Electoral Reform Society: Reduce and Equalise, the battle starts here

by Katie Ghose, Chief Executive, Electoral Reform Society

Yesterday at midnight the Boundary Commission published the initial proposals for the boundary review in England, providing us with the first glimpse of Britain’s political map in 2015.

The aim is to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600 by 2015 – a radical proposal that has not yet ignited the interest of the public but which will have major implications for the UK’s political landscape – and for voters.

Don’t be surprised if, come the next election, you suddenly find yourself living in a new seat, with very different prospects. Many voters will see their place on the political map change as a new and restrictive set of rules ensures that parliamentary seats cannot vary in size by more than 5% from the average.

That all seems very logical on paper, but try applying that to Britain’s unique communities and diverse populations.

Many of our communities are set to be bent out of shape. The constituency link, so often cited as the main benefit of First Past the Post, is about to become even more tenuous as MPs are faced with unfamiliar and potentially illogical constituency borders.

It looks like ‘Devonwall’ may become a reality – a controversial seat crossing the traditional country lines between Devon and Cornwall. It may be illogical, it may be unpopular, but at the end of the day it’s unavoidable, given the maths.

The review has already proved to be a huge political hot-potato with the Coalition facing the prospect of a full-scale revolt from the backbenches as MPs fight for their political lives. MPs have understandably been dwelling on their political futures – but the lines on the map will also have a direct impact on voters.

Under our current system only a minority of voters in swing seats have the power to decide elections and by 2015 you may well find yourself shifting from a safe seat to a marginal without having to move house. As a life long resident of a Labour constituency you could suddenly find yourself moved along into a Conservative marginal.

And these are the calculations that underpin our elections. They will decide if your vote matters and whether the party strategists should waste their precious time and money winning you over.

It’s also worth remembering that this won’t be a one off. Boundary reviews will have to be more regular to keep up with the new rules. And that’s where fresh problems emerge.

These boundaries will have been drawn up based on the current electoral register – which we know is already missing around 10% of those eligible to vote. With the government set to move on Individual Voter Registration (IVR) in 2014 things could get a lot worse as registration rates are set to plummet.

Those people who fall off the register won’t be counted when the boundaries are drawn up post 2015 and the result may be more boundary changes that could leave some MPs struggling to deliver basic help and representation to their constituents.

If you want to influence the boundary review process (and happen to have an advanced degree in psephology) there are a series of public hearings you’re free attend, but with the Boundary Commission themselves having so little freedom to manoeuvre, its unclear if voters – without the time, resources and expertise – can generate a workable alternative.

The Electoral Reform Society will be keeping tabs on how issues like Boundary Changes interact with other items on the Government’s reform agenda, and their implications for voters.

If you would like more information on how the boundary changes may affect your MP see The Democratic Audit’s projections of the UK’s new political map.