And what are the wider electoral implications of the changes?by John Curtice / September 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
Bad news for Labour? Certainly. So everybody on the Conservative benches is happy? Definitely not. This more or less sums up first reactions to the initial proposals for redrawing the map of parliamentary constituencies that were published on Tuesday by the English and Welsh Boundary Commissions.
As we explained last week, Labour were bound to be the principal losers from the proposals. On the figures being used by the Boundary Commissioners to draw up the new constituencies, the average Labour seat currently contains some 4,400 fewer registered voters than the average Conservative one. As the Commissioners’ principal aim is to produce constituencies that contain more or less the same number of voters, quite a few Labour seats were bound to disappear.
Indeed, Labour’s problem is illustrated perfectly in Jeremy Corbyn’s own north London backyard, where a number of senior Labour figures have their seat. At present there are two seats in the borough of Islington, Corbyn’s North seat and Emily Thornberry’s South constituency. There are just under 120,000 people on the electoral register in the two seats. However, given the electorate figures on which the boundary commission is operating, there would need to be over 140,000 to justify retaining two whole seats in the borough.
So Thornberry’s seat has been expanded to take in a bit of Corbyn’s constituency. Most of the rest of his seat is now paired up with some of what is currently part of the neighbouring Hackney North seat, held by Diane Abbot, thereby creating a new cross-borough seat of Finsbury Park and Stoke Newington. Nearly three-fifths of the new constituency comes from Corbyn’s seat, so he looks to have the stronger claim to the Labour nomination there. The rest of Hackney North is paired up with much of Hackney South, currently held by Meg Hillier, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, to create a new Hackney Central to which the two female Labour MPs would appear to have more or less an equal claim. Labour loses a seat and Abbott and Hillier find themselves most at risk of being the particular MP who loses out.
However, the current review is not just an exercise in making constituencies more equal in size. It is also about reducing the size of the House of Commons from 650 MPs to 600. That change is forcing the Commissioners to redraw constituency lines to a much greater extent than would otherwise have been the case. Under their proposals, only one in eight seats in England—and none in Wales—is wholly unchanged. Consequently, most MPs, Conservative as well as opposition, are facing the prospect of having to cope with significant changes to their local bailiwick.
Indeed, in some cases it is a Tory held seat that is more or less set to disappear entirely. For example, at present Essex has 18 seats, but the county is now due to have only 17. Given that all but one of them (Douglas Carswell’s UKIP bastion in Clacton) is currently held by the Conservatives, there are bound to be some Tory MPs in the county who find their seat has been significantly dismembered. In particular, the International Development Secretary, Priti Patel, has her Witham seat divided into three, and may well find herself hoping that the former Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale, decides to vacate the Maldon seat with which much of her Witham seat has been merged.
The former Chancellor, George Osborne, looks set to face even greater difficulties. Manchester together with its Cheshire hinterland loses two seats, and as a consequence the former Chancellor’s Tatton seat is divided no less than five ways. As a result, there is not a single seat to which he obviously has the best claim. At the same time, neither his immediate Conservative neighbour to the north (Graham Brady in Altrincham) nor that to the east (David Rutley in Macclesfield), who between them gobble up much of Osborne’s fiefdom, are obvious candidates for voluntary retirement in 2020.
Early estimates of what the overall outcome might have been at the last election if these proposals had been in place then confirm that there will be pain on all sides of the Commons. According to Anthony Wells of the ukpollingreport website, while Labour would have been 28 seats worse off under these proposals, the Conservatives would also have won ten fewer seats. (At the same time, the Liberal Democrats might have only held on to half their meagre tally of eight seats, with Nick Clegg among the potential losers, while the Greens’ Caroline Lucas could have had difficulty retaining her fiefdom in Brighton.) Conservative sources have already acknowledged that if the government is to avoid a backbench rebellion that might yet scupper the proposals when they eventually come before the Commons, party managers may well have to be active in finding safe berths for those Tory MPs who are at risk of losing out.
Even so, the proposals are every bit as bad for Labour as they could have been. Far from simply removing the current inequity in the size of Conservative and Labour constituencies, according to Wells’ estimates the average electorate in those proposed seats in which Labour is the projected 2015 winner is in fact slightly higher—by just over 300—than it is in those seats that the Conservatives are projected to win. Labour might, in truth, have reasonably hoped that the review would have hit them a little less hard. Meanwhile, the proposed new boundaries clearly make the mountain that the party will have to climb at the next election even higher than it is already. Instead of needing nearly a six point lead over Labour to retain their overall majority in 2020, the Conservatives might well need no more than a two point lead. Equally, the equivalent target for a Labour majority—already a staggering 12.5 points thanks in part to its near wipeout in Scotland—increases to 13.4 points. The long road back to power for Labour has just got a bit longer.