The Boundary Review: Ask a silly question…

So, here we are. After months of speculation, the Boundary Commission for England has finally released its provisional proposals for the parliamentary constituencies on which the next general election will be contested. The headlines focus on high-profile MPs, such as Ed Balls, Nadine Dorries and George Osborne, whose seats have been abolished in the review, but this masks the fact that the proposals themselves are largely, as widely feared, a horrible mess.

The reason for this? The Boundary Commission was tasked to redraw the parliamentary boundaries with a couple of criteria in mind. Firstly, the number of constituencies was to be fixed at 600. Previous boundary reviews have not been so constrained, with the number of MPs returned fluctuating after each review – usually somewhere around 650, which is incidentally the number of MPs we have at present.

Secondly, the constituencies were required to be of equal size, within a 5% margin of error. Therefore, with a few notable exceptions (which I’ll get onto in a moment), every parliamentary constituency in the UK has an electorate of between 72,810 and 80,473.

And that’s it. No regard for pre-existing administrative divisions, local communities, geography or anything else. Add to this the Boundary Commission’s apparent phobia of splitting local government wards between parliamentary seats, and you have some truly hideous proposals. One seat, for instance, crosses the River Mersey.

This flagrant disregard for the reality on the ground would be easier to stomach if it weren’t for the previously noted exceptions. The Scottish constituencies of Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (known before 2005 as the Western Isles) will retain their status as individual seats. These seats are grossly undersized anyway (Na h-Eileanan an Iar is the smallest constituency in the UK with an electorate of a little over 20,000) and will be even more so after the review is completed. In addition, the Isle of Wight has been granted two undersized seats, whereas previously it had one oversized one. Yet other considerations reflecting local culture and geography – such as the retention of the Devon-Cornwall border and the independence of Anglesey – were rejected.

Conservative supporters have long griped about parliamentary boundaries favouring Labour. It is true that if Labour and the Conservatives got the same number of votes nationwide, Labour would have more seats – after all, Labour secured a comfortable majority in 2005 with 36% of the vote, while the Tories got 37% in 2010 and still ended up 19 seats short. It is also true that, on average, Labour seats are slightly smaller than Conservative ones.

However, it is not the case that this is the sole, or even the main, cause of Labour’s electoral advantage over the Tories. Analysis by Electoral Calculus in 2006 showed that the main reason for Labour’s advantage was that, in Labour seats, voter turnout was generally lower. It takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP because, in those seats, fewer voters (for all parties) tend to come to the polling station on election day. Even with equal constituency sizes, therefore, Labour will still find it easier to win a majority than the Tories.

I say “equal constituency sizes,” but what is “equality” anyway? The constituencies are calculated according to the electorate sizes received by the Boundary Commission at the start of the review several months ago, so they are already out of date. People moving around changes the number of electors in a given area, but this information was unavailable to the Boundary Commission. By 2015 the boundaries will be even further out of date, and since demographic trends are that people are moving out of (generally Labour-voting) inner cities to the (generally Tory-voting) suburbs and countryside, the boundaries in 2015 will still favour Labour.

Additionally, the Boundary Commission only takes into account registered voters, rather than total population. The highest proportion of unregistered voters are in poorer areas, which tend to vote Labour. Unregistered voters (and people who are ineligible to vote, such as children) are surely still entitled to parliamentary representation – so why weren’t the boundaries drawn on the basis of overall population, rather than voter registration?

The other unfortunate consequence of the boundary review is the loss from Parliament of 50 MPs. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, in their pre-election manifestos, promised to “cut the cost of politics” by reducing the number of MPs. But this move makes MPs less accountable to voters by increasing their electorate, reduces the possibility of minor parties winning Commons seats (because they have to win over more voters to do so – indeed, preliminary notional figures indicate that Caroline Lucas would not have been an MP on the proposed boundaries), and also reduces the opportunity for women and minority candidates to be selected to contest seats. Moreover, it is alarming that the government regards democracy as a commodity, the costs of which can simply be cut.

The boundary review will not improve representation for ordinary people, or make our electoral system “fairer” in any meaningful sense of the word. A truly fair electoral system would include a measure of proportionality, to ensure that all votes are counted and all voters represented. The resources expended on redrawing the parliamentary boundaries would have been better invested in strategies to boost voter turnout across the board, improving representation and probably correcting for some of the current electoral imbalance as a side-effect.

None of this, incidentally, is the fault of the Boundary Commission (except for the silliness about not splitting wards). They were simply performing the task that they were asked to perform, by a government that either did not understand or did not care about the consequences of its policies. Instead, it is an example of the old adage, “ask a silly question, get a silly answer.”

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