In what may prove to be one of the most radical shake-ups of Britain’s electoral map in modern times, the boundary commissions representing the various countries of the UK are proposing to dramatically reduce the number of constituencies, reducing the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600 MPs. They suggest merging various constituencies into each other before the 2020 election so that they are closer in size.
Accusations are already flying about unreasonable decisions and of the government tinkering with the electoral system for partisan gain. But are such claims justified?
There’s no doubt the proposals will (if they actually go ahead) significantly alter the constituency map of the UK. The commissions are required to ensure that every constituency (with the exception of four geographically tricky seats) must have an electorate which is within plus or minus 5% of the national average constituency size. Based on the registered electorate in December 2015, this means that no constituency (except the four) can have an electorate smaller than 71,031 or larger than 78,507.
This means a major shift in the number of seats going to each of the constituent countries of the UK. Every country will lose MPs. But they lose to different degrees. The smallest reduction (both in absolute and relative terms) is in Northern Ireland. The largest proportionate change, meanwhile, occurs in Wales, which stands to lose over a quarter of its current MPs. England, meanwhile, will have the largest absolute fall in the number of MPs (33 will go). However, given the very large number of MPs representing England, this is actually a modest relative reduction (of just 6%).
Similar issues exist within England if we look at the allocation of seats to different regions. By and large, the biggest proportionate falls in the number of MPs come in the north, the West Midlands and London. Elsewhere, the reduction is less dramatic.
Is it a plot?
Despite the clamour, all this isn’t actually unfair. Scotland and (even more so) Wales are currently substantially over-represented in the House of Commons. The average Scottish constituency contained 69,484 electors in 2015, and the average Welsh seat just 57,044. By comparison, the average English seat, with 72,666 electors, was substantially larger.
This matters, as it violates the principle that every vote is of equal value. Crudely, the more voters who live in your constituency, the less your individual vote matters. Because there are more voters per MP in England than in Scotland or Wales, English votes count less (the same holds for variations between constituencies within each country).
What is more, population change tends to exacerbate these differences over time. Some areas experience relative population decline while others experience relative growth. If constituencies are not changed regularly to take population change into account, areas experiencing relative decline will tend to end up with more MPs than their electorates really entitle them to, while areas experiencing relative growth will tend to become increasingly under-represented.
But these changes are not random. To help redress this bias, the constituency map has to be redrawn regularly in order to take population change into account. These changes are an inevitable consequence of population movement. And, as a result of redrawing the boundaries, areas of relative population growth will tend to gain more MPs while areas of relative population decline will lose them. Change is essential if each MP is to represent roughly the same number of electors. Not redrawing constituencies regularly to take account of population change would be the real unfairness.
Bad news for Labour
That said, boundary reviews would almost certainly generate far less excitement if they did not also have potential partisan consequences. Because of the geography of party support in the UK, those areas losing the highest proportions of seats as a result of population change are areas where the Labour party (and, in Scotland, the SNP) do well. Areas where the population grows most (and hence which do best out of boundary reviews) tend to be relatively Conservative-voting areas such as the South East.
So, traditionally, Labour fears boundary reviews while the Conservatives tend to welcome them.
The current proposals certainly fit that narrative. Working with remarkable speed, pollster Anthony Wells has estimated the likely outcome of the 2015 election had it been fought according to the proposed changes. If everyone voted the same way again, but many in different constituencies, the result would have been rather different.
The Conservatives would lose 10 MPs but the party’s proportionate share of English and Welsh MPs would actually increase from 57.4% to 60.2%. Labour, meanwhile, would lose 28 MPs – a drop in its share of English and Welsh seats from 40.3% to 38.3%. The Liberal Democrats would see their parliamentary representation more than halved and the Greens would be wiped out in Westminster.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the loudest outcry has come from Labour MPs. Many have attacked the boundary review as a Conservative ploy to discommode Labour. But (again) is this fair?
By now, it should be no surprise to learn that the answer has to be “No, this is not unfair!” If we compare the average electorates in seats actually won by the various parties in 2015 with the average electorates in seats they would have won had the contest been fought in the revised constituencies, we can see why.
In the actual 2015 seats, Conservative MPs in England and Wales represented rather larger constituencies (in terms of the electorate) than did Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs. For the reasons outlined earlier, this means Labour was in effect over-represented relative to the Conservatives. These proposals redress the balance. The electoral system would still be very unfair to the Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties, of course. But this is because it is a first-past-the-post system, not because of constituency boundaries.
The idea that the boundary reviews are orchestrated and manipulated by the Conservative government is, frankly, nonsensical – and all serious politicians know it, even when they claim otherwise.
The reviews are conducted entirely by the (strictly impartial) boundary commissions, who are guided solely by the rules set out for them in law. They are only allowed to consider electorate size and community representation. Partisan issues are off the agenda. We live in a suspicious age, but I can assure the sceptical: the commissions really (really!) are impartial.
In other words, Labour’s objections smack of special pleading. Rather than thinking of the review as unfairly skewing the constituency system in favour of the Conservatives, it is actually much more accurate to think of it as rectifying a tendency for ageing constituencies to favour Labour unfairly. The argument that the boundary review is a deliberate Conservative conspiracy fails to stack up.