Archive | Electoral Boundaries

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Why the Chartists wouldn’t support David Cameron’s boundary changes

Posted on 08 August 2012 by admin

David Cameron has once again cheekily invoked the Chartist democracy movement from the 1830s and 1840s as a justification for his government’s boundary changes. The Chartists did indeed demand equal constituencies, but there was no banner at Kennington in 1848 reading ‘Equal constituencies for all! No variation of more than 5 per cent in registered electorate (with the exceptions of the Isle of Wight, Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan An Iar)’. Even after the Great Reform Act of 1832 there were still differences in constituency electorate of the order of 100:1, and huge systematic differences between industrial areas and market towns. It is insulting to compare the previous work of the Boundary Commissions, which has produced more-or-less equal constituencies, with the grotesque differences that existed at the time of the Chartists.

When the Chartists complained about unequal-sized constituencies, they were thinking about gross injustices like the 243 electors of Andover in Hampshire having two MPs between them in 1847, the same representation as the 23,630 electors of Lancashire (Southern). A few odd cases like the Isle of Wight and Orkney & Shetland are hardly in the same league. The ‘Chartist’ argument also ignores the differences between adult population and the number of people on the electoral register. This was, of course, enormous in 1847 – but more or less a match by the 1970s. Since then, particularly since 2000, there have been increasing numbers of people left off the electoral registers – this time not through deliberate legal disqualification but because the machinery cannot keep pace with the speed at which some people move house, and the alienation of young people in particular from any official channels. Cameron’s intentions have very little to do with progressive political reform.

The problem of the difference between registered electors and the real number of people in a locality entitled to vote is acute. The worst-affected are the young, the poor and socially marginal; already in 2010 the average Labour constituency in England probably had more people qualified to be on the register than the average Tory seat. This is likely to get worse, because a more complicated and expensive system of individual electoral registration is being introduced from 2014. The government’s new law on boundaries requires a disruptive boundary review every parliament, and the next one may take place in 2015 on the basis of particularly inaccurate electoral registers.

It is worth recapitulating what the new boundaries mean, and how it compares internationally. Other than in a few exceptions granted for islands, constituencies will now have to be within 5 per cent of the UK average size, i.e. between 72,810 and 80,473 electors on the register in December 2010. This may sound reasonable, but it is the most extreme implementation of ‘equal size’ in a national legislature that uses single-member districts.

Table: Variation in constituency size in democracies using single member seats

  Date Basis Variability in seat size Smallest seat (as % of average) Largest seat (as % of average) % of seats within 5% national limit % of seats within 10% national limit
UK proposed 2015 (2010) Electorate 2.2


29.3 (approx.) 105.0 (approx.) 99.3 (approx.) 99.5 (approx.)
USA 2012 (2010) Population - 74.2 (approx.) 139.9 85.7 (approx.) 96.8 (approx.)
USA 2002 (2000) Population 4.4 76.5 139.7 89.7 96.3
England 2010 (2000) Electorate 8.6 76.5 152.9 44.1 79.2


2010 Electorate 9.1 63.8 132.4 66.7 87.3
UK 2010 (2000) Electorate 11.1 31.7 156.7 36.6 69.1
Canada 2008 (2006) Population 21.3 25.7 166.0 22.1 39.9


2007 Electorate 24.8 65.0 154.0 3.3 25.0
France 2007 (1986) Population* - 6.5 162.7 - -


The first date given is the relevant figure at the time of the most recent election, or in the cases of the US and UK following the current reallocations. Where a second date is given, this is the date at which the census or other count of relevant population took place. ‘Variation in seat size’ is the standard deviation of the size of constituencies, with the national relevant population divided by the total number of constituencies being given the value of 100 to allow comparable results. For France, although districting was done on a population basis in 1986 the figures given are for electorate in 2007.

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 national legislative districts. Australia divides its 150 House seats into 8 states and territories, and the US House of 435 is divided into 50 state delegations. Some states in each country are small – 7 American states have single seats, and 5 more an allocation of two seats. The result is that Montana comprises a single Congressional district of 994,416 people, while the slightly bigger state of Rhode Island has two small districts with around 527,623 people in each. Ten voters in Rhode Island have the same voting power as 18 Montanans – a bigger variation than the divergence Nick Clegg called ‘deeply damaging to our democracy’ back in 2010. I am pleased that he seems to have changed his mind.

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First thoughts on cancelling the boundary changes

Posted on 06 August 2012 by admin

What does the shelving of the boundary review mean for David Cameron’s chances of forming a majority Conservative government at the 2015 election?

We are told that the Conservatives had pinned great hopes on their proposal to change the way in which parliamentary constituency boundaries are drawn; Cameron is said to have told MPs that it was ‘crucial’ to the prospect of a majority in 2015. Assuming the boundary changes are indeed blocked (it is a somewhat complicated parliamentary and legal procedure), has Clegg now killed off the Conservatives’ chances of winning outright?

In order to answer the question properly, one has to take a step back and ask whether the boundary review would have delivered a majority anyway. That is very questionable. On the best available figures for the impact of the proposed changes, the Tories would have been just short of an outright majority in a House of 600 MPs on the basis of the 2010 results. To win outright would still require doing something no full-term government has managed since 1955 (and indeed never managed before then), i.e. substantially increasing the party’s share of the vote. With Labour likely to poll significantly better than its poor showing in 2010, Cameron – new boundaries or not – would need to do the political equivalent of making water flow uphill anyway. Some Conservative analysts, such as Lord Ashcroft and Tim Montgomerie and colleagues at Conservative Home, have already devoted much thought to the problem.

The cancellation of the boundary changes makes the mountain the Tories have to climb for a majority a bit steeper, but if they are not in any condition to climb any sort of mountain that makes no difference. It will make it easier for Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs with small majorities to see off Conservative challenges and stop them making the 20 net gains they need for an outright win.

But some Conservative MPs in marginal seats will also be breathing a secret sigh of relief. Labour’s class of 1997 nearly all survived the 2001 election because when MPs face their first election as an incumbent they tend to do much better than the national average. Boundary changes, by altering the relationship between MP and constituency, interfere with this pattern. While the Conservatives are less likely to win outright, incumbency makes things far from straightforward to Labour on the old boundaries. Fighting the next election on the same boundaries as last time will increase the probability that the election will result in another hung parliament, probably with Labour as the largest single party.

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The UK’s New Political Map? The Democratic Audit Model

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The UK’s New Political Map? The Democratic Audit Model

Posted on 07 June 2011 by admin

The documents below provide the full details of Democratic Audit’s model of how constituency boundaries could change using the new rules contained in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011.

The model, devised by Lewis Baston, Senior Research Fellow, with assistance from Kevin Larkin uses the December 2010 electorate figures, as the Boundary Commissions are required to do. It also adheres to a number of principles which the Boundary Commissions have indicated they will seek to apply, such as avoiding constituency configurations which cross English regional boundaries.

It should be emphasised that this is only a model, not a precise prediction. There are many possible patterns for drawing up constituencies that will be consistent with the new rules, and this is but one solution. The political parties have no doubt done similar work. But the final word will go to the Boundary Commission working in each of the component nations of the United Kingdom – and no doubt the result will be different in significant ways from any other model set of boundaries.

The authors of this work on boundaries hope that it will raise public awareness of the issues involved, and encourage a maximum of informed public participation once the Boundary Commissions invite consultation on their proposals.
Read More:

Lewis Baston: The Democratic Audit model of new Parliamentary boundaries: methodological note 6 June 2011 (PDF)

This paper summarises the assumptions and methods used to undertake the modelling and provides a number of important caveats about how the results should, and should not, be interpreted.

Lewis Baston: Summary of Democratic Audit boundary simulation 7 June 2011 (PDF)

This paper provides an overall summary of the model findings for each standard English region as well as for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. (Note – this is an updated version, with minor changes to the two Warrington seats, which replaces the version published on 6 June 2011).

Lewis Baston: Constituencies left unchanged in the Democratic Audit boundary model 7 June 2011 (PDF)

It has been widely assumed that the new rules to be used by the Boundary Commissions will require changes to the boundaries to almost every constituency. This paper provides details of 88 constituencies, listed by region, which remain unchanged in the Democratic Audit model.

Detailed regional summaries

We have now released all our detailed regional summaries of the model constituencies contained in the mapping exercise. These provide details of the wards making up each proposed constituency in the model.

Region Summary (PDF) Maps
Scotland Download  Scotland with central belt detail (PDF)
Wales Download Wales and South Wales detail (PDF)
Northern Ireland Download  No map currently available
East of England Download  Eastern region map (PDF)
East Midlands Download East Midlands region with cities detail (PDF)
Greater London Download Greater London and Inner London detail (PDF)
North West Download  North West region and metropolitan detail (PDF)
North East Download North East region and metropolitan areas (PDF)
South West Download South West region and Bristol area detail (PDF)
South East Download  South East region with county detail (PDF)
West Midlands Download West Midlands region and metropolitan (PDF)
Yorkshire & the Humber Download Yorkshire & Humber region and metropolitan (PDF)

Each regional summary has been produced by Lewis Baston. The maps have been produced by Kevin Larkin, using Ordinance Survey data.

An overall summary of the research findings, and the approach used, can also be found on The Guardian’s datablog.

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Electoral Boundaries – The Democratic Audit Model – Lewis Baston explanatory papers

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Electoral Boundaries – The Democratic Audit Model – Lewis Baston explanatory papers

Posted on 06 June 2011 by admin

These are the full, downloadable explanatory papers behind Lewis Baston’s work towards the Democratic Audit model of possible constituency boundary change.

Download (PDF, 1.08MB)

Download (PDF, 319KB)

Download (PDF, 165KB)


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The Democratic Audit model at the Guardian: How it was calculated

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The Democratic Audit model at the Guardian: How it was calculated

Posted on 06 June 2011 by admin

Click thumbnail for full scale map (copyright Guardian Newspapers)


It should be emphasised that this is only a model, not a precise prediction. There are many possible patterns for drawing up constituencies that will be consistent with the new rules, and this is but one solution. The political parties have no doubt done similar work. But the final word will go to the Boundary Commission working in each of the component nations of the United Kingdom – and no doubt the result will be different in significant ways from any other model set of boundaries.

The authors of this work on boundaries hope that it will raise public awareness of the issues involved, and encourage a maximum of informed public participation once the Boundary Commissions invite consultation on their proposals.

There is a hierarchy of four types of decision used in the model. The first two are unavoidable – they are established by law and by the publicly stated policy of the Boundary Commissions. It is possible to draw completely solid and unavoidable conclusions from these facts – for instance, a county such as Dorset with 575,449 electors (i.e. 7.57 times the standard constituency size) cannot possibly be allocated a whole number of constituencies under the new rules. There must be at least one constituency containing parts of Dorset and parts of another county.

1. Rules set out in the new law passed by the Con-LD government in 2011

This specifies that there must be 600 seats (not 599 or 601), and establishes 4 exceptions from the main rule on equal size (2 seats for the Isle of Wight and 2 Scottish island groups left alone). The 596 ‘normal’ seats are distributed to the 4 nations according to a formula, again set in law, so we know that Northern Ireland has 16 seats, Wales has 30, Scotland has 52 (50 normal plus 2 special island seats) and England has 502 (500 normal plus the 2 on the Isle of Wight).

All the 596 normal seats must be within 5% of the average size, as measured by registered electorate in December 2010. The average size is 76,641. Therefore the legal minimum is 72,810 and the legal maximum is 80,473.

(There are 2 clauses that could cause departures from this – technically, there’s a small get-out for Northern Ireland seats that allows them to be slightly smaller, and there’s also a clause in the Act that bans seats being more than 13,000km2 in area and allows seats of 12-13,000km2 to have smaller electorates, but see point (3) below.)

2. Things we know for sure because the Boundary Commissions have published them already

The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) has decided as a matter of policy that it will allocate whole numbers of seats to each region of England, and what numbers it will give to each. Therefore we can say confidently that London will drop from 73 to 68 seats.

The BCE has also said it will split local authority wards between constituencies as little as possible.

The Boundary Commission for Scotland (BCS)
has said that it wants to produce as few constituencies that mix parts of different local authorities as it can. The BCS has for technical reasons the most difficult task of any of the four Commissions.

3. General policies. This is where the educated guesswork takes over

The law also sets out a number of ‘rules’ for redistribution which are subsidiary to the overall rules about the permitted size of constituencies and their distribution to the nations of the UK. These cover desirable qualities of parliamentary constituencies – having regard to local government boundaries where possible, geography (‘the size, shape and accessibility’ of a seat), local ties, and avoiding unnecessary disruption. The text of the Act is available at here.

Based on knowledge of past principles and decisions of Boundary Commissions, I believe they will tend for instance to give a high priority to county boundaries in England where they can (it is not going to be possible in many areas).

They will also have a bias towards ‘no change’ – if a whole county or current seat can be left alone, it will be. They will also tend to avoid splitting smaller towns unless they have to. They will probably try to avoid ‘orphan’ wards, i.e. small sections of one town or county finding themselves in a seat completely dominated by another area. They will probably have some reference to previous sets of boundaries that existed – for instance where a county gained a seat in the boundary changes of 2010 but now needs to lose one, the new seat will be most at risk from the chop.

I have assumed that the BCE will also try to ensure that its constituencies that cross county boundaries will prefer to cross the county line in areas where there are significant cross-border links in terms of economic, social and commuting patterns, and where there is a significant element of both counties included in the cross-border seat. In a couple of cases in the model (Suffolk and Derbyshire) counties that might have been given individual treatment are grouped in the interests of producing better cross-border seats; the BCE may or may not follow this approach.

I have also assumed that the Commissions will only use the get-outs for seats with big land areas, or Northern Ireland, if they really have to (they will have regard to the high priority Parliament put on achieving equal numbers and apply this where they can). My model does not involve creating any small seats in Northern Ireland or the Highlands.

4. Local detail

This is where the most guesswork comes in: there will usually be several sensible alternatives at a local level which fit the statutory and non-statutory rules and the rules of thumb described above. This is particularly the case in the centre of large urban areas, where areas can be combined in many alternative directions, and to some extent in rural seats in the middle of counties. For instance, one can say with a high degree of confidence what the seats at the far end of counties and regions will look like (for instance St Ives and Hereford) but matters are much less certain in inner London.

The data has been compiled into a spreadsheet showing new constituencies, predecessors and how party changes would occur. It also details which seats would be abolished and which would be newly created. The table below shows
the overall impact the changes would have by party.

Lewis Baston is the main author of the projection, with help from Kevin Larkin. 

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The UK’s New Political Map? The Democratic Audit model at the Guardian

The UK’s New Political Map? The Democratic Audit model at the Guardian

Posted on 06 June 2011 by admin

How UK parliamentary constituencies could change – interactive guide

Work is currently underway to reduce the UK’s 650 parliamentary constituencies to 600, abolishing some and redrawing others. Political analyst Lewis Baston has been through the electoral data to see where the changes could come. Click the link above for the Guardian’s interactive guide.

The complete data set behind the interactive guide:


Download (PDF, 2.27MB)

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