Following yet another stalemate in parliamentary proceedings on constituency boundaries Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie, and David Rossiter offer an overview of the attempted reform and the politics behind it.
In its manifesto for the 2010 general election the Conservative party undertook to change the rules for defining the UK’s parliamentary constituencies in order to create a ‘fair vote’ system whereby ‘every vote will have equal value’, having been convinced that this had not been the case – to its disadvantage – at the three previous contests. Implementing that reform was the subject of one of the first Bills presented to Parliament after the coalition government was formed. It experienced considerable opposition from Labour, especially in the Lords, but was eventually enacted in February 2011.
Five major reforms were proposed: a single electoral quota – average electorate – for the entire UK (Wales was and remains substantially over-represented); all constituencies (with a very small number of exceptions) should have an electorate neither more nor less than 5% of that quota (previously there were no specified limits); the number of MPs should be reduced from 650 to 600; constituency boundaries should be reviewed every five rather than every ten years; and the public consultations on their proposals conducted by the Boundary Commissions should not include Local Inquiries. Labour accepted the first of these but opposed the other four; it prevailed only on the last – with the assistance of cross-bench peers it required the government to include Public Hearings in the consultation process.
Immediately after the Act was passed the Boundary Commissions commenced the task of devising a new set of 600 constituencies to be in place 18 months before the next scheduled general election in May 2015. They were close to the end of that process – with revised recommendations that could have given the Conservatives a lead over Labour of up to 20 more seats that they had won in 2010 – when it was halted by Parliament. The Liberal Democrats had decided to oppose their coalition partners on this issue because of disagreement over House of Lords reform. Labour, with the other opposition parties, joined them in voting for a five-year delay in implementing the 2011 legislation.
Labour had not relaxed its opposition to the new rules and found an opportunity to seek to change them when one of its MPs (Pat Glass) came high on the ballot for Private Members’ Bills in 2015. The party provided her with a draft bill, which had its second reading in November 2016 but there was no further progress before the 2017 general election was called. The main changes it would have made were: a return to 650 MPs; a tolerance around the national quota of +/-10% rather than +/-5%; and reviews every ten rather than five years.
The Conservative party’s 2017 manifesto, like that in 2015, continued with its commitment to continuing the current boundary review, ‘enshrining the principle of equal seats, while reducing the number of MPs to 600’. Once again, Labour challenged that when Afzal Khan MP came high on the 2017 Private Members’ Bills ballot and presented a draft bill that was very similar to that introduced by Pat Glass, except that it reduced the tolerance margin around the quota to +/-7.5%. The Bill was introduced in July 2017 and had a Second Reading on 1 December, when it was referred to a Public Bill Committee. That Committee has convened on many occasions since but has been unable to consider the Bill because the government has not passed a Money Resolution allowing that to happen. For some months the Committee convened weekly, only to adjourn until the following week when it hoped it could proceed. On 24 April 2019 it decided to reconvene monthly.
In May 2018 Afzal Khan presented an urgent question to the Leader of the House of Commons regarding the government’s policy on money resolutions for Private Members’ Bills. In her response, Angela Leadsom referred to a statement by the relevant minister at the previous sitting of the Private Bill Committee that the government had a commitment to continue with the then-current Boundary Commissions’ reviews and as they had ‘not yet reported it would not be appropriate to proceed’ with Khan’s Bill; when they had the government would consider carefully how to proceed.
Meanwhile, following Parliament’s decision in January 2013 to delay implementation of the 2011 legislation by five years, the four Boundary Commissions had started a new review in spring 2016. This was completed and they delivered their reports with recommendations for 600 new constituencies to the relevant Secretaries of State who laid them before Parliament in September 2018. The legislation sets out no time scale for when Parliament can consider these – it can only accept or reject, and not amend, them. In some ways this failure to implement the recommendations is surprising, since again they are likely to favour the Conservatives over Labour (if the 2017 election had been fought in the new seats the Conservatives would probably have won a majority).
Which takes us back to Afzal Khan’s Bill. When the Public Bill Committee met on 24 April 2019 for the 30th time – and decided that it would next meet on 5 June – there was a discussion of the lack of progress on both that Bill and the Commissions’ recommendations. On the lack of a money resolution the relevant minister noted that the government had made clear why it had not introduced one, ‘through the usual channels’.
The Minister was then asked about progress on the preparation and tabling of Orders in Council to implement the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations. In response he stated that:
… once the orders are prepared, they are ready to come before the House. It is a complex motion, given that it covers every street and house in the United Kingdom, in terms of ensuring that they are appropriately represented in this place. It will be submitted in due course.
This is an odd statement. The last time a Boundary Review was successfully completed and implemented, a set of recommendations from the Boundary Commission for England was delivered in October 2006 and the Order in Council came into force in June 2007. The Parliamentary Constituencies Order (England) 2007 is a lengthy document but all but two pages comprise a schedule listing the new constituencies and their component wards. That list was in the Commission’s report and could have been compiled and checked relatively quickly. The same is the case with the Commissions’ reports delivered in 2018; it is difficult to understand why Orders implementing the four sets of recommendations could not have been prepared and tabled within weeks of delivery.
And so we have a boundaries limbo. The government has received reports from the Boundary Commissions implementing its manifesto commitments with a new set of constituencies which, if in place for the next general election – whenever that might be – will probably produce a better outcome for the Conservatives (and probably for the DUP as well) than if that election was held in the current 650 constituencies. It is unclear why the government will not introduce the relevant Order – unless it fears that some of its MPs (increasingly willing to defy the party whip) will vote against it, presumably because they fear losing their seats thanks to the reduction in size of the Commons (as is likely for some high-profile Conservative – and also Labour – MPs).
At the same time the government is unwilling to have the principles on which those recommendations are based debated by MPs, using a technicality to prevent a Private Member’s Bill, approved by 229-44 votes at its Second Reading, being considered in Committee. Is it concerned that this, when returned to the House, might win majority support (again including from some of its own rebellious MPs) and its manifesto commitment would be defeated: we would still have 650 MPs?
The government wants constituency boundaries to be reviewed and if necessary revised every five years, in order to ensure equality of electorates and thus a fairer electoral system than we currently have. The current constituencies were first used at the 2010 general election in most of the UK (in 2005 in Scotland) and were drawn up using electoral data from the early 2000s. They are now very unequal in their electorates. The latest data show that in England in December 2018 the mean electorate across its 533 constituencies was 71,991, but 24 had fewer than 60,000 registered; against that 67 had more than 80,000 registered electors and five had 90,000 or more. The forty seats in Wales averaged 55,753 registered electors only, include eight with electorates below 50,000; Scotland’s 59 seats averaged 66,539 electors, including nine with less than 60,000 and just three with more than 80,000; only in Northern Ireland was there relatively little variation around the average of 69,357.
The government has been given the means to eliminate these gross variations but is apparently stalling on using them – and at the same time preventing debate on whether the rules for defining constituencies, and the number of MPs, should be changed again. A year after the Leader of the House said that the government would consider carefully how to proceed once the Boundary Commissions had reported, and more than six months after they did, there has been virtual silence – with the only statement being that it takes a long time to copy four lists of constituencies and their component parts from reports to Orders in Council.
Ron Johnston is Professor in the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.
Charles Pattie is Professor in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).