diamond geezer

 Wednesday, June 09, 2021

The government is attempting to redraw our constituencies again, and this time will succeed. They tried in 2013 but Nick Clegg killed the plans off. They tried again in 2017 but Brexit proved constitutionally more important. This time the government has a large enough majority to sail it through, plus it was in their manifesto, plus it's about time for a reshuffle because populations change.

UK constituencies were last rejigged in time for the 2010 election, before that 1997, before that 1983, before that 1974 and before that 1950. What's different this time is the government's specification that constituencies must all be of roughly equal size. Ignoring islands, the UK's smallest electorate is currently 55,419 in Stoke-On-Trent and the largest is 99,253 in Bristol West. This time the range has to be a lot smaller, with each constituency no more than 5% different from the average, and this enforced constraint necessitates all kinds of changes.

David Cameron's original plan was to cut the overall number of MPs from 650 to 600, back when the expenses row was at its height and everyone thought 'the fewer MPs the better'. One reason the plans stalled is because no MP wanted to be one of the 50 losing out, so Boris has backtracked and is keeping the full 650. This means an average constituency size of 73,392, and the 5% range means electorates must now lie between 69,724 and 77,062.

It all sounds terribly fair, because why should voters in Stoke have considerably more power than those in Bristol? But the limit of 5% is a subjective choice which restricts flexibility for those charged with redrawing boundaries, so they've been forced to make some poor geographical choices which could have been avoided had the range been 6% or greater. It's also a political decision to base constituency sizes on the electorate rather than overall population, which disadvantages areas with more than the average number of children.

A consequence of constitutional significance is that some regions of the UK are about to lose representation in Parliament and others are going to gain. It's fair to say that Labour, Plaid Cymru and the SNP would never have pushed these changes through and the Conservatives are more than happy.

South West55 → 58+3
South East84 → 91+7
London73 → 75+2
East Anglia58 → 61+3
East Midlands46 → 47+1
Yorks & Humber54 → 54-
West Midlands59 → 57-2
North East29 → 27-2
North West75 → 73-2
Scotland59 → 57-2
Wales40 → 32-8
Northern Ireland 18 → 18-

It's particularly bad for Wales which'll lose 20% of its MPs and particularly good for the South East region which'll gain seven. The political centre of the United Kingdom is being nudged south and east, because that's where the population is, at the expense of less well-off parts of the country. It's unintentionally the government's "levelling up" agenda in reverse.

Ten years ago a boost in southeastern seats would have been a slamdunk for the Tories but recent elections confirm that's no longer necessarily the case. Similarly a reduction of seats in the north would have been bad news for Labour, but the rise of Conservatism in these parts means a number of 'red wall' seats will now disappear. Overall however this still delivers an electoral boost for the incumbent government, especially the loss of ten seats in Wales and Scotland.

London's constituencies are due to get a significant rejig, and not just because two more are being squeezed in. The requirement to keep electorates within a specific range will cause significant boundary turbulence, as indeed it will across the country. Many of the capital's existing 73 constituencies are already of an appropriate size but only two will be left unchanged, because you can't unpick one bit of the map without a domino effect rippling off elsewhere.

For example Romford's boundary could have stayed the same but the three adjacent constituencies are all too big, so Emerson Park is being brought in and part of Hylands ward is being hived off. The Boundary Commission tried not to split existing council wards but this was sometimes forced because mathematics is now king, not administrative cohesion. You can check your own constituency here, wherever you are in the country, and read a rationale for any proposed change if you dig deeper into the local and national reports.

One of London's extra seats is being added where I live. The 'Newham and Tower Hamlets sub-region' now has a combined electorate of 368,155, entitling it to 5.02 constituencies rather than the four we have now. Currently Tower Hamlets has two and Newham has two, but an extra constituency is being squeezed in to accommodate the extra population delivered by years of newbuild housing. It'll have to span the River Lea, which the Boundary Commission would rather not have had to do, but needs must. And it's going to be called Stratford & Bow, which means I'm going to live in it.

Stratford & Bow will stretch from Victoria Park to the fringes of Wanstead Flats, taking in the Olympic Park, Forest Gate and Upton Park. It lumps in Bow with a swathe of Newham, which feels odd. Only one road crosses from the Tower Hamlets part to the Newham part, such is the severance inflicted by the river Lea, which is less than ideal. But it'll still be a safe Labour seat, much as I live in now, so where I place my cross still won't technically make any difference.

To quell my concern I've looked back at the history of constituency allocation hereabouts and confirmed that the only constant is change. In 1950 Bow was lumped in with Poplar and the Isle of Dogs as part of the Poplar constituency. In 1974 Bow was lumped in with Bethnal Green instead forming Bethnal Green & Bow. In 1983 Bow was switched back to Poplar, forming Bow & Poplar, then returned to Bethnal Green & Bow in 1997. Also Poplar was coupled with Canning Town between 1997 and 2010, creating a precedent for a constituency across the Lea, which makes the upcoming Stratford & Bow less of an anomaly.

The total number of constituencies in Tower Hamlets and Newham has changed several times in line with the size of the local population, so this latest uptick isn't really anything unusual.

Tower Hamlets3222
Total no. of MPs 755445

At present the Boundary Commission's plans are just proposals subject to further review, so a two month window has opened for the return of feedback. Expect potentially significant changes before a second round of consultation takes place early next year, followed by further tweaks and a third consultation before the whole thing becomes law in late 2023. If Boris waits until May 2024 to hold the next General Election then the new constituencies will apply, but if he manoeuvres to go early then the current ones will still hold sway.

And all this matters because a 'fairer' system could deliver a different balance of power and change the future of the country. Had earlier revamps succeeded then David Cameron would have won a bigger majority in 2015 and maybe not risked Brexit, and Theresa May wouldn't have had to rely on the DUP to prop her up in 2017. It wouldn't have altered Boris's landslide in 2019, only boosted the scale, but it could lock in an electoral advantage from 2024 and perpetuate the Tories' years in power. If you don't like the shape of your constituency feel free to complain, but the 5% limit is coming whatever, giving the opposition an even higher electoral mountain to climb.

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