Messing with the boundaries

Recently the four national (Parliamentary) Boundary Commissioners were being grilled by the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee (HC 437-i) about implementing the Coalition Government’s desire to:

  1. Reduce the number of UK Parliamentary constituencies (to 600)
  2. Make all constituencies roughly equal in size

Questioning seemed to revolve around maintaining “natural communities” and avoiding splitting electoral divisions (local government electoral units).

It is also rumoured that the Labour Party is about to start selecting prospective candidates for the existing 650 constituencies.  This will inevitable force the other parties to do the same (a sort of PPC-war).  Then if the constituencies change, there will have to be some frantic reshuffling – and no doubt internecine fighting as prospective candidates fight to keep a constituency – any constituency. (So much for loyalty to a constituency and the “constituency link”!)

It is a totally foreseeable mess – and totally unnecessary.

If we ignore the slightly fake objections of the Labour Party (who stand to lose a previous unfair advantage – but are complaining on the grounds that there are a lot of unregistered people in their “small” constituencies), trying to “equalise” constituency size (in terms of number of electors) is fraught with problems.  So much so that two constituencies (Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles) have been excluded.

  1. The desire to have equal constituencies (within +/- 5%) means that in many cases it will be necessary to split wards (“natural communities”) between adjoining constituencies to achieve this “equality”.
  2. The required constituency size will mean that you will not get a whole number of constituencies within a county council, so some MPs will have split loyalties as they try to make representations to two different councils on behalf of two sets of constituents.

It is odd that the Conservatives are against STV (Single Transferable Voting – a system that involves multi-member constituencies) because it will “break the constituency link”, whilst the proposed equalisation will do just that and break the link with natural communities of constituents.  The MP will still have a link with “a constituency” but so many of those constituencies will be totally artificial constructs the constituents will feel no link with the constituency.  The link between MPs and their constituents will be strained and frayed.

Any “single member” constituency system will (unless sizes are allowed to vary dramatically) give rise to some “odd” constituencies.  The more you force the sizes towards equality, the odder the constituencies will become as the boundary commissioners slice a ward (or part of a ward) off one constituency and add it to another in an attempt to “get the numbers right”.  Fancy being a member of (or trying to represent) the constituency of “Farlingham Forest East and South West Barsetshire with Lower Avon-side“?

The argument for doing this is that each MP is “representing” an equal number of constituents.  However, even with AV (Alternative Voting), it is hard to argue that every MP “represents” an equal number of constituents.  He may be an MP for an equal number of constituents but will he represent an equal number?  Compare a “rock solid” seat where the MP has the support of say 80% of the voters and can be said to represent the views of those 80%, and then compare that constituency with a neighbouring one which is a three-way marginal, where the MP has the first preference support of say 35% of the electorate (his party support) and then second preference support of a further 16% (drawn from the supporters of the party that came third).  He may claim 51% “support” but does he represent the views of that 51% – let alone as many as the 80% in the next-door seat?  No, it is a fiction, in one seat you have 49% unrepresented and in the other you have 20% unrepresented.  Perhaps “to even things up” you make the rock solid seats bigger (or should that be smaller)?  The whole endeavour is flawed and breaks the link between an MP and natural communities of constituents.

Even if the wonderful equality of size could be achieved natural population changes will mean that it will be constantly necessary to tinker with constituency boundaries to maintain that tight equality – even more that presently where sizes are allowed to vary significantly.  So from one election to another you may not know which constituency you are in – and if you are due to be moved to another constituency at the next election, there is a good chance that your MP will be less interested in you.

It is a recipe for a constant mess.  There must be a better way.

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  • enfranchiseme2  On 15 November 2010 at 8:43 pm

    The British Academy have just (October 2010) published a paper, “Drawing a New Constituency Map for the United Kingdom: The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010”, in which they examine the bill, and from page 53, detail some of the stupidities that the Boundary Commissioners will have to go through to meet (and maintain) the +/- 5% tolerance of constituency size. I still believe the result is going to be a mess – particularly if you live in a “tacked on” bit of a constituency (either because your natural constituency was too big, or because the constituency on to which you have been tacked was too small).


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