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We Know No Boundaries

As many of you will have noticed, the Boundary Commission for Wales reported last week, with proposals for a new map of the House of Commons constituencies in Wales. Here I’ll just make a few comments and observations on their proposals.

First, we should all be aware that the Commission had no discretion at all in the number of Welsh seats that they could recommend. That number was dictated by the provisions of the ‘reduce and equalize’ legislation (the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act) passed by parliament in 2011. This legislation, within the overall ambition to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, also sets out how seats will be allocated between the different nations of the UK – with the formula linked to the registered electorate (rather than the estimated population). That formula dictated that Wales be allocated 29 parliamentary seats – down from the forty we have at present, and the thirty that we would have had by now if the 2011 legislation had been implemented in time for the 2015 general election.

So my first point is – if you don’t like the idea of Wales’ representation in the House of Commons being cut by more than a quarter, don’t blame the Boundary Commission. It’s not their fault!

Of course, many people will have strong views about this substantial reduction in the number of Welsh MPs. Is it right, or fair? Well, it is certainly true that a major motivation for the Conservatives to seek to implement this legislation is that it would likely be to their political advantage. ‘Political Party in Being Political Shock’. But just because the Conservatives (probably correctly) see political advantage in reducing Wales’ parliamentary representation doesn’t mean that it is necessarily wrong.

Although it may not be popular with many readers of this blog, I personally think that the onus should be on opponents of the proposed change to explain why the non-English nations of the UK should be over-represented in the Commons relative to their population. Now it might well be that good arguments could be articulated for such over-representation. It is, after all, not at all unusual in political systems around the world for smaller sub-units to be over-represented relative to their population size in at least one chamber of the parliament. To pick but a few prominent examples, we see this in the upper chamber of the German federal parliament, the Bundesrat; we also see it in the EU’s Council of Ministers and the European Parliament; and we see it (in a slightly different way, but having the same effect) in the U.S. Senate. But that over-representation is generally part of an overall political bargain that seeks to balance out the interests of the different parts of the country, or union. Such a thing might well be defensible within the UK, but there is no clear rationale for it at present.

Anyway, whether right or wrong we appear to be well on the path towards a reduction in Wales’ number of MPs from 40 to 29. But that’s not the only thing that is changing. Another part of the ‘reduce and equalize’ legislation was to eliminate most of the discretion that the respective boundary commissions in the UK previously had to create constituencies of different sizes. In the past, council wards have generally been kept intact within single seats, and sometimes quite substantial variations in seat sizes have been permitted in order to try to respect ‘natural’ community boundaries. The vast majority of that discretion has now been eliminated by the legislation. The over-riding priority imposed on the boundary commissions now is to try to ensure a high degree of arithmetical equality: that seats should have very similar numbers of registered voters (at least at the time when the map is drawn up). Because the average size of the constituencies won by Labour in recent elections has tended to be smaller than the average size of seats won by the Conservatives, this equalisation will tend to hit Labour rather harder.

You can find the Boundary Commission’s proposed new constituency map for Wales here.

Since the proposals were published various people have been trying to work out the plausible electoral implications of them. Anthony Wells of YouGov has published his ‘notional’ 2015 general election results on the new boundaries here. My friend Harry Hayfield has also published estimates of the 2015 results here. The two of them come to a very similar overall outcome: their estimates of the 2015 election result on the new boundaries are as follows (which changes from the actual 2015 result, on the 40-seat boundaries, in brackets):

 

Party Wells Hayfield
Labour 18 19
Conservative 7 6
Plaid Cymru 3 3
Lib-Dems 1 1
Others 0 0

 

What these numbers seem to suggest is that while – as was pretty much mathematically inevitable – the Labour party is likely to take the largest ‘hit’ from the reduction in Welsh seat numbers, the Welsh Conservatives do not escape unscathed either. Indeed, proportionately – though not in absolute numbers, which is what ultimately counts in the House of Commons – the Welsh Tories possibly take an even bigger hit. Meanwhile, Plaid Cymru seem to do quite well out of the map – retaining their three seats, and reducing Mark Williams’ majority in the re-created Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire seat. Of course, such notional estimates are based on the political circumstances at the time of the 2015 general election. And about the one thing we know for certain about the next general election is that it will take place in very different political circumstances.

The proposals from the Boundary Commission now go out for a lengthy period of consultation, before the final map is due to be adopted in 2018. The parties will doubtless try to influence the process to their advantage – while couching their arguments in resolutely non-partisan terms. For anyone who doesn’t like the shape of the current map, I would simply ask you to remember just how restrictive the legislation now is. I would also suggest that you bear in mind that any changes to the current map would have other spill-over effects, possibly cascading through much of the rest of Wales, that would generate new anomalies and problems. We may well end up with a final constituency map that looks different to the one presented this week. But as for one that is clearly any better – that, I suspect, is very doubtful.

Comments

  • Philip Hughes

    I do not support the Tories. But if that most endangered of creatures, the Welsh Tories, take a bigger hit in representation in the House of Commons that will be bad news for Wales. England is already a de-facto one-party state, and a permanent Tory government in the House of Commons, and an Assembly Labour lead coalition government is bad news for all of Wales. The Tories and their media will use any slight difference between Wales and England to go into Welsh bashing mode, an example being the rather silly and stupid line of death remark by their PM. Scotland is safe, the Tories dare not attack Scotland for fear of Scotland going independent. Similarly Northern Ireland is safe, its not dominated by Tory rivals and the Tories have enough sense to leave Northern Ireland alone to avoid any more “Troubles”. That leaves little Wales, dominated by their political rivals, with a large English migrant population (some of whom are anti anything Welsh, especially the Welsh Assembly and the Welsh language). I am not a supporter of Welsh independence but are we now heading to the point of no return in Wales, that will give us only two options, independence for Wales or annexation by England. In that case I would switch to being a supporter of Welsh independence.

  • Sian

    It’s a further move towards “for England see Wales”. Our political power is being eroded. Equality doesn’t mean the same numerically. Wales has many rural communities that would be v poorly represented under this system. This could work if cuts to MPs matched an increase in AMs to improve our political infrastructure.

  • Huw Meredydd

    Evidence that the broken Westminster model needs sweeping away, is it not?

  • Ian Harrison

    I do support the Welsh Tories and are as distressed as anyone to see my constituency swept away by these changes, although I certainly support the principle that the value of each person’s vote should be as equal as possible in terms of Westminster and Cardiff representation.
    Whilst the projected results for the 2015 General Election are interesting we should remember that the UKIP vote was pre-referendum with Nigel Farage as Leader, and the Labour leadership election was nowhere to be seen.
    Needless to say the next General Election in 2020 is going to be very interesting indeed, whichever boundaries are finally fixed.
    The spill-over into the Assembly Elections the following year could have enormous implications for the future Governance of Wales. It will keep us all on the edge of our seats for years to come.

  • RIchard Williams

    It clearly makes sense to adjust the boundaries of that sprawling and densely populated Westminster constituency “Cardiff South an Penarth” which is now to become “Cardiff South” – minus Penarth.

    However it cannot then make any sense to leave the Welsh Assembly constituency of “Cardiff South and Penarth” as it is. Surely Penarth must be taken out of this constituency too.

    • Ddirpytnop

      I don’t think anyone can say for certain what will now happen to the the National Assembly constituency map. My best guess is nothing at all. Had the Westminster boundary changes proposed in 2011 gone ahead, there might have been pressure for a reduction to 30 at the Assembly too. There would have been some logic to a 30:30 split between the the constituency and list members. But a 29:31 split looks nonsensical, not least because it would leave regions unevenly represented. As for where these new changes, if they go ahead, leave Wales at Westminster – it would be hard to argue that they leave us with anything other than a diminished voice. Although, maybe it’s quality rather than quantity which really counts.

  • Graham

    I am surprised that it is being assumed hat the Boundary changes will be approved when we get to Autumn 2018. There are indications of sufficient opposition from the Conservative benches to block the proposed reduction in MPs from 650 to 600.

  • Robert

    “. Equality doesn’t mean the same numerically. Wales has many rural communities that would be v poorly represented under this system.”

    England and Scotland also have many rural communities but they don’t get the same degree of over-representation. Scotland’s representation was reduced to the same per capita as England when the Scottish Parliament was created. Although the Welsh Assembly has now developed so that it has similar legislative powers in most, if not all, areas which are devolved in Scotland, it has retained its Parliamentary over-representation until now. It is for the opponents of the change to explain why Wales should be treated differently – preferentially – to England and Scotland.

    • Ddirpytnop

      Robert – you are mistaken if you think that the Welsh Assembly has similar legislative powers to the Scottish Government “in most if not all areas” which are devolved in Scotland. The differences are marked.

      • Christian Schmidt

        Maybe the powers of the Assembly has now as less than the Scottish Parliament (not Government!) has currently. But the powers of the Assembly has now are similar to what the Scottish Parliament had when it was decided to equalise Scottish constituency sizes to English ones…

  • Phil Davies

    I am surprised that you didn’t mention that boundaries based on registered voters vs. boundaries based on population also (theoretically) favours the Conservatives Roger. Poorer people are less inclined to register to vote, and therefore ‘poor’ Wales (leftish-leaning) appears to have fewer electors (and therefore seats) relative to the prosperous SE of England (right-leaning). The same would be true of the internal carve-up of the 29 Welsh seats (valleys versus commuter belt for example). I think it’s always been done this way hasn’t it? But if we were motivated by democratic concerns alone, this would have been the opportunity to reform the approach.

    • Christian Schmidt

      Phil,

      Very good point. And at the minimum it should surely be based on British Citizens – while you could possibly make an argument to exclude foreigners, there surely cannot be any argument that MPs should represent all British citizens including minors, recent movers and anyone else who hasn’t registered. Otherwise, why not make base it on only those who have voted the last three elections, or on people who have paid taxes?

  • Christian Schmidt

    “we see this in the upper chamber of the German federal parliament, the Bundesrat;” – is technically correct but misleading as the equivalent of the Commons is the lower chamber which certainly does not (and could not) overrepresent smaller sub-units. Which neatly brings me to the next point, if you are really bothered by equality/equalisation, then surely that’s an argument for proportional representation. Even if the current constituencies slightly discriminate against the Conservatives when compared to Labour, it dramatically discriminates in favour of the Tories (and Labour) against LibDems, Plaid, UKIP, Greens, etc…

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