The UK Government published its Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill last week (available here). By coincidence Professor Ron Johnston of Bristol University gave a seminar on ‘Reducing the size of the House of Commons and Equalising its Constituencies’ at the Constitution Unit at UCL on Friday. Details of the seminar are here, and the video of Ron’s presentation should appear there during the week of 26 July. For those who couldn’t make it, it will be well worth watching; you couldn’t hope for a clearer explanation of how the new bill will change electoral boundaries, and its likely implications. Ron’s been kind enough to let me put up the Powerpoint slides from his talk, and those are available here.
This legislation is a key part of the coalition UK government’s political and constitutional reform programme, most fully set out in Nick Clegg’s Commons statement of 5 July available here. (For the Constitution Unit’s comments on their constitutional agenda generally, see the recent press statement here, and the more detailed briefing here.) The bill accomplishes two things. One is the provision for a referendum on the alternative vote for Westminster elections, a key element of the coalition deal (at least for the Lib Dems), and controversially scheduled to take place on 6 May 2011, when there will also be elections to the three devolved legislatures and local authorities in England.
More interesting and important, at least territorially, are the plans for redrawing Westminster constituency boundaries so that all constituencies are more or less of equal size (5 per cent variation up or down from a standard ‘quota’), with a fixed size for the House of Commons of 600. That in turn will reduce the number of seats for each of the four parts of the UK, as follows
Currently After the reform
England 533 503
Scotland 59 52
Wales 40 30
Northern Ireland 18 15
TOTAL 650 600
In order to achieve this, size – rather than a complex range of factors, including local links and local government boundaries – will be the chief criterion used in determining constituency boundaries. The flexibility about the overall number of seats that the various Boundary Commissions presently have will vanish. As many counties and cities have populations that don’t fit the sorts of numbers of constituencies they will be allocated, the new constituency map will fit very awkwardly indeed with local government ones (or indeed anything else). And – to maintain the equal size of constituencies – those boundaries will change for each future UK general election, and of course MPs and prospective candidates won’t know those boundaries until around 18 months before the polling day.
Moreover, in order to achieve this change, the complex and painstaking review process applied up to now will vanish. There will be no scope for public inquiries and reviews of preliminary determinations by the Boundary Commissions, just a limited public consultation and then publication of results. This should result in a map of the new constituencies by 2013.
The array of practical problems Ron identifies in this are considerable, and include
- The impracticability of ensuring that constituencies relate to local government areas at all
- The likelihood, as a result, that there will be serious anomalies. In England, the Isle of Wight (with an electorate of around 110,000) will almost certainly have to split, with part of the island forming a constituency with parts of Hampshire. There is already concern in Cornwall about the prospect of a constituency crossing the Tamar to cover parts of Plymouth and south-eastern Cornwall (see here).
- Real problems with mapping data, as (outside Scotland), the maps that are available to use don’t cover the small units necessary given the limited departure permissible from the standard quota
- Real problems with the size of constituencies, given the fact that around 3.5 million eligible voters aren’t on the electoral roll (according to the Electoral Commission), and often aren’t picked up by the Census either.
The devolution effects of all this are pretty odd. They’re fairly limited for Scotland, thanks to the review of the number of Scottish seats in 2002 which reduced Scottish over-representation compared to England from the 2005 UK election. But Scotland’s geographical size means there are some vast constituencies with small populations. Two – Orkney & Shetland, and the Western Isles – are to be protected from shrinkage, without affecting the ‘Scottish’ quota. Two more – Ross, Skye & Lochaber and Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross – are also protected from merger but are within the Scottish quota. (Three of these are currently represented by Lib Dem MPs, it’s worth noting.) The effect of that will be to increase the size of other Scottish seats, so in future Scottish MPs won’t be quite as ‘equal’ as their counterparts elsewhere.
For Wales, the reduction in the number of MPs is dramatic, because Wales (unlike Scotland) is still over-represented compared to England. The bill does include the saving provisions regarding the size of the National Assembly (which were rumoured to have been agreed in principle some weeks ago), so the Assembly will retain 40 constituency members elected on the 2010 Westminster boundaries, and the 20 regional list members, rather than shrinking to 45. However, by moving to the same quota as England, it loses a quarter of its MPs, so presumably a bitter fight for selection particularly among the Labour members is likely. Although the change is unlikely to benefit Plaid Cymru electorally, it is likely to benefit them in the political debates; this change is clear evidence that special treatment for Wales at UK level is no longer part of the ‘deal’ on offer. That will also be a point that opponents of primary legislative powers will have to deal with in a referendum. If Wales is going to continue to vote differently than England (more for left-of-centre parties, less for the Conservatives), it cannot count on its Westminster MPs being other than a numerically small voice for its interests, easily outweighed by English MPs.
For Northern Ireland (also already at the English quota), the numerical reduction is not that dramatic. It loses only 3 seats. More significant is the effect on the size of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which will reduce to 90 MLAs. That’s still a large number, given the population of Northern Ireland – if there were the same number of electors per MLA as there are electors per MSP in Scotland, there would only be 46 of them. A modest reduction in size may therefore be no bad thing, though it will make it more difficult for small parties like the PUP (or Dawn Purvis if she runs as an independent) to get in.
It’s clear that this is a change that is being brought in with considerable haste, and which has plenty of rough edges that are being left in place to ensure that the new constituency map is in place for the planned 2013 election. It’s doubtful if much thought was given to the territorial implications of the changes in that headlong rush, which is regrettable. The price of an unwritten constitution is unceasing vigilance about unintended effects.