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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 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 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 (http://www.essex.ac.uk/government/epop/Papers/Panel16/P16_Borisyuk_EPOP2010.pdf) 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 http://www.democraticaudit.org/download/Equalisation%20-%20international%20experience.pdf

Lewis Baston How pressing is the need for further equalisation of constituency electorates? Democratic Audit, December 2010 http://www.democraticaudit.org/download/How%20pressing%20is%20the%20case%20for%20further%20equalisation.pdf

Lewis Baston Written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons August 2010 http://www.democraticaudit.org/download/Evidence%20on%20boundaries%20bill.pdf

Lewis Baston and Stuart Wilks-Heeg How strong is the case for having fewer MPs? Democratic Audit, November 2010 http://www.democraticaudit.org/download/How%20strong%20is%20the%20case%20for%20reducing%20the%20number%20of%20MPs.pdf

Lewis Baston Written evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons August 2010 http://www.democraticaudit.org/download/Wales.pdf

Stuart Wilks-Heeg Written evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons September 2010 http://www.democraticaudit.org/download/Political%20and%20constitutional%20reform%20select%20committeee%20%28S%20Wilks-Heeg%29.pdf

House of Lords Constitution Committee report http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201011/ldselect/ldconst/58/5803.htm#a4

House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee report http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/political-and-constitutional-reform-committee/news/pvsc-bill-report-/

House of Commons Welsh Affairs Select Committee report http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201011/cmselect/cmwelaf/495/49502.htm

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 http://www.essex.ac.uk/government/epop/Papers/Panel16/P16_Borisyuk_EPOP2010.pdf

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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, http://aceproject.org/, David Jarman and www.swingstateproject.com 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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The New Constituency Map of Britain

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The New Constituency Map of Britain

Posted on 19 December 2010 by admin

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Lewis Baston argues that the proposed “reduced and equalized” constituency boundaries could have unintended consequences for the Coalition government

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How Pressing is the Case for Further Equalization?

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How Pressing is the Case for Further Equalization?

Posted on 19 December 2010 by admin

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Lewis Baston explains the key issues surrounding the equalization of constituency size in the UK in the wake of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Bill.

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Poll position (Oct 1 2009)

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Poll position (Oct 1 2009)

Posted on 01 October 2009 by admin

The Tories are doing better in marginal seats than the national polls suggest, warns Lewis Baston

Even now, unbelievably, some Labour people seem to be complacent about the next general election. The argument goes that the Conservatives, because of electoral system bias against them, need to be 11-points clear of Labour in the national share of the vote to have a majority. This is true only if the swing is uniform, ie the same across the country. While uniform national swing is usually the best rule of thumb for translating poll figures into seats in the House of Commons, it is only an assumption, not a rule. For instance, Labour did significantly better in 2001 than uniform swing predicted because Labour MPs first elected in 1997 often boosted their majorities.

The local elections in June 2009 were a test of how far ahead the Tories really need to be to win an election. The ‘national equivalent vote’ of the parties (ie the local results translated into what they would mean in an election across the whole country) was, depending on whose projection you look at, the Conservatives on either 35% or 38% and Labour on 22% or 23%. This means a swing of 8% or 9% from Labour to Conservative, slightly more than the 7% they need to win a majority under the uniform swing assumption. Given that governments rarely repeat their worst mid-term performance in a general election, some people assume that an overall Conservative majority is unlikely.

The results in the key marginal constituencies where there were local elections in June should explode any such complacency. While the national swing appears to have been 8-9%, it is much higher in most of the marginals.

In the constituencies where more or less any swing will switch the seat to the Tories or LibDems, it seems about average – although 8% or 9% is easily enough to do the job. The ominous finding is from the constituencies where the Conservatives need a bit more of a swing to gain from Labour. In these cases the average swing is 13% or thereabouts, which would cut a swathe through Labour’s parliamentary representation. There were 61 Labour-held seats with county elections in June. Only four would have survived an election like the county elections. This is because the Conservatives seem to be getting the big swings where they need them.

In some of the target seats, the Conservatives are simply blowing Labour away – swings of 18% in South Ribble and 17% in Tamworth are extremely large by any comparison, and reflect a particular loss of support in areas where New Labour did particularly well in 1997. In others, Labour’s traditional vote has also melted away, as in Leicestershire North West where the BNP won what had been the safe Labour ward of Coalville, while the Conservatives have stood still or gained slightly. In this set of elections in the new towns, where Labour has done poorly for years in local elections, the swing may not appear quite so bad, but this often reflects the Conservatives losing votes to the right – UKIP, BNP and English Democrats – which might not help in general election conditions. Some coastal areas where Labour prospered in 1997 also have high swings – Dover, Morecambe and Waveney all have swings in the 15-16% bracket.

The Conservatives are not stupid in matters of political strategy, and know that they need either a 7%-plus national swing, or to do better in the marginals. They have focused their energies, campaigning messages and money (from Michael Ashcroft and elsewhere) on the marginals they need, and it seems to be paying dividends.

Local elections, although they are strong evidence, do not automatically reflect what would happen in a general election. People sometimes vote differently in local and national elections, and a different range of parties and candidates stand in each election. Turnout is also a lot lower, and the voters who stay at home in local elections but vote in general elections may not share the views of those who vote in council elections.

Labour needs to do two things in the short term – recover ground in the national polls, and raise its game in the marginal seats. In the longer term, Labour also needs to scrap an electoral system where pouring resources into a tiny number of seats can win party control over the government, and replace it with one where there is a genuine national dialogue.

Lewis Baston is from the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and author of Politico’s Guide to the General Election. To read the full research see here.


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Exit Poll Thoughts (5 May 2005)

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Exit Poll Thoughts (5 May 2005)

Posted on 05 May 2005 by admin

A Labour majority of 66 is a bit less than most commentators have predicted (although I have gone for 46 in an office sweepstake). Labour people throughout the day have been incredibly jittery about some seats which had rather large majorities in 2001. A national share of 37% to 33% for the Conservatives implies a swing of 2.5% but the BBC’s seat projection suggests a much higher swing to the Tories in the marginals – perhaps 3.5 or 4 per cent.

The Liberal Democrats will be a bit disappointed to see their national share at 22 per cent with a net gain of only a couple of seats, but their vote is likely to be even more variable and difficult to predict than the share for the two main parties. The projection suggests one of two things has happened – either that the much anticipated strong swing to the Lib Dems in intellectual middle class constituencies (more to follow on this later) has not happened, or that it has been cancelled out by significant Conservative gains from the Lib Dems.

Of course, the 10pm figures might not be final – people keep voting until 10pm, and the late votes might tweak the figures up or down a bit.


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