Sunday, February 12, 2006

The Boundary Commission - Shake-up Needed

The Boundary Commission has just about finished publishing details of the new constituencies upon which the 2009/10 General Election will be fought. As soon as this Review is completed, the Electoral Commission takes over the task of redrawing constituency boundaries. It can hardly do a worse job. Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report has drawn up an excellent anyalysis of the effect of the new boundary changes. You can read it HERE. Although the Conservatives have achieved a much better result from the changes than last time, it is still a disgrace that if Labour & the Conservatives both achieve 35% of the vote, Labour would still have 87 more seats. Anthony Wells explains the reasons for this pro-Labour bias in our system...

1) Over-representation of Wales. Scotland's over-representation was resolved by the new boundaries introduced in 2005. Wales, however, remains overrepresented. The electoral quota in England and Scotland is 69,934, in Wales it is 55,640. If Wales were to use the English quota, it would be entitled to only 32, rather than the present 40. Given that Labour holds almost three-quarters of the seats in Wales the current over-representation is to their benefit, and gives them an extra 5 seats over the Conservatives. (In practice Wales would probably still have more than 32 seats even if it did use the English quota - Scotland has 59 seats rather than the 57 it "should" have because of geographical considerations in the highlands and islands. Similar factors in Anglesey and the Welsh mountains would probably have a similar effect).

2) Time-lag. It takes several years to conduct a boundary review and to introduce the new boundaries. The rules state that the electoral figures used are those at the date the review started. The boundaries in this review will come into force at the next election, probably in 2009 or 2010, but are based on the population in 2000. Hence they will be 10 years out of date by the time they are introduced. Since 2000 there have already been major changes in the population of some seats - for example, Stretford & Urmston, Preston and Derby North have all seen their electorates fall by over 8,000 in the last 4 years. Cambridgeshire North-West, Westbury and Croydon North have all seen their electorates grow by over 6,000 in the last 4 years. The situation will obviously be more extreme by 2009/10. The trend is for the population to increase in Conservative and fall in Labour areas as people move out of declining inner-cities and into suburbs and the country (though not, it should be pointed out, exclusively - another rapidly growing seat is Bethnal Green & Bow). Therefore this time lag tends to favour Labour whose heartlands would receive considerably fewer seats were boundaries drawn up on projected population figures in the future as local ward boundaries are. Given that the changes in this review, reflecting the population movements over the nine years between 1991 and 2000, have decreased the “labour bias” by 24 seats. It seems reasonable to assume that had boundaries been drawn up on the likely population figures when the boundaries are due to be introduced (probably 2009), “Labour bias” would have been reduced by something in the same region.

3) Lower turnout in Labour seats. The British electoral system entitles everyone to representation in Parliament whether they bother to vote or not. A seat where 60,000 people turn out to vote gets the same number of MPs (one) as a seat where only 10,000 people actually go to the polling station. Since turnout tends to be higher amongst those of a higher social status (MORI estimated turnout in 2005 was 71% amongst ABs and 54% amongst DEs) and Labour tends to have higher support amongst lower status groups (MORI found a 9 point Tory lead amongst ABs in 2005, and the 23 point Labour lead amongst DEs), Labour's safe seats tend to have a much lower turnout. If every seat in the UK had had the same turnout in 2005, Labour would have led the Conservatives by 5 points, rather than 3.

4) Tactical voting – it's likely there is still anti-Conservative tactical voting, which once again means that the Conservatives get fewer seats that they otherwise would because of the efficient distribution of Labour and Liberal Democrat votes.

Obviously the LibDem counter-argument to all this would be to have proportional representation. Well assuming that one doesn't agree with PR for Westminster elections (and I don't, although I would countenance it being introduced in local elections, but let's not get sidetracked) there needs to be a new system introduced for the next Review. I hope that Sam Younger, the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, will commit to a full-scale review as soon as the Electoral Commission takes over responsibility. And let's hope all three main parties can agree on its remit.

18 comments:

Iain Lindley said...

If we are seen as a party of government, we will secure the differential swing that Labour has enjoyed in recent elections, most particularly in 2001 where the swing in marginal seats was much lower than in safe areas.

I think the boundaries will still be against us, marginally, but nothing like as much as has been predicted.

James said...

The British electoral system entitles everyone to representation in Parliament whether they bother to vote or not.

Shocking isn't it? A universal franchise? What a disgrace!

Seriously, rather than get bogged down in the argument, I recommend you read the ERS/Conservative Action for Electoral Reform report on the subject (pdf).

The bottom line is, if you think better boundary changes are your only problem, you are simply deluding yourself.

Iain Dale said...

Jmaes, I don't. Never said I did.

Anonymous said...

Wales should be sorted out but makes a minimal difference (maybe seven extra Labour seats).

Account is taken of projected as well as actual population. You could slightly increase the account taken but again the difference is minimal.

The real factors are 1. low turnout in Labour seats - and you can't weight for that (i.e. it is ludicrous and unfair to say seat X has had an historically lower turnout so we will just shove more people into it than areas with high turnout); and 2. Distribution of votes so there are a lot of seats where the Tories are stuffed but pick up 20-25% whereas Labour have been comprehensively squeezed to 5-15% in many Tory/Lib Dem seats (can't think of an example - Iain, do you know of one??) - Labour therefore more efficiently convert votes into seats by not stacking up so many wasted votes.

Iain - there is nothing you can do about this short of gerrymandering and having seats which bear no relation to communities. The Boundary Commission do not look at votes but "natural communities" - which they often get wrong but at least have a go at.

Even if you did try to gerrymander it wouldn't necessarily work because things are so unpredictable. Angela Rumbold was widely praised for achieving a boundary review that would massively help the Tories in 1997 by taking Tory voters out of safe seats and sticking them in marginals. As it turned out, the swing was so large that this meant that the marginals were lost by a country mile and the "safe" seats were also lost - but wouldn't have been had the Tory areas not been moved to the "marginals"!

No - you either live with it or go for PR I'm afraid.

Bridgford said...

Iain - everyone else has hit the nail on the head. The key factor is turnout in "Labour" seats - and this is an artifice of FPTP. If you don't like it don't whinge about boundaries, get out and support PR.

Louise said...

Of course boundary changes can be a nightmare and all parties argue that specific boundary changes are detrimental to their electoral chances, however our electoral success will depend much more on our policies and image than it does on boundaries.

Part of our problem is that too often we have not only areas, but full wards in constituencies which we see as no-go. Showing a bit more boldness in where we campaign would be a huge step forward.

Anonymous said...

The classic example of boundary commission stupidity is the Isle of Wight, which will still be only one constituency at the next election despite being over twice the size that Sheffield Brightside is at the moment. There is an obvious case for division into two seats based on current population projections.

wonkotsane said...

The Labour Stazi will make sure they get a better deal out of this than anyone, of that you can be sure. I'm afraid the Tories have nobody but themselves to blame for letting them get away with it last time. Now they think they will get away with it again ... and they probably will. Why don't you introduce a bill that will prevent the British government from redrawing its own electoral boundaries?

Paul Linford said...

Well, I know you disagree Iain, but the answer really is staring you in the face - PR for Westminster! It is the only way of ensuring that the Tories' broad spread of support across the country - far more broadly spread than Labour's - is accurately reflected in the share-out of parliamentary seats. Until we get PR, the Tories will always be at an electoral disadvantage to Labour for this reason.

Anonymous said...

Wonkotsane - the Boundary Commission is a genuinely independent body. It doesn't always get things right but few doubt its independence. Whether justifiably or not, I hear Tory central office is very pleased with the latest review and have got a lot of good results.

Again, it is all rather unpredictable though. Norfolk was drawn up before last May and the Tories successfully argued for a strongly Lib Dem bit of North Norfolk to be put in with various Tory bits of other seats to create Norfolk's extra seat for next time. In theory this made North Norfolk a better prospect for the Tories and made the new seat reasonably safe Tory. As it happened, the landslide in North was so big plus the Lib Dem result in Mid was surprisingly strong so that North remains safely Lib Dem (majority down a bit but nothing really problematic) and the new seat becomes a serious Lib Dem target. With hindsight, the Tories would have been better off arguing for the Broads part of North (which is Tory-ish) to be put into the new seat creating a rock-solid new Tory seat. This would have meant abandoning North to the yellow peril for a generation but as it turns out that's basically happened anyway (n.b. that would have mirrored the approach in Gloucestershire which also gets a new seat, where the Tories have gifted the Lib Dems an ultra-safe seat - one of the safest for the party in Britain - in Thornbury and Yate reasoning that you may as well have them all in one place rather than have them bothering you in a series of marginals).

Anonymous said...

Disagree, Paul... PR will let the lunatics (like the party you support) into government.

As soon as tactical voting unwinds and the numbers leaving sub-urban constituencies for rural/semi rural ones (who tend to be Labour voters moving up the social ladder... the ones who bought their council house under Thatcher... ungrateful sods) and the gradual drift back to the Tories in general support, I am convinced that you will see the FPTP boundaries far more fairly matched.

Paul Linford said...

Which party would that be then, anonymous? If you are going to be accuse me of supporting a bunch of lunatics, please at least have the courtesy to say who you are....

Anonymous said...

The Lib Dems

Paul Linford said...

There are about three people who know how I voted at the last election, and unless you are my wife, my mother or a very close friend of mine, I don't think you are one of them.

Since you still continue to post under the cloak of anonymity I don't really think I owe you a detailed response, but, for the record, as a professional journalist I have always steered clear of party political involvement although of course I do have views both about politics in the wider sense (these are broadly left of centre as I think would be fairly clear from my blog) and in the narrower sense about how the individual parties can best pursue their aims. So the fact that I think Chris Huhne would make the best leader for the Lib Dems does not necessarily make me a Lib Dem, any more than the fact that I thought David Davis would have been the best choice for Tory leader makes me a right-wing eurosceptic.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (long posting) - to add to the irony of the boundary change consultation process, the Lib Dems actually argued for exactly what you suggest would have been best now for the Tories e.g. broads are of N Norfolk into Broadland CC.

Neil Craig said...

As a Liberal throughout my adult life there is a certain schadenfreude in seeing Tories complaining that the system is now undemocraticly loaded against them too.

Paul Davies said...

May be a bit late, but thought it expedient to add my agreement with the sensible folk above, re: the Tories and the boundary changes - whine about 'em all you like, but you're screwed whatever, in many amusing ways.

Full exposition here.

And before anyone takes that the wrong way, I think the Tories are perhaps marginally less stupid than New Labour or the Lib Dems, but that's still a bit of a 'Hitler didn't off as many people as Stalin comment...'

One more thing that wasn't really covered in the above post - if the under-registration problem was sorted out, the boundaries would look even less significant, as there would be more people counted in the Labour constits (thus making the size of constits 'fairer'), but probably not that many more voting, thus having tit-all effect on the results...

wonkotsane said...

Independent? Oh please! Any agency funded by the British government, whether "independent" or not, is under the control of the Labour Stazi.

The BBC is a prime example - huge corporation, separated from the state for decades but they're still a puppet because they rely on the British government to ensure they keep getting the licence fee.

When the Tories win the next election, they will be controlled by the Tories for the same reasons.

I'm sorry but any body that relies on government funding is not independent.