Where next on boundaries?

Following last night's defeat of the government's plans to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600, Katie Ghose looks at what's next in the debate on boundaries.

Katie Ghose is the chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

Yesterday opposition and government MPs finally strangled David Cameron’s ill thought out boundary review. The vote was a victory for common sense, but the question today is where we go from here.

The debate was dominated by partisan advantage, but we did get a taster for how a better boundary regime might be achieved.

Labour’s Paul Blomfield brought the debate back to fundamental principles. He acknowledged the proposed boundaries would personally benefit him, but called them unfair “because of the enormous mismatch between population and registered voters”.

There are already huge discrepancies between the number of registered voters and number of eligible voters, not to mention those who are not eligible yet still have the right to speak to their MPs, such as under-18s and refugees without British citizenship.

Next year responsibility for registration turns from the head of household to individuals – the biggest shake-up since the introduction of universal suffrage.

And a depleted register is inevitable as local officers with stretched resources struggle to incentivise millions of us to sign up.

With numbers expected to fall disproportionately in urban areas, the Boundary Commission would be forced to reduce the number of inner city seats in the next round of reviews.

Shadow Lord Chancellor Sadiq Khan cited the Electoral Reform Society’s concerns:

“This will create thousands of ‘invisible’ citizens who will not be accounted for or considered in many key decisions that affect their lives, yet will still look to MPs to serve them as constituents.”

Many MPs persisted in arguing for the equalization of constituents (and for that read registered voters) in each area at around 76,000 – but as Paul Blomfield previously noted:

“On current registration patterns, wealthy areas with stable populations will have more MPs than urban areas with low electoral registration.

In practice the Conservative plan for equality meant rigid rules which forced boundary commissioners to cut across community and council lines. That, combined with a depleted electoral roll, would have weakened representation for city dwellers with the least cash in their pockets.

Reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 had populist appeal, but would have diminished their ability to respond to constituents’ demands for practical support.

But now these disastrous proposals are effectively dead and buried (or at minimum shelved until 2018), the parties should get back to the drawing board.

We need fair boundaries, but basing seats on a depleted electoral roll is clearly an accident waiting to happen. Everyone in Britain has a right to representation, and the political map needs to reflect that. Using population would follow the lead of the vast majority of countries who use census data as standard for their political maps.

Equal seats are a worthy goal but politicians should not task boundary commissioners with bending our communities out of shape. The new boundaries that Baroness Warsi accurately dubbed “mad and insane” were simply the results of the rules set in Westminster. Future changes will need greater flexibility than the current 5% population variance.

The ‘One size fits all’ approach to seats flies in the face of simple geography and common sense.

All parties will be tempted to tweak boundaries to maximise electoral advantage. But with public distrust at an all-time low, there is a bigger prize for those who put voters’ interests first and find a way to get the ‘missing millions’ registered – and voting.

See also:

Reality dawns for Lib Dems who’ll lose out under seat cull plansSeptember 5th, 2011

Deadlock on Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill may be broken, but constitutional struggles still lie aheadFebruary 1st, 2011

The problem with the constituency redrawing and AV Bill and how to solve itJanuary 20th, 2011

Electoral reformers should oppose the coalition’s gerrymanderingJuly 28th, 2010

Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is undemocratic and partisanJuly 23rd, 2010

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