Boundary Review: When does a 10% Reduction Not Equal 585?

June 23rd, 2010

“Nah-Eilean an Iar – A Sparsely Populated Constituency

As we start to think about equalising Constituency Sizes one of the first things to do is to agree on how many electors there will be per constituency. Whilst there are many different views it does make sense to use the Coalition’s figure of 585 constituencies as a starting point, that is 10% fewer than the current 650 level.

But whilst 585 is the starting point it’s important to recognise that this number could change, even on the floor of The House. For that reason it doesn’t make sense to start drawing boundaries until the proposed number of constituencies is fixed, most probably in the next two weeks if press reports are to be believed. Nevertheless lets just make the working assumption that 585 is the approximate number and proceed from there.

I did ask Nick Palmer offline whether there was a minimum number of MPs that is required to make Parliament work but he reassured me that “There are normally about 100-odd ministers and maybe 70 PPSs (as not every Minister rates a PPS), say 200 to be safe as the ‘payroll vote’. The main opposition party will have a similar but I think slimmer structure. The main issue would be the Select Committees, but they typically had several regular absentees, and it would just be a matter of adjusting the quorums. The 1922 committee et al would be formed from the remainder. So 585 would be fine.”

So with that assumption, let’s do some Maths [hit tip Sunil Prasannan] on how many electors there are under the current level and, using the rules proposed in the February 9th Conservative Amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, predict what the new distribution might be.

 Region Electors Seats Avg New Diff Change Proportion
EAST MIDLANDS 3342019 46 72653 43 -3 7.00% 7.00%
EASTERN 4276010 58 73724 55 -3 5.00% 9.00%
LONDON 5265564 73 72131 68 -5 7.00% 12.00%
NORTH EAST 1954707 29 67404 25 -4 14.00% 4.00%
NORTH WEST 5250200 75 70003 67 -8 10.00% 12.00%
SOUTH EAST 6316817 84 75200 81 -3 4.00% 14.00%
SOUTH WEST 4012541 55 72955 51 -4 6.00% 9.00%
WEST MIDLANDS 4078185 59 69122 52 -7 11.00% 9.00%
YORKS/HUMBER 3822853 54 70794 49 -5 9.00% 8.00%
ENGLAND 38318896 533 71554 492 -41 8.00% 84.00%
NORTHERN IRELAND 1169195 18 64955 15 -3 17.00% 3.00%
SCOTLAND 3864413 59 65499 50 -9 16.00% 8.00%
WALES 2245852 40 56146 29 -11 28.00% 5.00%
  45598356 650 70151 585 -65 100.00% 100.00%

Remember, that amendment said “The electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable, and all other special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency, shall be subordinate to achieving this aim”

The current UK average seat size is 70151 with Wales being 56146, Northern Ireland 64955, Scotland 65499. Removing 65 seats would increase “The Electoral Quota” to 77946 for everyone and remember that the February 2010 Conservative Amendment suggested a 3.5% tolerance around that number.

On the previous BoundaryReview thread blairf remarked “+/- 3.5% is insanely tight. These people have obviously never tried to produce balanced areas in the real world.”

That margin implies a +/- 2728 oscillation [or a range of 5456] around the mean. He’s a professional geographer so I’ve asked him to produce a guest article on the technical snags, which I’m looking forward to.

The effect of reducing the number of seats by 65 is especially dramatic to the Home Countries: Wales reduces a lot – 11 or 28% of their seats would go [40 to 29] on a slavish following of the equal size rules. Scotland would lose 9 or 16% [59 to 50], Northern Ireland 3 or 17% [18 to 15] with England reducing 41 seats, but only 8% [533 to 492].

And within England, the North East and the West Midlands will lose 4 [14%] and 7 [11%] of their seats respectively, the proportionately hardest hit areas.

But here’s the rub. Increasing the number of electors increases constituency size and there are few constituencies which are already absolutely huge. Nick Palmer again: “The real problem would be that MPs would even more than now struggle to do the ‘social worker’ side of the job with 10% more constituents – it’s already excessive, but MPs daren’t turn anyone away unless they have very safe seats. They would also be a bit more distant… but these objections have already been aired and rightly or wrongly the Coalition doesn’t seem to feel these are major snags.”

On the other hand, Рeter2′ [June 14th, 2010 at 9:28 pm] says “It’s only anoraks who worry about the respective size of IoW and the Western Isles. I don’t think most people will be too fussed either way so long as it’s transparent.”

Who’s right? Let’s have a look at the physical size of the largest seats.

Country Region Hectares
English Region EAST MIDLANDS 34371
  EASTERN 33750
  LONDON 2185
  NORTH EAST 29918
  NORTH WEST 19893
  SOUTH EAST 23101
  SOUTH WEST 44343
England   26491
Northern Ireland NORTHERN IRELAND no data
Scotland SCOTLAND 137614
Wales WALES 53062
UK Wide Average   37240

So what we can see here is that the average Scottish seats are nearly 4 times the size of the UK-wide average. Increasing the number of electors per seat will increase this ratio still further. The ‘sparseness criterion’ was what originally was used to justify Scottish over-representaiton – which was then cut back because of devolution. Would that be hard to reverse?

It might be reasonable to have an exception from the equal size for the handful of really large seats so that the MP can at least get out and about. In New Zealand no exceptions are permitted to the electoral quota rules but might we consider a size cap here?

You can see from the table of the largest seats below, seven out of the 11 seats larger than 300,00 hectares are LiberalDemocrat held.

Seat Held Area [ha]
Ross, Skye and Lochaber LD 1277947
Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross LD 875170
Argyll and Bute LD 716298
Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey LD 495320
Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale C 437637
Dumfries and Galloway Lab 415030
Perth and North Perthshire SNP 386107
Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk LD 384261
West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine LD 327206
Na h-Eileanan an Iar SNP 326854
Penrith and The Border C 313439
Brecon and Radnorshire LD 301472

One MP I asked remarked that “the LibDem who represents the sparsely-populated Highlands and Islands will be in big trouble if he’s made to take some of the mainland.” This isn’t the sort of electoral reform that Nick Clegg had in mind.

So, what could the effect of the constituency numbers on a regional or Home Country basis be and are we persuaded that there should be a cap on Constituency area, say 350,000 hectares to overcome the sparcity issue, or is that overcome by the existence of the devolved assembies and/or would such a cap be seen to be gerrymandering by the LibDems, who would have the most to gain from subdividing seats they already hold? Alternatively, we could just give Scotland 50 seats and let them sort it out themselves, presumably by diluting representation in the Central Belt.

If we’re going to create new boundaries we need to be clear about the rules. Do we stick to equal sizes at all costs or do we cap at a certain size and, if so, how big?

Bunnco – Your Man on the Spot

yourmanonthespot [at] gmail [dot] com

The data I have used for this article came from here, a GoogleDocs spreadsheet that I created by merging the Guardian’s electoral results with Ordnance Survey boundary line data