News | Published February 20 2018

A shift in constituency boundaries

At the heart of British parliamentary democracy is the issue of constituency boundaries. How they are arranged can have profound effects on the outcome of elections and the political trajectory of the country. Given how consequential they are, it’s unsurprising that agreeing on these boundaries has always been a difficult, highly contentious undertaking. Indeed, doing so was an integral part of the 19th and 20th century efforts to forge an equitable mass democracy.
The issue has not gone away, however. Today, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has asked the government to consider speeding up the process of rearranging boundaries in time for a 2022 election.
Time is not normally the most pressing issue with boundaries shifts, but in this case, the passing of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 meant that constituencies were to be reduced in number from 650 to 600 – which, because of its party-political implications, caused disruption and delay. Instead of beginning an entirely new review for this sole purpose, use was made instead of the Periodic Review of Westminster Boundaries – an already mandatory practice brought about by the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. Ordinarily, the review would have already been conducted, but parliament postponed the previous report in 2013 and its completion is now due for September 2018.
The problem with this current timetable, the committee concluded, is that this leaves too little time for the legislative process and would ultimately leave the next election – currently projected to take place in 2022 – with boundaries that are predicated on data that would be roughly twenty years old by the time of its commencement.
The committee reports that, considering the myriad devolutionary changes and demographic shifts since the early 2000s, going ahead with the 2022 election with boundaries based on data from 2000 and 2001 would be constitutionally unacceptable. Consequently, the committee believes that there is good reason to truncate the review process by a few months and to bring forward the debate accordingly.
The downside of this alternative would be that it leaves insufficient time to consult local authorities and to thus conduct a full and proper review. Though unideal, it is believed that this latter option could be an improved state of affairs over using boundaries that are outdated by 20 years. The upside, however, is that this would allow more time for debates and amendments, with the ultimate goal of having an election in 2022 that is fairer than would otherwise be the case. In the end, the report asks parliament to consider the costs and risks of both courses of action, and to act soon.