The new UK constituencies

For the next (expected 2020) UK election, the assembly size will be reduced from 650 to 600, and the balance in the number of constituencies across the UK’s component units (including English regions) will be shifted. Ron Johnston, at the LSE blog, has a rundown of the changes.

Imagine the research-design opportunities for analyzing personal-vote behavior:

Some current MPs will see their current seat dismembered, and may worry whether they will be selected for another; David Cameron has promised all current Conservative MPs that they will have a seat to fight in 2020, but it may well be very different from the one they currently represent. And so much change will break the bonds between MPs and both their constituents and their party organisations – some of them of long standing – that will have to be rebuilt before the 2020 contest. Many MPs may spend a lot of time building support in their new constituencies rather than serving their existing ones – let alone debating and decision-making in Westminster.

The partisan effects also could be substantial: “The Conservative lead over Labour will probably be widened with the new seats,” says Johnston. However, the extent of this impact is unclear as, given the LibDem collapse and the rise of UKIP and Greens in 2015, “there are fewer marginal seats than at any time since 1945.” Conservatives, especially, have many very safe seats. Still their path to a majority in the House of Commons looks better for 2020 under the constituency revisions than was the case in 2015, when the manufacturing of their majority by the FPTP system was a close call.



37 thoughts on “The new UK constituencies

  1. “There are fewer marginal seats than at any time since 1945” How well can we estimate that? After all British results are counted centrally, with a single count per constituency. If I remember correctly notional results are usually based on local election data. Do we have any way of assessing how accurate such estimates tend to be?

  2. By the way this is a fun example of how status quo-stickiness can affect coalition negotiations: the Lib-Dems, in their manifesto, had promised a drastic reduction to about 500, while the Conservatives promised a 10% reduction, to 585 – so they compromised on 600. By way of a yardstick, the cube-root rule would say it should be just under 400 based on the last census.

    • Yes, I have often said that if the UK and US would trade houses, both countries would have more appropriately sized assemblies. I did not realize that the LibDems had called for reducing the chamber all the way down to 500 (even if that would still be a bit oversized, relative to cube root); I would have to assume that such a reduction would be very bad for the party under FPTP, even had it remained capable of winning 20%+ of the vote. So I wonder why they thought it would be a good idea.

      • The Lib-Dem manifesto promise obviously came together with a PR promise, while the reduction they ultimately passed with the Conservatives was in conjunction with AV, which they must have expected to have a good chance of passing in the referendum.

  3. I always maintain that, rather than a YES/ “NO” vote on “Do you want to change to Alternative Vote (AV)?” in 2011, the Lib Dems should have insisted on a FPTP referendum between three different options for the House of Commons:
    [_] 600 MPs chosen by Alternative Vote (AV)
    [_] 200 MPs chosen by first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting
    [_] 2,000 MPs chosen by first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting
    — with the option receiving the largest number of votes (even if only 33% of 34%), being adopted as the decision of the whole.
    Can’t get any fairer than that.

  4. Apparently the police are investigating whether the Tories cheated in the 2015 general election, by spending over the legal limit in 24 marginal constituencies. This is what I found in a second of googling:

    This could result in two dozen by-elections in marginal seats, greater than the government’s majority.

    On top of that you have the referendum on exit from the EU, though presumably the government could try to cheat (again?) to get the result it wants. But an Exit vote would obviously mean turmoil for the Tories. A close Stay result would only be a little better.

    So I would put the chances of a snap election called in 2016 at somewhere above 33%. This would have to be fought on the current boundaries presumably. In the event of either an Exit referendum result, or the government getting into legal difficulties, a snap election would be tempting given that all the opposition parties have serious weaknesses at present, all of which though are somewhat fixable given time. These are ideal conditions for a snap election.

      • There is the possibility of the PM resigning and preventing anyone else from becoming PM, which would cause an automatic dissolution, or dissolving the House by two-thirds majority.

      • I would think that the chances of a 2/3 vote to dissolve are less than the chance of the house of lords agreeing to repeal the act at the prime minister’s pleasure.

        It is true that a prime minister can resign and prevent anyone else securing a vote of confidence within 14 days. It is not true that a prime minister can resign and prevent anyone else becoming prime minister.

        The queen would have two options. One would be to refuse the resignation. Another would be what Governor of Queensland Sir Walter Campbell told his premier in 1987: ‘Should you resign as Premier, it may be that I may not recommission you as Premier unless I was of the view that you were able to form a new ministry and that you would be able to obtain the confidence and support of the Parliament. It would be wise for you to discuss with all your ministers your proposed restructuring of the Ministry.’

        The immediate circumstances in Queensland were different, but the queen could well take the view that a formal resignation for the purpose of circumventing an Act of Parliament should be rejected or that it would be appropriate to call for the leader of the opposition rather than recommission the resigning prime minister. A new prime minister does not need confidence when the parliament is dissolved.

        I would think that most prime ministers would consider these matters with the most extreme care, especially in Britain where there is a positive cult of not offering advice to the queen that is legally questionable or potentially embarrassing.

      • It would be interesting if the Fixed-term Parliaments Act were to be tested. I would tend to think that HMQ would not call another leader to be PM should Cameron resign, but would let the process play out for 14 days, by which time it would be clear that no government could be formed. Then she’d call the election that is permissible under the Act.

      • Alan makes a good point: I ignored the fact that a confidence vote is only taken *after* a government has been appointed.

        MSS: a small quibble… the 2011 Act completely removed the royal power of dissolution – so the Queen doesn’t ‘call the election’ any more, rather dissolution occurs automatically under certain circumstances. Which leaves the strange anomaly that the Queen does retain the power to dissolve the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies – under certain prescribed conditions, generally similar to those included in the 2011 Act. I personally think it would have been better form to follow the example of the devolved assemblies, but I suppose this is a relatively minor point.

      • I’d be unsurprised by the resignation being accepted and Cameron being retained as a caretaker. I would probably be least surprised by a quiet word that this would be potentially controversial and HM would prefer not to be placed in that situation.

        Elizabeth II has at times made an art form of politely asking not to be offered advice that she might have to reject. Equally, British prime ministers tend to go to great lengths to protect the queen from being embarrassed by controversy. Australian and Canadian first ministers have not always extended the same courtesy to their viceregals.

      • I could not agree more with jd at 12:33. The legislation is just not very well thought out.

  5. Reading the text of the Fixed Terms Parliaments Act provided by Alan in the link above it seems to me that in order to trigger early elections, a resignation of the PM is not enough – the government needs to formally lose a no-confidence vote in the house and only than does the 14 day period for the confidance vote in a new government begins.

    • Actually, you’re right! The list of circumstances triggering the 14-day period in the Act do not include resignation of the government. I remember noticing this before, and now I wonder how I could have forgotten it…

      • It’s possibly one of the things the 2011 Act got right, preventing the very scenario I described above; whereas in the devolved governments, the first minister can often effectively threaten a dissolution by threatening to resign, as Salmond did at one point during his first term when the Scottish Parliament initially failed to pass the budget.

  6. I wonder what would happen if the PM resigns but not alternative government can be formed. For instance, if the government loses the referendum and as a result Cameron resigns and the Conservative Party splits. On the one hand, no government can be appointed that would enjoy the confidence of the house. On the other hand I don’t know if you could have a no confidence vote against either -1. a government that already resigned; or 2. a new government that never gained the confidence of the house. If there is no government that the house can vote no-confidence in, you can’t have early elections. It’s not something you can’t get around with some common sense and cooperation across party lines but in such a time of crisis who knows if politicians would be reasonable or cooperative.

    • You can certainly have a vote of no confidence against a new government. Let us imagine that in a moment of absent mindedness the queen were to appoint a UKIP government. If there can never be a vote of no confidence against a new government then UKIP can govern indefinitely.

      In 1968 in South Australia the Dunstan Labor government won 52% of primaries, 54% on preferences, and 19 seats in a house of 39 because of rural malapportionment. Dunstan refused to resign and the governor accepted that he had the right to meet the house. Dustan lost a confidence vote on the first day of the new parliament (after extracting every possible ounce of political advantage from an extended polemic against malapportionment).

      Until the last century it was standard for first ministers to want to meet the house and standard for no confidence to be moved on the first day of sitting.

      Moreover, there is nothing in the act that says every vote of confidence must comply with the act. It says that only a motion in terms of the act causes an early dissolution. A motion, for example: ‘That this House expresses its want of confidence in the Prime Minister and requests Mr Speaker forthwith to advise His Excellency the Governor-General to call the honourable member for Werriwa to form a government’ would not trigger the FPTA but it would normally trigger a resignation or dismissal.

      I am aware that Werriwa is an outer Sydney seat formerly held by Gough Whitlam, but this is a thought experiment)

      • Thank you for clarifying this to me. In Israel a government does not take effect until it has gained a vote of confidence.
        So in the scenario I imagined earlier the Queen would have to deliberately appoint a government knowing it will not enjoy the confidence of the house only for the house to be able to vote a no-confidence in it, so that a fresh elections can be declared. Interesting.
        Also, the way the Act is drafted it is as though a motion of no confidence indeed needs to be worded in a specific manner but I assume constitutional lawyers can get around it.

      • If you read the act carefully it is about fixing the term of the parliament. It offers a very strict form of words that must be in a motion for it to cause an early election.

        The act says nothing about votes of confidence in general and nothing about changes of government in response to a vote of confidence. What it addresses are motions in ‘the form set out in subsection (4)’ and so on.

        If you compare the British act with its equivalent in New South Wales, it is much more limited in scope than the NSW provision.

        The political design is quite interesting, although I don’t know that anyone considered it when the act was passed. An opposition that gains control of the house of commons through by-elections or defections can choose between between

        1. an early election motion of no confidence and

        2. the traditional motion of no confidence but without an early election.

        In a traditional Westminster system a prime minister who loses confidence must, within a short time, resign or dissolve. The immediate sanction is royal/viceregal dismissal. The FPTA seems to move away from the Westminster system into new territory.

      • “Until the last century it was standard for first ministers to want to meet the house and standard for no confidence to be moved on the first day of sitting.” Alan, does that mean the first royal/viceregal speech would be authored by the government that was about to lose power?

      • jd at 3:08

        Yes. Confidence would be tested by a motion to amend the address-in-reply that the house sends back to the sovereign after the speech. Bear in mind that the result of an election was not always obvious until the house actually met.

        Voting in the first Canadian election ran from 7 August 1867 to September 20. Not all districts had a direct telegraph connection to Ottawa. Mass parties had not completely developed and MPs frequently changed sides, so there was no real way to know what was happening until the parliament actually met. In 1891 NSW elected 35 Labor MLAs in an assembly of 141, but the majority of them changed parties before the next election.

        The election night resignation that we are used to had to wait for single polling days, mass parties, mass media and instantaneous communications.

      • Alan (re 10:37): did the Dunstan tirade against malapportionment have impact? The story you tell is a really interesting one that I’d not heard of before.

  7. Some have suggested — eg, — that by passing the 2011 Act, Parliament permanently abolished the Crown’s common-law prerogative power to dissolve the House of Commons. Normally, a subordinate rule that is invalidated due to conflict with a higher-ranking rule will revive if and as soon as the higher-ranking rule is repealed (this is certainly the case with State laws in Australia that become inoperative due to inconsistency with a federal statutes), and this is the case with most common law rules (eg, defamation law in NSW after Parliament repealed its 1958-1974 attempt at full codification). But it specifically does not apply to prerogative powers of the Crown. These are meant as interim measures only, to secure the bonum publicum in the absence of legislation..

  8. Since somehow this thread has clearly become highly speculative, I thought I would throw in CANZUK, a proposed post-BREXIT federation of England, Scotland, Canada, Australia, Wales, New Zealand and Northern Ireland.

    The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish don’t have to feel immersed in the UK. The English definitely get English votes on English laws although the English would not be a majority of the population across the whole of the federation. Maybe Quebec gets to be a distinct member of the federation. Maybe the House of Windsor gets a new title and Elizabeth II gets a new coronation.

    CANZUK would be the largest nation in area, eleventh in population, third in GDP, third in defence spending and have a higher GDP per capita than the United States or the European Union.

    I’d vote for it if we got the Canadian charter of rights, New Zealand’s indigenous settlement, the ACT electoral system…

    We could have a lot of fun talking about the treaty of union.

    More seriously, I do have some thoughts about the redistribution process in Britain but they belong in a separate comment.

  9. MSS at 6:13

    The tirade was long, magnificent and effective.

    South Australia had suffered from a rather spectacular malapportionment in favour of rural areas, known as the Playmander, during the extended rule of Sir Thomas Playford IV from 1938 to 1965. The Playmander relied on a fixed line drawn round Adelaide, the state capital. One-tenth of the electorate, those living outside the line, returned 26 MHAs to the House of Assembly and nine-tenths of the electorate returned 13 members inside the line, resulting in reversed majorities in 1944, 1953, 1962 and 1968.

    Dunstan successfully shamed the Liberal Country League Government of Steele Hall into electoral reform and went on to be premier from 1970 to 1979. Dunstan eventually added Part V to the state constitution which was the first case in Australia of a constitutional provision for one vote, one value, and an independent boundary commission subject to judicial review, a system he told me in the 1990s he based on Article VI of the Alaskan constitution. Dunstan had the kind of standing in South Australia that Gough Whitlam enjoyed on the Labor side of federal politics.

    • To the best of my knowledge, that (very specific) part of that article is true; the legislation states that the only no-confidence motion that can trigger an election is a specific motion that states “this house has no confidence in Her Majesty’s government”. However, I find it very doubtful that Conservative MPs would be opposing the Queen’s Speech if it led to a motion of no-confidence, thus making the sensationalist style of the article probably misdirected.

  10. As we all know, “reduce and equalise” was never implemented, and last Thursday’s election in the U.K. was contested under the boundary review in place since 2010. Following the election, I first thought the Conservative government would in all likelihood revive the issue, but after going over constituency results I’m not so certain anymore.

    Specifically, in last Thursday’s election there were 203 constituencies with electorate sizes below 95% of the U.K. average. Back in 2015, the Conservatives won 59 of those constituencies, while Labour won 103. However, in last week’s election, the Tories captured 81 while Labour secured just 82. As such, a reduction of the size of the House of Commons to 600 seats could now affect both parties equally, especially in a number of constituencies just won by the Conservatives – who in turn could conceivably develop a case of cold feet about the issue. At the same time, the potential dilution of the reform’s partisan effect could make it more acceptable to Labour.

    • I have now run some rough estimates on the effect of “reduce and equalise,” which confirm its partisan effect has been significantly diluted by the recent Conservative seat gains in northern England, the Midlands and Wales. Specifically, in 2017 the Conservatives (with the Speaker) would have won 301 of 600 seats, to 235 for Labour, for an overall majority of two (one without the Speaker), as opposed to an actual deficit of fourteen. In all the Tories would have had a net loss of 17 seats, but Labour would have shed 27.

      However, had last Thursday’s election been carried out under the proposed new boundaries, the Conservatives would have secured 342 of 600 seats, for a net loss of 23 seats, while Labour (with the Speaker) would have obtained 183, for a loss of 20. Although “reduce and equalise” would slightly expand the Tories’ parliamentary majority from 80 to 84, they would lose more seats than Labour, and in the process antagonize many of their newly-elected MPs from northern England, the Midlands and Wales, as these areas would lose a combined total of 34 seats.

      • I’ve done some fine-tuning of my earlier rough estimates on the effect of “reduce and equalise,” to account for 83 constituencies in Britain proper (80 in England and 3 in Scotland) which would remain unchanged under the proposed 2018 review, plus the special case of the Isle of Wight, which would be assigned two seats; at the present time the entire island is a single constituency with the largest electorate in the entire U.K. However, these adjustments changed the estimates very little, shown below for the top three parties seat-wise (with change relative to the actual seat outcome in parentheses):

        2015: C 314 (-17), Lab 207 (-25), SNP 50 (-6)
        2017: C 303 (-15), Lab 233 (-29), SNP 31 (-4)
        2019: C 341 (-24), Lab 184 (-19), SNP 43 (-5)

        In 2015 David Cameron would have had a majority of 28 instead of 12 (26 and 10 without the Speaker), while in 2017 Theresa May would have had a majority of six instead of a minority of 14 (four and minus sixteen sans the Speaker). But in 2019 Boris Johnson’s actual majority of 80 would have barely increased to 82, and again the Conservatives would have lost more seats than Labour, unlike in 2015 or 2017.

        I should also note that the 2018 review carried out by the boundary commissions used 2015 electorate figures which were considerably lower than totals published for the 2015 general election (or for that matter the subsequent general elections of 2017 and 2019), with the notable exception of Northern Ireland. In fact, the boundary review in Northern Ireland – which would have lost one of its eighteen seats – was quite controversial, as it differed very little from the DUP proposal, and was thought by many to have constituted a political favor by the Conservative government, in exchange for the party’s crucial support in Parliament. Under current electorate figures, the province would lose another seat.

        At any rate, a comparison of 2015 and 2019 election results underscores why more Conservative-held constituencies would in all likelihood be affected than in the past. For 2015, the average electorate and valid turnout figures for Conservative- and Labour-held constituencies were as follows:

        73,334 registered voters / valid turnout of 50,373 (68.7%) in 330 Con (excluding the Speaker)
        69,517 registered voters / valid turnout of 42,988 (61.8%) in 232 Lab

        However, by 2019 the average differences had narrowed considerably:

        74,674 registered voters / valid turnout of 51,602 (69.1%) in 365 Con
        72,202 registered voters / valid turnout of 46,127 (63.9%) in 202 Lab (excluding the Speaker)

        In conclusion, while the seat estimates under “reduce and equalise” I’ve calculated up to this point remain rough figures, all the numbers I’ve come across so far indicate that Tory gains in Labour strongholds mean a considerably larger number of Conservative-held constituencies would be affected by the proposed review than in the past, in all likelihood diluting its partisan edge, perhaps to the point the Tories might no longer perceive it as a desirable goal, at least in its current form.

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