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Boundary changes and fewer MPs: is it now just fantasy?

Boundary changes and fewer MPs: is it now just fantasy?

🕔30.Jun 2017

In an attempt to push the boundaries (or should that be contract them), Chris Game reviews the parliamentary boundary changes – something likely to be an entirely academic exercise. 

At the time, shortly after Theresa May called her General Election, it seemed routine verging on boring – an announcement by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE), keen to assure us that its work “is not affected directly by the holding of a General Election” during its review of parliamentary boundaries.

The Commissioners would continue analysing the 25,000 public comments made in response to its initial recommendations, and would publish any revisions “probably towards the end of 2017”.

True enough, the BCE’s work wasn’t “affected directly”. Indirectly, though – or, more precisely, consequentially – I’d say it was struck by a small meteorite, and indeed is quite likely, after an already frustrating six years, to suffer the fate of the dinosaurs.

Yes, six years: this story has serious history, as I was also reminded last week while counting the many May manifesto pledges that failed to make it into the Queen’s Speech.

For, omitted – along with grammar schools, the ‘dementia tax’, means-tested winter fuel payments, an energy price cap, and the to-be-scrapped pensions triple lock and free school lunches – there was the commitment (pp. 42-3) to:

continue with the current [parliamentary] boundary review, enshrining the principle of equal seats, while reducing the number of MPs to 600.

The reduced numbers and the review go together, and have done since they were included in the 2010 Conservative manifesto, as part of a “Clean up Westminster” package following the global embarrassment of the MPs’ expenses scandal.

Both Coalition parties favoured cutting MPs’ numbers – the Conservatives originally from 650 to 585, the Lib Dems to 500. So, split the difference – say 545? You’re joking. Legislation was required – passed by, yes, the 650 serving and still ambitious MPs – so the eventually agreed number was 600. There’s a theme emerging here.

It was the first time any precise total was included in such legislation, and this inflexibility was increased further by the ‘equal seats’ principle mentioned above: requiring, with just four ‘island area’ exceptions, all constituency electorates to be within 5% of the national average.

It was a considerably tighter margin than in previous reviews, which had allowed account to be taken of factors such as local government boundaries, community coherence and continuity. An inevitable consequence is that most constituencies would be substantially changed, many unrecognisably.

Any periodic boundary review is almost bound relatively to favour the Conservatives, as, over time, electorates in predominantly Labour urban areas will have declined and those in predominantly Conservative areas increased.

The Boundary Commission’s 2011/12 recommendations were no exception, and it was calculated that, had the 2010 General Election been run on these boundaries, the Conservatives’ 307 seats would have dropped to 300, while Labour’s 258 would have fallen by 36 to 222, and the Lib Dems’ from 57 to 54. The Conservatives wouldn’t quite have achieved an overall majority, but they’d have been just one seat short instead of 19.

When it came to a vote, Labour unsurprisingly was opposed. But its MPs were joined by the Lib Dems, including, for the first time, ministers voting against their Conservative Coalition colleagues.

Ostensibly it was in tit-for-tat response for their proposals for an elected House of Lords being dropped by the Coalition the previous year, though it was also suggested that defending their existing constituencies offered the already nationally unpopular Lib Dem MPs their best, possibly only, chance of being re-elected.

Whatever the motive, the boundary review was put on ice, to be recommenced in 2015 for completion in 2018 – and, of course, the scheduled 2015 and unscheduled 2017 General Elections were fought on now 17-year old boundaries, while the Boundary Commission continued its worthy work on the side lines.

As Files readers may recall, its new draft proposals published last September were described by Paul Dale as changing “parliamentary constituencies on a scale unprecedented for more than 70 years [that] will radically reset the political map of the West Midlands.”

He wasn’t exaggerating. The West Midlands region as a whole would lose six of its current 59 seats, with just seven remaining unchanged, including Hodge Hill and Sutton Coldfield in Birmingham.

‘Lesser’ changes can be illustrated in the form of roundabouts. Take Edgbaston: it would retain its name and about three-quarters of its electors, and gain about a quarter of Hall Green’s voters, plus some from Warley (in Sandwell); but lose a quarter to Selly Oak, which would become a new constituency of Birmingham Selly Oak & Halesowen (yes, the Dudley one), together with a quarter of current Northfield voters and a fifth of Selly Oak’s.

As for Brandwood … it’s OK, I’m kidding. Almost all these roundabouts, though, are caused by the rigidity of that ‘equal seats’ requirement.

If, slightly incredibly, you’re still with me, you may have noticed that I subtly switched tenses – from Paul’s future indicative “will reset”, etc. to what I think can be called the imaginary subjunctive: “would lose”, “would retain”, etc.

And that’s because, given the events of the past few months, I find it really difficult to believe that almost any of this will now actually happen.

Starting with MPs’ numbers, there was quite widespread surprise that the 600 figure even made it into the May manifesto – with the party knowing by then that the first election at which the reduction could take effect shouldn’t be until 2022.

David Cameron had guaranteed – albeit without detailing how – that every Conservative MP would be found a seat to contest. But no cut in MPs’ numbers is ever going to be popular, especially with the Lords’ membership continuing to mushroom and the massive Brexit workload looming ever closer. Easier, many felt, to equalise the size of the existing constituencies, but forget the 600.

As for the boundaries themselves, even to get a vote on something so sensitive and controversial through a hung and stroppier parliament seems unlikelier by the day.

I shall conclude, therefore, by changing tenses once again: to the conditional perfect, used to describe a hypothetical situation in the past, and in this case the recent General Election results in what could have been the new constituencies – thanks entirely to the admirable Martin Baxter and his equally admirable Electoral Calculus.

Nationally, the calculation is that the Conservatives would have won 20 fewer seats (298), Labour 17 fewer (245), the Lib Dems 5 fewer (7). May would have been left three votes short of an overall majority, rather than eight, which means she might have taken at least a few hours longer to consider the implications of lunging – dog-tired, personally humiliated, and desperately ill-prepared – into the arms of the only too well prepared Democratic Unionists.

 

 

 

 

 

The table shows what actually happened at this month’s election, and what might have happened, had the proposed boundary reforms been fully implemented – but making no allowance, obviously, for the fact that people might well have voted differently in their new and much changed constituencies.

As shown on the left of the table, there wasn’t in fact much change, neither net nor gross: two gains to the Conservatives from Labour, and one vice versa.

The proposed constituency changes would have reduced the region’s 59 seats by 6, which on this year’s votes would have cut the Conservatives’ total by 4 and Labour’s by 2.  Isn’t that interesting – an example, I suggest, of ‘academic’ work in almost certainly both senses of the word.

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