Scroll down to read three more contributions on this issue from Gloria De Piero, Lord Robert Hayward and Tom Brake
There is no doubt that Britain’s constituency boundaries should be updated. It is true that, Scotland apart, the current boundaries were first used as recently as the 2010 election. But the review that led to their creation started in 2000, and thus these boundaries will be some 20 years old by the time of the next general election. Population movement has rendered them out of date, leading to considerable disparities in the size of constituencies.
At the 2015 election the smallest constituency in England, Wirral West, contained just over 55,000 registered voters. The largest, the Isle of Wight, had nearly 109,000 names on its electoral register.
Meanwhile, Wales is heavily over-represented. The average constituency there had just over 57,000 voters at the last election, compared to 72,500 in England. Perhaps that over-representation—much of which happened by accident rather than design—could be justified before devolution, but now the country has its own Assembly with full legislative powers. Scotland’s representation was cut back in 2005, not long after the introduction of devolution there.
These two features of the current boundaries have partisan consequences. The average seat won by the Conservatives in 2015 contained over 73,300 voters, while the average constituency won by Labour had just 69,500. All other things being equal, this inequality is unfair on the Conservatives, as they need more votes to win.
The new boundary review will help to reduce this inequality. For the first time, the constituencies in all four parts of the UK will be of the same average size, and vary less around that average than before. Only the Isle of Wight and the Northern and Western Isles are exempt from this requirement. The review will also ensure that the boundaries will better reflect the geographical distribution of the electorate within each part of the UK (though these boundaries will be nearly five years out of date by the next general election).
There is, though, more to the new review of boundaries than this. Two other features are perhaps more controversial.
First, the number of MPs will be reduced from 650 to 600. This is in part a legacy from the MPs expenses scandal when all the parties were keen to look willing to reduce “the cost of politics.” There is no particular justification for the current size of the Commons—it is also mostly the product of accident rather than design—but the reduction means that the boundary redrawing will be more radical than it would otherwise be. As a result, fewer voters will get the chance to vote for or against their current MP at the next election.
Second, the government has fast-forwarded the switch from a system of household electoral registration to one whereby individual voters have to register themselves. As a result, the electoral register that will be used in the review has recently lost some 770,000 names. This is because local electoral registration officers have not included people on the register unless they can verify that they are able to vote. The trouble is, we cannot be sure that those whose names were deleted are in fact ineligible.
The electoral registers that the Boundary Commissions will use to draw up the new boundaries will be the ones from which those 770,000 names have been deleted. This could serve to undermine the perceived fairness of the redrawing process: how can you draw boundaries according to the number of eligible voters in a certain area if it’s unclear how many such people live there?
The switch in systems has meant that some constituencies with large numbers of university students have experienced particularly large reductions in their number of registered voters. One big reason for this is that students starting at university now have to register themselves, whereas before they could rely on their university to do so. Registering to vote may well not be at the top of students’ priority lists.
There is no doubt that Britain’s boundaries need redrawing, and that the rules under which they will be redrawn are an improvement on those in force at previous reviews. What remains open to question is whether the data on the number of registered voters that the Commissions will be using are as accurate as they might be.
A partisan plan
Gloria De Piero, Shadow Minister for Young People and Voter Registration
This week we learned that over 1.4m people have dropped off the electoral register since the rushed introduction of Individual Electoral Registration in 2014. What’s more, there has been a shocking 40 per cent drop in 16 and 17-year-olds registered to vote over the last two years. The government are shamelessly taking this as an opportunity to redraw constituency boundaries based on an electorate that is far lower than it should be.
When young people, poorer areas and student towns are disproportionately affected by shrinking electoral rolls, it is clear that this is another example of David Cameron and the Conservative Party trying to rig the system for their own political ends. This is all further evidence of their partisan plan to give the Tories an unfair advantage at the expense of democracy.
All votes are equal
Lord Robert Hayward, Conservative politician
The government is updating the parliamentary constituency boundaries to strengthen the integrity of our democratic system. Without change, by the next general election, boundaries would be based on demographic information that was 20 years old. The boundaries are now being redrawn by an independent judge-led body to ensure that there are broadly the same number of electors in each constituency, so that everyone’s vote is equal.
At the same time, Great Britain has finally implemented individual electoral registration to tackle electoral fraud, over a decade after Northern Ireland. The new system is removing “ghost” entries on the electoral roll. Each of the entries that have now been removed were approached at least nine times by local registration officers to check if they wished to remain on the register. No one has lost the right to vote: it takes just minutes to register online. The government is also reducing the number of MPs to 600, given the House of Commons is bigger than it needs to be. This is a balanced package of reforms that will ensure fair elections in years to come.
Manipulating the system
Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat MP for Carshalton and Wallington
By ramming through the boundary changes without boosting electoral registration, the Conservatives are manipulating the electoral system. Unregistered voters won’t be considered when new boundaries are drawn up, meaning that urban and socially deprived areas, where registration is lower, will be under-represented, while affluent areas, where registration is higher, will have disproportionate representation.
It’s clear which party benefits from these changes. By cynically ignoring the Electoral Commission’s advice, the Tories are rigging the electoral die in their favour. Opposition parties, combined with Tories who might who get cold feet at the idea of losing their constituencies, must unite to fight against these changes.