Boundary review? It’s time for an electoral system review

Author:
Doug Cowan, Digital Officer

Posted on the 9th June 2021

Boundary Review day comes round faster every year it seems. The so-called Sixth Periodic Review of Westminster constituencies is now on its third go at suggesting new boundaries.

The electoral map has to be updated periodically to take into account changes in population across the UK.

Rules introduced by the coalition government in 2011 tried to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 seats. However, the proposed boundaries produced in 2013, were not implemented when Liberal Democrats refused to support the move following Conservative failure to support Lords reform.

In 2018 the Commission proposed a new set of boundaries, which also went on to being abandoned due to disagreements within Theresa May’s government.

The proposals to reduce the Commons to 600 seats were dropped in 2020 and these new proposals are an update to the current boundaries and 650 seats.

Boundaries are important as which voters are included in a constituency have a big impact on who gets elected. An MP dependent on working-class votes won’t be happy if they lose the working-class part of town, instead gaining a leafy suburb in its place.

Who controls the maps can decide who gets elected. Gerrymandering is the process whereby politicians pick the voters they want to elect them. The word originates from 1812, when Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry redrew the state to benefit his Democratic-Republican Party. One of the districts in the Boston area was so contorted it looked like a salamander – hence ‘Gerry-mander’.

The big difference between Elbridge Gerry’s maps and the situation in the UK, is that, thankfully, constituencies here are not designed by politicians themselves. The Boundary Commissions run an open process, with public feedback at each stage. After blocking the previous two attempts, MPs have now lost the ability to vote on whether to accept the results of this review or not.

You can find the information for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland on the respective Boundary Commission websites. The Commissions for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have said that initial proposals will be published later in 2021.

Designing maps is a hard job, every seat that grows needs to take voters from neighbouring areas. But seats need to stay as similar to the old seats as possible. On top of this, as we’ve seen, years of work can be ignored and never implemented.

In theory, you could design hundreds of different constituency maps that would all result in a different makeup of Parliament. Where the lines go can directly change who represents you in Parliament, and how many MPs each party has.

Constituency Example

Animation based on the work of Geoff Powell and the PRSA. As the boundaries rotate around the number of MPs for each party changes wildly.

The Boundary Commissions have to design their maps to only vary by +/-5% in size, no seats can cross national borders, seats must be smaller than 13,000 square kilometres and the Commissions can only consider:

(a) special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency;
(b) local government boundaries as they exist or new local government boundaries that have been approved by legislation but that are yet to be introduced on the review date (see Rule 9 for the Review date);
(c) boundaries of existing constituencies;
(d) any local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies;
(e) the inconveniences attendant on such changes

There are special rules for various islands.

First Past the Post is simply not designed to give each party a fair amount of seats based on their vote share.

Westminster suffers from something called electoral bias. The ‘bias’ is the difference in seats between the two main parties if they both got the same number of votes. From 1992-2010 this helped the Labour party, from 2015 – 2019 it helped the Conservatives.

The bias is caused by the fact each constituency only has one MP.

When constituencies have different numbers of people in them you can win a small one with fewer votes than a big one. But, this isn’t the only source of bias.

Turnout is different around the country, so you need fewer people to vote for you if fewer people in general vote in your constituency.

But General Elections are not only Labour vs Conservative battles. The more people there are voting for third parties (as long as they don’t win), the easier it is for the major parties to win a seat – the threshold for winner gets lower. You just need one more than the second-place candidate. In Belfast South, a candidate in 2015 won on 24.5%.

Of course, few MPs win with one vote more than their main opponent. Some MPs pile up massive majorities while others sneak a win by a handful of votes. These thousands of extra votes are wasted as they don’t make any difference to the make-up of parliament.

While the government like to claim that the boundary review will mean “Every vote cast in a general election will carry equal weight”, Westminster’s voting system ensures a dramatic inequality in the number of votes it takes to elect an MP.

Whichever way you design the boundaries, Westminster’s voting system will mean our Parliament only barely represents the UK. To solve this, we need to abandon the idea that each constituency should only elect one MP.

Instead, proportional electoral systems like the Single Transferable Vote elect groups of MPs from slightly larger constituencies. Rather than trying to divide a town or county into three arbitrary but lumps, each with their own MP, you add the constituencies together into one big constituency with three MPs. The group of MPs reflect the variety of political opinion in that area.

And by ranking candidates on the basis of preference, you get not only political diversity but ensure that if your first choice can’t win, your vote isn’t entirely wasted.

The fact that the new boundaries will change election results isn’t a sign that it has been gerrymandered – it’s a sign that Westminster’s unfair system is working just as expected.

It’s high time we got rid of this outdated, unequal voting system. Let’s scrap First Past the Post once and for all.

Sign our petition to scrap First Past the Post

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