Boundary benefits

‘What is the basis for Owen Jones's claim that the Tories are trying to rig the next election?’

Michael Mosbacher

Owen Jones has claimed that the Tories are trying to rig the next election (Marc Lozano CC BY-SA 2.0)

“The Tories are trying to rig the next election” — or so proclaimed Corbynista cheerleader Owen Jones on his YouTube channel last month. Expect to hear much more along these lines as the final recommendations of the Boundary Commission for redrawn constituencies for the next election come to be voted on in the Commons either this month or in October.

What is the basis of Jones’s claim that the Conservatives are trying to rig elections? At the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the then Leader of the Opposition David Cameron pledged to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 to reduce the cost of politics. The non-partisan Boundary Commission has been in charge of drawing up constituency boundaries since 1949. It was given a number of remits, of which ensuring constituencies of equal size was only one — gradually, respecting existing constituency and local government boundaries gained priority. This has led to a growing disparity in constituency size. At the time of the last boundary review being implemented in 2010 the smallest non-island constituency, Arfon, had 40,707 electors and the largest, East Ham, had 91,531. (The island constituencies of the Isle of Wight, Orkney and Shetland, and Western Isles — or Na h-Eileanan an Iar as it likes to be called — will continue to be treated differently under Tory proposals.)

As the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Sir Bernard Jenkin, states in its 2018 report, “At the 2015 General Election seats won by the Labour Party had on average approximately 4,000 fewer registered voters than those won by the Conservatives . . . It has been estimated that at the 2001 General Election, fought using the boundaries introduced in 1997, if the Labour and Conservative parties had received the same vote share, Labour would have received 142 more seats.”

This was the background to the Coalition government’s 2011 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. This reduces the size of the Commons from 650 to 600 seats; increases the frequency of boundary reviews to every five years, i.e. during each full parliament under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, instead of every eight to ten years; and mandates the Boundary Commission to prioritise constituency size over all other concerns — only permitting a 5 per cent plus or minus difference from the quota ideal size in the number of electors for each non-island constituency. The notion that county boundaries need no longer be strictly respected created much manufactured anger — after all, how could one MP possibly represent people as different as the residents of west Devon and east Cornwall?

The first boundary review under the new provisions was stopped by the Commons in 2013 after the Lib Dems withdrew their support following the defeat by backbench Tories, led by Jesse Norman, of their own proposals for House of Lords reform. The 2015 and 2017 elections were thus fought on old boundaries drawn up by a review started in 2000 and completed in 2007.

Since the proposals were first introduced, the electoral system’s bias to Labour has seemingly evaporated, with the Tories gaining 58 extra seats in 2015, and 11 more in 2017, than their share of the vote would imply. The dramatic 2015 shift is largely explained by the Tories gaining 27 seats from the Lib Dems, many of them in constituencies which had previously been closely contested and where the Conservatives had piled up many “wasted votes”; and by Labour losing all but one seat in Scotland but still piling up large numbers of worthless votes. This might make the case for change less compelling — but these changes could quickly unwind again if there is a Lib Dem or other centrist party revival or the SNP declines in Scotland.

It had looked as if the Boundary Commission recommendations had no chance of passing because they were opposed by the Democratic Unionist Party. The original Northern Ireland recommendations would have seen the DUP lose three seats to Sinn Fein — thus making the republicans the dominant Ulster party. These recommendations have been revised and the new proposal will no longer change Northern Ireland’s electoral arithmetic. The DUP might well now be able to support the boundary changes. There is, however, no chance that other opposition MPs will support the boundary review — it is the one issue that unites ardent Corbynistas and strong Blairites. As Seumas Milne stated on RT (Russia Today) shortly before being appointed to his current role as Labour’s Director of Strategy and Communications, “The Tories are planning to bring in new constituency boundaries . . .  and that will mean there will have to be reselections.” The seats to be abolished include Jeremy Corbyn’s own Islington North. While the dear leader should have little problem being readopted, that is certainly not the case for myriad MPs not favoured by Momentum.

For the proposed boundary changes to be defeated, only seven Tory MPs will have to vote against, even if the DUP supports them. There will certainly be some Conservative rebels — there were eight against the changes in 2011 and four in 2013 — and the Tory party is certainly much more bolshy now. There is much unhappiness on the Tory side with the proposals, partly because of the need for reselections and also because of the belief that reducing the size of the Commons will increase the power of the executive. The size of the government, and thus presumably the opposition front bench — there are around 120 ministers  in the Commons and the Lords — will not be reduced and thus there will be fewer backbenchers. The unease on the Conservative benches is made clear by the fact that Jenkin’s select committee report — which is broadly unsympathetic to the changes — was endorsed by all five Tories on it.

If the boundary review is rejected, and the government does not rapidly pass revised legislation setting up a new review based on a House of 650 seats (or back the Labour-supported Private Member’s Bill doing this which it is currently blocking), the next election will be fought on constituency boundaries that are more than 15 years out of date. There are arguments to be made for and against reducing the size of the Commons, but attempting to equalise the size of constituencies, pace Owen Jones, hardly represents an attempt to rig the next election.

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