Lord Paul Tyler writes…A fairer way of redrawing constituency boundaries

Boundary - Some rights reserved by ank0kuIn those heady 5 Days in May back in 2010, our negotiators agreed with the Conservative Party that there should be “fewer, more equal” constituencies returning MPs to the House of Commons.  It formed part of a package, coupled with the referendum on Alternative Vote, and placed alongside fixed-term Parliaments (delivered), greater localism (partially delivered), and House of Lords reform (not delivered).

Whatever your views on whether there should be fewer MPs, more, or just the same as now, the principle that parliamentary constituencies should contain roughly the same number of electors is a thoroughly sound one.  It was embraced by the Chartists before it became an issue for the Conservatives.  Yet when the Boundary Commissions produced their map of likely new constituencies, drawn up under the new rules, alarm was widespread.

Conservative MPs had been chief cheerleaders for the plan, and had been reassured that many of their constituencies were already the ‘right size’, so wouldn’t be substantially affected.  Yet they suddenly found that almost all seats were threatened with considerable change as a result of the new rules they had advocated.  Many simply daft constituency propositions looked set to prevail:  local authority areas cut into five or six chunks, one Scottish constituency that would have taken six hours to drive from one end of to the other, and –for the first time – a Cornwall/Devon (Cornwall/England!) constituency, breaching a firm boundary of historic, linguistic and cultural significance.

In the end, we know what happened. Liberal Democrats voted with Labour to delay the changes until 2018, just as Conservatives had joined with Labour to delay Lords Reform for just as long as they can all possibly manage.

Yet that cannot be the end of the story. If Parliament does nothing further before 2016, the Boundary Commissions will restart the multi-million pound process of redrawing boundaries on the same rules everyone hated so much last time. Cross-party preparation is required to avert that outcome.

Today, Professor Ron Johnston, Professor Charles Pattie and Dr David Rossiter – three acknowledged experts in this field – are launching a completely independent, non-partisan, academic report, published by the McDougall Trust, on how the goal of greater arithmetic equality can be meshed with the objectives of maximum possible continuity at each review, and maximum possible recognition of natural communities.

It concludes:

  • an upward change to the +/- 5% tolerance of the electoral quota specified in the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Act 2011 would make a considerable difference in being able to accommodate continuity and community as important factors in the review process
  • the use of wards as ‘building blocks’ for English constituencies creates serious problems, since particularly urban wards are so large
  • on present rules, major disruption to the constituency map will be a feature at every 5-yearly review, not just the first one
  • retaining the size of the House of Commons at 650 is not as significant as one might expect, in reducing the disruption caused by each boundary review

Mark Harper MP (Conservative) and Graham Allen MP (Labour) are co-sponsoring the launch with me, and MPs across all the parties are due to attend.  Of course, as Liberal Democrats we see the whole single member constituency system as a huge problem, ripe for total redundancy not modest reform. Yet I still think it worth talking now about how – even before a full change of electoral system – the existing one can be made fairer without becoming even more hopelessly irrational that it is already!

* Lord Tyler is the Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson for Political and Constitutional Reform.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Geoffrey Payne 2nd Jul '14 - 12:44pm

    On balance I would prefer not to cut down the number of MPs as I get the impression most of them work very hard as it is. Having to represent even more voters would mean even more work for them to do.
    One problem is that there is a current bias in how seats are allocated that favours Labour. The Tories calculated that reducing the number by 50 would even out the bias. However the bias in the system that favours Labour over the Tories is miniscule compared to the massive bias against the Lib Dems, UKIP and the Greens. Correcting that would mean a much more radical change to the voting system which neither Labour nor the Tories would want to contemplate.

  • If FPTP is to persist, I would be in favour of equalising the constituencies to within the range of the 5% smallest constituencies. This would increase the number of MPs and as a consequence make FPTP a bit less unrepresentative.

    As constituency size increases the more homogeneous they tend to become. Obviously if constituencies were fully homogeneous, only one party would gain seats under FPTP. The smaller constituencies become the less likely they are to be homogeneous resulting in greater plurality of representation.

  • One of the biggest issues for the “lack of arithmetic balance” currently is the position of Wales. Some years ago, boundaries in Scotland were altered to recognise that many things were done in a devolved Scotland. This had the effect of isolating Wales as a nation where average constituency electorates are considerably smaller than the average for UK as a whole. At present, the argument for equalising electorates within + or- 5% has had the public effect of harassing in particular, the people of he Isle of Wight into accepting that part of a second IW seat is united with a part of Hampshire, which they are wholly opposed to, and the Devonwall seat which Paul refers to. The previous way of doing boundary review should be restored, which seems is similar to this independent commission’s recommendations. In addition a proper review of Welsh seats should be done along with the widely desired expansion of the powers of the Welsh Senedd. Tories should get out of their heads that the result, although almost always allowing Labour a fractional advantage over them (while suburban areas gain population over inner urban areas), is not arithmetically fair enough. They should try being in the Lib Dem position, of massive unfairness to us over many years. Paul is also too polite to mention what a horrific own goal it was for Nick Clegg and the leadership to accept the Tories’ reading of this initially. We were lucky to find a way to be able to reject it after the AV and House of Lords Reform fiascos!

  • Talking about constituencies see the very recent polling released yesterday in Lib Dem some seats taken from Labour shows:
    Bradford East Lib Dem 23% Labour 45%
    Brent Central ” ” 19% ” 54%
    Withington ” ” 22% ” 56%
    Norwich South ” ” 12% ” 33% nb Greens are second on 20%
    and as an extra
    Brighton Pavillion ” 33% Greens 32%

    Huge swings to Labour in the first 3 and of course near total collapse of our vote. What further messages need we receive. BUT of course there is no need to worry all be well etc etc etc!!!!!

  • Generally I would welcome a reduction in MP numbers we should all remember that unless the mp is independant that the first duty is the political party. If an elected MP is held to party whip I see no need for so many, as for House of Lords that’s way to bloated

    Of course much of this should Scotland go alone will need major rework anyway

  • Tony Dawson 2nd Jul '14 - 9:48pm

    While genuine ‘community’is important in seats which ave to be drawn under our awful fptp system (which will always have some bias or other inherent in its operation), the idea of ‘continuity’ is mostly silly and founded on sand. A great many parliamentary seats under the present boundaries are presently very artificial – so that maintaining their continuity is adverse to the principles of genuine community!

    The ‘sequential’ manner in which various boundary commissions currently approach various reviews often involve using the results of one silly boundary decision (from the previous review at a different level) to start off a process from false premises. If we do have to retain the fptp system then my proposal for the best values would be to have a COMPLETE British governance review from scratch, incorporating everything from parishes and polling districts to parliamentary constituencies and administrative counties.

  • matt (Bristol) 3rd Jul '14 - 9:30am

    TOny Dawson:
    “While genuine ‘community’is important in seats which ave to be drawn under our awful fptp system (which will always have some bias or other inherent in its operation), the idea of ‘continuity’ is mostly silly and founded on sand. A great many parliamentary seats under the present boundaries are presently very artificial – so that maintaining their continuity is adverse to the principles of genuine community!”

    In support of this point I give you York Outer, the donut-shaped constituency.

    However, a complete review as you suggest further would take years and be a hell of a lot of trouble and quite possibly be out of date by the time it was completed.

    Allan: ‘Generally I would welcome a reduction in MP numbers we should all remember that unless the mp is independant that the first duty is the political party.’

    This is not and was not ever a foundational proposition in our system, and is not widely understood by the general public as being such, and many would argue is a fundamentally false understanding for a parliamentary democracy to function properly with any elected assembly needing to be both a scrutinising and a representative body.

  • Steve Deller 3rd Jul '14 - 8:37pm

    We can’t get the local authority boundarys right so even less hope with the parliamentary ones

  • Tony Greaves 10th Jul '14 - 4:52pm

    Let us be clear that the two main reasons why the electoral system has an inbuilt bias to Labour vis-à-vis the Tories are not about constituency sizes.

    They are: (1) differential turnout. The average (and aggregate) turnout in Conservative held seats is higher than in Labour held seats. Therefore the Conservatives need a higher national proportion of the vote to win a majority of seats, than does Labour.

    (2) electoral geography. The Conservative margin over Labour in Conservative seats is on average higher than the Labour margin over Conservative in Labour seats. (This is seen by the number of Con seats where Labour are third behind the Liberal Democrat, compared with the number of Labour seats where the Tories poll very low).

    There is an inbuilt pro-Labour bias due to constituency size of about ?eight seats in Wales because they hold most of the seats there and Welsh seats are significantly smaller than in England and Scotland. But that’s all -it’s only in Wales.

    Tony Greaves

  • David Allen 10th Jul '14 - 5:23pm

    Tony Greaves: What you’re saying, in effect, is that there are cultural differences between Tory and Labour voters. Tory voters tend to turn out punctiliously even when everybody knows it’s a Tory who is going to win the constituency. Labour voters are not so punctilious, and are more likely not to bother to vote when they know Labour are bound to win. (Ease of transport is probably also part of the reason. Tories can easily drive to the polling station: carless Labour voters may face a long walk in the rain, with no nanny to look after the kids.)

    If that’s the case – and I suspect it is – then to a considerable extent, it isn’t truly an “inbuilt bias to Labour”. If we want to measure the true extent of any bias, we should be measuring the average number of registered voters in Labour, Tory and Lib Dem seats – not the average number of people who actually use their votes in those seats.

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