How people elect parliaments
The UK Government is pondering yet another major delay to a redistribution of House of Commons constituency boundaries, according to a report in The Times.
If true, the House of Commons could end up going a decade and a half without a boundary redistribution.
House of Commons elections have used the same constituency boundaries for the three general elections held since those of 2010. The constituencies in Scotland have actually been used for four elections dating back to 2005.
Page 1 of the report in today’s Times (limited access)
The last round of constituency boundary reviews was completed in 2008.
As a result, ongoing population changes across the nation have caused the number of voters registered in each constituency becoming increasingly dissimilar.
The distribution of Commons electoral division boundaries had traditionally been decided by the UK Parliament itself, often in politically contested resolutions.
In 2011 the Parliament legislated for a more structured approach to carrying out the redistributions, involving recommendations based on detailed voter registration data being prepared by independent boundary commissions for each of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
The current law nominally requires that boundary reviews be conducted at least every 8 years.
But the system’s first attempt at new boundaries, in development for some years now, is already overdue. The process was interrupted by the calling of the snap 2017 elections last April.
The 2011 law also implemented a separate major political objective of the Conservative Government – a reallocation of the seat numbers between the four ‘countries’ of the UK.
Under country allocations dating back decades, Scotland in particular and also Wales have more seats that their share of the population now entitles them to. Some of the regions within England are also unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged on the current seat allocations.
Since voters in Wales and Scotland tend to strongly support the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party (SNP), the malapportionment between the countries clearly works against the parliamentary interests of the Conservative Party, probably to the extent of around an additional 10 seats for their opponents.
Northern Ireland also stands to lose one seat under the reformed system, which mildly antagonises the Government’s current Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) allies, on whom they now rely to win votes on the floor of the House.
The Conservatives have worked to get rid of that disadvantage for years, and finally succeeded with the support of the Liberal Democrats during the 2010-15 Coalition Government period.
But the 2011 legislation was also crafted to implement a third change – the shrinking of the overall size of the House from 650 members to 600. Despite being a repeated Conservative election commitment, the Times report suggests that the appetite for this change within the Conservative Party has now waned.
The House size reduction was always going to trigger the need for new preselections, with some sitting Tory MPs inevitably missing out on places even as the party as a whole corrected the disadvantage against it.
Now that the governing party is in a painful parliamentary minority position, the prospect of losing seats is apparently even less welcome.
All the other non-government parties have reason to oppose the reallocation of seats among the countries – despite it being obviously a fair reform – and most parties also generally oppose the reduction in the total House size.
“The Boundary Commission for England is scheduled to publish its latest proposals based on 600 constituencies next month, revealing which MPs face the axe. It will come at a time when the Commons is debating amendments to the EU withdrawal bill.” – From the Times report
But if the current round of boundaries changes is blocked, restarting and completing the required legislative process could take years.
On the current schedule, the work of the existing boundary commissions – to create boundaries for a future 600-seat House apportioned correctly between the four countries and with every seat within those countries (and within the sub-regions of England) having very similar numbers of voters – is now due to be completed later this year.
The Parliament would then need to complete the process by voting to accept the recommendations of the commissions. Such a vote is anticipated at some point in early 2018.
But if the Parliament rejects the current proposals in 2018, the boundary commissions would be thrown into a quandary.
If -– as is now being speculated – the Government then proposes amendments to the current law to return to a 650-seat chamber, such legislation would presumably take some months to get through Parliament. The Government would need at least the support of the DUP to pass such a bill, although conceivably other MPs such as the Liberal Democrats might lend support. (Update: the online Times report suggests that Labour would also support legislation to revert to a 650-member boundary review.)
Then the boundary commissions would need to start their technical work all over again, presumably using fresher voter registration data.
Starting in mid-late 2018 at the earliest, the commissions would not complete their work until some point in 2020. Even then, their recommendations would once again need to be presented to the Parliament for adoption. The political problem that only the Conservatives really want to see new boundaries under this rule would still apply.
Under this timetable the Conservatives would eventually obtain a House with seat numbers re-allocated between the four countries, reducing the SNP/Labour structural advantage, but in a 650-seat, not a 600-seat House.
What could possibly go wrong? Failure to pass resolutions through the Parliament’s two houses at any of several moments could still disrupt even a delayed redistribution schedule.
Moreover, the Government is already on shaky political ground, and Brexit will come to a head in the year 2019. Politically, there is no guarantee of the Government surviving until the next scheduled election date in the year 2022.
And if any early election is forced on the House prior to the finalisation of any boundary changes, it could well be fought out on electoral boundaries that are by then nearly 15 years old, with increasingly malapportioned numbers of registered voted in each constituency across the nation.
In principle the Conservatives are in the right on the apportionment issue, and the longer it drags out, the less well-apportioned the constituency boundaries will become.
Nonetheless, true equality of voting influence is logically impossible under any electoral system based on single-member electoral districts. Real electoral reforms which would give UK voters equal representation in Parliament are not on the current Government’s agenda.