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Gareth Knight: Reducing the number of constituencies and equalising their size is a daunting task - but should have positive effects

Picture 2 Gareth Knight is an independent political consultant specialising in party conference activity and is a Director of Conservatives for International Travel. He was a Conservative Party Agent for 5 years and has been part of Iain Dale's election night team as a resident psephologist since 2007.

ConservativeHome ran a campaign, the Conservative Party supported it, and the coalition agreement specifies it, so whatever happens between now and May 2015, another boundary review is on the way and, regardless of the result of a referendum on the ‘alternative vote’, the next General Election will be fought on new boundaries, with equalizing the size of the electorate the absolute priority for how those boundaries are drawn up.

Boundary reviews are extremely contentious and exciting for political anoraks. National political parties want to place their own safe wards into marginal constituencies and safe opposition wards into non-marginal constituencies, the objective being to maximize the number of marginal constituencies that err towards their own side. Local parties want to keep to a more logical local link – if they live in a plush village they like to be associated with the other villages, not with the urban area nearby. Members of Parliament like to use boundary reviews to rack up huge majorities, the MP’s equivalent of ‘look at the size of my car’, but if this isn’t an option, they’d prefer to maintain as much of the status quo as possible (less chance of an awkward re-selection process if 95% of a constituency is made up of your current seat!). Councils like constituency boundaries to neatly fit the council boundary, local newspapers like them to neatly fit the circulation area of the newspaper.

Throw all these together, and there’s little wonder that the Boundary Commission has to use a set of criteria which can end up creating seats that range in size from 28,000 electors (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) to 103,000 (Isle of Wight). They may wish that every seat had an equal-sized electorate of 69,000, but tell that to all the interested parties which spend days at commission hearings arguing that ‘in this circumstance, the local connections outweigh the arguments on the size of the electorate’ and quite literally call in witnesses to argue for or against a ward of 1,500 electors being in one constituency or the other.

It is therefore imperative that the Boundary Commission is set certain agreed guidelines, at a national level, beyond “try to get them all to be roughly the same size”:

  • First, using the last Boundary Review as a guide, a 10% reduction in MPs would create a House of Commons of 585 members and an average electorate of around 77,500. The deviation from this should be no more or less than 5% with no exceptions, allowing for seats as small as 73,625 or as large as 81,375, but with a clear intention that, wherever possible, the number of electors will be as near as possible to the average. This has to be an absolute rule, with no exceptions under any circumstances.
  • Second, local authority wards should be used as the building block for the review. This not only makes life easier for electors, it also allows the review process to proceed with greater speed.
  • Third, the review must be done from a blank sheet of paper, not by simply adjusting current boundaries, and the name of every new constituency should be different from the current set to avoid confusion.
  • Fourth, towns and cities of fewer than 81,375 electors should not be divided.
  • Fifth, local authority boundaries should only be a guide for where the Boundary Commission should start, not a limiting factor.
  • Sixth, the electorate must be based on the number of electors on the electoral roll on 1st January of the current year, not on old data or projected guesstimates. This would obviously change with time and allow for updates every five years.

We then come on to the practicalities of a boundary review. As an example, I’ll use Lincolnshire, for no other reason than it is my home county. You can easily apply the same rules to any other part of the country and I purely use this as an example to drag the theory into the real world.

New lincs seats Lincolnshire (the actual county, not just the area covered by Lincolnshire County Council) has three large conurbations – the City of Lincoln and the towns of Great Grimsby and Scunthorpe, several smaller towns including Cleethorpes, Brigg, Skegness and Grantham and vast swathes of countryside. It has been subjected to substantial boundary changes besides the three large towns in most boundary reviews. For the sake of simplicity, I will use the same electorate figures the Boundary Commission used to draw up the current boundaries.

Applying the first guideline on the number of electors, it is clear that Lincolnshire can accommodate 9.40 constituencies, but, conveniently, East Yorkshire to the north can accommodate 5.57, so by taking 31,000 electors out of Lincolnshire and 44,175 out of East Yorkshire, you can create a constituency between them (as, coincidentally, is the case at present with Brigg and Goole), leaving a nice round 9 seats to be created in the rest of Lincolnshire.

Applying the second guideline on wards is easy for the bulk of the area covered by Lincolnshire County Council and North Lincolnshire Council, but less so for the area covered by North East Lincolnshire as the wards are larger. Nevertheless, this poses no real problem except for the odd doughnut-shaped ward which surrounds a town and therefore by default carries other wards with it.

The third criterion poses few problems except for the sitting Members of Parliament which I’ll come to later.

The fourth criterion is where things start to get more difficult. Lincoln and Scunthorpe are relatively self-contained as conurbations in their own right, but Great Grimsby is physically attached to the medium sized town of Cleethorpes which is itself adjacent to the small town of Humberston and all are surrounded by smaller towns and villages which look towards Grimsby for shopping, leisure and employment. If Cleethorpes is not to be split, it leaves little choice but to create a new constituency of Great Grimsby, the surrounding Wolds of North East Lincolnshire and the port town of Immingham, creating a nice round electorate of 78,492 (and a constituency that would be ultra-marginal at a General Election). This seems perfect, but the knock-on effect is tremendous. Cleethorpes and its surrounding towns and villages now have to head south. To avoid creating a huge constituency of fields across the county, putting Cleethorpes and Louth in the same constituency would be avoided and you would therefore have no choice but to go right down the most easterly wards in East Lindsey, almost to Skegness, to create a (safe Tory) Lincolnshire Coastal seat. The Gainsborough area is merged with Scunthorpe (another ultra-marginal created), Lincoln just takes in a few wards from West Lindsey (pushing the currently Tory-leaning marginal to become more Tory) and all your larger towns are dealt with.

By now, the fifth criterion, local authority boundaries, are, by luck rather than design, holding up well, but the geography is not. From Barton, through Brigg, Caistor and Louth and to the suburbs of Lincoln, a huge Lincolnshire Wolds constituency is created from practically everything that is left, including three local authority areas. This ultra-safe Conservative constituency would be a no-man’s land, with hardly anyone feeling connected to even a third of the rest of the constituency.

Conveniently, the Commission would most likely make up the remaining seats by simply expanding the existing South Holland and the Deepings, Boston and Skegness and Grantham and Stamford constituencies and creating a ‘Sleaford and Horncastle’ constituency in the centre.

I should point out that it’s only because I gave the excess electorate to a joint East Yorkshire constituency and then started in Great Grimsby that I came up with these boundaries. I could, just as easily, have given the excess electorate to Cambridgeshire or Nottinghamshire and then started with Grantham or Lincoln and come up with vastly different ones. If you asked a dozen other people from the same county to do the same exercise, we would all come up with different things, and there lies the problem we have with a boundary review like this. It took seven years from announcement to completion to conduct the last review and it was still far from acceptable to many.

Practicalities of the review aside, we then come to the politics. There are currently ten and a half constituencies in Lincolnshire (Brigg and Goole being split between Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire), of which, two have Labour MPs (Scunthorpe and Great Grimsby), the remaining eight and a half are Conservative, two and the half of those turning from red to blue in 2010 (Brigg and Goole, Cleethorpes and Lincoln). The new boundaries as I have outlined above, create nine and a half, and I would expect two to be ultra-marginal, one and the half would have gone from red to blue in 2010 and the remaining six would be relatively safe Conservative. If we make the assumption that sitting Members of Parliament largely seek re-selection in the seats made up of the constituencies they currently represent, we have a three-way contest between three sitting Conservatives for two constituencies. A pattern that would be, inevitably, repeated all over the country.

There is, of course, one solution, and one that the party leadership must have had in mind, but one that will terrify our MPs and divide the party membership (again). Every single constituency must be subjected to a fully open primary election. Absolutely not some half-baked caucus, but a full open primary. The only provision for a sitting MP must be that they would progress to the final round if any part of the constituency they are applying for falls within the boundary of the constituency they currently represent, and that at least one person in each final cannot be a sitting Member of Parliament. The advantage of doing this is that it stops MPs ‘packing the room’ at a caucus meeting and offers little special favours to the MP. It also prevents bitter members of the Association executive deselecting an MP, the decision is placed with the voter. The disadvantages are that it takes away the final decision on who should be the Conservative candidate away from Conservative members and, critically, it means that high profile MPs, including members of the Cabinet, could lose their seats. Imagine if the Prime Minister’s constituency of Witney was carved up, along with Ed Vaizey’s neighbouring seat of Wantage, with both MPs and Joanne Cash in a public, open primary!

If the fixed term parliament is to work, and if real primaries are the way to select, the process for getting on to the approved list of candidates must be simplified to a basic security, competency and political affiliation check to open up the process far and wide and speed up the extremely long process. No longer can we have potential candidates waiting a year for a PAB, spending hundreds of pounds to get on to the list, thousands of pounds attending interviews around the country, then tens of thousands of pounds working a constituency for nearly four years only for a national policy that is out of their control leading them to defeat.

The high profile of a real primary more than mitigates against the long pre-campaign and early selections which discriminate so heavily against those who are either cash-rich or time-rich. Whether we like to admit it or not, the parliamentary party is never going to be a cross-section of the country we live in and the candidate selection process will never be a real meritocracy when candidates are expected to dedicate so much time and money to the cause.

With 585 constituencies, the party can run 10 open primaries a week from January 2014, each one in a different part of the country, starting with seats notionally held by the Conservatives pre-2010, then those notionally won in 2010, then the target seats for 2015, then the rest. There will not even need to be a deadline for MPs to announce their retirements because all MPs will have to seek re-selection.

Before this article starts receiving the usual comments on ‘real open primaries cost too much money’ by simplistically multiplying the cost of two second class stamps by 77,500 electors and coming to a figure of £46,500 plus the cost of printing equaling “the best part of £65,000”, please let’s think outside the box. Using private delivery firms, enclosing a donation form and a survey form, the cost can be substantially lower, produce some income to offset the cost and provide extremely valuable information on the concerns of electors, allowing us to target our subsequent campaign with greater efficiency. If the cost of an all-postal option terrifies the more conservative members of the Association Executive, we could use a telephone vote, as we did for Boris Johnson’s selection to be Conservative candidate for Mayor of London.

The big worry with the policies for fair seats and the 10% reduction in MPs, is that most people would wholeheartedly agree with the principle, but few will agree with the result. There can be no exceptions to the rules, otherwise it becomes a pointless exercise and becomes even more open to abuse in the future. The Isle of Wight, as an obvious example, will have to be divided, with one MP representing most of the island, and another representing a part of the island and a part of the mainland. Islanders may not like that, but parochial likes and dislikes cannot override the basic rule that the electorate has to be as equal as possible in every constituency. Even if the Boundary Commission can get its proposals through in time for the 2015 election (and they would realistically need to get the new seats agreed before the end of 2013 which is practically impossible given the likely objections from the same political parties that are implementing the policy), there will be bitterness and disappointment from Members of Parliament and many party members. Some MPs will be forced to retire early, some new MPs will have their promising careers cut short, some Cabinet members will face challenges from colleagues for selection, some long-standing constituency Chairmen will find themselves shifted from a rural seat to a seat that takes in an urban town, many party activists who are ‘big fishes’ in their current association will find themselves lacking influence in the new constituency.

I have used Lincolnshire as an example, but if you look at any other part of the country you will find the same issues. Reducing the number of MPs by 10% and making all constituencies have an electorate of equal size sounds so easy, but once you look at the practicalities and consequences, it seems much more daunting. What is clear is that time is absolutely of the essence. The Boundary Commission needs to be drawing up its maps this year and presenting provisional recommendations within 18 months to allow time for all the objectors to argue over them and for amendments to be made before a final submission is made in the autumn of 2013. During that time, the Conservative Party’s Candidates Department can easily process well over 1,000 potential candidates without the pressure or controversy of having to prioritise certain candidates or having to juggle both approval procedures with simultaneous selection procedures.

If done correctly, and it really doesn’t need to be that difficult; equal seats, fewer constituencies, a more open and less elitist candidate selection procedure can now happen, and with positive effects everywhere, including within our own party. Though the residents of the Western Isles and the Isle of Wight and Conservative MPs surrounded by other Conservative-held constituencies are bound to be the first to disagree!


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