The Constitution Unit


Parliamentary Boundaries Review

Public Seminars 2011-12

Prof Ron Johnston (University of Bristol), Prof Charles Pattie (University of Sheffield) and David Rossiter

Date: Wednesday 11 January, 1.00pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

The Constitution Unit was pleased to welcome Professor Ron Johnston, Professor Charles Pattie, and David Rossiter on Wednesday 11 January to discuss the Parliamentary Boundaries Review, the proposals to cut the number of seats in the House of Commons from 650 to 600 and to 'equalise' the size of these seats.While there was empathetic understanding of the sheer difficulty of the task at hand in redrawing the political map of the UK to meet an inflexible target; there was considerable criticism for the methodology imposed by the English commission. The golden rules for the English commission were to not create new constituencies which overlapped between different local government areas, and not to split existing wards. To equalise the size of the seats, the goal was to create constituencies of 76,641 voters with a five per cent margin of error.

This dogma resulted in a map of England with unfamiliar looking new constituencies. In London, for example, 37 of the 68 created constituencies are cross-borough, creating combined areas which have relatively little in common, save their mathematic ability to add up to the stated target range. This led Ron Johnston to question whether "the notion of a place being represented in parliament has become secondary to the notion of a constituency with 76,641 constituents".

One of the major problems in redrawing the map was the refusal to split existing wards, as the Scottish Boundary commission has. Wards vary in size dramatically, and the larger the ward, the more inflexible it is with regards to fitting it under the constituency size limit. The only alternative to splitting wards is to poach smaller wards from neighbouring counties within the same local government areas, meaning that some previous constituencies have been divided up between several new constituencies. It's a reasonable assumption that some of these 'sub-optimally placed" electors may feel disenchanted or confused; and voter turnout in the most radically affected constituencies may tell its own story about the utility of these reforms.

The alternative implemented in Scotland, of dividing up existing wards to create optimally sized constituencies which overlap local government areas, creates constituencies which are far less radically changed and more recognisable to local electors. With this in mind, the question was posed: are wards still fit for purpose in their current form?

The Boundary Commission is engaging in a process of public consultation which overlaps with a 12 week written representation period before finalising its findings. The hearings however, have been mandated and not driven by public demand and subsequently the interest level has been varied throughout the country. The process has also been dominated by the local political parties rather than by individuals, another sign of the creeping disconnect between the project and the people it aims to represent.

We are left to consider the utility of the Parliamentary Boundaries Review as a whole for several reasons.

  1. It may not become law in time for the next election; in which case its findings will be obsolete as population distribution will already have altered the equations used to establish these new constituencies.
  2. Population shifts, growth in urban areas in particular, will mean that the whole process will start anew after the next election and boundaries will need to be redrawn once more. For many voters, this may be their third radical displacement in three elections and risks serious disenchantment with the process.
  3. The question becomes 'Do communities and continuity matter?' - do people still consider themselves as part of a locale, is knowing who their local MP is important to them? The coming danger is letting a mathematical equation create a democratic deficit which disconnects the public further from those who would claim to represent them.