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Drawing UK Parliamentary Boundaries

by Gary J Sun Feb 25th, 2007 at 07:34:04 AM EST

After reading edwin's interesting diary about electoral reform in Ontario, I have been thinking about the apportionment of legislative seats in a first past the post electoral system. The UK system for this is little known so I thought a diary about it might be useful.

As Americans, with extensive experience of partisan gerrymandering, will know the outcome of elections is often determined by how the boundaries are drawn. Even if the boundary drawing is non-partisan the decisions made will have a political effect.

The House of Commons currently contains 646 members, each elected from a single member constituency. There are 529 MPs from England, 40 from Wales, 59 from Scotland and 18 from Northern Ireland. After the next general election, due some time before 2010, it is expected there will be 650 members with the additional four representing England. The rest of this diary is about how those seats were apportioned.

In the United Kingdom, Parliament has created four Boundary Commissions (one for each of the four parts of the UK - England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). These are genuinely non partisan bodies. The responsibility for parliamentary boundary revisions is to pass to the Electoral Commission when the current general review is completed later this year, but the system will essentially remain the same.

Each Boundary Commission is responsible for applying the rules laid down in legislation, so as to produce a report recommending a new set of Parliamentary boundaries in its area. The UK government is required to submit a draft order in council  to Parliament. This draft order is required to include the recommended proposals, with or without amendments (although the power to make amendments exists it is not in practice used). The Queen and the Privy Council make the order when the draft is approved by Parliament. The new boundaries then come into force at the next general election. (For more details see below)

From the diaries -- whataboutbob

As the Boundary Commission for England puts it, in its official booklet on the review process:-

For a definitive statement of the law, the reader is referred to the provisions of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 (as amended by the Boundary Commissions Act 1992), coupled with the Court of Appeal decision in R.v. Boundary Commission for England Ex parte Foot [1983] QB 600.

However I will try to summarise the position.

1.    The Commissions are independent, non partisan and impartial. They are required to pay no attention to the results of previous elections or anticipated future voting patterns.
2.    Until 1998 rule 1 for the apportionment of seats provided that the number of seats in:-

    (a)    Great Britain shall not be substantially greater or less than 613;

    (b)    Scotland shall not be less than 71;

    (c)    Wales shall not be less than 35; and

(d)    Northern Ireland shall not be greater than 18 or less than 16.

3.    Rule 1 is misleading as the interaction of the other rules had caused a gradual increase in the number of seats for England, Scotland and Wales. As the quota for representation is calculated for each review by dividing the number of registered voters by seats granted in the last review, there is no chance to reduce the number of members. Another rule allows additional seats to be created for difficult areas (like the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, Snowdonia in Wales and the English Lake District). That rule applies at each review and allows the total number of seats to increase. As a result, in 1998, there were 529 seats for England, 72 for Scotland and 40 for Wales (which was a total of 641 for Great Britain), as well as the maximum 18 for Northern Ireland. The overall total was 659.  
4.    When Scotland was granted a devolved government by the Scotland Act 1998, rule 1 was amended to delete the minimum number of seats for Scotland and to require the use of the English quota of registered voters to seats in Scotland. As a result of that change the Boundary Commission for Scotland completed its fifth general review of parliamentary boundaries more quickly than the other Commissions. From the general election of 2005 Scotland had 59 seats. This reduced the total for Great Britain to 628 and the UK total to 646.
5.    The other three boundary commissions have continued work on the fifth general review and the boundaries at the next general election should be based entirely on the review.
6.    A general review is required to start not less than 8 nor more than 12 years since the delivery of the last report.
7.    Every constituency is required to return a single member (there were multi member constituencies before 1950 but this is not now permitted).
8.    Constituency electorates are to be as close as possible to the Electoral Quota. The English Electoral Quota (used in both Scotland and England in the fifth general review) was calculated by dividing the total number of parliamentary electors in England by the existing number of constituencies in England. The electoral quota for the general review which formally commenced in February 2000 is 69,934. The Welsh quota (based on 2003 electorate figures) is 55,640. The Northern Ireland quota (2003 electorate) is 60,969.
9.    A constituency is not supposed to cross county or London borough boundaries (in England) or the preserved county boundaries in Wales (the counties created in 1974 are no longer used for local government purposes but are still current for parliamentary boundaries), A special rule is that the City of London (the business district known as the City or the Square Mile which has very few residents) should be kept undivided and be wholly included in one constituency which refers to the City in its name. This is a survival of the era when the City was the most important borough in the Kingdom with four members of Parliament up to 1885 and two until it was abolished as a constituency in 1950. In Scotland the commission is required to have regard to local authority areas. Orkney and Shetland are not to be linked to other areas (and that rule is exempt from the exceptions to the rules).
10.     There are a series of exceptions to the rules, which give the boundary commission some discretion to avoid exceptional disparities between constituencies, take account of difficult geographical areas and avoid excessive disruption to community ties.  In practice islands and island groups tend not to be linked to the mainland (thus producing both the smallest 2001 electorate of 21,807 for the Western Isles of Scotland and the largest of 106,305 in the Isle of Wight). Some county and London Borough areas are combined but others are left as individual units in the review. These combinations are not necessarily the same in different reviews.

The individual national Boundary Commissions, having decided on the county etc. units to be used in the review then divides the county etc. electorate by the Electoral Quota and decides how many seats the area will receive. This is not just a mathematical exercise as there is discretion both as to how large a fraction in the calculation justifies an additional seat and whether there are special geographic circumstances requiring an additional seat (usually at this stage to take account of mountainous terrain or to avoid having a constituency cross a major river estuary).

Having reached this stage a draft scheme of constituency boundaries is drawn up and sent out for members of the public, political parties and local Councils to consider. Sometimes there is no great dispute and the Commission can issue a final recommendation. Usually there are different opinions and a local inquiry is held.  

A Deputy Commissioner considers written submissions and holds a hearing so interested parties can make oral representations. The political parties and others have to come up with reasons within the rules for a particular set of boundaries. In practice they usually think what boundaries would we like if we were allowed to gerrymander this map and try to come up with admissible reasons to push the commission as close as possible to what the party wants. The Deputy Commissioner reports to the Commission. The previous plan can either be confirmed or altered. If it is altered there is a second round of written submissions and sometimes a second public inquiry.

Eventually the Commission has final recommendations for all the review areas in its country and submits its report to the government. The Minister currently in charge of the process is the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Tony Blair's old friend, Lord Falconer).

The present position with the fifth general review is as follows.

Scotland: The review was completed and implemented before the 2005 general election.

Wales: The review has been completed and the order in council approved. The new boundaries will be used at the next general election.

England: The report of the Boundary Commission was submitted towards the end of the last year. The Department of Constitutional Affairs is having the report and maps printed (as they have to be submitted to Parliament at the same time as the draft order in council). It seems likely (from parliamentary answers to questions about progress) that the paperwork will emerge some time in March. Debates and votes in Parliament should take place in a month or two after that. I would estimate that the new boundaries should be given legal effect by about June (just in time for the new Prime Minister to call a quick election perhaps).

Northern Ireland: The Commission does not intend to propose any major changes, but for some reason I do not understand progress stalled last year. On the face of it the Commission had just to sign the report and send it to the Secretary of State. Possibly the government told them to slow down for some reason connected to the Northern Irish peace process and the new boundaries will be approved after the Northern Ireland Assembly election this year (the Parliamentary constituencies are used as multi member constituencies for the Assembly).

The Boundary Commission for England website (with links to the other national Boundary Commissions and the Electoral Commission.


seems way too many to me.  It's about 5X as many as we have congressmen on a proportional basis.

Is there really a meaningful role for that many back benchers?  

by HiD on Sun Feb 25th, 2007 at 04:27:41 AM EST
The largest the House of Commons ever got was 707 in 1918, before most of Ireland left the UK.

However 500 to 700 is the sort of range in which the lower houses of the larger European countries tend to fall, so the UK is not out of line in its region.

One advantage of a large House is that it keeps the size of the constituencies relatively small. This is helpful for the constituent service aspect of representation. Another is that it provides a talent pool for the 100+ members of a modern British government (whether we need so large a government is another matter - the British Empire at its height had a much smaller ministry and drew more of them from the House of Lords).

In the House most backbenchers fall into two groups.

There are the hopeful sycophants, who dream of becoming an Assistant Whip or Parliamentary Under Secretary as the start of their rise to Prime Minister, who (if their party is in government) spend their time asking the Prime Minister if he will confirm how wonderful he is. A few try to attract attention by being awkward. Demonstrating talent is a high risk strategy. Certainly our present Prime Minister promotes sycophants and leaves the awkward squad to shine on the backbenches.

The other group are the older members who either begin to suspect they will not be promoted or who used to be in government and bitterly resent the idiot Prime Minister who sacked them. This latter group spends a lot of time plotting and leaking stories to journalists, in the hope the next leader will recognise true talent.

Traditionally few members of the House aspired to be ministers. They were more like the audience of a sporting event, who cheered their team and booed the opposition. Only a few members, the great orators and the men of business, aspired to have a place on the pitch. The supporters could hope for a patronage job or a peerage, but were content to take a secondary role.

Nowadays the backbenchers still function as an audience, but most of them are ambitious.

Some members can get satisfaction from committee work, but most would happily give up being a committee chairman for the most trivial junior ministerial position. A few members can be Speaker or one of the three deputy Speakers, but perhaps they should not be classified as backbenchers.

The above is of course a cynical view. No doubt many backbenchers are content to hold government to account and be respected experts on one or two topics. Others can be Bill Cash and be bores about the EU.

by Gary J on Sun Feb 25th, 2007 at 05:49:27 AM EST
[ Parent ]
The amount of legislative work to be done is probably constant in a state, and not dependant on the size of the nation.

Any national Legislature will need one commission/group for Budget, another for foreign affairs, another for social matters, et caetera...

Actually the US federal congress, with its smaller attributions, probably needs less members than the all-powerful French or British equivalents :)

Un roi sans divertissement est un homme plein de misères

by linca (antonin POINT lucas AROBASE gmail.com) on Sun Feb 25th, 2007 at 09:11:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
II am afraid you are over emphasising the importance of committees in a Parliamentary system compared to a Presidential/Congressional one.

In the UK the core of the political system is the executive. Much of the work which is done in the US in committees is dealt with in the UK by the executive.

Take the way the budget is dealt with. The Chancellor of the Exchequer produces his plans and announces them to Parliament. A majority government can be almost certain they will pass into law unchanged. Major changes by the members of the House of Commons would be considered a matter of confidence, passage of which would cause the fall of the government. In those circumstances there could be nothing comparable to the committee consideration which Congress carries out when it receives the President's budget plans.

Subject matter (select) committees have been created in the last generation, but the Committee stage of legislation is either taken in Committee of the Whole House or before an ad hoc committee (confusingly called a standing committee) which just exists with that set of members to consider one bill.

by Gary J on Sun Feb 25th, 2007 at 12:19:11 PM EST
[ Parent ]
From what I've seen over here (didn't really pay much attention when I lived in the UK), the staff is doing most of the work anyway.  Hundreds of backbenchers with nothing to do but cheer lead leaves me shaking my head.
by HiD on Sun Feb 25th, 2007 at 04:42:14 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thanks for doing this...I have had no idea how the parliament is apportioned or works!!

"Once in awhile we get shown the light, in the strangest of places, if we look at it right" - Hunter/Garcia
by whataboutbob on Sun Feb 25th, 2007 at 07:30:22 AM EST

However, rules are one thing and in practise they might be ignored for the greater good (of your favourite party, of your career and so on). So what is your point of view as to how well the systems work. No donut-shaped constituencys?

I saw somewhere a graph over what number of seats different parties could expect from different election results in the UK. What I remember was that Labour had the biggest advantage and could be expected to have a majority of the seats if they got an equal or better result as the tories and the Liberal party stayed low. The liberals had the worst position and needed to be considerably larger then the two other parties to get a majority of the seats. I guessed at the time that this was because of gerrymandering, but if that is not the case I guess labour has the best distribution of support, with tory second and the liberals third.

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by A swedish kind of death on Sun Feb 25th, 2007 at 10:25:44 AM EST
The system works reasonably well, but it does not prevent systematic biases developing. This is impossible to avoid in a non proportional electoral system with single member constituencies.

One bias is caused by the Labour electorate being concentrated in mostly safe urban geographical areas; with a long term trend towards the electorate declining in the inner cities. This means that the longer it is since the last revision the smaller the average size of inner city seats and the larger suburban and rural electorates. This benefits Labour and disadvantages the Conservatives. Each revision therefore costs Labour a few seats purely for this reason (which is why the Labour majority in the 1966-70 Parliament voted to reject the results of a review; which was implemented by the Conservative majority in the next Parliament and came into force in 1974). However notice that the current English review is based on the 2000 electorate figures. Even when it first comes into force, it will already be a bit out of date with urban constituencies on average smaller than suburban and rural ones.

A related factor is that voters in safe seats, particularly Labour voters in safe Labour ones, are less likely to turn out to vote. This affects the aggregate vote statistics without costing Labour any seats.

Another bias, deliberately built in to the system, has been caused by Wales and Scotland being over-represented compared with England. Both countries are more Labour inclined than England. This bias has been reduced since the Scottish boundary changes in 2005, but not eliminated.

The Conservative Party has noticed the above two biases and has been doing some thinking. When they get the chance the Tories may introduce a system that aims more at mathematical equality of constituency electorates than the existing rules.

However the Conservatives do not seem to have recognised the other bias in the system, because to correct it they would have to adopt a more proportional election system.

The Labour Party vote is the most heavily concentrated, the Liberal Democrats vote is the most evenly spread and the Conservative vote is in the middle in terms of concentration.

You can see the effect by looking at the 1983 general election. The Conservatives got 397 of the seats in Great Britain for 43.5% of the vote, Labour (in its worst election result since before the First World War) won 209 seats for 28.3% of the vote, the Liberal/SDP Alliance received 23 seats for 26% of the vote.

To emphasise this the Labour Party even at a low level of support overall still won over 200 seats. The Conservative Party, in its bad loss in 1997, won fewer seats (165) for a higher percentage vote (31.5%).

As for the LibDems (and predecessors) you can see the systematic bias they labour under.

All this is due to relative concentration of support, combined with a single member electoral map.

Partisan gerrymandering is not really a factor, although Labour did supposedly have more influence in the last review by co-ordinating the submissions from their local Councils, parties and MPs (who sometimes have different priorities thus diluting overall party influence).

If you want an example of a donut constituency try York Inner and York Outer (replacing City of York and Vale of York), in the new distribution. However the Boundary Commission usually prefers to do an East/West sort of split.

As each review area is considered individually, different Deputy Commissioners approach similar problems in different ways.

by Gary J on Sun Feb 25th, 2007 at 11:54:00 AM EST
[ Parent ]

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