Boundary Balls

Glen Newey

On 13 September, the Boundary Commision for England published its proposals for the 2018 Boundary Review and launched a 12-week consultancy period. David Cameron initiated the review to equalise constituency size while cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Cameron’s rationale for axing fifty seats was saving money, the idea being that, under austerity and after the expenses furore, the public didn't want politicos living high on the public hog. Projected savings aren't that much – around £12 million a year – and the Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has repeatedly said that the case for the cut hasn't been made. Whether or not the public wants fewer MPs, there’s been little demand for the far bigger recent increase in the Lords (current size 809): austerity is not for the nobs. Cameron created 246 peers, each entitled, like extant members, to a £300 per diem for showing up. The Lords has become a bloated public welfare scheme for aging apparatchiks.

As exercises in public explanation go, the commission website offers a how-not-to model. Its low-budget video explainer, featuring a couple of blokes chatting outside Parliament, has drawn fewer views on YouTube than some people's pet videos (1182 when last checked). The website says that the number of constituencies in each English region was determined using ‘a specific distribution formula known as the “Sainte-Lague method”’, which is not explained, and there's no link to aid the perplexed (the New Zealand electoral commission explains it here).

The Sainte-Laguë (sic) formula is most often used, as in New Zealand, for allocating seats to parties under proportional representation, which highlights an endemic problem in the Boundary Review: equalising constituencies is justified by fairness – everyone's vote should count the same – but once fairness comes into it, the case for proportionality looks unanswerable. Compare the numbers of votes needed for different parties to elect one MP. In the 2015 election, Labour's figure was about 40,000: higher than the SNP (25,000) and Tories (34,000), but much lower than the Greens (1.1 million) and Ukip (3.8 million).

Labour has called the review unfair. It's probably truer to say it exemplifies what Keynes called the principle of equal unfairness. Labour will shed more seats than other parties, but how unfair that is depends on whether it's over-represented now. The average Labour seat has nearly 4000 fewer voters than the average Tory seat. A study of the 2010 election concluded that if the proportions of votes for the Conservatives and Labour had been transposed, Labour would have won 48 more seats than the Tories actually did. More credibly, Labour argues that the review should not be using electoral roll data at December 2015, but should include the two million people Cameron added when he hoped it might swing the referendum for Remain.

Commentariat sense has it that Labour is unelectable under Corbyn. But its goose is cooked whether or not he remains chef de cuisine. Labour's disastrous loss of Scotland happened on previous leaders' watch, as did the erosion of its base by Ukip's anglo-nationalism and – often a powerful political agent – apathy. There won't be an election soon, because under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, Labour would have to back that. Given the opposition's disarray, Theresa May hardly needs to call one and will wish to benefit from the Boundary Review. Peter Mandelson popped out of his sarcophagus last week to say he gets up every day to ‘pray’ for an early election because it would speed Corbyn's demise – which means, as his lordship might have realised, that it won't happen.


  • 4 October 2016 at 8:26pm
    streetsj says:
    Several points
    1) Just because the HoL is massively overbloated doesn't mean the HoC shouldn't be trimmed. Actually the reduction from 650 to 600 is quite modest.
    2) the LSE work is the most biassed thing i've read in a long time
    3) the FPTP system is deficient; whether other systems are better is arguable but one thing is clear from the UK system is that votes are worth different amounts in different constituencies and voters know that. But it's not easy to work how they respond. I live in a constituency which has returned a Tory MP forever (i presume). As a labour voter do I not bother because I know Labour will never win? As a Tory voter do i not bother because I know they'll win anyway?
    4) populations change and move - the Boundary Commission is a neutral body (isn't it?). The adjustments should have been made years ago but weren't. I don't think there is any Tory gerrymandering here.
    5) if the 2m added (not sure about this) were included and they were mostly (all?) younger people with a more natural left bias, wouldn't that disadvantage Labour? Better they're not included but when they come out to vote they will be an added bonus?

  • 5 October 2016 at 5:51am
    Laurie Strachan says:

    • 5 October 2016 at 5:54am
      Laurie Strachan says: @ Laurie Strachan
      Oops! Lost the ?

    • 5 October 2016 at 8:31am
      streetsj says: @ Laurie Strachan
      that was the link - "A study of the 2010 election concluded "

    • 6 October 2016 at 2:02am
      Laurie Strachan says: @ streetsj
      Obvious really . . .

  • 5 October 2016 at 7:36am
    cufflink says:
    It's quite simple really, the Boundary Commission was set up to find more arse room on the front benches. When the Tories spread their ample representations along the extended banquettes as in your average appointed GP Surgery, one's attention is diverted from the debate onto the comfort zone and the ladies hunkering down in screwed up distaste for such proximate assembly.
    Let us not change anything votive but adopt the new Espano/Scottish design of separate school desks.
    Glen's academic nous and acerbic barbs would fit in nicely as the chalk flew about. We need his spare frame in the House to to equalise the unfairness of it all.

    • 5 October 2016 at 8:32am
      streetsj says: @ cufflink

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