Opinion: unnatural constituency boundaries – the hidden menace

The big electoral reform next year – or so everyone thinks – will be the referendum on AV. Alongside it, there will be a boring technical change to equalise constituency sizes and get rid of the present bias towards Labour. Most people assume that we won’t need to worry much about the constituency size changes.

Massive mistake! The change from natural to unnatural constituency boundaries, and rigidly fixed constituency sizes, will have profound and far-reaching ill effects. It will largely destroy the effective link between a local constituency and its individual MP. It could also threaten the very survival of the Liberal Democrats.

Now, how can I convince LDV readers that these dramatic and shocking claims might possibly be true? Please bear with me, because it really does matter. What I am talking about is a hidden and largely unanticipated consequence of the way the electoral mathematics will work out under the planned new system.

At the moment, each county is subdivided into a number of constituencies. Under the new system, that will not be possible. There will be a fixed “quota” constituency size, and it will no longer be permissible to allocate either 5 constituencies or 6 constituencies to a county which contains (say) 5.4 times the “quota”. Instead, constituency boundaries will have to cross county boundaries.

It gets worse. Once Cornwall has burst its bounds, Devon must do likewise, and Somerset, and onwards. The new constituencies will soon bear no relation to the old constituencies they replace.

It gets worse. When Muddletown gets split in half and its residents appeal to the Boundary Commission, the BC will simply not be able to allow the appeal. They cannot possibly put Muddletown back together, because that would have knock-on effects on all the other constituencies for many miles around. It would make them too big or too small, and that is not allowed.

Under the present system, the Boundary Commission can look separately at each county, independently of its neighbours. Under the new system, the Boundary Commission will simply have to draw themselves a single crude national network of gridlines, with each grid unit enclosing equal numbers of voters. It will look a bit like the way Ordnance Survey maps work – you know, where the bit you want is always straddling an edge, and so you need to buy two or three maps to cover quite a small area of interest. Typically, an old constituency will find itself split across three or four new constituencies.

It gets worse. Nobody will know where the new constituencies are until eighteen months before the election. Nobody will have time to work up a constituency as a PPC. Paddy Ashdown took ten years to make Yeovil winnable. His successors will hardly have ten months.

It gets worse. By the 2020 election, Britain will have changed again. The 2015 boundaries will be torn up and the grid totally recast yet again. The MP who has tried to gain the trust of local people will once again need to contest a brand new locality. Never again will we have longstanding respected MPs who serve the same locality for decades. At best, MPs will dot about from place to place within their region, shifting loyalties every five years.

It gets worse. Lib Dems in particular rely tremendously on building a local reputation over the years, on targeting years ahead, on the respect that comes to a good incumbent MP. None of that will be possible under the new system. Expect to see our representation halved and our MPs driven back to the Celtic fringes.

This appalling mistake can be overturned. Once people understand that it would turn respected local MPs into rootless wandering national nonentities, they will reject the new system. Lib Dems must lead the opposition to unnatural boundaries.

What the Tories want, which is to eliminate pro-Labour bias, is perfectly justifiable. Labour’s defence of the status quo is not. We should aim to persuade the Tories on this issue, rather than fight them. We should go back to the mathematicians and ask them to devise a more appropriate and flexible system. A system which gets rid of the bias, while preserving stable constituencies based on natural localities.

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  • John Richardson 15th Aug '10 - 4:42pm

    You didn’t convince me. You’ve made a lot of alarming assertions but not substantiated any of them. On what evidence are you basing this piece? Population movement within the UK is not so volatile as to require huge boundary changes very frequently, if it were we’d see this effect even under the current system. There is also some flexibility built into the constituency size allowance, with difference from the norm of ±5%.

  • All true but possibly overstated.

    Cornwall has just gone from 5 seats to 6, that didn’t help the Lib Dems ! Going to 5 and a half – will that be worse ?

    The knock-on effects are tricky and the electoral register will be out of date, especially if there is a switch to individual registration.

    However, “Natural Communities” – even Yeovil constituency is a lot more than Yeovil. At least it’s not one of those seats like Hampshire North West, Hampshire North East, Hampshire East etc which have no sense of community !

    Parliamentary seats are based on “natural communities” so are local authorities on completely different boundaries.

    The real lesson from all this is to go on about PR – because election results should be about how votes are cast, not where you live, what boundaries are changed etc

  • Matthew Bedford 15th Aug '10 - 4:56pm

    Sorry but this is nonsense.
    The current system requires the boundary commission to come up with an arbitrary number of seats for a county; when a relatively small county reaches the tipping point to gain or lose one extra seat, it results in massive upheaval (Cornwall going from 5 seats to 6 this time round, for example).
    Initial indications are that the majority of counties will not need to be ‘paired’ and can achieve an exact number of seats within their borders within the 5% tolerance allowed.
    No-where will more than 2 counties have to be ‘paired’ to achieve an exact number of seats – and it is then likely that future population changes will be able to be accommodated with far less disruption than the present system.

  • James Graham gives the game away by his choice of constituencies – Lewisham, Beckenham, Hamstead and Kilburn – all compact urban seats. Consider the massive rural areas – join, let us say Dwyfor/Meirionydd with Montgomeryshire or Aberconwy with Arfon or parts of Clwyd. These are ther areas in which I campaign- bigger than greater London !
    Surely constituencies are not just numbers but are neighbourhoods and areas with identifiable centres and historic and cultural links. There must be full and genuine appeals procedures that will seek a fair balance. Changes must not be rushed through without taking all aspects of the changes into consideration.
    Now the Single Transferable Vote in Multi Member constituencies would minimise the need for boundary changes !

  • Totally agree with James Graham, this article is hysterical nonsense. What on Earth makes a historical county or constituency boundary any more ‘natural’ than any other arbitrarily drawn line in the dirt?

  • Colin Green 15th Aug '10 - 5:20pm

    Firstly all boundaries are essentially arbitrary. County boundaries are moved from time to time as are parliamentary constituencies. There is no violation of nature in doing so. Using this as an argument against making constituencies contain a more equal number of people doesn’t stand up. Why is a “rigidly fixed constituency size” worse than a rigidly fixed boundary? Surely the people who vote are more important than the county boundary where they live?

    Secondly, moving a boundary will in no way “will largely destroy the effective link between a local constituency and its individual MP”. This point is so ill conceived it is risible, sorry.

  • Andrew Suffield 15th Aug '10 - 5:50pm

    It will largely destroy the effective link between a local constituency and its individual MP.

    So no more objections to STV then? Awesome.

  • “The change from natural to unnatural constituency boundaries, and rigidly fixed constituency sizes, will have profound and far-reaching ill effects.”

    As a resident of the far from logical Calder Valley, and former agent for the Somerton & Frome and Wells (neither of which are particularly logical though the latter is less obvious) the world seems to have survived so far.

    We also managed with Morecambe and Lonsdale until 1983 – a constituency which it was possible to walk from one bit to another without leaving it as long as you did so at low tide and with a guide across the bay!

  • Re. multi-member constituencies.

    If you want MPs to be really attentive to local communities, a move to multi-member constituencies would certainly not be a good idea, in my opinion. It’s a nice thought to be able to have more than one MP, and perhaps even one you voted for. – But those multi-MP districts would be pretty big. I don’t think anything under five MPs per district would make much sense (otherwise whichever system you are using, it won’t be very proportional and you can get pretty freakish result nationwide). So you’d have a larger district, and, say, five MPs competing for attention in that large district. The result would be that all of them would compete to bother with the big, flashy issues, places, events, institutions, and you’d get a crowd of MP turning up for some things – but many of the smaller issues which get attention from one MP in his/her constituency now would not be covered by anybody.

    In my opinion, that would not be the most efficient use of MPs’ time and efforts – at least if you look at it from a constituent’s point of view…. Under these circumstances, real localism of the kind voters really like would go out of the window.

  • David Allen 15th Aug '10 - 7:40pm

    “Overblown”, “overstated”, “hysterical”, “preposterous”. All comments dashed off within a few minutes of reading, or not really reading, the article.

    James Graham, Iainm, when you say that present county boundaries are no more “natural” than any others, you’re just missing the point. County boundaries are fixed boundaries, and by sticking to them throughout constituency boundary revisions, we have built in an important element of stability. The new boundaries are nowhere fixed, and can and will all change, drastically, every five years. That’s the point.

    Matthew Bedford makes a rational response. His point is that, in theory, the BC will be able to cope by putting pairs of two counties together and merely allowing one or two constituencies to straddle the boundary between the two paired counties. In theory, that is correct. In fact, given the 5% flexibility allowed by the rules (a constituency size can be between 95% and 105% of the quota), things should be OK if a county, or a pair of counties, contains at least 10 “quotas”. Thus for example, if Votinghamshire contains 10.5 quotas of population, then the rules can be made to work in theory either by allocating 10 constituencies at the maximum size (105% of quota), or 11 constituencies at close to the minimum permissible size (95% of quota).

    The trouble is that this does not allow for local adjustments. Let’s suppose that the quota is 80,000 electors, and that the BC decide to give Votinghamshire 10 maximum-sized constituencies, i.e. 84,000 each. They will find it impossible to cope without dividing in half a whole lot of parishes, and indeed individual streets within parishes, because they are trying to work right up to the maximum limit. This would of course mean complete chaos on election day, as councils tried to cope with multiple new polling stations, two different polling stations in lots of villages, misallocated postal votes, confused electors who think the election is a farce, etcetera.

    So, I suggest, the BC will do a rapid rethink. They will decide that they need all of the precious 5% flexibility they have been granted to deal with local adjustments – with trying not to split parishes (though they will probably be forced to split some wards and divisions). They will want to start with a first-shot allocation which is precisely 80,000 per constituency, and then tweak the boundaries by a few hundred yards where necessary, to get parishes right. When they do such tweaks, and they find they have ended up with sizes like 82,500 or 79,000, they will breathe a heartfelt sigh of relief, because they have managed to comply with the 5% rule. But to do that, they will have had to abandon any idea of coping by pairing counties. They will just have to draw up a single national arbitrary grid and work from there.

    I can’t prove to you that this is what they will do. I suppose it is just possible that a bunch of administrators will decide to do things the (very) hard way, to work with paired counties, and spend ages trying to minimise local chaos with split parishes and split roads. Or they may choose to give themselves a far easier life, and use a single national grid system. If they do that, then all the instability problems I have forecasted will come home to roost.

  • David Allen 15th Aug '10 - 7:53pm

    James Graham,

    “Once the rolling system is in place, any changes will be evolutionary by definition. In other words you will have FEWER disruptive boundary reviews than we have at present, not more.”

    I think the problem is that you’ve placed yourself at the centre of your universe. You’re assuming that if you live in the constituency of Much Snoring, and there is a little bit of net migration outwards, then in five years time the boundaries will just shift slightly further out into the surrounding countryside until you have the right population size again.

    The trouble is that there are other constituencies out there! You have a string of twenty neighbouring constituencies between you and the sea, and on the whole they are all tending to lose people. So all their boundaries will have to shift further away from the sea. Half a mile for the coastal constituency, one mile for the next one inland, then two miles, then three…. By the time they reach your universe of Much Snoring, the east-west division will shift into the middle of Much Snoring. So will the north-south division. As MP for Much Snoring, you will find that at best you can only choose a new constituency which covers (say) 30% or 40% of your old electors.

    It isn’t simple, this, you know.

  • “David rightly makes the point that MPs will find it much more difficult to establish a record of action for many constituents.”

    Probably true – however that is the sole (or even one of) the raison d’etre of MPs

  • David, I do not see what you are getting at with your Votinghamshire example. If the county is entitled to 10.5 quotas, the Commission is unlikely to try and carve 10 over-sized or 11 under-sized seats where the notional quota is so close against the upper or lower limit that parishes and villages are being carved in half.

    Instead they are likely to pair Votinghamshire with Ballotshire next door, create 10 seats near on quota in Votinghamshire and one cross-county seat. If we are very unlucky with the topography there might have to be 8 seats wholly in Votinghamshire and three seats crossing the borders.

    If Ballotshire is entitled to 9.02 quotas or 8.97 quotas they will not wall Ballotshire off – they will create the cross-county seat with Votinghamshire I’ve said above, create 8 seats wholly in Ballotshire and then another cross-county seat at the other end with Pollshire. It isn’t going to be rocket science.

    With the large euro-regions and the small district-level wards it will be more than possible to create all seats near enough to the quota without splitting wards, and allow for a bit of leeway so that at the next boundary review major tinkering won’t be needed as the seats won’t have burst under or over the 5% bounds 2 days after the seats were promulgated.

    The 5% flexibility is about 8000 voters (by my maths the tolerance levels will be 72000 to 80000) – most district wards in shire counties are smaller than this and so it should be possible to add enough of the ward building blocks together to come within the limits without this panic about villages split between constituencies.

    In your second point – the butterfly effect – about Much Snoring extending its boundaries by one ward causing an avalanche three counties over and every seat at that end having to be rejigged: cobblers.
    (1) Population movement in Britain isn’t that heavy, and the fact the Commission will meet every 5 years should lessen the impact as there will be less movement than in the 15 year reviews we’ve had now.
    (2) If the population of one of the Euro-regions goes from 50 quotas to 49 quotas, why shouldn’t it lose a seat anyway, even if it causes change?
    (3) Seats have been abolished and moved before. Cornwall is an example. The sky has not fallen in in Cornwall beause it gained a seat in 2010 and the seats were rejigged. If you are basing the objection on the idea that the Lib Dem MPs lost the incumbency factor in the new seats and it cost them their seats – that is partisan hackery and not a valid objection to removing bias.

  • Errrm – think I left a “not” out of the above post

  • Parasite,

    I think you’re saying that you don’t accept my broader concerns, but you do accept that the Lib Dems will lose massively because they will lose the incumbency factor. You then say “that is partisan hackery and not a valid objection to removing bias”.

    Well, on the partisan hackery, let’s just point out that for years, we got around 3% of the seats for 20% of the votes. Then along came Chris Rennard and targeting, and now we have reached the dizzy heights of getting about 10% of the seats for 20-25% of the votes, thanks to better planning. Now you acknowledge that the new system will scupper those plans and take us back towards 3% of seats, and you think that is “partisan hackery”. Have you ever heard of concepts like fair votes?

    On the “not a valid objection to removing bias” – Look, I’d be quite happy to remove the pro-Labour bias. It would probably be quite easy to devise a better system that did so. It’s just that it hasn’t been done.

    For example, a new system could provide that every county must be allocated the number of seats closest to achieving an exact multiple of the quota, and those seats should then be determined without crossing county boundaries by a BC review of that county. That would cut out the gross instability of the presently proposed new system, while maintaining the aim to cut out bias. There are also no doubt plenty of other ways to make things work well. But we must not accept the plans as they stand!

  • Mouse,

    “The real lesson from all this is to go on about PR”

    Well, thanks for acknowledging that the proposals have big problems. However, PR really is not the practical answer right now, simply because the Tories will not grant it to us. They have granted us the AV referendum, provided we support them in eliminating pro-Labour bias.

    In fact, I think it would be quite easy to eliminate pro-Labour bias, without having to adopt the current highly defective proposals. One option would simply be to leave a bit more slack in the system, for example a 10% allowed size deviation instead of the 5% currently planned. That would make the job of the BC a whole lot easier, a lot more likely to be planned properly, a lot more likely to be able to listen to public opinion and be able to allow some of the appeals that will be made against BC proposals.

  • It was pretty obvious that Cameron was going to use this accelerated boundaries “review” to stitch up the Lib Dems. What was not entirely clear was how he was going to do it. David has now provided the answer. Cameron can ensure that (1) the Tories can get an overall majority on 36% of the vote, and (2) the Lib Dems are left with 20 odd seats on 23% of the vote. Cameron kills two birds with one single stone, and he does it without having to give improper directions to the commissioners.

    Clegg loyalists will doubtless scoff, call me paranoid and smear me with the “C” word. Mr Cameron is, after all, a wholly honourable and truthful man who would never dream of such skulduggery. I expect they will be thinking a little differently when the review is complete and the Lib Dems are no longer needed. Wot no Coalition?! Fraid not. Like a Kleenex tissue, we will be wiped across a dirty surface, screwed up and chucked into the bin.

    To the open-minded, I ask the following:

    (1) If the accelerated boundary review is genuine, why is there to be no right of appeal and why is there to be an attempt to oust the jurisdiction of the courts?

    (2) Can Lib Dem MPs conscientiously vote for a review that has no right of appeal and attempts to oust the jurisdiction of the courts?

    Now let’s have a look at the notion of a “natural community”. Would you say Guildford is a natural community? I think so. It is a town with a historic centre and is surrounded by suburbs which hit the Green Belt in all directions. The Guildford Parliamentary constituency includes the whole of the town, plus Worplesdon and a slew of villages leading down to the West Sussex border. Its shape has changed but little in 70 years. I would say it is a part natural community, but perhaps ought to be called “Guildford and Cranleigh” rather than plain “Guildford”.

    The Isle of Wight, now that is a 100% natural community. The same is true of St Albans, which covers the town and not much else. It is certainly not true of Dorset Mid and Poole North, which is basically an amorphous collection of suburbs plus a freestanding town and a few villages that don’t fit anywhere else (it straddles 4 LAs). That is the model of the geographically shifting constituencies that Cameron’s review is likely to produce.

  • I think people here are being very hard on David’s legitimate case here. There seems to be an assumption here that the “pro-Labour bias” is something permanent built into the system, which can be corrected by a more-or-less one-off solution. This is not true, and the major issues (identified by David) are 1 A previous wish to use natural communities, which despite protestations here, has been the (not always successful or achievable) norm, and 2 The fact that population is moving too fast from cities into suburbs and the countryside to be compensated for by a boundary review every 3 GEs, and as David says, will have to be done every election. I will copy over my longer discussion on this from another thread in the morning – I have been involved in party fundraising activity all day, so not been posting! Strangely enough, my wife and I were discussing David’s “knock-on” theory between counties earlier this evening, without benefit of having read what was posted here. As to the suggestion that the “Regions” be used, rather than Counties, there is very little of the “natural community” about them – using them would only inflame local opinion even further!!

    More important than the antiTory “bias”, what on earth is being done about the massively greater antiLib Dem bias?
    Which can only really be addressed by multi seat PR, which probably means using Counties and bigger cities as the natural community unit. People really do prefer that, irrespective of whether one MP represenrs 10% more people than another.

  • David,

    Your first point about having had 3% of the MPs on 20% of the vote is an argument in favour of PR. I don’t see how it can be used a legitimate argument in favour of malapportionment, and against equality of constituencies in an FPTP system. It is a non sequitur.

    Your point about a system which doesn’t cross county boundaries but allocates an exact number of seats to each county is exactly how it works at the moment, ISTR. And as you seem to object to a boundary review in every Parliament it looks like you are favouring the status quo. The mechanics of the status quo is how the bias arises!

    Your attitude of “we [ie the Lib Dems] must not accept the plans as they stand” and “Lib Dems must lead the opposition to unnatural boundaries [sic]” beggars belief. Don’t deny yourself the fruits of victory! The leader of the Lib Dems is now the minister in charge of political reform, so unless you’re going to do some Simon Hughes-like doublethink it’s going to be pretty difficult for the Lib Dems to be the vanguard of the movement for malapportioned boundaries. I’d urge you not to try and box yourself into the mindset of perpetual opposition, even if it has yielded beneficial results at the ballot box in the past.

  • Parasite,

    No, I’m not arguing for malapportionment. I’m only arguing that if too rigid an equality of constituency sizes is imposed, there will be serious adverse consequences, in that we will lose the effective link between an MP and a recognisable, reasonably stable constituency. This can be avoided by going for a slightly less rigid form of equalisation.

    No, I don’t object to a boundary review in every parliament. I only point out that it would be a problem IF we had too rigid an equality of constituency sizes.

    As to your suggestion that it “beggars belief” that we should ever argue with our Conservative lords and masters – well, touches forelock, profuse apologies, sorry sir, can I fetch you a G&T?

  • Benjamin,

    “A lot of the elected social-worker stuff really ought to be handled by local councillors. Someone please give them the power and legitimacy to deal with it.”

    So what you’re saying is that as far as you personally are concerned, the MP’s local role could reasonably be more or less abolished, and, since that is what you feel, you don’t see serious problems with the new system.

    Well, it’s a point of view. But it’s not widely held. Look at Maria’s post for example – she obviously sees benefits in multi-member constituencies and PR, but concludes that for her, they are outweighed by the disadvantages of losing “real localism”.

    Don’t you think that we should try to give voters what they want? An STV system would reduce localism , but improve fairness. The current system is unfair but it does deliver localism. The proposed new system would surely just be the worst of both worlds – by throwing away any stable local connection, while also failing to make the result significantly fairer!

  • Peter Venables 16th Aug '10 - 4:05am

    The LibDems had to compromise on the voting reform issue, so why cant Cameron compromise on his pet policy.
    Have a proper investigation into ways to equalise the constituencies as fairly as possible, and a promise to pass the legislation this parliament, if it’s too late for this election at least the law will have been passed and Labour would find it very difficult to overturn, even if they managed to win the next election.

    This would also remove Labours reason to vote no on the referendum, everybody gains something, everybody loses something.

  • You are absolutely right – and it’s why progressives should oppose the AV bill in it’s current form. AV isn’t PR – it might be a nice step but not if it’s linked with this ludicrous dismantling of sensible boundary measures.

  • George Kendall,

    “I don’t agree with David on unnatural boundaries. Boundaries are already pretty artificial, and I don’t see this as the major problem.

    I think the issue is, whether the proposals mean great change from election to election in the people an MP will represent. Not unnatural constituencies, but ever-changing constituencies.”

    You’re right. People often refer to current boundaries as “natural”, and indeed they sometimes are (rivers, mountains etc). So I decided that “unnatural” would make a good bogey-word to use in campaigning against the new system. I guess I was wrong there, it is more misleading than helpful. The main drawback is that the new boundaries will be ever-changing. A subsidiary problem is that some weird and unnatural constituency shapes will also have to be created to fill in the final gaps, see the Conservativehome piece I mention above.

  • Daniel White 16th Aug '10 - 4:27pm

    For a party that is supposedly in favour of proportional representation and the complete abolishment of constituency ties to their MP’s, this seems a little hypocritical.

  • David Allen 16th Aug '10 - 6:23pm

    George Kendall,

    “I think we’re all reacting to this on the basis of superficial guesses. I’d imagine the civil service has done research on this.”

    Well it would be nice to think so. The BBC blog below seems to have attracted some lawyerly comments, but nothing about the allocation procedure other than “presumably the commission has to start drawing boundaries somewhere, and each decision will have knock-on effects”. I suspect they’ve only just started to get their minds around it.


    Incidentally Mark D’Arcy points out that it would suit the anti-AV Tories to get nicely bogged down in boundary complexities, so as to delay that referendum. All the more reason for us to get things thought through and sorted out ASAP!

    Meanwhile Benjamin, in a previous (knowledgeable?) post, says “David, I see what is worrying you but in practice there is not one person or team doing the entire review all at once, seats will be allocated to regions and they will work from there.” In other words, they assume that if they start in multiple places and sort of muddle through their interactions, it will all turn out right on the night.

    Well, read Gareth Knight’s piece from ConservativeHome (link is shown above). He had a go at Lincolnshire, and he found he could just about cope, provided he commanded East Yorkshire to “pair up” with Lincolnshire and everyone else to keep well clear. But he also pointed out that there are borders with Notinghamshire and Cambridgeshire. What happens, we may ask, when in practice East Yorkshire tells Lincolnshire to go away, Nottinghamshire demands 20% of a constituency out of Lincolnshire, and Cambridgeshire demands 35% of a constituency? And when Lincs finally work out a deal with Notinghamshire, only to find out that Notts have changed their minds now they know what Derbyshire are asking them for? It looks highly likely to me that it will all fall apart, and then the BC will have to fall back upon the appalling “national grid” scheme which I have described.

    I’m sure there are several simple ways in which this legislation could be amended to avoid all these problems, and still do what the Tories want it to do, viz, get rid of the Labour bias and allow regular boundary reviews. Unless the Tories decide to deliberately play silly beggars, this should be something we could achieve amicably by argument and persuasion.

  • Matthew Bedford 16th Aug '10 - 9:04pm

    It really won’t be as difficult as you suggest.
    For small counties, it may well be necessary to ‘pair’. But as soon as you get above about 10 seats in a review area, it will not be difficult to create seats within 5% of quota.

    I have tried it as a paper exercise for my own county of Hertfordshire.
    We won’t know the exact national quota until the end of the year but we are told it will be ~76,000 voters. On that basis, the 5% tolerence means all seats must be between 72,200 and 79,800.
    Hertfordshire with 805,000 electors would have 10.59 quotas – but even so close to ½-quota the county can have 11 whole seats, with average 73,200 voters each (as long as none is below 72,200). Even with this rather narrow constraint, using June 2010 electorates, it is not difficult to achieve 11 seats all within the 5% tolerence of national quota. It might be necessary across the whole county to split 1 or perhaps 2 wards to achieve seats within the 5% tolerence; but these can be split along parish boundaries conveniently to get the required numbers. I would be surprised if it becomes necessary to divide existing (unwarded) parishes.
    In Met areas, with larger wards, I assume it will be necessary to split more wards – but I doubt it will be necessary to split existing polling districts.

  • Matthew Bedford,

    You might be right. You might not.

    Why should we all rely on technocrats who say “trust me, I’ll cope”?

    You can’t just do it for Hertfordshire and then assume it will work everywhere. Read Gareth Knight’s piece where he shows you how it all gets much harder once you have to match across county boundaries.

    Let’s see a sensible relaxation of an over – rigid equality criterion, and a proving exercise that covers the whole of Britain and shows that it can work. Without resorting to a single national grid and hence to the ever-changing boundaries nightmare. We need, urgently, to find a suitable relaxation that will work.

    Otherwise, the whole idea will fall apart, the legislation will be delayed, and the AV referendum with it. Which, of course, is what many people will be hoping to achieve.

  • I am not even sure the general public want “regular reviews” – if by that is meant every election. It may be that the line redrawing is relatively small each time, but unless a system is worked out whereby different bits of constituencies are redrawn each time, there are going to be some areas in perpetual flux. And I may say AGAIN – no-one seems to want to know – the relative bias against Tories and pro-Labour is so minuscule when compared with the anti Lib Dem bias in the system (which AV, of course, doesn’t deal with). We should (and so should the Tories, if they were genuine in wanting to sort out unfairness in the system) be dealing with the latter. And what about the transience and non-registration in towns and cities? By the way, things WERE done about this problem in recent years, and the situation DID improve at the 2010 election (my own constituency, for instance, saw a 1,100 increase in voter registrations, partly perhaps because people saw a close result in prospect).

    I am sure the overall anti – Tory bias perceived at the moment can be more or less sorted (at least 60% sorted) by agreeing a new deal with Wales. Why should Lib Dems be anxious to sort a relatively minor issue on behalf of the Tories, when there is still the elephant of major unfairness in the room, which will take at least 10 years to sort on the current rate of progress?

  • I suppose I am saying Mat, that AV wasn’t really good enough as a promise from the Tories. I accept the point that is quite difficult sometimes withnatural boundaries, and that there are already plenty that are not natural. The one positive point I can see about AV is that it is STV for one candidate, allowing preference voting, and people can get used to the voting system if the referendum approves it. I am not quite sure why there is such a current big difference between East Ham and Islington N electorates? Answering my own question, I assume it is because London Borough boundaries have been sacrosanct and not to be crossed by parliamentary boundaries? Which probably is a “boundary too far”.

  • MatGB,

    I’ve already answered the point you and others have made about “natural boundaries”, see:


    where I adopt my standard “hyperbolic and dismissive” approach to life by telling George Kendall that he got this one right and I got it wrong! The major worry is not whether the boundaries are natural, it is that boundaries will become ever-changing. Hence no stable seats, no stability of representation, no incumbency, no long-term relationship between the MP and his/her constituents.

    OK, the review may not start until December, but if Parliament has approved this fundamentally defective basis, which will be voted upon in early September, then the die is cast. We can sure make submissions to the review, but the BC will probably have to ignore them all, because they will find that only a large-scale arbitrary grid system will be workable and meet the constraint of the 5% rule.

  • Better go anony 18th Aug '10 - 7:02pm


    I’ll try and make this very simple. A number of people have claimed that it will be easy for the Boundary Commissioners to sort out one or two counties at a time, with only a limited number of constituencies that have to cross county boundaries. Therefore (or so they say), David Allen’s nightmare about the Boundary Commission needing to impose a big single arbitrary national grid covering the whole of England won’t actually come to pass.

    The guy from ToryHome tested this out by trying to do it. He wants to make this new system work, he is not an opponent, but, he found it a lot more difficult than he had hoped it would be. It looked as if it would soon turn into a grand mess, in which each county would try to make incompatible demands of its neighbours, making it impossible to get a result. So he had the honesty to say so. Because of this technical difficulty, I fear that my nightmare will indeed happen. Nobody has proved otherwise.

    So if my nightmare comes to pass, then the commission will have to fall back on a rigid national grid, which they will (generally) be quite unable to change in response to comments, because it is just not going to be mathematically feasible.

    That, at any rate, is my contention. It might be wrong, but I wouldn’t bank on that. “Don’t worry, we think we probably aren’t going to ruin British democracy, cross fingers” is surely not good enough.

    Got it now?

  • David Allen 18th Aug '10 - 7:03pm

    Sorry, above post was mine

  • OK MatGB, you’re not personally worried about the idea of a national grid and anonymous ever-changing constituencies. It’s a point of view. For myself, I do actually have some sympathy. It’s nice for Ken Clarke to have represented Rushcliffe for 30 years, and that’s also nice for a lot of his constituents who approve of him, but personally, I’d be happy to lose all that if we got a genuinely fair voting system in its place. What really feels stupid about the Tory proposals is that they are throwing away the benefits of a strong link between the MP and his constituency, and they still aren’t bringing in a truly fair voting system in return!

    You might not be worried about this change, but a lot of people won’t like it. And who will they blame? Why, the Lib Dems, of course. It was those Libs who insisted on messing about with the system, wasn’t it? Not those poor innocent Tories, who only got into this “AV” lark for the sake of bribing someone into supporting a stable government.

    “It wouldn’t be ideal, but single member seats are never going to be ideal, and I really hope we can win enough support for genuine reform at the next election … that we can scrap this system and replace it with STV”

    Don’t go and support something on the assumption you can soon get rid of it again. If we bring it in, we’ll be stuck with it.

    “the current boundaries are both unsustainable and unjustifiable.”

    Oh, I quite agree. The whole idea of more equal constituencies does NOT need to be abandoned. It just needs a little relaxation to make it more practical and make sure to avoid the “national grid” option.

  • David Allen 6th Sep '10 - 12:08am

    …and for anyone still reading:


    The Electoral Reform Society agree with me! To quote:

    “The government’s stated intention is to redraw constituencies and make them equal-sized. The proposed legislation, in its present form, cannot achieve this goal. Their decision to build seats using registered voters rather than the adult population is a recipe for bloated constituencies packed with invisible citizens.
    Likewise the proposed ‘5% rule’ is an impossible aspiration, but both can be fixed in a heartbeat. We hope both government and opposition are prepared to take heed.”

    “The bill states that the electorate of each constituency should not be more than 5% above or below the national average. However, we have found this to be mathematically impossible”

    “The Coalition programme includes the redrawing of constituencies to make them equal-sized. The proposed legislation, in its present form, will not achieve this goal.
    After equalisation, the average constituency will contain about 76,000 registered voters. It will have a total voting age population (VAP) of about 83,000. But in areas of the country where registration is low, the VAP could be as high as 110,000 – a third bigger than the average constituency.”

    “In some wards in the UK, as little as 50% of the VAP are registered. This is highly likely to be even worse after the introduction of individual voter registration.”

  • I have read the bill and some research for it. I think it keeps the idea that it is a bad thing for constituencies to cross County boundaries and London Borough boundaries. I see that it is amending the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 and that seems to be why it is not replacing the current system with the one used for ward boundaries.

    I think that system tries to get wards within 10% of each other and as few as possible within 20% and almost none over 20%. I would like to see such flexibility in this act (maybe 5% and 10%), but I don’t know how we could get that change.

    Also ward boundaries use predicted ward electorates to try to get them to be closer to the target figure when they come into force. Again I would like to see that in the act, but I don’t know how we could achieve it.

    I am confused about the process. I would be happy it was like the one used for ward boundaries. I read a report on a constituency boundary review and it seems that written objections were dismissed if no one presented them verbally at the inquiry.

    I hadn’t realised that currently wards can be split been constituencies except in Northern Ireland.

    It appears that there will be four reports – one for each country. I couldn’t see if this was a change. I see that the ability to do reviews on small areas is being abolished. I can understand with reviews every five years they should not be necessary. I couldn’t see anything from stopping the Boundary Commission splitting the country into areas based on the Counties.

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