quota, so while there will still be three seats covering Coventry, one will have to take in some wards from outside Coventry, I’d guess from Warwickshire.

University seats saw a particular drop in the number of registered electors from the move to individual registration, so Cambridge constituency as it was previously proposed will no longer be large enough. There will still almost certainly be a Cambridge seat, but it will now probably cover the whole of the Cambridge council area and have to include a ward from outside Cambridge to make up the numbers.

Other areas where the electorate has dropped notably since the aborted boundary review include Blackpool, Leeds, Oxford, Kensington, Middlesbrough, Southampton, Carlisle and Newcastle. In places like these proposals will probably be substantially different to the aborted review – boundaries will need to move outwards, or the Commissions will choose to arrange the boundaries in completely different ways. At the other end of the scale, the electorate is notably higher in places like East Devon, Bedfordshire, Thanet, Greenwich and Bermondsey, so movement there is likely to be in the opposite direction.

In some cases those small adjustments will have a domino effect and require big changes through a whole county to make sure everything is in quota (though it is has been suggested that the English boundary commission will be more willing to split wards, making their task easier and – hopefully – avoiding some of the dafter proposals we saw last time). Even where there are small changes they may have party partisan effects here and there, making seats that little bit better or worse for parties, tipping the occasional marginal into the other column.

We won’t have any further details until the Commissions release their initial proposals, expected to be in September. At that point we will be able to start working out notional figures and coming up with detailed estimates of what the partisan impact of the boundary changes will be.


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A quick note on the Individual Electoral Registration vote tonight and what it means, since I fear it will be badly reported elsewhere. As readers may know, electoral registration has now moved over from household registration (where one member of the household filled in a form to register everyone) to individual registration (there is still a household form to sign off for no change, but new registrations need to be done individually). Making it a little harder to register has created a lot of concern about whether it will lead to falling registration, particularly in residential communities like student halls of residence, where in the past the university authority could have registered everyone en masse.

That, however, is for another time. Tonight’s vote isn’t about the principle of individual registration and will make no difference to whether it happens or not. It is on one narrow, but important, part of the transition from household registration to individual registration.

The normal process of electoral registration is – crudely speaking – that once a year there is a canvas of every household, asking people if their details on the electoral register are correct. Local councils will remove entries that are no longer accurate and add on new people. People who don’t reply at all will be badgered with extra letters and knocks on the door, but eventually some people won’t reply. Those people are left on the register for a year, and then if they don’t reply to two canvasses in a row, deleted from the register. People get one year’s grace without being removed.

During the transition process that was different. The annual canvas in 2014 was cancelled for the transition process – people on the old register were matched against government databases, like benefits records, and those who matched were automatically moved across to the new system. Only people who couldn’t be automatically moved across were contacted and required to register on the new system. There was no cleaning of the register though, even if they couldn’t be automatically moved and across and didn’t respond to contacts, people on the old register were kept on the new Dec 2014 register to make sure they didn’t miss out on the general election.

For 2015 the annual canvas was started again, so every household got a letter asking people to confirm their existing details on the register. People who reply were updated (though new people now need to fill in an individual registration) and people who didn’t reply at all were chased. The question to be decided tonight is what to do with people who didn’t reply (or more specifically, people who don’t reply this year and weren’t verified or registered last year either – the year’s grace remains either way).

The legislation setting up individual registration said that people who don’t reply in 2015 should NOT be removed in 2015, but also specifically gave the government the power to change this by statutory instrument and recommence cleaning in 2015 if they preferred. The Electoral Commission recommended the government did not do this, and gave people the extra year’s grace. This is what tonight’s vote is on – are people who weren’t transitioned or re-registered on the new system in 2014 AND did not reply to this year’s electoral canvas left on the register or not?

In May 2015 there were 1.9m people still on the register who hadn’t been registered under the new system. Of course, all of these entries will not be removed, as there has been a full canvas since then and many of them will have replied to this year’s canvas and now be on the new system. It is still likely to be a substantial number. The change only affects people who replied to the electoral canvas at an address in 2013, but have not subsequently replied to electoral registration officers at that address since then, when during that time efforts will have been made to contact them several times for the transition to individual voting and in this year’s annual canvass. They will probably have had to ignore about nine letters reminding them to register. They also need to not be in receipt of benefits at that address and not on other government databases used for data matching, or they would have been automatically registered. In short, a lot of those people probably couldn’t be matched because they don’t live at that address any more, and may or may not be living or registered somewhere else. Finally, it’s worth remembering that people who are left off this December’s register can register to vote up until a couple of weeks before the local/mayoral/police/Scottish/Welsh elections next year.

In terms of the impact on individual voters, I fear there is some hyperbole going on. However, the impact of the vote isn’t just on individual voters, it’s important for another reason – arguably more so. The registers published on the 1st December this year are the ones that will be used for the new boundary review, and the removal of these rolled over names will make a difference. In the twenty council areas with the highest number of people held over from the 2013 register, about 11% of people on the register in May 2015 were held over, in the twenty council areas with the lowest number of people rolled over about 1% of people on the register in May 2015 were held over. The places with lots of held over entries are mostly (but not exclusively) Labour held areas, the places with few held over entries are mostly (but not exclusively) Conservative held areas. Again, remember many of these people will probably have been picked up in this year’s canvas, so it doesn’t mean 11% and 1% will be removed – the numbers will be lower than that – but it does mean the number of people on the registers will drop more in Labour areas than in Conservative areas.

Cleaning people who have not responded to the canvas off the register will decrease the registered electorate in inner-city Labour areas and make the boundary review better for the Conservatives. Leaving them on will make the boundary review better for Labour. We don’t know what proportion of the rolled over entries on the register relate to real people still living at those addresses and what proportion are “dead entries” related to people who no longer live at that address. The Conservatives can argue that leaving inaccurate entries on the register would skew the review by bumping up the electorate in areas with inaccurate registers full of outdated entries, Labour can argue that harshly pruning the register would skew the review by under-representing the electorate in areas of social-deprivation with populations who are less likely to register to vote. I suspect neither are entirely free from self-interest, but one way or the other it has to be decided: Parliament has until Monday to annul the statutory instrument or it remains law.


The election of a majority Conservative government means that the Parliamentary boundary review will presumably go ahead on the rules passed under the last government, but delayed by the Liberal Democrats (the review that was started in the last Parliament was abandoned before it was completed after the law was changed). There is no need for the government to pass any laws to implement this, it will start up automatically early next year once electorate numbers are available, though Parliament will still have to vote to implement the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations, and with a small majority that is not necessarily a given – last time round there were a couple of Tory MPs who said they were going to vote against the new boundaries, and the government doesn’t have much of a majority to begin with.

Anyway, a couple of people have asked me how this election would have looked had the revised boundaries proposed in the last Parliament gone through. I’ve done a rough rejig of my provisional boundary calculations using the result of this election, and had the new boundaries gone through the Conservatives would have won 322 seats, nine fewer than they did but enough to give them a healthy majority of 44 in a Commons of 600 MPs. Labour would have won 204 MPs (28 fewer), the SNP 50 seats (and would have pushed Labour out of Scotland entirely) and the Lib Dems just 4.

Of course, this is not necessarily a good guide to what the new review this Parliament will produce – electorate numbers will have changed since 2010 and given some of the discussion after the abandoned review I suspect the English Commission may be a little more open to splitting wards so the proposed changes are less disruptive (something that requires only a change of mindset, not a change of rules!), but we shall see.


Tonight’s YouGov/Sun poll has topline figures of CON 35%, LAB 38%, LDEM 8%, UKIP 11%. The three point Labour lead is typical of this week’s YouGov polls, which have all shown 3-4 point leads.

A couple more things to flag up, earlier in the week YouGov repeated their question asking people to put the parties and their leaders on a left-right spectrum. There isn’t much change since it was last asked. Labour are still seen as more centrist than the Conservatives, Cameron a little more right-wing than Miliband is left-wing. Cameron is seen as marginally to the left of his party, Miliband bang in line with his. In that sense Ed Miliband isn’t seen as some wild left winger (certainly not compared to the right-wingness of the Tories), but note that he is seen as far more left-wing than his predecessors: Gordon Brown and Tony Blair were both seen as significantly more centrist than the party they led. There are some very nice graphs of the data here.

While it’s not really about polls regular readers will know my sideline in boundary changes. While the boundary review for the coming election was cancelled the changes the government made weren’t repealed, just delayed. The process will start again automatically in 2015, so the issue will inevitably raise its head after the next election with either the Boundary Commissions starting a new review under the new rules, or the government legislating to change the rules again. Johnston, Rossiter & Pattie – the foremost scholars of British boundary redistributions – have published a new paper aimed at informing that debate, looking at whether slightly increasing the tolerance from 5% to 8%, encouraging the Boundary Commissions to split more wards, or sticking with 650 seats would reduce the level of disruption (spoilers: the first two would, the latter wouldn’t). It’s summarised here, and the full report is here.