UK redistricting and assembly-size reduction

British MPs from the governing Conservative and Liberal Democratic parties are threatening “rebellion” against new electoral district boundaries, The Independent reports.

Plans for redistricting are being published, and several senior MPs could see their districts combined with those of other MPs, or substantially changed. The proposal is part of the plan to cut the size of the House of Commons from 650 to 600.

Labour, which accuses the Coalition of gerrymandering, will oppose the changes. Both the Tories and Liberal Democrats accept they face rebellion from disgruntled MPs – in the form both of Commons votes and parliamentary wrecking tactics.

The new districts, and their likely impact, only underscore what a bad deal the LibDems brokered on political reform, one of their signature issues. They got their referendum on the Alternative Vote, and in exchange, the Conservatives demanded and won this review of districts and assembly size. Of course, the referendum was defeated badly, but the new districts are likely to go ahead anyway. ((Even the AV proposal in the referendum was a compromise for the LibDems, who would have preferred a proportional system to be put up for a vote.)) Failing to agree on some version of this plan would put the LibDems in breach of the coalition agreement. Looks a lot like a sucker’s payoff for Clegg and the LibDems.

A noteworthy change in the district-drawing procedures:

Because of the rigid new formula for calculating constituency size, the Commission will for the first time have to cross county and council boundaries.

Unlike in the USA, districts are drawn by an independent Boundary Commission, not by politicians. But the criteria to be used, as well as for determining the total number of seats, are determined in legislation.

The changes could substantially alter the degree of “localism” in UK representation, as well as the balance among the main parties.

15 thoughts on “UK redistricting and assembly-size reduction

  1. The Liberal Democrats were the weaker party in the coalition and would have had to give up more in the negotiations.

    That said, I think the deal is open to criticism on two or three counts. First of all, the MP reduction and line redrawing part of the package, which was pushed by the Tories, should have been linked to the change in the voting system, as pushed by the Liberals, in the referendum. A “No” vote should have sunk the entire package, which might have prevented the Tories from automatically lining up on the “No” side. I think that the referendum proposal would have lost anyway due to the government’s popularity, but the Liberal Democrats would have wound up looking less isolated.

    Second, as a public policy matter, the variance between district size should be greater than prescribed in the proposal, though still less than is currently the case, for obvious reasons.

    Third, the date of the referendum should have been the date of the next parliamentary election. While that would have probably made voters judge the referendum proposal according to their attitudes towards the government, that wound up happening anyway. Having the refendum automatically coincide with the date of the next parliamentary election would have resolved the problem of the Liberal Democrats (or the Tories, to the lessor extent in the case of a AV victory) of slinking back into a coalition that failed to deliver on their main objective, while at the same time ensuring that the thing would actually happen even if one side pulled out early.

  2. Districting is always a tradeoff between population equalization and preservation of existing administrative units.

    On the side of preservation of administrative units, the freedom to district depends on:
    fist, the upper tier of units used to apportionment the seats (US : 50 states) and
    then, the lower tier of units used to combine into districts (‘building blocs’, can be as low as census tracts).
    An electoral district can never cross the boundaries of the apportionment units, and a combinatory unit belongs to one electoral district only.

    The freedom to district can be curtailed by choosing a low tier of (many) apportionment units and a high tier of (few) building blocks. (France : 100 départements with 556 regular seats/districts made from 4000 cantons)

    In England, one of the changes is a higher tier of apportionment units in England from local government units to ‘regions’ (= EP electoral districts). (See Boundary Commission for England – Guide to the 2013 review)

    Is one of the sources of the districting freedom in the US simply the fact that there is no straightforward ‘low tier’ available? (unincorporated areas, strange local government boundaries, local government areas overlapping with the ‘square’ counties, …)

    A bit off topic: which country was the first to have its parliament elected entirely in uninominal districts? France switched many times between uninominal (two-round) and the départements (various systems), with M=1 already in 1831 (and experience with M=1-tiers in 1815 and 1820-1831).

  3. Pingback: Fruits and Votes

  4. The LibDems are the weaker partner, by a long stretch. Still, they did surprisingly (shockingly) well in terms of cabinet ministers as a relationship to their share of the coalition’s parliamentary basis.

    It seems they might have been able to make the referendum a package: No reduction in assembly size if AV is not approved. But they did not.

    A story in today’s Independent indicates that an internal review by the LibDems says Clegg should have had the referendum in the autumn instead of concurrent with the local/regional elections last May. (It was Clegg who insisted on it in May; Cameron wanted it as a stand-alone. LibDems thought AV would benefit from turnout boost of Scottish and Welsh elections. Turned out to be a big miscalculation, but AV was likely to lose no matter.)

    I don’t think having the referendum concurrent with the next parliamentary election was viable for the LibDems. They were impatient for reform, fearing–with good cause–that they could struggle to retain seats under FPTP after a period in government.

    Now they get the worst of all worlds.

  5. > “Looks a lot like a sucker’s payoff for Clegg and the LibDems”

    So much for “coalition governments mean the smaller party dominates the larger”. What exactly, so far, has Clegg gotten out of this arrangement (other than ministerial leather) that Cameron – as distinct from the flog-Mandela crowd on the Tory Right – don’t want to give the LibDems?

  6. The problem with the boundary review is “Every constituency – except two covering the Isle of Wight – must have a number of registered electors that is no more than 5% lower or higher than this figure.” The 5% limit is absurdly diffult to achieve; 10% would have been adequate and workable. Canada has no legislated targets except the 25% top limit, but most Commissions have settled on 10%. One of them tried for 5%, gave up after public objections, and used 10%. If only the UK had asked us . . .

  7. 5% is doable. It is pretty much the standard in Australia, although in NSW it is 3% and the federal margin is 3.5%. The federal margin applies within each state or territory, not across the country as a whole.

  8. In most jurisdictions in Australia the margin is fixed by legislation, although in NSW it is prescribed by the state constitution.

  9. NZ has 5% tolerance (from 5-yearly census data), although the 2002 Representation Commission recommended increasing to 10%. Note the Australian federal 3.5% is based on projected enrolment, their limit from current enrolment is 10%.
    Is the UK split based on current enrolment?

  10. I’m very curious how the Cons and Lib Dems are going to fight the next election – whether there will be any formal or informal electoral pacts. If I were Clegg, I would have a list of Tories who had made stupid or deceitful anti-AV statements during the referendum (not all anti-AV statements are by definition stupid or deceitful, but empirically speaking, 90% of the arguments that swayed the British electorate in May fall into that category) and announce to David Cameron that the Lib Dems will be running a full separate campaign of their own in those candidates’ seats. When they lose to Labour 40%-45%-15%, they can smile nicely and repeat their soundbite about how FPTP denies power to minor parties and rules out in “smoke-filled rooms”.

    Whereas those Tories (were there any?) who either favoured AV, or at least did not lie about it (“Australia needs electronic voting machines to count AV ballots”, my… eye), get stood down for and “LIB DEM SUPPORTING CONSERVATIVES IN HACKING CHIPWORTH” yellow leaflets around the constituency.

    It would be nice to see Lord Ashcroft and Baroness Warsi have to face accountability for their “AV is anti-democratic and gives some people more political power than others” nonsense next time their seat in the Upper House comes up for re-election.

    In other words, for the first time in many decades, because of the coalition, the Tories have a chance to realise what it’s like to lose under FPTP despite having majority support. They can smile sweetly for the cameras while they eat the same sandwich they have prepared for others.

  11. The Boundary Commission for England has a paper describing the process. They are working from the enrolment figures as of 1 December 2010. I have no idea why they use such ancient figures because it makes it impossible to have current electorates that are of equal size.

    It is problematic that the boundary commissions do not set the boundaries themselves. They make a recommendation to the government which then puts legislation before the parliament. I do not know to what extent the parliament is in the habit of amending redistribution bills.

    I’d also wonder why it takes almost 2 years to make a report plus the time it then takes to pass legislation.

  12. Isn’t the allowed population deviation for federal seats absurdly small in the US? Though this is far from the main factor for the convoluted district boundaries, it has to contribute to it.

    One of the problems with the new UK legislation is that the more districts that have their boundaries drawn, the larger the tolerated population deviation has to be in order to avoid constant splitting of local jurisdictions. But over five hundred constituencies will be drawn by the boundary commission for England.

  13. In the the bad old days of theBjelkemander, the state of Queensland had different and arbitrary quotas with a margin of allowance of 25%. That did not stop efforts like the boundaries of one district running along both sides of a river for 80 miles to add an indigenous community to an already safe opposition seat with which they had absolutely no community of interest. The relationship between equal population districts and contorted boundaries is complicated.

  14. “… Imagine Eastleigh being replicated in 100 constituencies at the 2015 general election. Or in just 50. Yet again, the first-past-the-post system would see an essentially Eurosceptic electorate return an essentially Euro-integrationist House of Commons…”

    – No, not the Grauniad. Nor the New Statesman. Nor the LSE blog or OpenDemocracy or whatever Charter88 is doing these days. That was uber-Conservative Daniel Hannan, writing in The Telegraph:

  15. I knew UKIP had been polling well, but coming within 5% of taking the seat has to be shocking to everyone in the UK.

    The Conservatives may end up deeply regretting not moving to AV if this manifests itself as a national trend in the next general election (and UKIP have been consistently improving their results in by-elections this parliament, so there’s no reason to doubt the possibility, barring some quite possible internal issues/implosion).

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