31 October

Moving the Goal Posts

Posted in British Politics

Earlier this month the Boundary Commission for England published its proposals for new Parliamentary constituency boundaries as part of its third and final phase of public consultation. The stated aim of the Commission’s boundary changes is to independently implement Parliament’s decision to ‘reduce the number of constituencies in the UK to 600 from 650, and to ensure that the number of electors in each constituency is equal’. Some, though, have questioned how free the aim itself is from partisan gamesmanship.

Of course, the most outspoken criticism of the proposals has come from the centrist wing of the Labour party, who fear the Conservatives are ‘gerrymandering’ boundaries for party political gain and that Jeremy Corbyn’s allies will use it as an excuse to ‘deselect the Blairites’. Similarly, Conservative supporters have long complained about ‘unfair’ malapportionment, given that the Conservatives have normally received more votes than Labour relative to number of seats gained in Parliament (the 2015 General Election being a notable exception due to anomalous voter distribution). The problem inevitably with such arguments is that they lead to both critics and defenders of the proposals denouncing one another for acting out of self-interest. But in order attain democratic structures that best contribute to the common good, we must of course instead attempt to articulate non-arbitrary criteria that avoid the matter descending into a Nietzschean will-to-power-grab.

When we turn our attention to the details of the current proposals, as specified in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, the most notable aspect of them is that they seek to equalise boundaries strictly according to the size of the registered electorate in each area. This means that the electorate of almost all constituencies will be made to be within 5 percent of the national average, with exceptions only being made for constituencies greater than 12,000 km2, in order to prevent members of Parliament representing too large an area, and for island constituencies, in order to avoid them being merged arbitrarily with mainland constituencies.

But, of course, in addition to the equalisation of the electorate and geographical size of constituencies, other important factors have always been taken into account in past constituency equalisation reviews, and it is the current absence of such factors that so often goes unnoted in reports on the issue. Both the BBC’s Andrew Dilnot and Yougov’s Anthony Wells, for instance, have argued that the sole reason the Conservatives would benefit relative to Labour from the new boundaries is because of ‘demographic drift’; meaning that ‘the population in Northern inner cities (that tend to vote Labour) is falling relative to commuter areas in the South (that tend to vote Conservative)’ and that, therefore, the only problem is that boundaries are currently based on a long outdated electoral register. Putting aside that the review is arbitrarily restricted to making use of the electoral register from 1st December 2015, which is now rather dated due to significant increases in voter registration since the 2016 EU Referendum and the 2017 General Election, this entirely misses the novelty of the Parliamentary Act’s dissolution of minimum seat numbers for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the historically unprecedented tight mapping of boundaries to a registral quota based on the average size of the electorate in each constituency.

Since the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885, the principle of equally-sized constituencies instead primarily meant equally populated constituencies; meaning that the unregistered electorate were also factored into boundary equalisation. The Speaker’s Conference in 1944 did introduce equalisation of the registered electorate, but this was abolished a decade later and it used such a broad 25% tolerance on either side, in addition to minimum seat quotas for individual countries in the Union, that the original population-based boundaries were broadly preserved. Boundaries have, of course, been intermittently reviewed since then, but changes have always been organic and have avoided any strict mathematical formula for equalisation.

The new proposals, however, for the first time will completely ignore original considerations of power balances in the Union, with Scotland and Wales losing 10% and 28% of the seats, respectively, compared to the mere 6% seat reduction for both England and Northern Ireland. Furthermore, the proposals will increase democratic disenfranchisement of the poor, given the consistent and strong correlation between low income populations and low electoral participation, meaning that poorer constituencies, which already have larger populations and lower per capita representation in parliament, will be made even larger.

And these two problems will only increase in time, given that boundary equalisation will be renewed according to the new criteria every five years. In respect to the Union, the changes could therefore result in Scotland and Wales’ seat numbers being proportionally reduced even further, meaning that the very nature of the already fragile Union will be cast into a state of perpetual flux. And, as for those living in poorer constituencies, they will continue to see a reduction in their per capita representation under the new proposals, which will only further disincentivise poorer populations from voting and will, therefore, increasingly blind our democratic institutions to the needs of those most in need.

To hold fast, then, to the principal of solidarity in respect to both the Union and the preferential option of the poor, it is therefore necessary for Parliament to also include new minimum seat quotas for each country in the Union alongside additional criteria that take into consideration population sizes when reviewing boundary equalisation; anything less would threaten the democratic settlement we currently enjoy.

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