We Know No Boundaries19 September 2016
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):
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.
Non-partisan thoughts on elections, voting and political representation from Roger Awan-Scully of Cardiff University.