Constituency boundary changes don’t just matter to map anoraks or political obsessives (I’m a bit of both). And the proposals won’t just mean a cull of MPs: they will reshape our politics by disenfranchising millions of voters. With no suggestion of proportional representation for the House of Commons, or a democratically-elected Lords, the new boundaries will make our electoral system even less fair. And just when Theresa May’s government needs a strong opposition, the changes will further distract and divide Labour, pitting many of its embattled MPs against each other.
I’m a lifelong Labour man and it’s no secret that the changes will almost certainly hit Labour hardest. But there are many reasons why reducing the number of MPs by 8% is bad news for everyone, regardless of political allegiance. Here are five problems with the proposals – and one silver lining, though you have to look very far ahead through the clouds to spot it.
1 It’s a myth that Britain has too many MPs
It’s often claimed that Britain has too many legislators per head of population. But there aren’t too many politicians in Britain. If anything there are too few.
Firstly, the House of Commons is not the largest it’s ever been. Far from it. The Commons had more than 650 members for most of the nineteenth century, when Ireland was considered part of the UK, and swelled to 707 members in the 1918-1922 parliament. After Irish partition it shrank but started to grow again after the war.
And it’s already been reduced in size since the Millennium. Between 1997 and 2005 the Commons had 659 members, falling to 646 in the 2005-2010 parliament with the reduction in the number of Scottish constituencies, and then growing back to 650 in 2010 with the creation of four new English constituencies.
So while the figure of 650 isn’t carved in stone, it’s not a high water mark either. The Commons is already 8% smaller than it was at the end of the first world war, and has nine fewer MPs than it did at the turn of the Millennium. To argue that the House of Commons is unprecedentedly bloated is patently untrue.
It is true that Britain has more national legislators per head of population than most other countries, as this infographic in the Economist shows. But funnily enough those who argue loudest that our parliament is too big are often unelected peers like Kenneth Baker, who never offer their own resignations to reduce the numbers: unelected turkeys never vote for Christmas.
We’re repeatedly reminded that the US, with a population five times bigger than the UK, has a smaller legislature (535 members: 435 Representatives and 100 Senators), and that only India – hardly a model democracy – has a larger legislature than Britain’s. Reference is often made to research by the late Robert A Dahl, Sterling Professor emeritus of political science at Yale University, who once crunched the numbers and worked out that the UK has one elected representative for every 91,000 citizens, and the United States one elected representative for every 673,000.
But it is a fallacy to conclude that this means Britain has too many politicians, or that the US has too few. Dahl – who died in 2014, aged 98 – advocated “polyarchies” with multiple centres of political power: the more tiers of government the better. And Dahl’s much-quoted figures only considered national parliaments, not sub-national tiers of government.
In the US there are at least three layers of local elected officialdom. Almost all states have their own house of representatives and state senate, sitting above county government and a bottom tier of village/town government, each with their own councils, legislatures and legions of elected officials. By contrast, in many parts of England nowadays there are only two tiers of local government: parish councils and unitary local authorities, with no regional tier of government above them – and in some urban areas only one.
Indeed, research by a living politics professor, Jennifer Lawless of the American University of Washington DC, has found that the supposedly slimline US has more than half a million elected politicians.
The real trans-Atlantic comparison is as follows. The UK has, at most, 21,000 politicians: 18,000 local authority councillors, 650 MPs, about 1,000 peers, 73 MEPs, and about 500 others such as MSPs, assembly members in London, Northern Ireland and Wales, elected Mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners in England and Wales. This is many, many fewer than the US, both in absolute terms and in terms of head of population: there is one American politician for every 624 Americans, compared to one British politician for every 3,100 Britons.
Even if you include Britain’s 80,000 parish and town councillors (most of whom are unelected, don’t wear party colours, and don’t see themselves as politicians at all) then British still has fewer politicians per capita than the US (one politician for every 635 people, to be precise).
A similar comparison could be made with most European countries: almost all have many more tiers of local government than we do. In France, for example, there are at least five tiers of local government (regions, départements, arondissements, cantons and at the bottom nearly 36,700 communes, each with their own maire and conseil municipal). There are twice as many mayors in France than district and county councillors in the UK.
When I worked in Parliament I often met American interns who were astonished by the degree of access Britons have to their representatives: US senators and congressmen don’t hold surgeries, and it’s often difficult to meet them at all if you’re not a campaign donor. I know which kind of democracy I would rather live in. The tradition of accessible politicians in Britain, mostly representing recognisable communities rather than arbitrary, gerrymandered slithers of territory, is something we should be proud of. Lengthening that distance by increasing constituency size, and MPs’ workloads, is a step backwards.
2 Far from keeping politicians on their toes and making them more accountable, boundary changes will just lock them in smoke-filled rooms for the next two years
Supporters of the changes often argue that boundary changes will keep politicians on their toes: like Darwinian selection, only the smartest and hardest-working will survive. Safe seats will be made marginal, if not abolished entirely. Impending decimation will make MPs work harder to impress their constituents, and local party apparatchiks, in the meantime.
In fact boundary reviews make politicians look inwards, not outwards: their main concerns will be how to manoeuvre within their parties to grab a seat they can win (think of children playing musical chairs: they elbow each other out of the way to grab a seat, with no time for polite conversation).
Simply cutting the House of Commons’ membership by 8% is not the answer. As anyone who has ever spent time in a big workplace knows, you don’t increase productivity simply by reducing headcount by 8%. You only increase productivity by wider changes to working practices, training and technology. Without wider reforms – like proportional representation, simpler voter registration, and reform or abolition of the House of Lords – cutting the number of MPs like 8% won’t have any benefit.
And it probably won’t reduce the cost of politics as the Tories have promised – the amount of casework won’t decrease so there aren’t likely to be any savings in staffing costs. Nor will the expenses bill go down: MPs will still be travelling on parliamentary business around larger constituencies. Culling 8% of MPs is a saloon-bar solution to a complicated problem that needs sober reflection.
Instead of thinking about the needs of their constituents, or the national interest, many politicians – especially Labour ones – will be preoccupied for the next two years by whether their constituencies become “wedges” or “donuts” and the arcane practices of cracking, packing and hijacking (you can read all about gerrymandering terminology at this Wikipedia article). Rather than ponder the housing crisis, NHS funding, income inequality, Trident renewal or the Middle East, many will be obsessed with redrawing the map – or stopping the map from being withdrawn – to ensure their survival.
I once witnessed this syndrome at first hand. I spent October 24th 2011 – my birthday – at a public enquiry into parliamentary boundary changes at Lewisham Town Hall (shortly before the Lib Dems withdrew their support and they were mothballed). Most south London Labour MPs were there – Tessa Jowell, Jim Dowd, Heidi Alexander, Nick Raynsford, Teresa Pearce, Joan Ruddock, all marshalled by Ian Mackenzie, a former special advisor to John Prescott, and David Gardner (a Labour assistant general secretary who oversaw Labour’s response to the last big boundary review in the 1990s and is now a Greenwich councillor) . We also had an ex-Tory MP, Robert Hayward (now a peer), fighting the Conservatives’ corner.
Our plan – to argue for the survival of the Greenwich and Woolwich constituency (it had been proposed to put a lot of Greenwich town centre into a new Woolwich seat), for the marginal Eltham to morph into Eltham and Plumstead (with a northern Labour panhandle which would render it a safe Labour seat, rather than be expanded eastwards into the more Conservative borough of Bexley), and for the number of safe Tory seats in Bexley to thereby be reduced from two to one – had been mulled over for weeks. Time that would have been better spent arguing against NHS cuts, and for more affordable housing, had been instead wasted on a boundary review that was abandoned shortly after we made our speeches in that Town Hall.
I’ve rarely seen so many MPs in one place outside parliament, and it was sad that they were there to fight for their own survival, rather than for their constituents. Just about every MP will be locked into regular hearings like that for much of their time in the next two years. Is this really what we want our MPs to be doing?
As Labour’s Tristram Hunt (whose Stoke on Trent Central seat faces the chop) has candidly admitted, the proposals will mean that many MPs will spend much of the next two years jockeying for position, bolstering support among the grassroots, and knifing each other in the back – not looking outwards and representing their communities as they should.
3 The new constituency boundaries won’t be based on an up-to-date, accurate electoral roll. Instead they’ll be based on flawed reasoning and old data, with many voters falling off the register
The case for making constituencies more equal in size, and reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 to “cut the cost of politics” may seem unanswerable. In theory, ensuring that all constituencies have between 71,031 and 78,507 voters (they currently vary from 21,000 to 90,000 voters apiece) sounds sensible.
But how do you count the number of residents: the adult population as calculated by the 2011 census (which includes adults who haven’t registered to vote), the 2015 electoral register, or the latest 2016 register?
The trouble is that the boundary review has coincided with big changes to the way people register to vote. What has traditionally been a simple process, with an annual form completed per household, has become a complicated two-stage process: one form per household and then individual forms to be filled by each person living in it. This new “individual voter registration” system has been a disaster – as even the non-partisan House of Commons Library has said, up to 940,000 people have disappeared from the register, most of them in Labour-leaning inner city seats with lots of students and transient voters whose first language is not English. Some calculate that individual voter registration may mean that London alone ends up with ten fewer constituencies than it should. The official rationale for the change is to reduce fraud: but most electoral fraud is misuse of postal votes, not bogus voters on the register.
To make matters worse, the size of the new constituencies will not even be calculated from the most recent data. Hundreds of thousands of voters rejoined the electoral register in the run-up to the EU referendum in June, reversing somewhat the fall-off caused by individual voter registration. But perversely the boundary commission will look only at the 46.2m people on the electoral register at last May’s election, not the 46.5m people who had registered in time for the referendum 13 months later.
4 Far from making election outcomes more uncertain, it’s likely that boundary changes will mean fewer marginals, and more safe seats whose boundaries make little geographical sense
There’ll be a few cases where urban seats (often Labour-held, such as Leicester’s three seats) become more marginal because they are expanded to take in suburban or rural areas outside, where Conservative support is stronger. Conversely, some rural Conservative seats may become more marginal if they are expanded to take in part of an adjacent town that leans to Labour. But overall psephologists agree that the changes will reduce the number of marginals, increase the number of safe Tory seats, and make a Labour win in 2020 even less likely.
An important role of any effective MP is to keep local councils on their toes: people who have received a shoddy service from their councils often bypass councillors and go straight to their MP. There’s a longstanding convention that constituency boundaries follow council boundaries as far as possible, and apart from Rutland & Melton, none of the current 650 constituencies cross county boundaries.
Making constituencies larger means that these conventions will have to be ditched. The Boundary Commission claims the new rules gives them enough leeway to “reflect geographic factors and local ties”. But many of the proposed new constituencies cross county boundaries (much to the consternation of Cornwall) and are spread across two, three or even four district council areas. Such sprawling boundaries confuse voters and make it harder for MPs to hold councils to account or work with them to lobby for more resources. And towns that are divided between several MPs tend to fall between stools.
Britain already has several constituencies whose boundaries make little geographical sense: look at the maps below of SW Hertfordshire. Derbyshire NE, Pudsey, Don Valley, Broadland, Mid Sussex, S Staffs, Burton, Sefton Central, Sheffield SE and Aylesbury. While they may not have been deliberately gerrymandered, and might not be quite as absurd as many American district boundaries, many are so serpentine in shape that it’s impossible to drive from one end of the constituency to the other without passing through different constituencies on the way.
The trouble is that the boundary changes will leave most of these snake-like monsters untouched – and create many more, such as Henley & Thame, Evesham & S Warwickshire and Clitheroe & Colne (all constituencies 30 miles long and just three miles wide); and Tewkesbury (20 miles long and at one point only half a mile wide).
5 It’s doubtful there is much pro-Labour bias in the current boundaries, but the new ones will definitely benefit the Tories
It’s often claimed that the current boundaries give Labour an unfair advantage. In fact, as the New Statesman explained back in 2015, other factors – lower turnout in Labour seats, and more tactical voting by left-leaning voters – are the biggest reasons why Labour tends to get more MPs than its nationwide vote share suggests, not constituency boundaries.
By and large Labour seats are smaller in terms of population (and geographically, as they are normally more densely populated). But it’s only a marginal factor: as I explained on this blog last year, none of the five smallest constituencies are currently Labour-held.
The new boundaries will ravage many Labour areas while leaving hundreds of safe Tory seats virtually untouched. Many Conservative seats in rural areas already meet the size criteria and won’t be changed at all (a few will even be reduced in size). Look at the Boundary Commission’s website and bring up the map comparing current and proposed boundaries in England (the Welsh map is here, and proposals for Scotland will emerge soon). In urban areas you will see lots of red lines – new boundaries that are different from the old. But across large swathes of rural England you will only see the current boundaries in navy blue, superimposed on the new ones in red: hardly any boundaries are changing.
My home county of Northamptonshire, for example, is currently represented by seven Conservative MPs. After the changes it’s likely to be represented by six and three-quarter Conservative MPs – the only change is that the Daventry seat is extended a bit into Leicestershire to become Daventry and Lutterworth. The other six constituencies are barely changed at all, and at least four will remain safe Tory seats.
What’s more, the new rules about constituency size aren’t being applied consistently. Several island constituencies have dispensation to be smaller than 71,000 voters: Shetland & Orkney, two seats on the Isle of Wight, and the Western Isles. All are seats that Labour will rarely win.
It’s difficult to avoid concluding that the dice have been stacked unfairly against Labour. The well-respected psephologist Ron Johnston says that the new boundaries “will almost certainly enhance the Conservatives’ chances of winning another majority in 2020″ and that ” it would be very difficult for Labour to become the largest party in 2020 without very large alterations to the patterns of party support”. With Corbyn slipping in the polls rather than advancing, the augurs for Labour are bleak indeed. The number of safe Labour seats in inner cities and ex-mining areas like Yorkshire and south Wales will be reduced. While many of the new suburban seats created may become marginal one day, Labour’s collapse in the Midlands and south means that many will be out of reach in 2020, unless there is a dramatic political turnaround in the next four years.
A silver lining?
The only silver lining is that if the reduction in seats to 600 goes ahead, the case for voting reform might be strengthened in the long term – but only if Labour can win a general re-election on the new boundaries in the meantime.
The Lib Dems have much to answer for: if they had insisted on a referendum on a proper proportional system in 2011 (not an Alternative Vote [AV] system that can be even less proportional than first-past the post) they could have won. Instead, the Lib Dems only got Cameron to agree to a referendum on a voting system that few understood, and that Nick Clegg himself has described as a “miserable little compromise”. A rainbow coalition of Tories, and Labour old-timers like Margaret Beckett and David Blunkett, organised the ‘No to AV’ campaign with ruthless efficiency: AV, they argued, would result in unstable government, permanent coalitions, and endless deals being thrashed out in smoke-filled rooms.
As a result the case for voting reform was put back by ten years, possibly longer. These Labour opponents of voting reform may now have a decade to repent at leisure once the boundary changes go through. Rather than making it easy for Labour to win with first-past the post, rejigged boundaries could turn the tables and lock Labour out of government for a decade, or even a generation.
But it would be easy for a future Labour government to adapt the new electoral system to create a fairer voting system, without wholesale boundary changes or losing the link between MPs and their constituencies. Reducing the number of territorial MPs from 650 to 600 could be made to work, if the other 50 MPs are resurrected and turned into regional ‘top-up’ MPs . At the same time, electoral registration could be linked to National Insurance, council tax or even a new ID card system (one good idea that New Labour had, whatever civil libertarians say). At a stroke this could end the scandal of the “missing millions” and create a level playing field between Labour and the Tories.
‘Additional Member’ Systems already work well in the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly. Such hybrid forms of PR may disappoint purists but they are a lot fairer than first-past-the post, and a lot easier to explain than the Alternative Vote.
The Northern Ireland Assembly has a slightly different, single-transferrable vote (STV) system whereby each constituency elects six Assembly Members (AMs). Such an STV system could work well at Westminster if MPs were elected on a county-wide basis, removing the need for time-consuming boundary reviews every decade or so. And any system that removes the argy-bargy of large-scale boundary changes that will dominate British politics for the next two years could win public support once the dust settles.
Many people assume that Labour will lose the 2020 election whatever happens, but if the boundary changes lead to a big meltdown Labour’s different factions may finally agree that voting reform is the only way to ensure that when Labour finally does return to power it can stay there. A rainbow coalition between Labour, the Greens, SNP and Lib Dems may be messy but it’s preferable to a permanent Tory government.
Those who believe that the British people are never interested in voting reform should cast their mind back to the nineteenth century: the 1832 Reform Act would not have been passed without a grassroots revolt by men – and later women – who were sick and tired of being denied a voice. Sooner or later, people will wonder why the House of Commons has been trimmed by 8% while the Lords continues to be packed with cronies. Sooner or later, the Tories will come unstuck and the British people will tire of an elected dictatorship (remember Margaret Thatcher and the Poll Tax?).
One of the Labour party’s founding principles was universal suffrage. The injustice of disenfranchisement and rigged registers should cause just as much outrage in the twenty-first century as it did in the nineteenth. Winning again in 2020 and 2025 will be hard enough for Labour without the added handicap of boundary changes, but if rigged boundaries help to seal Labour’s fate then at least some of the party’s traditionalists – on both left and right – might finally realise that proper voting reform is in both Labour’s, and Britain’s, interest.
The problem is that a Corbyn-led Labour party will have to somehow win an election before any voting reform can happen: but that’s another story.