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Behind the boundary review – not gerrymandering, just dirty politics

Behind the boundary review – not gerrymandering, just dirty politics

🕔16.Sep 2016

Boundary Review and gerrymandering are two terms which have been thrown about all week, not least by MPs (mainly Labour) crying foul at the potential loss of their place on the green benches in 2020. For once, they are not blaming their leaders (past or present) for such a fate. Chris Game casts his analytical eye over the process and proposals to see what’s the truth and who’s to blame. 

Who says Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is divided? Following Tuesday’s Parliamentary Boundary Review, the party’s MPs and media supporters seemed to be singing not only from the same hymn sheet, but virtually the same words.

“Tories are gerrymandering the electoral map” – Hampstead & Kilburn MP, Tulip Siddiq; “Boundary changes are ‘gerrymandering’” – Ilford North MP, Wes Streeting; for Aberavon MP Stephen Kinnock it was a “bare-faced gerrymander” (hyphenated for added emphasis), though The Guardian’s Owen Jones disagreed, claiming it was “ruthless gerrymandering”.

Shouting loudly in unison, though, doesn’t make you right. Moreover, having already missed the big picture, Labour risks missing once again the genuine criticisms it should be making of what has become another damagingly flawed component in our already internationally embarrassing electoral system.

Gerrymander – dictionary definition: named after Elbridge Gerry, an early Massachusetts Governor, it involves dividing a state, region, or whatever into unnaturally shaped electoral constituencies, so as to give the favoured political party not safe seats, but as many winnable constituencies as possible, while concentrating the other parties’ strength into as few as possible.

It’s a bit like pornography – you know it when you see it.  And, thanks to blogger Nick Barlow, we were offered a fine example on Tuesday in the map of North Carolina, which, like most US states, has its “boundaries drawn in an explicitly political process run by the state government, not an arms-length boundary commission”.








None of this week’s protesters were waving maps of what look like strips of seaweed or failed Christmas paper chains. Siddiq’s already marginal constituency has gained a ward that probably won’t enhance her chances of retaining it. Kinnock has the UK’s seventh smallest constituency and seems outraged that he can’t keep it that way.

Streeting, meanwhile, seems to have lost the plot altogether and imagines that he really is in North Carolina – accusing the Conservatives of “fixing the boundaries in their favour”, as if Theresa May’s personal hirelings were drawing the lines on the map.

Partly, then, for the benefit of Streeting and any others confused about what’s going on, and partly to supplement Paul Dale’s more detailed, West Midlands-focussed account, I thought I’d explain where I think the accusations and blame should be directed and where we might hope for change in the future.

First, an outline of the process.

This 2018 review, postponed by Parliament from 2013 because of Labour-Lib Dem opposition, is being conducted by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE), an independent, politically impartial body and entirely separate from the Local Government Boundary Commission for England (LGBCE), which last week published its recommendations for Birmingham’s new local electoral arrangements.

A key aim, approved by Parliament in 2010/11, and the review’s starting point is to cut to 600 the current 650-member House of Commons, saving an estimated £66 million over a five-year Parliament.

It was the Coalition Government’s and thereby Parliament’s wish to equalise as much as possible the number of registered voters in each constituency – currently ranging from 22,000 to 108,000 – to within 5% of a UK-wide electoral quota figure of 74,769: that is, between 71,031 and 78,507.

That quota figure and the review’s base is the number of registered voters – now required to register themselves individually, rather than be registered by their head of household – on 1st December 2015.

Regionally, the West Midlands will lose 6 of its present 59 seats, but Wales, the North East and the so-called M62 corridor will experience proportionately greater losses.

Similarly, considerably more Labour than Conservative seats are below quota and Labour will therefore lose more of its present seats – an estimated 30 out of 232. Had the proposed boundaries been in place for the 2015 election as they’d intended, the Conservatives would have won an estimated overall majority of 44 instead of 12.

Now, what can, can’t and should be criticised about this process?

It’s hard to criticise either the BCE or the other independent public body involved, the Electoral Commission (EC), both of whom ultimately have to do what the Government, through Parliament, tells them.

As I described elsewhere at the time, the EC in particular advised Conservative ministers repeatedly of the dangers to the completeness of the transition to Individual Electoral Registration (IER) of rushing, economising financially, and of ending the transition period in December 2015, 12 months earlier than in the original legislation. So, Conservatives to blame here.

Labour’s position, however, is weakened by having initially backed IER and been slow to grasp what was an open secret in Conservative circles – the priority attached to winning a 2020 General Election and “locking Labour out of power for a decade” (this, remember, was pre-Corbyn) through keeping as many potential Labour voters as possible off the registers that would be used for the preceding boundary review.

Completeness of the new registers was emphatically not what the Conservatives wanted, because their reckoning was always that the most marginalised and hardest-to-reach groups (under-25s, especially students, social class DE, private and social renters, some BME groups) would be disproportionately likely to support Labour – so the fewer registered, the better.

All, of course, couched in the rhetoric that it was the registers’ accuracy and elimination of fraud that were all-important. Here, then, Labour could have protested earlier and louder.

And, judging from this week’s complaints, some Labour MPs still haven’t grasped that in a national boundary review their constituency boundaries and immediately future careers are of secondary importance to the completeness, or incompleteness, of registers.

It’s not easy either to argue against reducing the size of what, with its 650 MPs, is the largest lower parliamentary house in Europe and third largest in the world behind China and North Korea – especially with a significant proportion of its former business now being done in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

Yes, the unelected Lords is even grosser and more democratically offensive, but Labour had 13 years in which to reform it altogether into an elected second chamber – and did nothing (well, apart from making hereditary peers vote for the 92 they wanted to retain, removing the Law Lords…but we take your point, Ed).

Nor is it easy to question at least the principle of more equal-sized constituencies – especially for Labour who, prior to 2015 and the party’s almost complete loss of Scotland, had been easily the main beneficiaries of the inequality.

However, the requirements that, with just four island-constituency exceptions, all constituencies should be within 5% of a UK-wide quota, and that this arithmetical equalisation should be prioritised over considerations such as communities of interest, local government boundaries, and minimising change were all new for this review, and all party politically motivated. 

The Government saw in 2013 the almost unprecedented scale of disruption the 5% requirement would produce, particularly to Labour seats. They were widely advised that much of it could be avoided by raising the required margin to 10%, but refused to make any change for the 2018 review. So, more Conservative cynicism here.

The main criticism that can be levelled at the BCE is its reluctance to relax its established practice of using wards – sometimes, as in Birmingham, with very sizable populations – as unwieldy building blocks for constituencies. That’s not in the legislation and, certainly in 2013, made a difficult job even harder.

In scale, though, by far the biggest and most democratically damaging fault of all is the continued use nowadays of electoral registers as the database for boundary reviews, despite the irrefutable evidence of their deteriorating quality, and, as shown above, their political manipulability.

The most recent evidence comes from the Electoral Commission’s final research report on the introduction of individual registration. It quantifies through extensive survey research the two key measures of the quality of electoral registers: their accuracy – no false entries; and their completeness – every entitled person actually registered.

For the December 2015 registers – those being used for the boundary review – the EC found a 91% accuracy and 84.5% completeness, meaning that (p.11), “between 7.8 and 8.3 million people were not correctly registered in December 2015”.

That’s 8 million people that the Conservative Party assumes (and research data show) are disproportionately likely, were they correctly registered and bothered to turn out, to vote Labour.

They can, of course, continue to register to vote in any forthcoming election or referendum, but, like the more than 2 million who registered earlier this year in order to vote in the EU referendum, their entries will have played no part in the determination of the new constituency sizes and boundaries.

The damage this time round has been done – to our electoral democracy generally and probably Labour more particularly. Next time, there is another possible way, which would be to use almost certainly more accurate data, but break the link with individual registration.

The decennial census, brought back from its near-death at the hands of the Coalition, has been called the ‘gold standard’ of aggregate population numbers (p.49), is already used in a wide variety of public policy contexts, and in many countries as the basis of their electoral registers.

It surely deserves at least serious examination – though not, you’ll be relieved to see, here or now…

Chris Game is at the Institute of Local Government (INLOGOV) at the University of Birmingham. 

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