Boundary Review 2.0

The announcement that the government will abandon its planned boundary changes will be met with a sigh a relief by many Labour activists and MPs. Had the boundary changes, along with the reduction of the number of MPs from 650 to 600, been implemented then the Conservatives would have made a net gain of tens of seats.

From the very beginning the decision to combine the reduction of the number of MPs with a boundary review to equalise constituency size was made solely with the view to make it easier for the Conservatives to win a majority at future general elections. Numerous parts of the legislation and the arbitrary targets it set were roundly criticised by organisations such as Democratic Audit.

However, while the legislation brought forward by the Conservatives was deeply flawed we should recognise that underneath those flaws it highlighted a truth that is difficult for the Labour party to recognise – the present electoral system is currently biased in our favour.

Under the boundaries, seats that are – population wise – smaller tend to be won by Labour while seats that are larger tend to be won by the Conservatives.  Of the 125 smallest constituencies in Britain (with electorates less than 62,600) Labour won 96 compared to the Conservatives 11. Of the 125 largest (with electorates greater than 75,400) Labour won just 36 compared with 69 for the Conservatives. This broadly means that it takes more votes for the Conservatives to win a general election than it would for Labour.

This situation is not fair and Labour – despite the fact it would not benefit electorally – should do something about it. A boundary review which did not reduce the number of MPs and allowed a slightly larger variation in constituency size than was allowed by the failed boundary review would be a fair way of doing this.

While supporting the loss of a handful of Labour seats might be tough for some in the party to swallow there is also an electoral logic to proactively removing electoral bias. That is that one day the Conservatives will win a majority, will revive their boundary plans and the Liberal Democrats won’t be there to stop them. In the blink of an eye Labour will lose 20 to 30 seats and the cards will be stacked in the Tories’ favour.

A fair democracy is in the interest of everyone. A small element of electoral bias will still remain, due to lower turnout in Labour seats, but not even the Conservatives have found a way of dealing with that. For its part Labour should grasp the nettle, eliminate the entrenched electoral bias in its favour and bring forward a boundary review with the aim of creating fair and equal constituencies.

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Jack Storry is a Labour activist and Progress member. He tweets @JackStorry

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Photo: Boundary Commission

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Comments: 18...

  1. On August 6, 2012 at 1:51 pm Danny Phillips responded with... #

    thoughtful and very fair comment Jack

  2. On August 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm Lewis Baston responded with... #

    Most electoral bias is not to do with constituency size (the difference in average size in the current parliament is the smallest it has been since the 1950s). With my Democratic Audit hat on I offer what I think is a fair compromise on boundaries here: http://filestore.democraticaudit.com/file/6b41ded77e4299e27cbe4c79f5cde4e8-1295435721/ten-per-cent-solution.pdf

    • On August 6, 2012 at 4:31 pm Jack Storry responded with... #

      Lewis – I pretty much wholeheartedly agree with that piece. Stats on seats population/elector disparity is very interesting – Has anything like that been done with the latest census data?

      • On August 6, 2012 at 4:44 pm Lewis Baston responded with... #

        Thanks Jack – it’s intended as a reasonable way forward that offers pretty high equality with more flexible and sensible outcomes than the 2011 Act, and I’m glad you like it. The new Census data is too hot off the press to do similar work, and the 2007 figures were I think pretty experimental statistics, but I’m sure there will be useful research on this based on the new census findings.

  3. On August 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm david responded with... #

    Can I pick up on the comment about “seats that are – population wise – smaller”? Because population is not the same as electorate. Inner London seats have a significantly smaller proportion of the usually resident population who are registered as electors, partly due to under-registration (both deliberate and otherwise), but also due to the presence of non-citizens. MPs still receive casework from people in their constituencies who are not registered. If we are aiming to equalise constituency size, it should really be on the basis of population not electorate.

    We should also reinforce the rule requiring constituencies to respect natural communities and local authority boundaries. UK Parliamentary constituencies are not, as in the US, mere agglomerations of adjacent polling districts which make up the right number.

    • On August 6, 2012 at 4:35 pm Jack Storry responded with... #

      My mistake confusing elector/population. Especially considering individual voter registration looks set to be introduced I think a massive voter registration is needed so population/number of electors disparity is addressed.

      Partly agree with your second point. Communities are important but the current rules do allow too much variation in the number of electors in a constituency.

  4. On August 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm Howard Knight responded with... #

    The proposals were seriously flawed:
    (1) they failed to take account of the huge disparities in under-registration;
    (2) they failed to address the problem of double-registration (students, second-home owners etc)

    My analysis of the proposals for Sheffield suggested that the real resident population for one seat would be c15,000 below the mean (students and second-homes) and another would be c15,000 above the mean (under-registration). What’s fair about that?

    All future proposals must be based around 100% compulsory single registration.

    • On August 6, 2012 at 11:54 pm Anonymous responded with... #

      “All future proposals must be based around 100% compulsory single registration.”

      As also proposed by the Coalition.

  5. On August 6, 2012 at 3:40 pm Neil Mcilveen responded with... #

    I wholeheartedly agree with Jack.
    If the Party wants to win back power in Westminster then they can only do it (assuming the coalition remains) by winning a majority of the available seats. In order to regain trust from all but the most dyed in the wool tories, I believe that the LP MP’s should press for constituancy reform based on compulsory registration of residents (they won’t be foced to vote) and with each constituancy of a similar population size. Students can decide whether to register where they live in term time or where they live during holidays.

    Neil Mcilveen

  6. On August 6, 2012 at 4:18 pm Westwylam responded with... #

    U R all missing the point anyway – the electoral fairness can only be achieved by a fair voting system not FPTP, which entrenches the two-party hegemony on a minority vote. There should also be an English Parliament to create a balanced constitution, so we could do away with 80% of the Westminister Parliament anyway. But another issue Labour won’t go near of course.

    • On August 6, 2012 at 5:40 pm Toque responded with... #

      Well said, Westwylam. I can’t help thinking that the Tories’ failure to reform the Lords is a blessing in disguise – maybe it can fulfil a federal role if the Scots and Welsh want devo-max, and the English an English grand committee/parliament in the Commons.

  7. On August 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm Toque responded with... #

    The present boundaries are also biased against England, in addition to the other problems with the constitution that discriminate against England.

  8. On August 6, 2012 at 5:57 pm Joe responded with... #

    These so-called injustices you speak of under the current boundaries are questionable.

    They are based on voter registration figures and nothing else. Not everyone is registered to vote, in some areas as many as 10% of the population. This is bound to get worse under the new IER system too.

    Do you not admit that getting people onto the electoral register is more of a problem in traditional Labour areas than Tory ones? If so, just how unfair are the current boundaries?

    • On August 7, 2012 at 11:53 pm Anonymous responded with... #

      I love how it’s assumed that these extra voters must be Labour just because the registered voters are.

  9. On August 6, 2012 at 11:53 pm Anonymous responded with... #

    Making the boundaries equal does notstack the card in anyone’s favour, by definition. Labour has no right to a 30-seat head-start which the current boundaries allow.

  10. On August 7, 2012 at 12:02 pm Paul responded with... #

    Typical Progress. Not progressive at all. The answer is not tinkering with boundaries but a fairer system than FPTP.

  11. On August 7, 2012 at 11:52 pm Anonymous responded with... #

    “This situation is not fair and Labour – despite the fact it would not benefit electorally – should do something about it. A boundary review which did not reduce the number of MPs and allowed a slightly larger variation in constituency size than was allowed by the failed boundary review would be a fair way of doing this.”

    Do we have any data to back this idea up? Ie what would be the bias with equalised electorates with current numbers, 700 seats, 800? I see this idea printed often but not backed up.

    A good post though.

  12. On August 10, 2012 at 7:29 pm Veronicahardstaff responded with... #

    Many of the superficially smaller inner city seats traditionally won by Labour actually have a lot of people not on the elctoral roll. This may be because of short term lets leading to a very floating population and non British citizens. (See the 2011 census.) These people are the very ones most likely to need help from their MP. In my experience of MPs of different parties, Labour MPs spend massively more time on helping constituents, many not on the electoral roll and with much more difficult and time-consuming problems, than Conservative MPs.
    The proposed changes in housing benefit and registration procedure will further exacerbate the number of “hidden” constituents who will miss out on appearing on the electoral roll. I would dispute that there is a genuine “entrenched electoral bias” in favour of Labour, but given the above factors, the present moves by the Conservatives are intended to disenfranchise still further the poor and vulnerable, and give themselves a built-in advantage.

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