The government is seeking to fundamentally change how local constituencies for Parliament are drawn up. Its alleged ‘reform’ bill returns to the House of Lords shortly for a final look. Comparing its proposals with the requirements used in other liberal democracies, Lewis Baston shows that the UK already has some of the most equally sized constituencies in the western world. In trying to solve a non-existent problem, Conservative ministers in particular are bent on requiring unworkable levels of equality in constituency sizes. The government is pursuing an extreme solution that will fatally damage the organic unity of local communities, which both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have traditionally protected and valued.
It may seem a matter of obvious common sense and fairness that constituencies should be ‘equal sized’ – the government certainly insists that it is so. They propose that constituencies for the House of Commons should have the same number of registered electors, within plus or minus 5 per cent of the national average (and with only 2 or 3 allowed exceptions).
Yet in fact no other country in the world has actually achieved this degree of equality without adopting proportional representation and multi-member seats. Even apparently highly equalised systems for drawing constituency boundaries in Australia and the United States involve more variation in constituency sizes than the government proposes to allow within the United Kingdom.
When introducing the Second Reading of the government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill in September, Nick Clegg said this about the proposal to ‘equalise’ the size of the registered electorate in each constituency:
On the broken scales of our democracy, 10 voters in Glasgow North have the same weight as 17 voters in Manchester Central. That is not a single anomaly, because those differences are repeated up and down the country. As of last December, Wirral West, Edinburgh South and Wrexham had fewer than 60,000 voters. Falkirk, Banbury and West Ham had more than 80,000. That unfairness is deeply damaging to our democracy.
Yet by this standard, boundaries in many of the principal countries using single member constituencies must be ‘deeply damaging’ to democracy, since my Table below shows that current UK system in now way performs particularly poorly by international standards.
Variations in constituency sizes across liberal democracies using single member seats
|Basis||Variation in seat sizes (standard deviation)||Smallest seat (as % of average)||Largest seat (as % of average)||% of seats within 5% of national limit||% of seats within 10% of national limit|
|UK proposed system -2015||Electorate||2.2||29||105||99||99.5|
|USA - 2012||Population||-||74||140||86||97|
|England current System - 2010||Electorate||8.6||77||153||44||79|
|Australia - 2010||Electorate||9.1||64||132||67||87|
|UK current system - 2010||Electorate||11.1||32||157||37||69|
|Canada - 2008||Population||21.3||26||166||22||40|
|Jamaica - 2007||Electorate||24.8||65||154||3||25|
|France - 2007||Population*||-||7||163||-||-|
Notes: The dates on the census or other count of relevant population took place does not normally coincide with the election dates. For the countries above the relevant population count dates are UK proposed (2009), USA 2012 (2010), USA 2002 (2000), England current (2000), UK current (2000), Australia (2010), Canada (2006), Jamaica (2007), and France (1986). For France, although districting was done on a population basis in 1986 the figures given are for electorate in 2007
Sources: US Census Bureau, Australian Electoral Commission, Elections Canada, Electoral Office of Jamaica, http://aceproject.org/, David Jarman and www.swingstateproject.com for tabulation of USA 2000.
Numbers in all shaded cells are approximations.
The key column in the Table is the ‘Variation in seat size’, which is a measure called the standard deviation of the size of constituencies. Here the national relevant population is divided by the total number of constituencies (being given the value of 100 to allow comparable results). The Table shows that the outcome of the government Bill would not be to make Britain level up to a common standard already being achieved elsewhere. Instead it would require the UK to reach a level of arithmetic equality that is unknown in comparable national legislatures, (and that would also be based of course on severely flawed UK electoral registers).
There are two broad dimensions to equalising constituencies:
- What to do with the anomalies – islands and national minorities – and how many particularly small or large constituencies should be tolerated because they are special cases.
- The level of uniformity imposed on the majority of ‘normal’ cases.
The different measures in the table capture different dimensions of equality – how far out of line the anomalous cases are, and how unequal the system is as a whole. It also shows the proportion of seats that meet two criteria that have featured in debate in the UK, namely being 5 per cent or 10 per cent away from the national quota. The government’s bill requires that over 99 per cent of constituencies are within 5 per cent of the national quota (the exceptions being two Scottish island seats and perhaps one in the Highlands). No other comparable legislature hits 90 per cent. In terms of the overall deviation from the standard size, the government’s proposal is twice as ‘equalised’ as the US House of Representatives.
It is worth asking why, despite legal and constitutional rules about equality, Australia and the United States fail to equalise their constituencies. The answer is that both countries respect the boundaries of their component states and territories when drawing up national legislative districts. Australia divides its 150 House seats into 8 states and territories, and the 435 seats in the US House of Representatives are divided into 50 state delegations. Some states in each country are small – seven American states have single seats, and five more have an allocation of two seats. The result is that Montana comprises a single Congressional district of 994,400 people, while the slightly bigger state of Rhode Island has two small districts with around 527,600 people in each. Ten voters in Rhode Island have the same voting power as 18 Montanans. If the United Kingdom respected proportionally as many sub-national units in a 600-seat Commons as the US does for its 435-seat House, then there would be 69 localities with boundaries that could not be crossed.
The government legislation proposes that there should be just six recognised sub-divisions in across the whole of the UK – namely the four component nations, plus Na h-Eileanan an Iar and Orkney and Shetland. In fact, the English boundary commission will probably respect the boundaries of the nine government standard regions for England. Ironically then, the already existing UK boundary system is closer to American and Australian practice, because respecting county boundaries in England outside London involved 46 units with established community identities being given whole numbers of seats.
Taking the powerful elected Senates of Australia and the United States into account only widens the huge differences in voting power. In terms of total members of Congress (House and Senate), an inhabitant of Wyoming has 10.3 times as much power as a Californian, a differential that makes the gap between the Hebrides and the Isle of Wight appear small. The inequality in voting power in the United Kingdom caused by constituency size is therefore patently not deeply damaging to British democracy.
Constituency equalisation that was about as good as that for the US House of Representatives could be achieved for the Commons with a much less extreme legislative definition of equal size that would work with the grain and attract more political consensus. For instance:
- The law could allow 10 per cent deviation from the national average, which would mean that county boundaries could nearly all be respected.
- The law could recognise other special cases. such as the Isle of Wight, Cornwall and Anglesey,
- And the final Act could allow some latitude for urban seats where population is grossly in excess of the registered electorate.
The government has portrayed its scheme as a modest, tidying up job. In reality it is a radical and extreme shift towards requiring a level of equality in constituency size that no other country in the world attempts, at the expense of riding roughshod over virtually all organic local identities. It has so far escaped proper scrutiny. The House of Lords forthcoming deliberations on the Bill will provide a last opportunity for the true nature of the coalition’s proposals to be exposed and a last chance for its worst and most unworkable features to be ameliorated.
For further analysis of how the constituency proposals will affect the parties see:
Lewis Baston, ‘Do Turkeys vote for Christmas? Yes, when it comes to Liberal Democrat MPs and the boundary review for Westminster constituencies. Nick Clegg’s party will lose a fifth of all its MPs’.
Ron Johnston, ‘Pursuing a passion for parity, the coalition government is axing one in every 4 MPs in Wales, but less than one in 14 in England. How the UK draws its electoral map will never be the same again’.
This blog article is based on the new report, All are equal, but some are more equal than others (click here to download) published on 7 January 2011 by Democratic Audit.
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The one thing you forget with the Australian system is the constitutional requirement that the electorates have to be determined on a State by State basis, and that Tasmania, although it only has enough population for 2 or 3 seats must, under the Constitution have 5. This means that the Tasmanian seats are much smaller in size than the mainland seats.
I find it sad that you seem to support the concept of making victims .
in a perfect world we should all be equally represented-we don’t live in this perfect world because of human interference with simple mathematics ,
why do humans interfere with what could easily be a very simple and very fair method of enabling a very democratic system of governance?
because of laziness / incompetence / corruption / vested interests / unwillingness to challenge history and tradition / prejudice and bias
all these things are bad .
u make people victims by making arguments for unfairness.
some people have never historically ever achieved the nirvana of equal or median/average levels of representation and you argue they have no reasonable right to hope let alone expect this.
I live in st.neots in cambs and our case is very unfair and has been very unfair for my entire life [I am over 50]
st.neots was to have its first mp and constituency-according to the huntspost and the guardian etc [circa 2012]
then the Huntingdonshire mp djanogly and other corrupt power-mongers and vested interests were aided by lazy and uncaring idiots to reverse the commissions suggestion/plan to prevent st.neots achieving a mile stone in representation.
huntingdon has a population of 23 000 and has every service headquarters like police/forensic/fire/council/social services/clinics and a hospital-thus 5000 or so very securegold plated jobs and all the benefits having them on your doorstep if u live in huntingdon.
st.neots has been bigger than huntingdon since 1968-nearly 50 yrs
st.neots has a population according to wiki of 40 000 in 2014. the census of 2011 said we had a population back then of 30 000.
st.neots has a local government expansion plan in place to grow to 65 000 by 2036 -in just 20 yrs .
yet still we have no mp and no benefits bought about by full and fair representation-like better roads/medical provision and everything else that is considered vital to those who have never lacked them.
all rural areas suffer unfairly and so do many urban areas who have no voice to complain .
who do we have to complain to or appeal to ? the sitting mp-who never visits or even mentions st.neots and who prevented our attempt to be represented by a new constituency mp.
why would he and other corrupt power mongers keep the fair and just rights of most of their electorate supressed? well st.neots is wealthier than huntingdon and growing to twice the size and only requires about 50 council employees to function. so in short we are a cash cow for huntingdon.
considering just the sizes of huntingdon and st.neots I think huntingdon must be one of the most well serviced government subsidised over provisioned locations in all the uk-it has the jobs and services and infrastructure of a small city-in a town of just 23 000 -if it lost its government funded jobs-it would shrink to a village and a very dismal poverty cursed village at that.
meanwhile st.neots has nothing -not even decent roads leading to the town and the roads are as often as not gridlocked . no clinics and only about 3 district council employees at the st.neots office.
I think and always have done-that st.neots is one of the worst provided for places of its size in the uk.
this is the legacy of not being represented and the benefits of being over represented in the case of huntingdon.
and now I read your very complex article -which admittedly im too dim to fathom- which appears to argue that I don’t have the right to even feel cheated? and that no one will end this injustice -cos no one cares enough .
we need independence of political interests and science and transparency and legal enforcement of our rights to something approaching equal rights.
politicians prevented the new boundaries 5 yrs ago -this doesn’t help people who are victims of the system-it was shameful and no worse than we sadly expect from politicians.
then when the new independent boundaries were proposed in 2011 they were stymied and prevented and scrapped by a politician [djanogly] again very shameful .
now we have nothing …still …as always
we have no plan or guantee a plan would be implemented or guarantee its implementation would be guaranteed.
so now we may never be represented and personally i think the uk will never have a fair independent science informed democratic transparent simple and user friendly system of equal representation.
a system that guarantees no political interference can ever encroach upon it. the constituencies are redrawn to make them fairer every election [5 yrs] they are within a range of sizes that are fairer and that anomalies are removed and never interfere in future.
an independent overseeing body can moniter the effectiveness every 5 yrs of the independent boundary commission body.
look at the consequences of the corrupt system we still sadly have…. towns/areas/communities get no government jobs and services and infrastructure etc etc when they have warranted them for generations….while other places are funded up to 5 or 10 times more than they warrant -its exploiters and parasites and victims/ hosts.
so think about what the consequences of your arguments are -millions of dirt poor citizens who are law abiding and tax-paying and who turn out responsibly to vote when asked to who may be dying or very sick and suffering and remotely located and isolated from society and disadvantaged in every way possible-they rely on the chattering classes and ruling elite like you folk to protect their rights and I personally think and always have-that as my st.nots v huntingdon example shows – what right is the most important-because everything else is a consequence of it? surely its the right to constantly attempt to achieve something very close to equal representation.
it is very heard to root out the robber barons from their fortified strongholds-like the mp djanogly-and we have never managed to achieve this in st.neots.
so who is helping us in st.neots and anywhere victims of the current system exist?
no one is helping-and no one cares and so we need a new modern simple transparent independent system that means all the corrupt and vested interests that stymie democracy will soon be an ugly historic anomaly of our undemocratic history.
surely we can do better ? easily?
boundaries are redrawn and so just redraw them fairly.
people I think generally will prefer to represented fairly or over represented rather than not represented at all or very little-so maybe sometimes you have to inform the public better and make a case for fairness if you have to.
it shouldn’t be a hard sell if you have to.
there are millions of victims and millions of selfish greedy over represented people/s but the consequences are very real in terms of quality of life and human rights and economic disadvantage etc
it was hard to overturn the flat-earthers and the church and the badger baiters and witch burners etc surely this is just another example of having to modernise and remove the power the corrupt power mongers weald to protect themselves and the vested interest groupings. if it is this obvious and this beneficial and this much fairer and basically more democratic-then how can anyone argue against huge reform permanently ?
I voted for pr and hate first past the post-corrupt politicians and vested interests prevented fairness taking hold in that case.
now st.neots has been stymied by an mp for huntingdon and the new boundaries where stymied by politicians 5 years ago-there is a pattern here and the poorest and least educated -like myself cannot overpower the ruling political elite to bring about greater fairness-we need some politicians to care and help or the media or some posh organisation and if one day this is achieved it must be cemented in place in a way policians cannot easily revisit and corrupt.
Agreed – you might be interested in the scheme I did for the Lib Dems (voted down in Parliament in Feb 2010) – see http://www.ma.hw.ac.uk/~denis/stv4uk/
As Lewis says, exactly equalizing electorates is incompatible with respecting natural communities. Take Cornwall as example (in the current Lords debate on the bill, Baroness Corston said how unreasonable it would be to have a constituency mixing Cornwall with Devon). It is quite a large natural community, but with an entitlement of around 5.4 seats under the bill, would fall foul of the 5% limit. And it’s not as though this kind of disruption would happen once of course; it would be changed every 5 years, with each natural community being sometimes intact, sometimes not.
I don’t agree that just because other countries are worse then what we’re doing is OK. Also, the idea that boundaries should not split communities is an odd one, as large communities will always be split by boundaries. I strongly believe that each vote should carry the same weight, and that extends to the disparity between safe and marginal seats. However, surely the best way to solve all these problems is to use STV in large multi-member constituencies.