New constituency boundaries for the House of Commons: gerrymandering or independent process?

7 October 2016

With Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election and ever-louder whispers of a possible snap election before 2020, the impact of last month’s new constituency boundary proposals could redefine the political landscape sooner than expected. Here, Dr Alistair Clark, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Newcastle University, examines the history and possible impacts of the proposals, while highlighting how social science has helped understand and explain its effects.

It will have escaped few seriously interested in politics that the next general election, currently scheduled for 2020, will be held under new constituency boundaries. Proposals for these new constituencies in England were announced on 13 September 2016, and met over the next few days and weeks with a barrage of criticism, and speculation over who may, or may not, lose their seats. Critics variously argued that the proposals were based on the wrong data, sought to merge places which, given local rivalries, had no natural history of being linked, and, most pointedly, that there was some form of ‘gerrymandering’ going on.

A little history is necessary to contextualise all of this. Upon coming to power in 2010, the Conservative Party sought to reduce the number of constituencies represented in the House of Commons from 650 to 600, with constituency electorates to be no more than 5% either greater or less than the average. This plan was not implemented by the coalition. The Liberal Democrats voted against its 2011 incarnation because of Conservative opposition to changing the voting system in the referendum earlier that year. With a majority Conservative government from 2015, the reduction in size of the Commons, and the electoral boundary changes this requires, is now back on the agenda, with proposals made by Boundary Commissions during 2016. The intention is that these proposals would be finalised by 2018 and used in any 2020 general election.

Criticisms have some force behind them. For instance, against the advice of the Electoral Commission and others, the Conservative government brought forward by several months to December 2015 the cut-off date for electoral registration that would be used for the electorate figures that calculations and proposals would be based on. The implication many drew was that there were many thousands, if not millions, of people missing from the electoral register that the constituency proposals are now based on. Bringing this date forward was certainly a political decision by the Conservative government.

The expectation is that the boundary review will significantly disadvantage Labour if it is implemented. For example, the three areas most affected by the reduction in seat numbers were estimated to be the North East, North West and London, all of which have been Labour strongholds. Even if they remain Labour dominated, there will be fewer seats in each region. Of the 38 seats disappearing, 26 are Labour held. The number of Welsh seats was also expected to fall by a quarter, Wales also having been Labour-dominated. Estimates based on the initial proposals suggested that, assuming no gains in Scotland, Labour would have to win an additional 97 seats more than those they would nominally hold under the new boundaries. This would equate to a swing to the party in England and Wales of around 10% and implies that the party needs to be polling around 42% to have the possibility of winning 301 seats, equivalent to a bare majority. To put it mildly, this looks like a difficult ask for Labour in its current state of competitiveness.

Yet despite the many and often somewhat hyperbolic claims of ‘gerrymandering’, it is worth remembering that the Boundary Commissions – there are separate bodies in each of the UK’s constituent territories – that make the eventual constituency proposals are all independent bodies which have been established by parliament. Boundary Reviews happen on a relatively regular basis. The Boundary Commissioners carry out their work diligently, relatively transparently and, as is proper, consult widely on their proposals.

This does not mean that they are immune from political influence however. As my own work has shown, political parties often seek to push back against independent regulation and gain advantage. And as Ron Johnston has shown, it is the consultation process which gives parties an opportunity to influence constituency boundaries in detail. They can have some success in doing so. The current proposals for new boundaries are open for consultation. It will be interesting to see later in the year how these initial proposals compare with the eventual final boundaries, and to speculate over the causes for these changes.

The contributions of numerous social scientists have made this process easier to understand and the likely outcomes to be estimated. Thus, a group of political geographers have long been interested in how constituency boundaries affect electoral outcomes, while a number of political scientists have also estimated the likely effects of transferring various local electorates into new constituencies. What has been very apparent in this round of proposals however is that these efforts have gone beyond professional social scientists in Universities, to also include a range of data journalists and practitioner social scientists working in politics, in addition to those who have made a name for themselves through their data analysis of politics on the internet such as YouGov’s Anthony Wells, and the Election Data and Number Cruncher Politics sites. No one reading this blog will need reminding that social science matters in understanding and explaining the effects of political events. What is truly encouraging, and evident in the analysis of the boundary proposals, is that social science efforts extend outside the often narrow world of university research, enabled by the internet, social media and technology. The more contact and collaboration there is between both groups, the more impact political and social science will have.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.