With the General Election now just weeks away, and speculation about possible coalition arrangements taking centre stage, it would be easy to overlook a very important and immediate legislative priority that the new government, whatever its composition, needs to address.
So it’s welcome that this week the House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has published a report arguing for immediate reform of constituency boundaries legislation after the General Election.
The Electoral Reform Society has long argued that boundaries legislation should be reviewed as a priority in the new Parliament, and it is welcome that so many of the changes we have argued for are supported by the committee’s report. The highly controversial boundary review of 2013 was scrapped for this election but remains in place, meaning new boundaries will need to start being drawn up as early as 2016 to be in time for the next election. In addition to repeating many of the problems created at the last review, this means the new boundary configuration will coincide with the end of the transition to Individual Electoral Registration.
This creates a very real possibility that new electoral boundaries will be based on incomplete and geographically varied electoral registers. So a reform to equalise and create fairer boundaries could end up doing exactly the opposite.
That is why we have consistently argued that boundaries legislation needs to be reformed as early in the new Parliament as possible. Starting by raising the ‘equality constraint’ (the difference in size of constituencies) to +/- 10% (up from +/- 5%) to give more flexibility, enabling boundaries to more accurately reflect communities and potentially creating less churn and disruption for constituents.
We have also argued that equalising constituencies does not need to go hand in hand with a reduction in MPs. Both these proposals have been recommended in the committee report. The ERS has also argued that future boundary reviews should be based on population data rather than the electoral rolls, since these two figures can often differ significantly, so it is good to see the committee recommending the new government considers this option.
With the potential for extended coalition negotiations after the General Election, this report is a timely reminder that constituency boundaries need to be at the urgent end of the new government’s ‘to do’ list.