Saturday, June 12, 2021

The new Boundary review

 A few days ago the Boundary Commission for England published their first set of proposed changes to the parliamentary boundaries for election of MPs to the House of Commons from English constituencies.

I've spent a good part of today and indeed of the last few days poring over the proposals and in discussion with colleagues about them.

Since changes like these can easily result in MPs losing their jobs such proposals will always generate controversy with those MPs who are afraid they might lose out crying "foul" which they may or may not have good grounds to do.

The proposals which were published at midnight on Monday are the first stage of the process, and we are currently in an eight week consultation stage, following which the Boundary Commission will decide whether or not to amend their proposals: there will be further rounds of consultation.

Without making any comment yet on the details of these proposals, I think it is essential that this boundary update proposal, unlike the last three attempts, gets completed.

As I wrote in February, if we are to have fair constituency boundaries and not allow the return of the "rotten boroughs" which made a nonsense of British democracy before the great reform bill of the 1830s, we need to have impartial boundary reviews on a regular basis, and implement the results.

In some other countries such as America state legislatures set electoral boundaries and both the main parties have been - entirely accurately - accused of rigging them. Hence America gave us the word "Gerrymander" to mean rigging electoral boundaries to manipulate the result of the elections.

We had a system which worked very well for decades that an impartial boundary commission proposes new parliamentary boundaries at intervals of about a decade, and then there is extensive consultation on them, after which there was a convention that MPs of all parties would vote them through.

Unfortunately that convention was broken by Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband ten years ago and since then because of narrow or non-existent government majorities and short parliaments, it has not been possible to complete a boundary review. 

The events of the last decade show how easy it is for unscrupulous politicians of all parties who might lose out from an update of the boundaries to oppose whatever changes are on the table claiming to be fighting against "gerrymandering" when in fact by opposing any attempt to update the boundaries to reflect where people now live they themselves are the people doing the gerrymandering.

Immediately before the Great Reform Act of 1832, the parliamentary boundaries then in use were hundreds of years out of date, with the result that there were massive new towns which had grown up in those centuries but had no representation in parliament, while other areas which had once been populous but no longer were still returned MPs. 

The most notorious examples were Old Sarum, where the seven electors met under an oak tree, and Dunwich, most of which had disappeared beneath the sea. 

But make no mistake - if you let the process of updating electoral boundaries get blocked, and delayed, and blocked, and delayed, you are starting down the slippery slope which led to the "Rotten Boroughs" of 1832.

The present parliamentary boundaries, first used in 2010, are based on demographic data which is nearly 20 years old. It is high time they were updated.

Derek Gadd wrote a good piece on "The Article here a few months ago about the measures then on their way though parliament which have given the impartial boundary commission the power to carry out regular reviews without further reference to politicians now and in the future.

This is a good thing. MPs are interested parties in parliamentary boundary reviews and should not have a veto over them.

As Derek Gadd wrote  of the Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 2019-21 which was then nearing the end of its passage through parliament, and is now law:

"It fixes the number of electors in each constituency, except for four island seats, to be within five per cent of a quota calculated by even distribution of electorates. But most important, it removes the need for Parliament to approve them. Once agreed by the commissions, they take force. They are final. Parliament has eventually faced up to its inability to resist the temptation to interfere. It has done the right thing and relinquished control. Parliamentary turkeys no longer have to vote for Christmas." 


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Tory appointed judge, solicitor and civil servant from London, Hertordshire and Surrey is no peoples panel.

Chris Whiteside said...

Cheap and unfair.

There are some parts of the British constitution which do not have nearly such a strong reputation for impartiality as the Boundary commission.

Although I would certainly never suggest that nobody can disagree with their proposals for individual seats - I have done so myself many times - Boundary commissioners in this country have a well-deserved reputation among open-minded people in all parties and none for bending over backwards to be fair, for listening to the arguments put to them, and changing their proposals if there are good arguments to do so.

And the mechanism for their appointment is designed to ensure impartiality - they are only "Tory appointed" in the sense that anyone appointed to office at the present time is.