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The proposed constituency boundary changes will hurt the Liberal Democrats and not help the Tories much either

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The proposed constituency boundary changes will hurt the Liberal Democrats and not help the Tories much either

Posted on 15 June 2011 by admin

With the conclusion of the AV referendum last month, focus now turns to one of the few certain electoral reforms that this parliament will contain; the redrawing of constituency boundaries, and the reduction of the number of seats by 50 to 600. Presenting recent research by Democratic Audit, Lewis Baston finds that the Liberal Democrats will suffer the most by far, and Labour and the Conservatives will suffer very similar seat reductions.

The two most striking findings of the recently released Democratic Audit model of the boundary changes were the damage it inflicted on the Liberal Democrats, and the relatively even pattern of losses between Labour and Conservative. These findings caused a certain amount of surprise in politics and the media, but they are fairly predictable from the point of view of political science, leaving aside the detail of the projection.

Overall impact of boundary changes by party

The Liberal Democrats lose the most…

The Liberal Democrats will suffer severely in boundary changes. The model suggests 14 out of 57 seats will go. This harsh result stems from two factors common to most of their seats. They tend to have smaller majorities than Conservative or Labour MPs; the mean Liberal Democrat majority is 12.5 percentage points, about two-thirds the size of the other parties. This makes it less easy for them to withstand adverse boundary changes. The other is that they tend to represent yellow islands in a red or blue sea, rather than clump together. This means that in exchanging territory with neighbouring seats, Liberal Democrat seats will tend to acquire areas where the Liberal Democrat vote in 2010 was low. The model takes out several such island seats, such as Burnley, East Dunbartonshire, Mid Dorset & North Poole and Lewes.

However, Liberal Democrat incumbents have been able to survive radical and unhelpful boundary changes in the past – David Alton in 1983, Malcolm Bruce in 1997 and Sarah Teather in 2010 all managed to engineer huge swings from the ‘notional’ result in their altered seats. Local activism has succeeded in changing the way that voters in newly arriving areas see the contest and persuaded them that they can now vote Liberal Democrat with a good chance of winning (and conversely that by voting as they did previously they might ‘let in’ the main party they dislike more). However, the context may be different now. In past changes, only a tiny number of voters would be completely unwilling to ever vote Liberal Democrat, and therefore there were a lot of persuadable voters. There will now be far more people who will never consider voting Liberal Democrat. The party has succeeded in running up the down escalator in several boundary changes in the past, but it is harder now. A regime of permanent revolution in parliamentary boundaries such as that created by the 2011 Act is a difficult environment for Liberal Democrats, even beyond the particularly tricky election of 2015.

… but the Labour and Conservative losses are even

Net losses in seats for Labour and the Conservatives came out more or less even in the model, with Labour down 18 and the Conservatives down 15 overall (it was 17 and 16 respectively before a late tweak to the model in Warrington).

This finding, too, should not be very surprising for solid reasons of political science. Variation in constituency size is a very minor contributor to the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system. It should be expected that a neutrally-implemented measure altering the size of constituencies should therefore not do very much to alter the balance between Labour and Conservative. Constituency size was worth something like six seats in Labour’s favour in 2010, and seven against the Conservatives according to Rallings, Thrasher, Borisyuk and Johnston)

Even before looking further at any local detail, a net effect of 13 seats (11-12 when applied proportionally to a smaller House) is small beer. A lot of the existing bias stems from the over-representation of Wales – but cutting down Welsh seats then will probably have a disproportionate effect on the Welsh footholds the Conservatives currently enjoy, as they are mostly either marginal or obvious candidates for merger.  It should also be borne in mind that proportionately, Labour loses 7.0 per cent of its seats, while the Conservatives are down only 4.9 per cent. The scale of change in the Democratic Audit model is within the bands one might expect from first principles, allowing only for Welsh local factors.

Looking forward to 2015

The boundaries model is static – it assumes that everyone voted as they would have done in 2010. While the result and pattern of support in 2015 may resemble 2010 more than most people expect, there will be significant changes in electoral behaviour. It is impossible to predict what might happen in terms of the swing between Labour and Conservative.  But it is likely that the Liberal Democrat vote will fall, and that the SNP vote will rise, and that the regions of England will continue to polarise between a Labour north and a Conservative south. How the new boundaries translate the national swing and its local variations into seats is more important than what would have happened in 2010, but much harder to estimate.

The Democratic Audit model may not have changed the 2010 election result in any important way had the boundary changes been in place then, but it might look different in 2015. This is one of the reasons why the predictable chorus of ignorant people claiming it is an unduly pro-Labour map is wrong. It is not in Labour’s interests to maximise its notional number of seats in 2010, but to get the best result possible in seats when the national shares of the vote of Labour and Conservative are fairly close. This was the underpinning of Labour’s successful boundary review strategy in the 1990s. Labour would be best off creating Tory marginal seats – ideally ones with sitting Labour MPs to benefit from the incumbency effect!

It is difficult to be precise, but the Democratic Audit model appears to depopulate a vital area for Labour – seats with narrow Conservative majorities that would be susceptible to a small to medium sized pro-Labour swing. Of the 50 top target Tory seats for Labour on current boundaries (winnable with swings of up to 4 per cent), 15 would see Labour’s prospects improved, 17 would see the Conservatives strengthened instead, 14 would be unchanged or not significantly politically altered, and 4 would be abolished – a fairly even spread.

Of the seats improved for Labour, 8 of them would be flipped to the party on the notional 2010 results, and therefore not available for gaining in 2015. Eight of the seats are also so much improved for the Tories that they would no longer count as marginals. This makes 20 seats taken out of Labour’s easiest target list. In exchange, four new targets result from Labour seats being flipped into being Tory marginals by boundary changes, and probably four previously safer Tory seats now made marginal. The number of Tory seats vulnerable to a pro-Labour swing of 4 per cent or so falls from 50 to 38. The hill Labour has to climb to get an overall majority is therefore steeper than it would be under existing boundaries, while it is probably a little easier for the Conservatives.

This was probably the intention of the more sophisticated Conservative supporters of this proposal – to put a finger on the scales a little by systematically adding bits of rural territory to marginal seats in towns outside the big metropolitan areas (e.g. Great Yarmouth, Harlow, Redditch, Stevenage, Lincoln, Stafford, Tamworth, Brighton, Dover – and indeed Bath and Southport…). They may have been less aware that there will be locations where increased size of seats might lead the Boundary Commission to create a core urban (Labour-inclined) seat rather than two increasingly Tory marginals (as for instance in Thanet and Norwich in the Democratic Audit model).

The Democratic Audit model illustrates the simple principle that altering something (constituency size) which is not much to do with the problem you are seeking to address (electoral bias) is unlikely to achieve your aim. It also illustrates some of the complexities in measuring the effects of boundary changes. It may superficially look a better outcome for Labour than expected, but there is a story below the headline numbers.

Link to original post with additional reader comments at LSE Politics Blog

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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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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’.

And

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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