Archive | January, 2011

This redrawn electoral map defies common sense – 17 Jan 2011

This redrawn electoral map defies common sense – 17 Jan 2011

Posted on 17 January 2011 by admin

A bill that would reduce the number of MPs and change constituency boundaries deserves a good going-over in the Lords

The government really only has itself to blame for the problems its parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill has been encountering in the House of Lords. As its name suggests, the bill combines two separate enterprises and provides both for a referendum on changing the voting system to the alternative vote and measures to “reduce and equalise” the number of MPs. The problem is that the AV referendum is legislatively pretty straightforward and – once the Conservatives had signed up to it in the coalition agreement – not very controversial. But the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and rewriting the rules by which parliamentary constituencies are drawn up is legislatively complicated and deeply controversial. Yoking together a simple, time-sensitive measure like the referendum and a complicated proposal like the boundary changes was asking for trouble.

The “reduce and equalise” policy deserves intense scrutiny. The all-party political and constitutional reform select committee expressed its “regret that it is being pushed through parliament in a manner that limits both legislative and external scrutiny of its impact”:

“While we agree there may be a case for reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, the government has singularly failed to make it. We recommend the government assesses and, if possible, mitigate through amendments, the likely impact of the wholesale redrawing of constituency boundaries on grassroots politics.”

In terms of reducing numbers of MPs, the government has plucked a number from the air rather than starting with an assessment of what MPs do and how many of them are needed to do it. The workload of MPs within Westminster has gone up considerably over the years, particularly since the select committee system was created in 1979. There are now 467 places on the committees that run the business of the house and scrutinise the executive. Particularly if the number of ministers and PPS posts remains the same, there will be fewer people to hold the government to account.MPs also work harder than ever in their constituencies. In the 1960s MPs received about 15 letters a week; now it is 300, plus huge numbers of emails. By September, newly elected MPs were saying they had already received 20,000 emails to their parliamentary address.

The standard of constituency service that electors expect has gone up steadily, and the evidence shows that MPs who have good reputations for constituency work do well electorally (such as Grant Shapps, Tim Farron and Gisela Stuart). The number of people they represent has gone up steadily – from 55,000 electors in 1950 to 70,000 now and 76,000 under the new rules.

Nor are the British over-represented. The Commons is a bit larger than some other legislative chambers, but then it does different things. Unlike the US House, or the French national assembly, it staffs the executive. In many other countries, like the US, Australia and Germany, there is a tier of state legislatures below the federal level, and in most other countries there are more councillors with more powers than in the United Kingdom. The chamber that is very large by international standards is the House of Lords, which the government is busy making even bigger by packing it with supporters.

The new boundary rules, as I have written at length elsewhere, are likely to produce a complicated and flawed new political map of Britain. The government’s insistence on constituencies being a maximum of 5% away from the average size of 76,000 electors means that county boundaries will be crossed, local government wards split between parliamentary constituencies, and seats drawn up in defiance of community identity and sometimes of common sense.

There is no alternative, if the government bill is unamended, to a seat straddling between part of the Isle of Wight and part of Hampshire – “Southsea and Ryde” most likely. Cornwall is up in arms about a seat crossing the border with Devon. The bill has an indifferent, un-conservative attitude to local identity and community in the interests of centralised arithmetic rationalism.

It is also, in its effect, the most extreme uniformity imposed on any national legislature’s seats. Even in the United States and Australia, two countries with strong “equalisation” systems, only around 90% of seats fit into the 5% band that the government intends to cram 99.5% of parliamentary seats. The Boundary Commission for England already manages better overall equalisation than is achieved in Australia.

The government could allow a few more special cases (like the Isle of Wight, Cornwall, Argyll and northwest Wales), and tolerate 10% variation around the average size, which would prevent most of the silly consequences of the 5% limit such as split wards and cross county seats. Some account could also be taken of seats where the population (all of whom are entitled to the MP’s representative service) is hugely larger than the registered electorate, as it is in much of inner London. We would still have parliamentary constituencies that are pretty much as equal in size to those of the US House of Representatives, which should satisfy the government’s demand for equalising seats.

The government has failed to take any account of the reasoned comments of several parliamentary select committees (so much for improving the balance of power between legislature and executive) and has insisted blindly on its own extreme proposals. It is notable that the government backbenchers in the Lords have been nearly completely silent. This may be because they know the government has lost the argument, or less charitably because they are not prepared to scrutinise their own government’s measure. Debating and amending bills in these circumstances is precisely what the House of Lords is for, and by giving this bill a thorough going-over the Labour Lords are acting in the best traditions of their house.

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The Ten Per Cent Solution

The Ten Per Cent Solution

Posted on 11 January 2011 by admin

Amending the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill to make ‘equalization’ more workable.

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Oldham East and Saddleworth

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Oldham East and Saddleworth

Posted on 11 January 2011 by admin


Lewis Baston gives his rundown of this by-election seat, noting that Debbie Abrahams is likely to win, but that this is ‘not natural Labour territory’ and that there is a strong, historical Liberal tradition going back decades…

Perhaps the first thing one should note about Oldham East and Saddleworth is that it is not ‘natural Labour territory’. Since the constituency was created in 1997, Labour has never achieved more than 42 per cent of the vote. While part of it is as gritty an urban area as you could find, most of the constituency is suburban and rural. It is on the edge of the Greater Manchester conurbation and many of the Saddleworth villages are scenic, attractive places which attract retirees and some wealthy Manchester or Leeds commuters. This is post-industrial countryside, and even in the town centre the air blows fresh and cold and one can feel the moors gradually reclaiming their territory from the depopulating town after 150 years.

The seat divides into four broad areas:
• Oldham inner urban, comprising basically two wards (Alexandra and St Mary’s).
• Oldham eastern suburbs (St James, Waterhead)
• The small town of Shaw to the north of Oldham (Crompton, Shaw)
• Moorlands and valley villages in the Pennine hills east of Oldham (Saddleworth North, Saddleworth South, Saddleworth West and Lees – the last-named ward is a bit more urban)

Politically, two of these elements are heavily Lib Dem with the Conservatives a distant second (at least in local elections) – Saddleworth and Shaw. In the other two it is competitive between Lib Dem and Labour. Crucially, Labour has tended to do better in general elections than local elections – despite the bad relations between the parties, some voters clearly ‘split their ticket’ for Lib Dem locally and Labour nationally.

This is not a particularly Muslim seat, except for the two inner urban wards (particularly St Mary’s, which is 48.7 per cent BME population and over 40 per cent Muslim). The Saddleworth wards are below the English average for ethnic minority population. Muslim campaigners clearly dislike Phil Woolas, although it is far from clear that this reflects his Muslim constituents’ views.

Much of the constituency was previously in the Littleborough and Saddleworth seat which was Conservative from its creation in 1983 until a famous 1995 by-election when for the first time in recent years Labour (candidate Phil Woolas) ran to the right of the Lib Dems, calling their candidate Chris Davies ‘soft on drugs and high on taxes’. The Lib Dems won the by-election with Labour in second place, but Labour won the redrawn constituency of Oldham East & Saddleworth following boundary changes in 1997. Election campaigning in the area since 1995 has been rough, but even before then there was little love lost between Liberal and Labour. Parts of the seat were in Colne Valley before 1983, which was a nearly unique Lib-Lab marginal in the 1960s and which saw one of the first socialist challenges to the Liberals in a 1907 by-election.

All in all, this is a seat where coalition Liberalism can put up a serious challenge to Labour because rightwing Liberalism has local roots and the Conservative party is organisationally weak despite the impressive share of the vote won by their candidate Kashif Ali in May 2010. There seems little doubt that the basic dynamic of the by-election is the Liberal Democrat effort to recruit enough Tories to offset the loss of disillusioned centre-left voters to Labour. Even among the traditionally anti-Labour Lib Dems of the Pennines there has been unease about the national coalition’s policies, which led to a mass defection of seven Lib Dems to Independent which handed Labour minority control of neighbouring Rochdale.

Even though a look at the national poll ratings and the change since May indicates that there has been a large swing from Lib Dem to Labour, it is worth remembering that Labour has never approached a majority of the vote in the seat, and if the Lib Dems can gain the bulk of the centre-right voters in the seat they can win, even if the Labour vote bounces up to 1997-2005 levels. Some of their leaflets are even coloured Tory blue rather than the traditional Lib Dem yellow.

The winter campaign has also been a potential problem for Labour. The Lib Dem strategy is clear from their decision to move the writ for the by-election to take place on 13 January – a breach of a long-standing parliamentary tradition by which the party who previously held the seat sets the date and moves the writ. The early date is mostly about denying campaigning time to Labour’s candidate Debbie Abrahams and keeping the advantage Elwyn Watkins has from name recognition, from his previous campaigning in the seat and publicity over the election court case. However, Oldham has been flooded by astonishing numbers of Labour activists from all over the country, and there can be few voters in the seat who have not been exposed to Labour’s message.

There was a surge in support for the BNP in the 2001 election after riots in Oldham, and the party’s vote at 5.7 per cent was relatively high even in 2010. Because BNP supporters tend to go and vote, there is a chance that their vote share will be higher in a low-turnout, winter by-election.

There are still some imponderable factors about the local response to some of the circumstances. While having had the previous MP thrown out of office for his campaign via the election court is not good news for Labour, being the complainant may not help Watkins much either. In the previous re-run election (Winchester, 1997, on grounds that votes had been wrongly disallowed by the returning officer) the candidate who brought the legal action saw the majority against him go up from two to over 20,000. Some voters have taken the view that Watkins has ‘whinged’ or been a bad loser by going to law.

The form book would suggest a Labour hold with perhaps 40-42 per cent, Lib Dem second with the 32 per cent, or so they seem to get in most elections here, and Conservatives back down to around 18-20 per cent. The two polls by known organisations on the final weekend of the campaign suggested that Labour were riding a bit higher with 44-46 per cent. A certain amount will depend on who has the most efficient postal voting operation, particularly if the weather is bad on Thursday.

If, as the polls suggest, Debbie Abrahams is on course to win comfortably on Thursday, the accomplishment is not to be underestimated. This is not an easy seat for Labour at the best of times, and having the previous MP thrown out by a court does not make this the best of times.

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The Ten Per Cent Solution

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The Ten Per Cent Solution

Posted on 08 January 2011 by admin

Amending the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill: Why a 10 per cent permitted variation is superior to the government’s 5 per cent rule

Much less crossing of county boundaries

A 5 per cent rule involves violating the boundaries of well-established local units in a way that does not take place in apparently comparable systems of equalisation in Australia and the United States. For a county to avoid sharing one or more seats with another county, it needs to meet two criteria.
• Its electorate size permits a whole number of seats to be given within the allowed variation. For instance, a county with an entitlement to 5.3 constituencies cannot be given a whole number of seats because its average seat would be 106 per cent of the standard national size.
• Even if a county is technically entitled to a whole number, it might be practically impossible – for instance, if a county has 5.7 times the national quota of electors, it could have six seats all at 95 per cent of standard size. In practice it will be impossible to find a sensible division of the county to permit such exact slicing.
• Even if its electorate is compatible with a whole number of seats, it may still need to have a cross-county seat because a neighbouring county is out of balance. For instance Suffolk, of itself, could have 7 seats quite easily under the government plan. But because Norfolk is a long way off a whole number entitlement, Suffolk ends up having to share.
Very few counties meet these criteria in England with a 5 per cent limit. In the Democratic Audit model boundaries using a 5 per cent rule, only Cumbria, Staffordshire, North Yorkshire, Humberside, Lincolnshire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire escaped – 9 out of 46 counties, accounting for 67 of the 503 seats proposed for England. Relatively small future changes in electorate size would lead to disruptive change to the county groupings every parliament.
A 10 per cent tolerance of variation would transform this chaotic picture. No counties fail outright (other than the Isle of Wight) but in practice a few are close enough to the edge to make pairing perhaps necessary. Wiltshire and Dorset, and West Yorkshire and South Yorkshire, would be the only pairings required under a revised plan based on 10 per cent.

Much less splitting of wards
It is probably impossible to implement a 5 per cent rule without splitting wards between constituencies, something which the Boundary Commissions currently avoid doing because of the potential for voter confusion and highly artificial constituency boundaries, not to mention causing headaches for the organisation of all political parties. The model distribution using 5 per cent run for Democratic Audit attempted to minimise ward-splitting, but it proved unavoidable in some areas. The worst-affected areas are those where wards have large electorates, such as the English metropolitan boroughs, most of Scotland and some unitary authorities and London boroughs.
A rigid 10 per cent rule might still involve a few isolated cases of ward-splitting, but it is likely to be very uncommon in comparison with a 5 per cent rule.

Fewer and less disruptive boundary changes in future
The government’s Bill proposes that the boundaries will change every election, which disrupts the relationship between MP and constituency and will no doubt lead to confusion. Because the 5 per cent limit is so tight, many constituencies that were the right size in one boundary review will be too big or too small by the next. This will happen because of growth and decline in population. It will also happen because of variations in electoral registration from year to year, which are likely to be larger under the forthcoming Individual Electoral Registration system. It is quite possible that radical changes in boundaries will be made for no better reason than fluctuating registers, which as we know have become much less stable, complete and accurate.
With a wider permitted variation, fewer constituencies will go above or below the limit because of population or register change even if the boundaries are reviewed every election. It would make for a more sensible and stable system of boundaries, and better representation for constituents, if the frequency of reviews were to be 10 rather than 5 years anyway.

Closer concordance with community identities
The government’s proposals will involve areas, particularly rural areas, being moved into constituencies to make up numbers at the cost of making the constituency less cohesive. It is not clear, because the government has not bothered asking, whether people would prefer to be in a slightly larger seat that makes up a coherent whole, than in an appendage to a constituency based on different communities that is the ‘right’ size.
Taking the borough of Doncaster as an example, it would be entitled to 2.87 seats under the new rules. In practice, drawing three seats of just over 95 per cent of the standard size would involve splitting wards and creating illogical boundaries, so it is more likely that a ward of a neighbouring borough would be drawn into a seat. With a 10 per cent limit, Doncaster would have three seats of its own without a problem. Coventry would be festooned with rural wards bringing up numbers with 5 per cent, but again capable of having three city seats under 10 per cent.

The hard cases
The government’s Bill proposes to tolerate an extremely small group of anomalous seats – two island groups in Scotland plus perhaps a seat with a large land area in the Highlands. Most other systems of districting (including the US and Australia) allow some latitude for small states, difficult territory, or both. The Bill insists that 99.5 per cent of seats are within 5 per cent of the national quota, while 86 per cent is good enough for the United States and 67 per cent is fine in Australia. There is ample room for a few more constituencies to depart from the national average in the interests of geography, local identity or simple common sense.
Among the most deserving cases are:
• Isle of Wight. The Bill proposes to have at least one seat that straddles the channel between the Isle and Hampshire, something that would create an absurd constituency with no coherent identity. In past boundary and local government reviews local opinion has opposed the division of the island.
• Cornwall. Cornwall has something of a special status among English counties – in some ways it is only administratively rather than culturally ‘England’ at all. Local opinion in Cornwall has been against a ‘Devonwall’ seat crossing the county boundary. It would not affect overall equality much to give it (plus the Isles of Scilly) a specific exemption, although the decision whether to give it 5 or 6 seats of its own is a fine one.
• Anglesey. The island is, unlike Wight or the Scottish island groups, linked to the mainland by bridges, but then again it is not as far from the national quota at around 50,000 electors. Equalisation would mean putting Bangor into the same constituency.
• Argyll & Bute. This is in some ways an even sparser constituency than the Highland seats because of its extremely long coastline, islands and the difficulty of internal communications.
• North west Wales. Two factors come into play in this area. The difficult and mountainous geography has caused the Boundary Commission to exercise a bit of leniency in the past. The representation of indigenous national minorities is also a recognised criterion for drawing up electoral districts, and the government’s plan would probably involve creating fewer Welsh-speaking majority seats than their proportion in the population.
• Estuaries. It would make sense to ban constituencies straddling wide estuaries such as the Mersey, Humber, Clyde, Forth and Thames.
• Welsh valleys. There might be a case for allowing small departure from the usual rules if following them could lead to an absurd seat with a small part of one valley attached to a seat based on another valley.

The population/ register factor
There is scope for a fuller discussion of the appropriate way of measuring constituency ‘size’, particularly given the deterioration in the completeness of electoral registers in some seats in inner urban areas in particular. However, the government’s haste to act has not permitted this.
In the absence of a thorough look at the issue, it would be possible and desirable to create a class of seats that were allowed to be a bit smaller than the norm because they are grossly overpopulated. If it is unacceptable for an MP to have a constituency with more than 13,000 square kilometres in area because it makes it impractical to represent, it is also unacceptable for a constituency to have a vast resident population. It is at least as difficult for an MP to represent an abnormally large number of constituents as it is to navigate around a large seat.
Overall, the electorate is about 75 per cent of the population – there are around 61 million people in the UK population and a bit over 45 million in the electorate. However, there are a number of constituencies where there are vastly more constituents than there are registered electors. Often, the factors that produce low levels of electoral registration or large ineligible populations coincide – young people, including foreign citizens, living for short periods in private rented accommodation comprise a large proportion of the population in inner London in particular.
The table below shows, on the basis of Office of National Statistics research compiled in 2007 (for the old constituencies), the English constituencies in which the population represented by the MP is much larger than normal compared to the registered electorate. Several Northern Ireland constituencies would also feature in this table, but none in Scotland or Wales.

An amendment to the Bill, analogous to the provision that already exists for land area, could limit the population allowed in any constituency. If no constituency were permitted to have more than, say, 125,000 in population the number affected would be relatively small but the impact on the service to constituents in some hard-pressed areas could be considerable.

Partisan effects and electoral bias

The results of a – rougher – Democratic Audit simulation using 10 per cent toleration are actually more favourable to the Conservatives than those under strict 5 per cent equalisation.

This may well be an effect of the model’s methodology, but the conclusion has to be that there are no significant differences between 5 per cent and 10 per cent equalisation as regards their partisan effect. The differences are in the ability of 10 per cent equalisation to better accommodate natural communities and administrative boundaries.

It is worth noting that whatever set of boundary changes are proposed, the effect on partisan outcomes is relatively small. This is because, as demonstrated by repeated academic research, constituency size is only a small element of the electoral system’s current bias in favour of Labour. The illustrious psephological team of Ron Johnston, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, and Galina Borisyuk, has analysed the 2010 election ( and the general issues (Borisyuk, G., R. Johnston, C. Rallings, and M. Thrasher. “Parliamentary Constituency Boundary Reviews and Electoral Bias: How Important Are Variations in Constituency Size?” Parliamentary Affairs 63, no. 1 (2010): 4-21) conclusively. Their estimate of Labour’s gain from the size factor is a net 13 seats over the Conservatives; using a different methodology I calculated it as being a net 15, a lot of which was caused by the over-representation of Wales.

The real major sources of electoral system bias are not to do with constituency size, but with differential turnout and the uneven way parties’ votes are distributed across the country. Some model examples are given in the Appendix.


There are significant new issues to consider in the sphere of electoral registration and how constituency boundaries are drawn, which would benefit from a period of consideration and consensus-forming which the government has prevented by the haste of its Bill and its unwillingness so far to compromise. It would be better to take a little longer and devise a system that will last. I am not alone in thinking that there will be only two boundary reviews under these rules – one reporting by 2013 and in force from 2015, and another reporting in 2018. At that point, MPs will revolt at the prospect of repeated disruptive boundary reviews, as they did in similar circumstances in 1958.

The Bill is capable, though, of being sensibly amended to produce a system that will last a bit longer and work with the grain of practicality and local identity. The key measures to ameliorate the Bill would be, in summary:

• A 10 per cent permitted variation in seat size, replacing the 5 per cent rule
• Either a list of further permitted geographical special cases, or the restoration of the Boundary Commission’s ability to use its discretion for special geographical circumstances.
• Creation of a new category of anomalous seats to deal with the new problem of constituencies with grossly oversized population compared to electorate.
• Boundary reviews every 10 years rather than every 5 years.

I have already argued elsewhere for the restoration of the right to a public inquiry.

Amendments of this nature will not prevent the achievement of a level of equality between constituencies that is towards the top of the international league table, and closer to equality than the Australian House of Representatives (and possibly the American House of Representatives as well). They will enable the new constituencies to be more identifiable by their constituents, more stable, more sensible with respect to the physical and administrative geography, and therefore more likely to be sustainable – while still meeting the government’s aim of greater equality.

It would be in the best traditions of the House of Lords in improving legislation if the Upper House were to pass amendments such as these to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill.




In this example there are three seats, one marginal and one safe seat for each of the two big parties. Parties win their safe seats by exactly the same share of the vote – 68 per cent to 32 per cent. In an election where turnout is uniform this produces the ‘right’ result – see ‘1964’ below.

However, if there is a fall in turnout which is unevenly distributed this disrupts the relationship between seats and votes. Even if there is no swing in any constituency – the winners still hold their safe seats 68:32 – but turnout drops in one party’s safe seats this causes an apparent national swing. In the example below there has been a fall in turnout in the safe Labour seat.

We now have a strong bias to Labour deriving simply from turnout – Labour has ‘won’ this election despite being 4 points behind the Conservatives in the popular vote.

In 2010 the turnout in Labour’s hundred safest seats was 58.9 per cent, and in the Conservatives’ hundred safest seats it was 68.5 per cent.

If one did away with differential turnout, the Conservatives’ lead over Labour would have shrunk from 7.1 per cent to 5.4 per cent – the latter figure is the one the electoral system ‘thought’ there was.

There are only three methods of correcting turnout bias. One is to eliminate the turnout differential by making voting compulsory. Another is to – unlike any other country in the world other than Belarus – use the numbers voting as the basis for drawing parliamentary seats. Another is to have an element of national proportional representation in the electoral system.


In this example of electoral system bias Labour has come third in votes and first in seats, even though every seat is the same size and turnout is equal too. The bias arises because Labour’s vote is enough to win in the party’s stronger seats but the party has few votes in its weaker areas. By contrast, the Lib Dem and particularly the Conservative vote is relatively high even in the seats that party is not winning. Labour’s vote was distributed in this way in 2005, while in the 1950s the Conservatives tended to benefit from this form of electoral bias.

This example also demonstrates the ‘third party seats’ effect. In the three seats won by the Conservatives or Labour, the two parties’ votes are equal at  80,000 (Labour’s is more efficiently distributed, hence the 2:1 advantage in seats). In the Lib Dem seat, there is a substantial Conservative vote but a low Labour vote. This Tory advantage in ‘Berwick’ is reflected in the vote total but does not affect the number of seats.

Another form of vote distribution effect on bias is when a party wins its safe seats by an enormous margin but the other party wins more narrowly. This was the source of anti-Labour electoral bias in the 1950s because, crudely, Labour was winning working class strongholds 80-20 and the Conservatives’ rural and suburban seats were being won 65-35 or so.

Further reading

Lewis Baston All are equal, but some are more equal than others. Is ‘equalisation’ of constituency electorates an international norm from which Britain departs? Democratic Audit, January 2011

Lewis Baston How pressing is the need for further equalisation of constituency electorates? Democratic Audit, December 2010

Lewis Baston Written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons August 2010

Lewis Baston and Stuart Wilks-Heeg How strong is the case for having fewer MPs? Democratic Audit, November 2010

Lewis Baston Written evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons August 2010

Stuart Wilks-Heeg Written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons September 2010

House of Lords Constitution Committee report

House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report

House of Commons Welsh Affairs Select Committee report

Borisyuk, G., R. Johnston, C. Rallings, and M. Thrasher “Parliamentary Constituency

Boundary Reviews and Electoral Bias: How Important Are Variations in Constituency Size?”

Parliamentary Affairs 63, no. 1 (2010): 4-21.

Borisyuk, G., R. Johnston, C. Rallings, and M. Thrasher “Electoral bias in 2010: evaluating its extent in a three party system” EPOP paper September 2010

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Britain’s unequally sized constituencies are a non existent problem

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Britain’s unequally sized constituencies are a non existent problem

Posted on 08 January 2011 by admin

Britain’s unequally sized constituencies are a non existent problem, to which the coalition government has adopted an extreme and perhaps unworkable solution. (Crossposted from LSE)

The government is seeking to fundamentally change how local constituencies for Parliament are drawn up. Its alleged ‘reform’ bill returns to the House of Lords shortly for a final look. Comparing its proposals with the requirements used in other liberal democracies, Lewis Baston shows that the UK already has some of the most equally sized constituencies in the western world. In trying to solve a non-existent problem, Conservative ministers in particular are bent on requiring unworkable levels of equality in constituency sizes. The government is pursuing an extreme solution that will fatally damage the organic unity of local communities, which both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have traditionally protected and valued.

It may seem a matter of obvious common sense and fairness that constituencies should be ‘equal sized’ – the government certainly insists that it is so. They propose that constituencies for the House of Commons should have the same number of registered electors, within plus or minus 5 per cent of the national average (and with only 2 or 3 allowed exceptions).

Yet in fact no other country in the world has actually achieved this degree of equality without adopting proportional representation and multi-member seats. Even apparently highly equalised systems for drawing constituency boundaries in Australia and the United States involve more variation in constituency sizes than the government proposes to allow within the United Kingdom.

When introducing the Second Reading of the government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in September, Nick Clegg said this about the proposal to ‘equalise’ the size of the registered electorate in each constituency:

On the broken scales of our democracy, 10 voters in Glasgow North have the same weight as 17 voters in Manchester Central. That is not a single anomaly, because those differences are repeated up and down the country. As of last December, Wirral West, Edinburgh South and Wrexham had fewer than 60,000 voters. Falkirk, Banbury and West Ham had more than 80,000. That unfairness is deeply damaging to our democracy.

Yet by this standard, boundaries in many of the principal countries using single member constituencies must be ‘deeply damaging’ to democracy, since my Table below shows that current UK system in now way performs particularly poorly by international standards.

Variations in constituency sizes across liberal democracies using single member seats

Notes: The dates on the census or other count of relevant population took place does not normally coincide with the election dates. For the countries above the relevant population count dates are UK proposed (2009), USA 2012 (2010), USA 2002 (2000), England current (2000), UK current (2000), Australia (2010), Canada (2006), Jamaica (2007), and France (1986). For France, although districting was done on a population basis in 1986 the figures given are for electorate in 2007

Sources: US Census Bureau, Australian Electoral Commission, Elections Canada, Electoral Office of Jamaica,, David Jarman and for tabulation of USA 2000.

Numbers in all shaded cells are approximations.

The key column in the Table is the ‘Variation in seat size’, which is a measure called the standard deviation of the size of constituencies. Here the national relevant population is divided by the total number of constituencies (being given the value of 100 to allow comparable results). The Table shows that the outcome of the government Bill would not be to make Britain level up to a common standard already being achieved elsewhere. Instead it would require the UK to reach a level of arithmetic equality that is unknown in comparable national legislatures, (and that would also be based of course on severely flawed UK electoral registers).

There are two broad dimensions to equalising constituencies:

  • What to do with the anomalies – islands and national minorities – and how many particularly small or large constituencies should be tolerated because they are special cases.
  • The level of uniformity imposed on the majority of ‘normal’ cases.

The different measures in the table capture different dimensions of equality – how far out of line the anomalous cases are, and how unequal the system is as a whole. It also shows the proportion of seats that meet two criteria that have featured in debate in the UK, namely being 5 per cent or 10 per cent away from the national quota. The government’s bill requires that over 99 per cent of constituencies are within 5 per cent of the national quota (the exceptions being two Scottish island seats and perhaps one in the Highlands). No other comparable legislature hits 90 per cent. In terms of the overall deviation from the standard size, the government’s proposal is twice as ‘equalised’ as the US House of Representatives.

It is worth asking why, despite legal and constitutional rules about equality, Australia and the United States fail to equalise their constituencies. The answer is that both countries respect the boundaries of their component states and territories when drawing up national legislative districts. Australia divides its 150 House seats into 8 states and territories, and the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives are divided into 50 state delegations. Some states in each country are small – seven American states have single seats, and five more have an allocation of two seats. The result is that Montana comprises a single Congressional district of 994,400 people, while the slightly bigger state of Rhode Island has two small districts with around 527,600 people in each. Ten voters in Rhode Island have the same voting power as 18 Montanans. If the United Kingdom respected proportionally as many sub-national units in a 600-seat Commons as the US does for its 435-seat House, then there would be 69 localities with boundaries that could not be crossed.

The government legislation proposes that there should be just six recognised sub-divisions in across the whole of the UK – namely the four component nations, plus Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney and Shetland. In fact, the English boundary commission will probably respect the boundaries of the nine government standard regions for England. Ironically then, the already existing UK boundary system is closer to American and Australian practice, because respecting county boundaries in England outside London involved 46 units with established community identities being given whole numbers of seats.

Isle of Wight

Taking the powerful elected Senates of Australia and the United States into account only widens the huge differences in voting power. In terms of total members of Congress (House and Senate), an inhabitant of Wyoming has 10.3 times as much power as a Californian, a differential that makes the gap between the Hebrides and the Isle of Wight appear small. The inequality in voting power in the United Kingdom caused by constituency size is therefore patently not deeply damaging to British democracy.

Constituency equalisation that was about as good as that for the US House of Representatives could be achieved for the Commons with a much less extreme legislative definition of equal size that would work with the grain and attract more political consensus. For instance:

  • The law could allow 10 per cent deviation from the national average, which would mean that county boundaries could nearly all be respected.
  • The law could recognise other special cases. such as the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and Anglesey,
  • And the final Act could allow some latitude for urban seats where population is grossly in excess of the registered electorate.

The government has portrayed its scheme as a modest, tidying up job. In reality it is a radical and extreme shift towards requiring a level of equality in constituency size that no other country in the world attempts, at the expense of riding roughshod over virtually all organic local identities. It has so far escaped proper scrutiny. The House of Lords forthcoming deliberations on the Bill will provide a last opportunity for the true nature of the coalition’s proposals to be exposed and a last chance for its worst and most unworkable features to be ameliorated.

For further analysis of how the constituency proposals will affect the parties see:

Lewis Baston, ‘Do Turkeys vote for Christmas? Yes, when it comes to Liberal Democrat MPs and the boundary review for Westminster constituencies. Nick Clegg’s party will lose a fifth of all its MPs’.


Ron Johnston, ‘Pursuing a passion for parity, the coalition government is axing one in every 4 MPs in Wales, but less than one in 14 in England. How the UK draws its electoral map will never be the same again’.

This blog article is based on the new report, All are equal, but some are more equal than others (click here to download) published on 7 January 2011 by Democratic Audit.

The coalition government is introducing major constitutional changes but does not have a coherent overall constitutional strategy. The results will not provide a stable basis either for British liberties, democracy or its constitution

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