Progress of the Boundary Reviews

Jan 12, 2012

I went to a talk by Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and David Rossiter at the Constitution Unit yesterday on the in-progress boundary reviews (their slides at link). It was interesting in the sense that it confirmed with figures the kind of problems they’d previously predicted with the review and I’m just going to throw down a few notes while it’s fresh in my mind.

Building blocks and displacement

This review represents the triumph, though possibly only temporarily, of the mathematical principle (all constituencies should have equal numbers of electors) over the organic principle (constituencies should reflect real communities and locations) with a tighter than ever constraint on elector numbers. A basic problem of requiring constituency electors to fall within a certain range is that the building block used (wards) are too often too big to construct constituencies within the range.

Interestingly the English and Scottish commissions have different ways of dealing with this, the English method being to cross borders to make up the numbers, whereas the Scottish commission splits wards.  They pretty conclusively demonstrated the Scottish method is less disruptive, measured by relative numbers of ‘suboptimally placed (SP) electors’, who are electors displaced from the majority of their compatriots in their local authority, old constituency or ward. This does make sense intuitively, as crossing borders pushes the imbalance over into the next region and requires aggregate more slight movements of voters, but it’s good to have numbers on it.

The idea that SPs should be minimized is a good measure, but I wonder if the principle could be extended. If the proposed ‘one review a parliament’ schedule is kept up, in the worst case you could find voters who are moved around at every election - another possible measure would be to try and minimize the number of people who have been SPs more than once (TSPs?).

As the general trend is towards larger wards, they suggested using polling districts as a possible smaller building block. The other option they suggested in 2009 (with McLean) was postcodes (p. 464).

Public Hearings and political effects

It was interesting to hear that the public hearings (essentially curtailed versions of the public inquires) are still a vehicle for parties even if their ability to input has been reduced (limited to 40 minute slots). This isn’t entirely surprising as parties have the greatest interest in the result - I’m going to bring in here a bit here something I wrote at the time the bill was going through about the relationship between parties and the inquiries:

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As boundary matters are decided in the UK by the apolitical Boundary Commission, what happens is 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. Natural population movement tends to lead to more boundaries that favour Labour over time and so in general Labour has been opposed both to frequent redistributions and now, very clearly, stricter equalisation. It's not a coincidence that it's the same party that postponed the acceptance of new boundaries until after the election in 1969 is now dragging it's feet in the Lords but equally the Conservative position isn't much deeper, if situations were reversed I've no doubt we'd see the same in the other direction. However, that a position has political advantages doesn't stop it being a correct one. … It's interesting that one of concessions given in the Lords seems to be `the return of public inquiries `__ as I thought that removing them was one of the more interesting elements of the plan. Public inquiries have a number of issues, they make the process very time consuming (which is an issue if we're going to have to have a review every parliament), tend to increase deviations from the quota size, but most importantly public inquires are one of the few ways for political parties to influence the decision of the Boundary Commission. What you sometimes get is that political parties will show up at the Inquiry with alternate plans, which as long as they fulfil the commission's criteria better than the Commission's own plan it has no grounds to reject on the basis that it's more partisan[1. Lots of interesting discussion of this in D. J Rossiter, R.J Johnson, and C. J Pattie, The Boundary Commissions: Redrawing the UKʼs map of Parliamentary Constituencies, (Manchester University Press: Manchester, 2009), pp. 246-262] . Being apolitical means it can't consider the political consequences of its work, this is far from saying there are none. Given the inherent political nature of their work, Richard Morill `makes the interesting argument `__ that political ends should be directly considered by apportionment bodies and that they should set out to create certain numbers of safe and marginal seats rather than pretending its work has no impact on these questions, but its hard to see this view gaining much currency in British circles. .. raw:: html

Relationship to electoral system

Something that was danced around in the Q&A is the way in which the boundary commission is related to the voting system. In many way the boundary commission is the dark and complicated back-end of the ‘simple’ FPTP system (or any single-member system like AV) in that single-member constituencies are smaller than multi-member constituencies, and so are more vulnerable to population shifts (and the problem of building block size mentioned earlier), plus the all-or-nothing nature of the systems make the partisan implications of boundaries a bigger issue than they might otherwise be. This isn’t a hugely live issue (as was pointed out the boundary proposals might be unpopular among MPs but changing the voting system is even more so) but it’s worth remembering it all fits together.

While district magnitude and electoral system have effects on the importance of boundaries, something that’s thought about less is that ultimately the conflict between the organic and mathematical criteria are the result of the fixing representative voting weight at ‘1’.  Trying to express both through the same measure (boundaries) inevitably requires one to be prioritized over the other, what we need to do is open up another stream to get the information into the chamber.

What Toplek proposes[2. Link takes you to pdf, but ref is: Jurij Toplak, ‘Equal voting weight of all: Finally "One Person, One Vote" from Hawaii to Maine?’, Temple Law Review, Vol. 81, 2008, pp. 123-178] in the context of the US is rather than endlessly debate methods of dividing seats among the states on the basis of their population, use any method but then give a state’s reps a voting power that is equal to the population of that state. Using representative voting weight as the means of expressing mathematical equality frees up the boundary process to deviate in size to allow more ‘natural’ constituencies (even extreme deviations in size could then be permitted within the system without being exceptions).

This doesn’t resolve all the problems of boundaries (safe seats, etc) but it does resolve the current debate in a much easier (and cheaper) way.  Beyond that fix, [laying with representative voting weight opens up a whole new realm of possible electoral structures, including methods of dynamic apportionment which reduce the need for boundary reviews even further and more exact methods of proportional representation. But that’s a matter for future posts.

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