The Zombie Boundary Review Staggers On
The Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland and Wales published their revised proposals for new parliamentary constituencies on 17 October, sending MPs and commentators to the maps and calculators. The initial proposals made earlier in the year were materially altered in more than half the proposed constituencies, as the Commissions tried to reflect the results of the open consultation exercise they had carried out over the spring and summer. Regrettably, the Commissions have also tinkered with and usually lengthened many constituency names.
By far the biggest casualty of the boundary review would be Boris Johnson in Uxbridge & South Ruislip (Hillingdon & Uxbridge under the new proposals). London’s decisive pro-Labour swing since 2010 has made it marginal already, and under the new boundaries Labour could well have been ahead in 2017. David Davis’s stronghold of Haltemprice & Howden is abolished entirely, part joining a Labour marginal in Hull and part paired with his colleague Andrew Percy’s seat. The third Brexiteer, Liam Fox, need not worry as his North Somerset seat is unchanged. The changes in Cumbria are probably enough to deprive former Lib Dem leader Tim Farron of his Westmorland & Lonsdale seat, and John Woodcock’s mind-boggling win in Barrow & Furness would be reversed (as would in all probability the results in Labour’s two most ambitious gains of 2017, Canterbury and Kensington).
The revised map is by and large an improvement on the initial map in terms of matching up with how people think about local community ties, but the maximum 5 per cent variation either side of the average constituency electorate (and the English Commission’s policy of using wards as building blocks if at all possible) means that improving boundaries in one locality will tend to worsen them in another locality, and there is no agreed standard to optimise the overall proposals.
Barring a change in the law, the boundary review will trundle along according to the timetable set out in the 2011 Act. The Boundary Commissions are creatures of statute, and do not take orders from the government. There will be a further consultation period over the next few weeks and then the absolutely final recommendations for 600 new constituencies. The implementation order must be laid before Parliament in autumn 2018.
Whether MPs will vote for it is doubtful, but for now this zombie review staggers onwards. The boundary review in Northern Ireland is the most important factor, should the government let the process continue. The DUP hated the initial proposals for the province, which reduced the number of MPs from 18 to 17 and redrew the boundaries along a pattern that was strikingly good for Sinn Fein. Unless the Northern Ireland boundary commission comes back with some more DUP-friendly ideas when it publishes its revised recommendations in January 2018, there will be a majority against the boundary changes even without any Tory rebels, and it is likely that there would be a handful of those. Even with the DUP, a relatively small rebellion of eight Tories could kill the changes.
Like fixed term parliaments, reducing the number of MPs is a hangover from the days of Cameron’s coalition and a fair few Tories wish the idea would just go away. Frequent boundary changes disrupt the relationship between MP and constituency and put many individual MPs of all parties in danger of deselection, electoral defeat or simply being deprived of a seat to call their own, particularly if the total is reduced. With the UK losing 73 MEPs and Westminster having more power and responsibility post-Brexit, a good public policy case has emerged for leaving the House of Commons at 650 (or more); not having MEPs means that we lose 23 more elected posts than Cameron was proposing in 2011 anyway.
Ironically, if the government had left the law on boundary reviews alone in 2011 they would have had a new set of boundaries (for around 650 MPs) in place for the June 2017 election and might have scraped a majority. Attempting a non-consensus reform in 2011 seems to have led to stalemate. There needs to be some sort of solution to the problem of drawing constituency boundaries. The present set are based on electoral registration numbers in February 2000, and will therefore be 22 years old if they survive to a 2022 election. Constituency electorates have drifted away from the national average over the years thanks to population movement, although the divergence is not currently as great as in some previous elections (1970, 1979 and 1992).
The government does have an opportunity to reform the process, but the pressure of parliamentary time and the workings of the Boundary Commission gives the Lords and the opposition have strong leverage over what sort of reform will take its place. Labour has entirely reasonably cried foul at using the ‘purged’ registers of December 2015 for the current review, and can point to the growth in the number of electors between then and June 2017 from 43.5m to 46.8m. Experts such as Professor Ron Johnston have drawn attention to the consequences of the tight 5 per cent limit on the size of constituencies – more unnatural seats (the revised proposals include monsters like ‘Willesden and Shepherd’s Bush’ and a ‘Birmingham Yardley’ lacking most of Yardley), more radical change each time, and more seats crossing county boundaries. A looser threshold of 8-10 per cent would solve many of these problems. A fair bit of the imbalance in the current system arises from the over-representation of Wales, and now the Assembly has legislative power there is a clear argument for reducing its number of MPs, as was done with Scotland in 2005. It is possible, if the government wants it, to update the boundaries in time for 2022 and improve electoral equality while retaining 650 MPs, but they cannot get their own way on everything about the process. If they persist with trying to get the current review implemented, the Conservatives have a less than evens chance of success (and the payoff from winning is comparatively small), but could well end up leaving the current outdated map in place for yet another election.
This article was originally published in Prospect 20 October 2017