Boundary changes aren’t gerrymandering, but the Tories are still getting an unfair advantage.
Jeremy Corbyn can’t seem to catch a break. In addition to lagging in the polls and having to fight off a leadership challenge from rebellious backbenches, news broke recently that the proposed boundary changes for 2018 could result in his seat vanishing entirely. Jokes about train carriages aside, there are many arguing that the boundary reviews amount to gerrymandering. After all, Labour are the ones who are set to lose out as a result – and badly at that.
Accusations of direct government gerrymandering are somewhat unfair. In the UK, where constituency boundaries lie isn’t decided by political powers (i.e. the ones with the most to gain from the power to draw seat boundaries). Instead the Boundary Commission, an independent public body with a good record of impartiality, conducts reviews of voting ranges in response to how voting populations move and grow over time. As a theoretically impartial body, how boundaries are drawn isn’t determined by parliamentary politics (to a degree).
The move towards more equally sized wards is designed to reduce system bias which used to mean that it took fewer votes to elect a Labour MP than a Tory MP. For instance, Professor Ron Johnston of Bristol University found that the 2001 election – which returned a massive Labour majority – was very biased, because if Labour had got the same voting % as the Tories, there’d still be 142 more seats for Labour – around 50-60 of which’d be due to variations in constituency size. This was also the same for 2005, where Labour secured a 32 seat majority (356 seats) despite only securing 3% more of the vote than the Conservatives (who received 198 seats).
This seems unfair. Boundary changes are part of removing biases from electoral systems. So why is there such a fervour about the present boundary review?
Issues arise from the changes that are being brought to Parliament alongside the boundary review. David Cameron, while he was Prime Minister, brought in legislation that was to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Ostensibly, this was to reduce political waste. At the same time, new wards must have populations within 5% of 74,000. This has created issues for the boundary review being conducted in England, where the creation of new wards which have roughly equal population sizes; combined with a refusal to split up existing wards, produces oddly shaped voting wards that go across boroughs (constituencies poach wards from areas with the same local government). The result is creating wards which don’t have that much in common, which according to Ron Johnston and Professor Charles Pattie of the University of Sheffield, giving a seminar at UCL, may disenfranchise voters.
Perhaps more worryingly is the data being used to create the wards, seeing as it’s based on registered voter data from December 2015. Given that roughly a million people registered to vote a week before the deadline for the EU referendum; and some 7.5 million applying to register between the March and June of 2016, taking data from December 2015 means they likely weren’t included in the boundaries. The Electoral Commission, a government body, has argued in the past that it’d make more sense to conduct reviews nearer election times when voter registration numbers are higher. Worse, the Electoral Commission found some 800,000 voters – mainly students – were missing from the register, because voter registration is no longer conducted by household but individuals. As students typically vote Labour, this hits them harder than the Tories. The result is the creation of more Tory friendly voting wards than there would be otherwise.
Of course, political parties can protest this. Public boundary consultations, as Professors Ron and Charles have argued, are more for local political parties to submit alternative proposals to maximise their gains in a seat than the public; be it through socio-economic data, or previous voting patterns for an area, which allow for some political meddling in the way boundaries are shaped. It isn’t perfect meddling: Sherwood in Nottinghamshire – a constituency of predominately mining villages – voted Conservative in the 1983 General Election when it first popped into existence following the 1980 boundary review, but it’s meddling nonetheless.
When they work as intended, boundary changes to remove biases toward one party should be welcomed. However, while boundary drawers are apolitical, meddling persists within the system. This time around seat reductions; missing voters; and the inflexible nature of the proposed new boundaries make Labour’s already dire situation worse.
A lot of the perils of this system could be avoided with the introduction of voting systems which are more proportionally representative and maintain local representation, such as the Additional Member System or the Single Transferable Vote. However with the Tories steadfastly against it, and Labour lukewarm to the issue, don’t expect any meaningful change to how Britain votes.