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 the boundaries is what happens if there is a modest-sized swing to Labour at the next election. The current polling average of Labour 40 per cent, Conservatives 36 and Liberal Democrats 11, translates into something like a Labour majority of 40-50. Under the new boundaries this would unquestionably be lower, although exactly how much lower will depend on how many Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats are marginal enough for Labour to swing over in the next election. A four-point lead is enough for Labour to scrape a majority, probably, but not enough for a comfortable win like 2005 (when the party’s lead in vote share was three per cent). The Conservatives still need a lead of eight per cent or so to win an overall majority – less than on the previous boundaries but still a considerable margin. Of themselves, the boundary changes still leave another hung parliament looking a fairly likely result in 2015 – although if the Liberal Democrat vote slumps the size of ‘hung parliament territory’ shrinks accordingly, whatever the boundaries.
Boundary changes also pose constituency-level challenges. While adverse changes to marginal Labour seats are worrying for individual incumbents, these are sometimes an (effectively disguised) stroke of good fortune for the party as a whole. Halifax, for instance, is flipped from Labour to Conservative under the new boundaries, but Linda Riordan remains its Labour MP. A good incumbent should be able to get themselves known, campaign hard and attract support in new areas. If there is any national swing to Labour, and if incumbents do the work, then places like Halifax should be Labour ‘gains’ in 2015. In the 2010 election boundary changes made Joan Ryan’s Enfield North seat notionally Tory, but she managed to damp down the swing to 0.7 per cent compared to neighbouring seats with actual Tory MPs which swung by between six and eight per cent.
If there is a national swing to Labour, and if incumbents do half as much better than the national trend as Ryan did in 2010, boundary changes are survivable. Enfield North, incidentally, is probably flipped back to Labour in the latest set of boundary changes but will be harder to win back than the raw figures suggest because it now has a first-term Tory MP.
Another feature of boundary changes is that they will require a broader political and campaigning approach. Areas in ‘hopeless’ seats are often left organisationally derelict, and the same can happen of course in some ‘safe’ areas. When territory is moved from a hopeless area into a marginal, it will need to be brought quickly up to speed in terms of its organisation and campaign readiness. This is a stiff task. Chingford and Woodford Green may be a safe Tory seat, but Chingford and Edmonton is a crucial Labour-Tory marginal. The Chingford wards involved will need to get busy with gaining members, canvassing and persuading electors who may not have heard much from Labour locally before.
The subtleties of boundary changes will be particularly exercising the minds of Liberal Democrats. The party is particularly vulnerable to boundary changes because its majorities are on average smaller than Labour or Tory (12 per cent, rather than 18 to 19 per cent), and because they are usually surrounded by areas that do not vote Liberal Democrat. For instance, their seat in Burnley is shipwrecked because it is split and the larger part is combined with part of Hyndburn, where the Liberal Democrats are so weak that they hardly contest local elections. In the past, Liberal Democrat incumbents have sometimes been amazingly successful at coping with boundary changes, like Sarah Teather in 2010 or David Alton in 1983. This does require high-pressure campaigning, and it has also in the past relied on the fact that very few people would absolutely never consider voting Liberal Democrat, and therefore most people were open to persuasion. They will encounter more resistance when they try this trick in 2015.
The Boundary Commission for England report is far from definitive. There now starts a process of consultation, and some of these initial proposals look almost certain to be revised by the time final proposals emerge. For instance, it is difficult to see the infamous ‘Mersey Banks’ constituency surviving a consultation process. We will not know the definitive picture until 2013. There is also uncertainty over whether the House of Commons will approve whatever new boundaries emerge, although it would be foolish to assume that the changes will not take place. Even if they are approved, the new rules involve ‘permanent revolution’ – a new boundary review is supposed to start after the election and there will be another new set of constituencies for the 2020 election. This second review will be based on December 2015 electorate totals, which may be even more grossly inaccurate than the current ones because registration will become effectively voluntary by then. There is a formidable organisational, legislative and political task facing Labour, and the initial reports are only the first stage.
Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit
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