A Local Boundary Review for Local MPs? We May Have Trouble Here

That's the Ugliest Effing Constituency I've ever seen - Regina George

Yesterday was an exciting day for the nerds, as the Boundary Commission for Scotland released their final recommendations for new UK Parliament boundaries. The UK Government is aiming to reduce the total number of MPs from 650 to 600. Scotland’s Westminster boundaries have been in place since 2005, so significant change was already likely – throw in the necessary reduction from 59 to 53 seats, and the proposals are dramatic.

Regular boundary reviews are a necessary part of First Past the Post (FPTP). As the population changes across the country, boundaries need to be redrawn to keep pace with change and ensure that the number of voters is roughly equal in each. In the UK, although the rules and final approval of boundaries are under the control of Parliament, we’re fortunate that the overall process of drawing boundaries falls to impartial Boundary Commissions. That means that within the rules set for their review, we don’t have the kind of partisan interference and gerrymandering that’s common in the US and results in monstrosities like this…

Maryland’s Horrifying 3rd Congressional District

That doesn’t mean there aren’t huge problems inherent to the process though. A key argument in defence of FPTP is that it provides a strong local connection between a representative and their voters. But the fact that boundaries have to be refreshed regularly by itself undermines this argument. How much of a local connection can there be between areas that were in different constituencies at the last election? How connected can MPs be when they suddenly find communities they’ve worked with for years are on the wrong side of a line? Before you’ve even looked at a single map, you can be sure that many communities will have to deal with a new “local” each time the boundaries change.

Another important aspect of “local” representation is consistency across multiple levels. That’s why constituencies are defined with reference to council wards – bit of a headache that this review is not using the most recent wards, incidentally. Councils are the most local unit of government in Scotland so in theory they should best represent local areas. So we could have a look at how many constituencies go across council boundaries. It might also be useful to bring the “traditional” county boundaries into the mix too – it’s not a big deal if a constituency goes cross-council if both are Ayrshire councils, but it might be a bigger break with the local if it’s tying Ayrshire and Renfrewshire together. Looking at the current 59 seats;

Existing Constituency Current Council Areas Traditional Counties
Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire Ayrshire
Central Ayrshire North Ayrshire, South Ayrshire Ayrshire
Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East North Lanarkshire, East Dunbartonshire Dunbartonshire, Stirlingshire
Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale South Lanarkshire, Dumfries and Galloway, Scottish Borders Dumfriesshire, Lanarkshire, Peeblesshire
Dundee East Dundee, Angus Angus
Dundee West Dundee, Angus Angus
Gordon Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire Aberdeenshire
Linlithgow and East Falkirk West Lothian, Falkirk West Lothian, Stirlingshire
Ochil and South Perthshire Clackmannanshire, Perth and Kinross Clackmannanshire, Perthshire, Kinross-shire
Orkney and Shetland Orkney, Shetland Orkney, Shetland

There are 10 constituencies which go cross-council, and 5 of those also break traditional boundary lines. Some of that is just to be expected based on size – Orkney and Shetland have quite small populations, as does Clackmannanshire. Again though, that highlights an issue with FPTP – if you’re a small area, it’s hard to get that local. Even larger areas have had bits chopped off and stuck into weird combinations though, so we’re already seeing some distinctly “un-local” representation. Does cutting the number of MPs to 53 help resolve that?

Proposed Constituency Current Council Areas Traditional Counties
Angus South and Dundee East Angus, Dundee Angus
Argyll, Bute and South West Highland Argyll and Bute, Highland Argyll, Buteshire, Dunbartonshire, Inverness-shire
Clackmannanshire and Dunfermline Clackmannanshire, Fife Clackmannanshire, Fife
Clyde Coast Inverclyde, North Ayrshire, Renfrewshire Ayrshire, Buteshire, Renfrewshire
Dumfriesshire and Lanarkshire South East Dumfries and Galloway, Lanarkshire Dumfriesshire, Lanarkshire
Dunbartonshire East East Dunbartonshire, West Dunbartonshire Dunbartonshire, Lanarkshire, Stirlingshire
Dunbartonshire West East Dunbartonshire, West Dunbartonshire Dunbartonshire
Eastwood and Loudon East Ayrshire, East Renfrewshire Ayrshire, Renfrewshire
Kilmarnock, Cumnock and Doon Valley East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire Ayrshire
Kincardine and Angus North Aberdeenshire, Angus Angus, Kincardine
Livingston and Edinburgh Pentland Edinburgh, West Lothian Midlothian, West Lothian
Midlothian and Upper Tweeddale Midlothian, Scottish Borders Midlothian, Peebles-shire
Moray and Nairn Moray, Highland Banffshire, Moray, Nairn
Orkney and Shetland Orkney, Shetland Orkney, Shetland
Renfrewshire West and Garnock Valley East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, Renfrewshire Ayrshire, Renfrewshire
Stirling and Falkirk North Falkirk, Stirling Stirlingshire
Stirlingshire, Strathearn and Kinross Stirling, Perth and Kinross Kinross-shire, Perthshire, Stirlingshire

Does it heck. The final proposals from this review would see 17 Scottish constituencies crossing council boundaries, and 13 of those breaking with traditional counties too. Let’s look at some low-lights.

The two Dunbartonshires are worth pointing out; the fact that East breaks traditional county lines is not actually a concern at all, as the East Dunbartonshire Council area effectively rationalised boundaries that were in need of sorting anyway. But it’s notable that both constituencies take the form of “Shire Direction” rather than “Direction Shire” like the councils. Why? Because there’s a breakdown of boundaries around Bearsden, which is in East Dunbartonshire but split between the two constituencies – so it would be confusing for them to have the same name as the council areas.

That’s the Ugliest Effing Constituency I’ve ever seen – Regina George

Another rotter is Renfrewshire West and Garnock Valley, which stretches from Erskine in Renfrewshire right down to Dalry in North Ayrshire. That’s a pretty severe break both with the council boundaries and with historic county boundaries that have until now generally been respected.

Angus South and Dundee East is also woeful even though it’s all traditionally Angus, leaving the city of Dundee quite dramatically ruptured. The idea these kinds of constituencies constitute “local” communities is laughable.

And all that is to say nothing of those constituencies that are within a single council area, but where that council itself covers multiple traditional counties. Galloway and Dumfries may be wholly within (confusingly) Dumfries and Galloway Council, but that council covers the counties of Wigtown, Kirkcudbright and Dumfries. Scotland is quite frankly terrible at “local” representation at almost every level; but that’s a whole different topic!

None of this is to criticise the Boundary Commission. These boundaries are awful because the constraints on the Commission were too tight, and because no matter how you slice it, you can’t fit Scotland neatly into 53 (or 59) nice little “local” bundles as FPTP demands. For every area you think “oh well, if they’d just done THIS” instead, somewhere else would end up thinking “oh for goodness sake, why have they done THAT” as a result. And all of this is on top of the thing that most animates politicians; who will win what seats on the new boundaries. A system that can have a totally different makeup to parliament on exactly the same votes but with different boundaries is seen by many as a cause for concern.

With the exception of STV, which operates small constituencies and thus also requires regular boundary reviews, systems of Proportional Representation don’t have this issue. They don’t claim to be “local” in the same way, and it isn’t necessary for every constituency to have the same number of voters, as the aim is instead similar ratios of voters:representatives. If the UK wants to persist with FPTP because it tends towards strong majority governments or some other reason, fair enough. But it’s high time we let the myth of “local representation” die.

Editorial note: In case anyone is concerned, yes, I do strive for a non-partisan tone on this website. Calling out the abject failings of our electoral systems isn’t partisan, it’s just the exasperated truth.