The Boundary Commission for England has been unnecessarily radical in its proposals, often ignoring local government boundaries. New constituencies may lack community cohesion and local loyalty.

Last week, the Boundary Commission for England presented its proposals for new constituencies based on 600 rather than 650 parliamentary seats. Democratic Audit’s Lewis Baston undertook a parallel analysis in June, and while he finds some similarities, he argues that the Commission may create tri-borough seats, orphan wards and the crossing of the boundaries of upper-tier authorities and counties, which may lead to seats that have little or no community cohesion. Comparing the initial proposals published by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) on 13 September with the Democratic Audit (DA) model boundaries published in June, has – as the author of those proposals – been an interesting exercise. In many cases the Commission’s ideas were very similar to mine. Nearly all the South West was uncannily similar (except for south Devon), as were large parts of the South East and West Midlands. Even in areas where the BCE map differs a lot from the DA map there are occasional familiar faces, like ‘Battersea and Vauxhall’.  But there were big differences in some areas, particularly North Yorkshire which was unaffected in the original DA model but reshaped by the BCE. Some of the differences arise simply because there are, in most regions, a large number of viable alternative maps which reflect to a greater or lesser degree considerations like administrative geography, continuity with previously existing seats, and the always contestable nature of ‘local ties’. Some of the difference, more interestingly, arises from differences in method – not in the overall rules that were set in legislation, but at the level of policies and assumptions. Some of the assumptions we made in the Democratic Audit model were not reflected in the BCE proposals. One should start by being gracious, and pointing to a feature of the BCE report which is clearly superior to the Democratic Audit original model. It does not involve splitting any wards, while the original DA model split 13. In part, pressure of time when the DA model was released in June led us to propose some split wards while there were acceptable alternatives that emerged on closer inspection. But there was also an underlying aim of trying to reduce disruptive change and allow constituencies to be constructed that did not cross county boundaries or allow strong continuity with existing seats. This led to several ward splits in metropolitan areas. The BCE’s avoidance of ward splits, even in difficult circumstances when it must have been tempting, is therefore to be admired. However, it comes at the cost of more radical disruption, plus creating some very peculiar seats in urban areas and crossing boundaries wholesale between London and metropolitan boroughs. One of the assumptions in the Democratic Audit...

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All Change

Take care when assessing the impact of boundary changes on the next election, cautions Lewis Baston When the Boundary Commission for England published its initial proposals earlier this month, there was a lot of information to absorb quickly. Some aficionados and anoraks (including myself) were intrigued by how they approached the task and phenomena like cross-county and ‘tri-borough’ constituencies. MPs were naturally obsessed with local details. But everyone wanted to know what the implications would be for each of the political parties. Figures estimating the partisan effect of boundary changes should always be taken with a pinch of salt, as there are different methods which all have their advantages and disadvantages, but which can produce different results. There is no absolutely reliable data, and one has to use local election results, with various tweaks and adjustments, to guess. A number of interesting constituencies would be incredibly close on the boundary changes, to the extent that it is pretty much impossible to ‘call’ them reliably – for example, the new Abingdon and Oxford North might or might not have gone Tory rather than Liberal Democrat in 2010 but it is very debatable. The best method for estimating the notional results of new constituencies is that used by the indefatigable Plymouth duo of Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, but it is arduous, does not produce quick results, and even then is sometimes off-beam. The Guardian produced some rough workings of the partisan effect of the changes, which ‘feel’ about right looking at the results as a whole: the Conservatives down six seats, Labour down 14, the Liberal Democrats down 10 and the Greens down one seat. This is towards the upper end of what the Conservatives might have hoped for from the process, although Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report has produced some workings which are a bit worse for Labour. Allowing for the other three nations, overall changes would be Conservatives down 10, Labour down 22, Liberal Democrats down 13 and others down five. In terms of the composition of parliament, this would mean 296 Conservatives – just short of an overall majority that would require 301 seats. The changes therefore, if one re-runs the 2010 election, put the Conservatives significantly nearer the winning post but do not carry them over the threshold to a majority. However, it is important to realise that the next election will not be a re-run of 2010. This point is utterly obvious, but often seems lost in discussions about boundary changes. We are not dealing simply with new boundaries, but with a combination of new boundaries, a new political situation and the responses of individual MPs to the boundary changes. The more interesting question about...

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It’s Not All Over On Electoral Reform

The possibility of another hung parliament means there should be another chance to change our voting system, says Lewis Baston. First, the cause needs to stop being so insular The May 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) was a humiliating defeat for electoral reform. By a majority of 68 per cent to 32 per cent, the  electorate voted No. Autumn 2011 may therefore seem an unlikely moment to be optimistic about the future prospects of changing the electoral  system, but I believe the prospects are bright, provided some hard lessons are learned from what happened in 2010-11. My new book, Don’t Take No For An Answer, is about the future of electoral reform but also a backward look at the referendum when everything  went wrong. It is a blackly comic tale of duck houses, deathbed conversions, megaphones and the rise and fall of Nick Clegg, from zero to hero  and then down to negative territory within one strange British political year. The Yes campaign may have accused No of being dinosaurs, but was itself the campaign that was lumbering towards oblivion. Winning on AV would have been a tough call even for the best campaign. Although a referendum is usually a demand from people who want  eform, the history of referendums shows that they tend to produce small-c conservative results. AV itself was famously a ‘miserable little  compromise’ that aroused little enthusiasm, and the campaign struggled unsuccessfully to define why the referendum was happening and what problems it would solve. The Liberal Democrats went, between the 2010 and the 2011 referendum, from contributing a quarter of the vote and general goodwill to a tenth of the vote and huge amounts of scorn. Labour were divided and uncertain, and after some dithering the Conservatives heavily against. The Yes campaign, disastrously, tried to make the referendum about ‘make your MP work harder’, probably the most misguided and stupid slogan found outside the world of price comparison websites. They were comprehensively beaten by an unsentimental, even ruthless No campaign, which still managed to be more genuinely pluralist than the supposed democracy advocates of Yes. The optimism about the future is because there will be another opportunity, hopefully in better circumstances than in 2010-11. The question is  more whether the reform movement can change itself enough to win. Changes in the geography of elections have meant that ‘hung parliament territory’ covers a large part of the spectrum of plausible election outcomes. To win outright  requires the Conservatives or Labour to win a lead of 90 or more seats over its rival, a target the Conservatives missed even when everything was working in their favour in 2010. While in 1964 Labour or the...

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Lewis Baston on The Daily Politics 12th September 2011

Lewis Baston interviewed opposite the House of Commons for the BBC’s Daily Politics show, Monday 12th September 2011. A draft of potential constituency boundary changes, prompted by the Coalition’s desire to reduce the number of MPs with a view to cutting costs, has just been released. [flashvideo file=wp-content/uploads/2011/09/dailypolitics1209.flv /]

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Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

Few English MPs will escape changes to their constituency borders in today’s Boundary Commission’s recommendations, writes political consultant Lewis Baston. The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) report published today is unsettling reading for nearly all MPs, including those from the government benches who voted it through with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Few MPs will escape having changes made to their constituency boundaries, and a few will find their seats abolished, or changed so radically that they would have been defeated on the new boundaries in 2010. Some MPs will be pitched into fights against each other. The proposals implement the coalition government’s new policy on parliamentary boundaries which was enacted in February 2011. The government insisted that the total number of constituencies was reduced from 650 to 600, and that – with four exceptions – every seat had to be within 5 per cent of the average size. Size here is measured by the number of people on the electoral register as of December 2010. Peculiar boundaries While the legislation was highly controversial between the parties, the Boundary Commission itself is an impartial body which does not take party political consequences into account. It has to try to create units with the right number of electors that make some sort of sense on the ground, and given the constraints it generally does well. However, the rules under which the commission has had to operate have created some very peculiar constituency boundaries in some areas, although in general they have tried hard to avoid unnecessary disruption. Perhaps the strangest new seat is the unfamiliar Mersey Banks constituency, a sort of successor to Wirral South which contains a random piece of Widnes unconnected, even by a bridge, to the rest of the seat. For Conservatives there is the tantalising possibility of a Tory member for Sedgefield (technically, Sedgefield and Yarm). Tony Blair’s old stronghold is radically altered and grouped with the areas which made the current Stockton South a Conservative gain in 2010. Gloucester city centre becomes part of the Forest of Dean constituency, an idea that was greeted with dismay when I floated the prospect in a local newspaper. Political consequences While the Boundary Commission is neutral, most observers are keenly interested in the party political consequences. In general, the changes seem to help the Conservatives a bit relative to the other parties, but the effect is not dramatic. In some areas, such as West Yorkshire and east London, they will be probably be pleased but in others such as Derby and North Yorkshire there is a lot of disruption for no political gain. The party that really suffers is the Liberal Democrats, because their seats tend to have smaller...

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