(image via wikipedia)

There’s been quick understanding that boundary reform will be a priority of a Conservative government but something that seems to be missed is that a lot of the needed effort on this has already happened.

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 reduced the number of MPs to 600 and requires no more than a 5% variation from the mean between constituencies. This remains the law and is the current set of requirements the Boundary Commissions work to.

The previous 2011 attempt wasn’t defeated — the implementation was just delayed in 2013. It was a certainty that the Lib Dems would vote down the plans when returned later that year, the delay was a way of short-cutting the process so the current review could stop doing pointless work. This means the situation is different than in 1970 when the plan existed but wasn’t implemented — the Commissions wrapped up their work early. A complete plan and corresponding Order of Council doesn’t exist and so a quick approval of the delayed plan isn’t possible — work and legislation would be required before those plans could be presented.

However these rules are still ticking away in the background and left to itself the next review will happen five years after the previous one should have taken effect. In spring 2016 the Seventh Review will start itself up and by October 1, 2018 the Boundary Commissions will have returned boundary plans with fewer and more equally sized constituencies.

Letting this new review happen might be better for the Conservatives than trying to revive the old one. That review is working with 2013 population figures (which are really already out of date by that point) and will produce boundaries that are less equal in 2020 than they’d get if they let the Commissions start again now. Moving quickly means they might get less benefit out of a change than if they’d waited (unless they think it’d be easier to try and deal with obstacles now, rather than wait for a point where it’d be impossible to adjust the approach in time).

If the new review happens, the fact the boundary change requirements are already law reduces the opportunities to act against them. The relevant Secretary of State lays an Order in Council before the Commons and the Lords to approve the plans for each country. Technically speaking the government has the power to amend the plans before submitting them but has never done so — interference with Boundary Commissions plans are more likely to involve rejecting the Order to delay the process (this happened in 1969 for instance, the new Conservative government after the 1970 election then approved the plan).

The Commons and Lords cannot amend the Order — only vote yes or no. In the Commons there is sometimes no need for debate before the question because of Standing Order No. 118(6). The Lords tend not to vote down Statutory Instruments, but are allowed to do so (and did so with electoral provisions as recently as 2000). This is rare however and it would be an extraordinary event if the Lords rejected an Order approved by the Commons and drafted by an independent commission.

The most potent form of opposition might actually be on the Conservative benches. Reducing the number of MPs requires playing musical chairs with those currently elected — a problem that got worse, not better, with an outright win.

There are now more Conservative MPs defending seats than there were in 2013 — as their constituencies are fairly geographically continuous (in some places you have cross two constituency boundaries in every direction before entering an area that elected a rival party) they will have to fight each other for selection in the new seats. The Blue Sea will become Thunderdome.

A majority of 12 (which could drop further through by-elections in the next 3 1/2 years) is fragile. Three of the four Conservative rebels who voted with the 2013 delay were re-elected (the other stood down) — they don’t need to convince many others of the need for self-preservation to cause a problem for the review.

Stepping back from implementation, is there anything actually wrong with boundary reform? The answer to this entirely depends on what kind of outcome you want. Objective arguments that a review makes the next election more (or less) democratic are quite fragile. Left to itself not doing reviews will benefit Labour because of population drift, while equalising will benefit the Conservatives. Both parties make cases that their preferred state is the natural one and both positions should be viewed sceptically. Whenever we have a debate about apportionment it rapidly becomes a debate about competing metrics of fairness, where each side just so happens to align with the position that’s seen to result in a better deal for them.

Labour get to cry ‘gerrymandering’ because the Conservatives actually have to do something to rig it their way —whereas the other way round doing nothing has the same effect. This has the advantage of being much quieter but is ultimately no more principled.

But surely more equal constituencies are inherently more democratic — if one constituency is larger than another, then votes that constituency are worth less right? So making constituencies more equal in size makes votes more equal? This is technically true — if everyone registered to vote actually voted. If the larger constituency has a much lower turnout, the votes in that seat might end up being worth more than the other one.

For the purpose of One Person One Vote in a multi-constituency system what matters isn’t how many people could vote but how many people do. Given turnout can’t be predicted ahead of time, voter weight between constituencies can’t be anticipated and equalised to any degree of accuracy. Are more equal-sized constituencies terrible? No. More democratic? Not really — especially compared to the vote-seat mismatch that’s fairly inherent to the electoral system.

If that’s confusing, remember it next time someone says First Past The Post is simple. It is much harder to rig proportional systems (which require larger constituencies and are less punishing to submerged minority parties) with boundary reforms. The messy, contested nature of the boundary reviews is the ugly machinery our electoral system requires to run.