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The Boundary Commission for England has been unnecessarily radical in its proposals, often ignoring local government boundaries. New constituencies may lack community cohesion and local loyalty.

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The Boundary Commission for England has been unnecessarily radical in its proposals, often ignoring local government boundaries. New constituencies may lack community cohesion and local loyalty.

Posted on 23 September 2011 by admin

Last week, the Boundary Commission for England presented its proposals for new constituencies based on 600 rather than 650 parliamentary seats. Democratic Audit’s Lewis Baston undertook a parallel analysis in June, and while he finds some similarities, he argues that the Commission may create tri-borough seats, orphan wards and the crossing of the boundaries of upper-tier authorities and counties, which may lead to seats that have little or no community cohesion.

Comparing the initial proposals published by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) on 13 September with the Democratic Audit (DA) model boundaries published in June, has – as the author of those proposals – been an interesting exercise. In many cases the Commission’s ideas were very similar to mine. Nearly all the South West was uncannily similar (except for south Devon), as were large parts of the South East and West Midlands. Even in areas where the BCE map differs a lot from the DA map there are occasional familiar faces, like ‘Battersea and Vauxhall’.  But there were big differences in some areas, particularly North Yorkshire which was unaffected in the original DA model but reshaped by the BCE.

Some of the differences arise simply because there are, in most regions, a large number of viable alternative maps which reflect to a greater or lesser degree considerations like administrative geography, continuity with previously existing seats, and the always contestable nature of ‘local ties’.

Some of the difference, more interestingly, arises from differences in method – not in the overall rules that were set in legislation, but at the level of policies and assumptions. Some of the assumptions we made in the Democratic Audit model were not reflected in the BCE proposals.

One should start by being gracious, and pointing to a feature of the BCE report which is clearly superior to the Democratic Audit original model. It does not involve splitting any wards, while the original DA model split 13. In part, pressure of time when the DA model was released in June led us to propose some split wards while there were acceptable alternatives that emerged on closer inspection. But there was also an underlying aim of trying to reduce disruptive change and allow constituencies to be constructed that did not cross county boundaries or allow strong continuity with existing seats. This led to several ward splits in metropolitan areas.

The BCE’s avoidance of ward splits, even in difficult circumstances when it must have been tempting, is therefore to be admired. However, it comes at the cost of more radical disruption, plus creating some very peculiar seats in urban areas and crossing boundaries wholesale between London and metropolitan boroughs.

One of the assumptions in the Democratic Audit model was that the BCE would avoid creating ‘tri-borough’ constituencies. This assumption was, unfortunately, inaccurate. We regarded constituencies that contained parts of more than two primary local authorities (it will be inevitable that some constituencies will cover several district councils in two-tier areas) were undesirable. Local government boundaries both reflect and help create local communities of interest and identity. A constituency that combines parts of three authorities is unlikely to have any cohesion as a unit and will command little recognition or local loyalty. Constituency representation, in terms of casework, advocacy of local interests and the valuable but unsung role the MP plays in building networks and partnerships in the local area, will be significantly more burdensome when there are multiple local authorities with which to relate. As well as councils, local business and civic groups are often organised at borough level.

It is possible to produce viable maps which avoid splitting wards while also avoiding tri-borough seats. The tri-borough seats give one reason to expect considerable change between the initial proposals and the revised recommendations.

There were two alternative approaches to creating seats that cross county boundaries that the Democratic Audit model considered feasible or desirable, given that the rules under which the Commission was instructed to work required there to be some seats which straddled county boundaries.

One option (‘best fit’), which was embodied in the original Democratic Audit model published in June 2011, was to attempt to construct a limited number of cross-county seats working from points where there are significant numbers of electors either side of the county line and some degree of interchange or commonality between them. This involved more than the minimum number of cross-county seats: for instance, Suffolk was paired in the model. The original model had 21 cross-county seats (4.8 per cent of English seats outside London).

Probably the simplest assumption would be that cross-county seats are pretty undesirable in themselves, and that their number should be minimised. A minimal crossings rule would have produced 15 cross-county seats (3.5 per cent of England outside London).  There is room for interpretation with ‘artificial’ county boundaries, for instance those between Cheshire and the southern boroughs of Greater Manchester, which might involve multiple crossings if that fits better with local ties. But in general, on reflection, minimisation may have been the best working assumption.

However, the number of cross-county constituencies in the BCE initial proposals was surprisingly large. In total, there are 27 constituencies (6.2 per cent of English seats outside London) which straddle county boundaries.

In some regions, the BCE has adopted a minimal crossings rule: East Midlands, South East and South West. It seems to have gone for a version of the ‘best fit’ rule in two regions, West Midlands and North West.

Its recommendations in three regions seem to wander casually across county boundaries. In Eastern England, the Bedfordshire-Hertfordshire border is crossed three times, and there is also an unnecessary (but arguable on ‘best fit’ grounds) Cambridgeshire-Suffolk crossing. In North East the boundary of Northumberland is crossed an incredible four times. In Yorkshire and the Humber there are three constituencies straddling the line between North and West Yorkshire, which is striking given that all the North Yorkshire constituencies are currently the right size.

Several of these cross-county seats involve small additions from one county to a seat based overwhelmingly on another county (for example, a tiny bit of Northumberland in Whitley Bay), a recipe for that section to be marginalised within the politics of the constituency and not represented as effectively as the majority section. While there is much in the BCE report which is inevitable given the constraints under which it was operating, it does appear that there are an unnecessary number of cross-county seats and tri-borough constituencies.

Another feature of the Democratic Audit model was that it went out of its way to avoid splitting smaller towns. These are often the most effective embodiment of community identity, with strong voluntary and social institutions which the ‘big society’ is supposed to cherish. Some splitting is necessary even under the pre-2011 boundary rules and the new rules will require more division of small to medium sized towns. It was impossible to avoid completely in the DA model; suburbs of Dunstable (but not the town itself) were put in with Luton, and Formby was split, for instance.

But the BCE report takes an axe to a swathe of smaller English towns: in Yorkshire there is carnage. The Mirfield seat takes chunks of both Batley and Dewsbury, and Wakefield city is horribly divided. In Surrey, a random chunk of Weybridge is torn off and added to Spelthorne (constructing a seat here was always going to be a problem, because Spelthorne is a very well-defined geographical unit whose electorate falls just short of the threshold).

An orphan ward is a ward of one local authority which is put into a constituency with no other wards drawn from that local authority. Prima facie, it is undesirable to create orphan wards, because it is unlikely that they will have strong ties of identity to the rest of the constituency. If an MP’s casework, networking role and participation in local political debates is focused mostly on the politics of one authority, the electors of the orphan ward are likely to be peripheral to the politics of the constituency. The BCE proposals create nine orphan wards in London alone, while the original DA model had two and it is quite possible to produce a map with only one London ‘orphan’.

The new rules required the BCE to undertake a radical review and suggest a map that bore less relation than previously to administrative geography or community identity. Once the legislation had been passed, this much was inevitable.

However, it does appear that the BCE has been unnecessarily radical in some areas, particularly North Yorkshire, and that it has had an unduly lax attitude to tri-borough seats, orphan wards and the crossing of the boundaries of upper-tier authorities and counties.  However, its decision to avoid any ward splits is welcome and sensible.

It is possible, even within the rules, to draw a tidier map than the BCE has done. One is tempted to take a Machiavellian reading of some of the odder proposals like ‘Mersey Banks’ – that it is so preposterous that it exists to attract representations in the consultation period. By withdrawing it later on, the BCE can show itself as responsive and provide an illustration of the new consultation procedures ‘working’. Or it may just have been that there was insufficient time for better thought-out proposals given the need to cover the whole of England in a period of months.

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All Change

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All Change

Posted on 22 September 2011 by admin

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.

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Lewis Baston on The Daily Politics 12th September 2011

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Lewis Baston on The Daily Politics 12th September 2011

Posted on 15 September 2011 by admin

Lewis Baston interviewed opposite the House of Commons for the BBC’s Daily Politics show, Monday 12th September 2011. A draft of potential constituency boundary changes, prompted by the Coalition’s desire to reduce the number of MPs with a view to cutting costs, has just been released.

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Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

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Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

Posted on 13 September 2011 by admin

Few English MPs will escape changes to their constituency borders in today’s Boundary Commission’s recommendations, writes political consultant Lewis Baston.

The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) report published today is unsettling reading for nearly all MPs, including those from the government benches who voted it through with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Few MPs will escape having changes made to their constituency boundaries, and a few will find their seats abolished, or changed so radically that they would have been defeated on the new boundaries in 2010. Some MPs will be pitched into fights against each other.

The proposals implement the coalition government’s new policy on parliamentary boundaries which was enacted in February 2011. The government insisted that the total number of constituencies was reduced from 650 to 600, and that – with four exceptions – every seat had to be within 5 per cent of the average size. Size here is measured by the number of people on the electoral register as of December 2010.

Peculiar boundaries

While the legislation was highly controversial between the parties, the Boundary Commission itself is an impartial body which does not take party political consequences into account. It has to try to create units with the right number of electors that make some sort of sense on the ground, and given the constraints it generally does well.

However, the rules under which the commission has had to operate have created some very peculiar constituency boundaries in some areas, although in general they have tried hard to avoid unnecessary disruption.

Perhaps the strangest new seat is the unfamiliar Mersey Banks constituency, a sort of successor to Wirral South which contains a random piece of Widnes unconnected, even by a bridge, to the rest of the seat.

For Conservatives there is the tantalising possibility of a Tory member for Sedgefield (technically, Sedgefield and Yarm). Tony Blair’s old stronghold is radically altered and grouped with the areas which made the current Stockton South a Conservative gain in 2010.

Gloucester city centre becomes part of the Forest of Dean constituency, an idea that was greeted with dismay when I floated the prospect in a local newspaper.

Political consequences

While the Boundary Commission is neutral, most observers are keenly interested in the party political consequences. In general, the changes seem to help the Conservatives a bit relative to the other parties, but the effect is not dramatic. In some areas, such as West Yorkshire and east London, they will be probably be pleased but in others such as Derby and North Yorkshire there is a lot of disruption for no political gain.

The party that really suffers is the Liberal Democrats, because their seats tend to have smaller majorities and be yellow islands in a blue or red sea. The axe falls on a number of seats the Lib Dems currently hold, including expected losses like Carshalton & Wallington, and Burnley, but also surprises like Westmorland & Lonsdale held by party president Tim Farron and unhelpful alterations to seats including Chris Huhne’s Easleigh and John Leech’s Manchester Withington.

While Nick Clegg personally has little to fear in his redrawn Sheffield seat, the implications for the party are ugly – and we have not even seen what happens to the beleaguered Scottish Lib Dems yet.

More to come

Today is a very important step in the process of redrawing constituency boundaries, but it is far from the end of the road. There are Boundary Commissions for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which will publish their reports separately between now and January.

The proposals in all these reports, including England, are now open to consultation and there will be a number of local hearings to gather evidence about what people think about the proposed boundaries and the alternatives that will be offered by the main political parties.

The Boundary Commission is keen to hear from civic groups and ordinary people as well as the parties, whether they support or oppose its ideas, and invites responses through its website. It does sometimes revise its ideas and publishes new proposals.

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What say will voters have in redrawing of the electoral map?

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What say will voters have in redrawing of the electoral map?

Posted on 06 September 2011 by admin

The government’s contentious legislation to reduce the number of MPs and introduce a new system for drawing parliamentary boundaries was passed in February 2011. It set out an ambitious timetable for final recommendations to be voted on by the House of Commons in October 2013, which required some fast work by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) in particular, which has 502 new constituencies to design. The BCE staff has been hard at work all spring and summer and the Commission publishes its eagerly-awaited ‘initial proposals’ next Tuesday, 13 September 2011. Recommendations for Scotland and Northern Ireland will also be published this autumn, while those for Wales are held up until January 2012.

The English Commission’s proposals will be acutely controversial. Before now, constituencies have always been contained within a single county (except for a few cases of very small counties like Rutland). The new rules will require some constituencies to cross long-established county borders, with a particularly unpopular hybrid between Devon and Cornwall, and several other straddle seats for example in Dorset, Leicestershire, Herefordshire and Northumberland.

Because they impose rigid restrictions on the allowed size of 596 of the 600 new constituencies, the new rules will result in some strange proposals in major urban areas as well. The Commission will have a choice between two undesirable options in places such as Leeds, Stockport, Wakefield and Birmingham where there are very large local authority wards (wards are the traditional building blocks for parliamentary constituencies). The choice is between splitting wards between constituencies, or creating some constituencies that will not reflect any recognisable community of interest and will spill across local authority boundaries.

When I looked at this in June I thought that the Commission might allow some ward splits to make it easier to form seats that make sense on the ground. However, the BCE seems to be strongly opposed to splitting wards and it seems likely that it will avoid doing so, even at the cost of creating some contorted boundary lines.

The new rules also restrict the opportunities for public comment on the outcome. The previous procedure involved public inquiries for all but the most innocuous proposals, while this time there will be no inquiries. The initial proposals will be open to public consultation for 12 weeks from 13 September 2011. This is not a lot of time to absorb a complex set of proposals covering the whole of England. It is also not long for local people, groups and even MPs to devise alternative proposals.

The new more restrictive rules mean that it is quite possible to come up with an idea for your area which makes perfect sense in itself, but is completely impossible because it would force another constituency outside the allowed limits for size. The level of technical skill and work required to make allowable alternative representations may be too much for non-experts to manage without assistance.

The government conceded during the Bill’s parliamentary progress that there would be a number of public ‘hearings’ during the consultation period. The BCE has announced its timetable of hearings for October and November 2011. The hearing for Truro will no doubt be particularly interesting given the unpopularity of the ‘Devonwall’ constituency.

There will be another very short period – 4 weeks – in spring 2012 in which people will have the opportunity to comment on other evidence submitted to the Commission, which will be the only occasion on which the main parties’ plans will be subjected to any public scrutiny.

The BCE has no choice about the law under which it works, and it plans to try hard to make the process as accessible as possible, through the hearings, a special website and a web form through which representations for and against the proposals can be made. But the short timetable and the restrictive rules imposed by the government will make it difficult for the public to make its wishes known during this boundary review.

Read the original post at Democratic Audit

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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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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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Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

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Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

Posted on 05 October 2009 by admin

Eric Pickles has proposed reducing the number of MPs. But ‘equalising’ the size of constituencies is a deeply flawed policy

In his speech to the Conservative party conference today, Eric Pickles claimed to stand for “fair votes”. He did not mean an end to the first past the post system that gives all the power on the basis of under 40% of the vote and ignores votes cast outside the marginal seats. What he meant was a policy of cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 585 and a promise that “we will make all constituencies equal in voting size”. This would be accomplished in time for the general election after 2010.

Cutting the number of MPs is a bit of easy populism, made even easier by the expenses scandal. It might not necessarily be a bad idea; the number of MPs should be determined by the need of constituents for representation and the needs of parliament to function well as an institution. However, the Conservative rationale is cost-cutting. It is doubtful that cutting the number of MPs will really make much of a saving in terms of public spending – after all, the same amount of constituency casework will just end up being done by fewer MPs. There is also the possibility that unless the number of ministerial jobs is sharply reduced, there will be more executive dominance of parliament than we have already.

The principle that constituencies should be more or less the same size is generally accepted. The issue is how much tolerance for variation from the average constituency size one allows, and how frequently the boundaries are redrawn. Currently, the Boundary Commission allows around 10% either side of the ideal (ie 63,000 to 77,000 electors) with a bigger margin for geographically difficult mountainous or island areas. The Conservatives are talking in terms of a rigid rule not allowing more than 5% either side of the new ideal figure (77,000 after the number of MPs has been cut). To keep within this limit, boundary reviews would have to become more frequent and proceed faster than the current, admittedly ridiculous, system where the boundaries coming into force in 2010 are based on electorate figures from February 2000.

Pickles appears to believe that the major cause of the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system evident in the 2005 election was variation in constituency size. This is factually untrue. Constituency size was a small component of the bias, but most arose from other factors such as low turnout in safe Labour seats. Labour’s vote is efficiently distributed, partly because of tactical voting in 1992 and partly through New Labour’s successful electoral strategy. It is quite possible that less tactical voting, Conservative targeting of marginal seats with Ashcroft money and Cameron’s appeal to “Middle England” could cause a lot of bias to unwind anyway in 2010.

The Conservative boundaries policy would require a rapid boundary review during the next parliament – the shortest recent review (1991-95) took four years, so the Boundary Commissions would have to have extra resources to accelerate the task. The new boundaries could not be subject to the same scrutiny at public inquiries that makes the current process so lengthy – there are simply not enough assistant commissioners (usually barristers) available to run the inquiries.

Inquiries of whatever sort involve taking evidence from political parties, community groups and local councils, and in arguing for the boundaries that suit them, a party needs to be well-organised and professional. By having a quick review after the election, the Conservatives must be hoping to go into the process well-funded and prepared and facing a demoralised and impoverished Labour party before it has regrouped. The Conservatives would also be at their peak in local government, and could use council submissions to back pro-Conservative boundary schemes.

It is unclear to what extent the Conservative policy will address the handful of hard cases that are often used in calls for equalising boundaries – the Western Isles seat, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, has five times fewer electors than the Isle of Wight. It is quite possible that these anomalies would survive under a Tory plan – the number of seats involved is small, and the alternatives (a seat spanning the Solent, for instance, combining bits of Portsmouth with towns on the Isle of Wight?) are geographically absurd.

The effect in other areas is, however, only slightly less ridiculous. The policy is going to face a huge backlash when people realise what it means. Equalising the size of each constituency will mean crossing county and ward boundaries and ripping up what remains of the traditional map of community representation. A bit of Cornwall would end up in a seat based on West Devon or Plymouth, whatever its residents thought about the matter, and angry voices would ring out in every public inquiry. This would be repeated time and again, because there would be frequent changes to keep constituencies within the 5% threshold.

This freedom to cross ward and county boundaries also increases the ability of well-prepared parties to manipulate the process. It is no coincidence that the worst gerrymandering in the developed world is for US Congressional seats, where there is a rigid requirement of arithmetic equality within 1% of the ideal population size within each state. Legislators draw preposterously biased lines on the map which make no sense according to any administrative, social or physical geography, as long as the right number of people are corralled together.

Although apparently fair, “reduce and equalise” is a badly flawed policy. As a supporter of proper electoral reform, I sometimes mischievously think it should go ahead because it might hasten the end of first past the post. That mystical link between MP and single member constituency will be broken up because a large number of MPs will represent constituencies that correspond to no local community identity, and whose boundaries will shift around every few years.

The fundamental problem is that it is impossible to produce one-size-fits-all single member seats while keeping natural communities together. Communities, as any conservative should know, come in different sizes. To achieve numerical equity and community identity requires multi-member seats, as with the flexible single transferable vote (STV) system used in Ireland. STV would enable one to keep community boundaries intact while putting representation on a more equal arithmetical footing. It would be tragic, and ironic, if in the pursuit of arithmetic perfection and a chimerical public spending cut a Conservative government created electoral units that would make the Heath-Walker local government map look popular.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/oct/05/conservative-conference-constituencies

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Re: Stolen Tory Votes – Peter Oborne, Spectator 6 August 2005 – (30 Aug 2005)

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Re: Stolen Tory Votes – Peter Oborne, Spectator 6 August 2005 – (30 Aug 2005)

Posted on 06 August 2005 by admin

There are a number of errors in Oborne’s article about the Parliamentary Boundary Commission. For a start, population and census data are not (unlike in the US) the basis for constituencies – the basis is registered electorate, which is different. Population would include people not on the electoral register for reason of foreign citizenship, age or under-registration (a serious problem particularly in the large cities, that was aggravated by the poll tax when the current boundaries were drawn up).

Neither is the requirement for the boundary commission to use out of date figures as big an issue as Oborne claims. If the boundary commission were to use the latest available figures, rather than the 2000 electoral register, three more counties would gain seats and three more would lose seats – not dramatic stuff, and worth only 6 to Labour’s majority rather than up to 20 as Oborne suggests.

The examples quoted by Oborne and most other critics of the boundary system – the small electorate in the Western Isles and the large electorate in the Isle of Wight – are not a consequence of the slow pace of the review. They are rare, long standing anomalies permitted by the ability of the boundary commission to take ‘special geographical circumstances’ into account. A few islands having rather too few or too many electors is not a threat to democracy. There is something to be said for making constituencies more rigorously equal-sized than they are at the moment, but advocates of this course have to accept that it would undermine one of those pillars of first-past-the-post (FPTP), namely that strong and stable link between MP and constituency. Frequent boundary changes would destabilise the link, as would the fact that many constituencies would cease to bear any relation to natural communities. Would people really prefer a seat such as ‘Southampton Central and Cowes’ to an oversized constituency covering the whole Isle of Wight?

Oborne says that ‘it would be an easy enough matter to change the basis of calculation to reflect votes cast rather than population.’ This, to put it bluntly, is bonkers. The number of votes cast in a constituency, and its relationship to the turnout in other constituencies, is not fixed. It will vary with each election and instantly throw the calculations out each time. If this bizarre suggestion were to be enacted would give rise to anomalies even greater than those under the current system. It is also dubious in principle, as it implicitly regards the non-voter as undeserving of representation. It amounts to a collective punishment of electors for low turnout (often the fault of the political system rather than the electors). It is an example, like the creation of constituencies that are not communities, of a suggestion made for the convenience of one group of politicians at the expense of what voters want from their local representatives.

There is no way of ensuring that FPTP produces equal treatment between two major parties. There are all sorts of reasons, including political geography, tactical voting (very important in the contrast between 1992 and 1997), the parties’ strategies, differential turnout, the distribution of each party’s vote, and – in a small way – boundary determination, which can affect the way FPTP works. Many of these factors work unpredictably. The only way of ensuring that there is a proportional relationship between votes and seats is to introduce a system of proportional representation – it really is that simple. Ferdinand Mount, and Keith Best of Conservative Action for Electoral Reform (CAER) are quite right to see PR, rather than tinkering with boundaries, as the solution.

http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/08/peter_oborne_id.html

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Conservatives to cull MPs? (April 12 2005)

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Conservatives to cull MPs? (April 12 2005)

Posted on 12 April 2005 by admin

The Conservative Party manifesto published yesterday contained the promise:

As part of our drive for efficiency across Whitehall and Westminster, we will cut the number of MPs by 20 per cent.

This may or may not be a good idea – Britain does have more MPs per elector than many comparable countries, and there is no prima facie reason why 650-ish is necessarily better than 550-ish. Conservative MP Andrew Tyrie wrote a thoughtful piece about how it might be done last autumn. But…

Mr Howard said in an interview that “you have got to have a big bang” and that the Conservatives’ ambition was to achieve this in a single parliament.

Here we get into all sorts of trouble.

This pledge would require primary legislation, as the basis for the existing numbers is specified in several laws. The Boundary Commission will need to be instructed to work to the new rules, and its work vastly accelerated. The current review started in 2000, is still going on, and won’t be ready until the election after this one. To make the Commission work faster will need more money, and probably a change in the existing procedure that allows for local public inquiries to amend the details. It would be expensive and nearly impossible to get through in time; it would probably be a net increase in public spending over the next 5-8 years. And MPs tend to become very precious and prickly about the boundaries of their fiefdoms. And the last thing this large new corps of Tory MPs will want to do is vote themselves out of jobs. Mr Tyrie’s excellent paper proposed phasing in the reduction, for good reasons.

Is one being unduly cynical in thinking that Mr Howard’s ‘big bang’ version is merely a populist slogan the party would be horrified to have to implement should it gain power?

http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/04/conservatives_t.html

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