If At First You Don’t Review, Draft and Draft Again

Background

If you’ve ever felt like you were banging your head on a brick wall, spare a thought for the good people serving on the UK’s various Boundary Commissions. They are currently working away on their third attempt at a review of the UK Parliament’s constituency boundaries since 2010. An initial pass at Scotland’s possible new seats is hot off the Boundary Commission for Scotland press today.

The first attempt, before 2015, was a victim of internal coalition wrangling. After Conservatives failed to back reform that would have given an 80% elected House of Lords, Lib Dem tit-for-tat was to block the boundary review that’d have reduced the Commons from 650 to 600 seats. Incidentally, Lords reform could have passed with Labour support, but they decided to insist on 100% elected to get a win over the government, and thus almost a decade on we still have 0% elected, and nobody has really won.

Another attempt was then made by following governments, given the Conservative majority between 2015 and 2017. However, that was effectively overtaken by events, and when Boris Johnson took office, that review was also ditched. This third and current review was then called, but retaining 650 MPs, on the basis that Brexit had increased the Westminster workload.

Process

It’s really important at the outset to emphasise that this is not gerrymandering. The second review was underway shortly after I launched Ballot Box Scotland, and I wrote a bit about the issue here. The Boundary Commission is an impartial body, which does its job to the best of its ability, and in line with the relevant rules. Instead, there are two primary reasons for constituencies that look awful, either geographically or politically.

The first is that Scotland’s current boundaries date to 2005 and use local ward boundaries from 1999 as their basis. There’s been a lot of change to our demographics since then! The other is quite simply the voting system itself. You cannot divide Scotland into any set number of equally sized constituencies, and have every single one of those reflect a perfectly natural community. That’s completely impossible, but it’s what First Past the Post requires the Commission to attempt to do. Chalk another one up for “FPTP is garbage.”

In carrying out the review, the main requirement is that every seat has to have roughly the same number of voters in it. Scotland’s two islands constituencies (Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar) are exempt, as are Ynys Môn in Wales and two Isle of Wight seats in England. Otherwise, every seat in the UK has to aim for within 5% of 73,393 voters. That gives a minimum of 69,724 and maximum of 77,062, and this has to be strictly followed.

This then means that Scotland is allocated a total of 57 seats, down very slightly from the 59 we currently elect. Again, there is absolutely nothing sinister or unfair about this, and there’s a thread on Twitter from when this was announced. The simple reality is that within the UK the population of England, especially in the South, is growing much faster than the other nations. That naturally leads to areas with slower population growth ending up with slightly fewer seats than before, whilst areas with high growth have slightly more.

Lastly, and to the likely relief of the commissioners, the final proposals emerging from this will automatically go into effect. This removes the parliamentary approval step that proved fatal for the previous reviews. It therefore seems very likely that “third time lucky” will apply here.

Proposals

I toyed with the idea of doing a very detailed rundown of these proposals, with maps of groups of constituencies showing changes. However, the changes are so sweeping that it’s nigh-on impossible to do that – for example, one bloc of consequential changes includes Angus, Dundee, Perth & Kinross, Fife, Clackmannanshire, Falkirk and West Lothian. That’s… a hard area to capture! Instead, I’m mostly going to talk about the politically key constituencies.

Unchanged Seats

Although the changes overall are dramatic, there are nonetheless a few (11) constituencies that have emerged unscathed. These are:

  • Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock
  • Central Ayrshire
  • East Renfrewshire
  • Edinburgh South West
  • Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Protected)
  • Kilmarnock and Loudon
  • Midlothian
  • North Ayrshire and Arran
  • Orkney and Shetland (Protected)
  • Stirling
  • West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine

I have to admit I find it oddly funny that the four Ayrshire constituencies haven’t changed at all. There aren’t any other large, multi-constituency areas of Scotland completely unchanged like that. Don’t worry though, North Ayrshire should have new council ward boundaries coming in ahead of next May’s election, so Ayrshire isn’t entirely free of boundary change fun!

Labour Seats/Marginals

2019 was a grim election for Labour, as they dropped back to a single MP after they’d won seven in 2017. That sole MP, Ian Murray, could rest easy if these boundaries were implemented, as Edinburgh South expands only very marginally. The party would easily have won in 2019 on these boundaries.

Meanwhile, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath trades Lochgelly for Inverkeithing and Crossgates. This was the closest they’d come to a second MP in 2019, though mostly as SNP candidate (and now Alba MP) Neale Hanvey had been suspended from his party. It’s likely this seat would have similarly given a narrow SNP win. Labour results in the other seats they lost were bad enough that it’s very unlikely any boundary changes would favour their chances.

Liberal Democrat Seats/Marginals

As noted above, Orkney and Shetland is protected so no changes there, and thus it’d have still been Lib Dem. Edinburgh West gains about as many new voters as the size of the Lib Dem majority, which means we can be sure they’d have won the seat in 2019, as turnout would not be 100% in the added area, never mind 100% SNP. From here, however, it’s increasingly bad news for the party.

In North East Fife, the entire Leven area is added to the ward. It doesn’t look much geographically, but it’s about 10,000 new voters – so let’s assume 6,000 of those turn out. The Lib Dem majority is around 1,300, and in the 2017 Council election, the Leven ward had about four times as many SNP as Lib Dem votes. I’d therefore expect that on 2019 votes, it’d have been narrowly SNP. However, given the Lib Dems have further embedded in the Holyrood seat since, I’d actually mark them as narrow favourites for the next election.

No such luck for them in the mammoth Highland North, where the existing Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross seat would be joined by the Black Isle and Wester Ross. Lib Dem MP Jamie Stone’s majority is a mere 204 votes. Add in, I kid you not, 30,000 additional voters from SNP held constituencies and this would clearly have been an SNP seat in 2019.

Finally, East Dunbartonshire is dead, and so are the Lib Dem’s chances in the proposed Kelvin North seat. UK leader Jo Swinson losing her seat was the big shock of 2019, and if this goes ahead, they’d be as well giving up on even trying to regain it. Kirkintilloch and Lenzie are out, the Campsie villages and Kilsyth are in. It’s Kilsyth in particular that does them in – a less Lib Dem town you couldn’t find if you tried. This really surprised me, as expanding to include Kilsyth was absolutely not on my radar.

Conservative Seats/Marginals

It wasn’t protected, but West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine had no changes, so clearly remains in the Conservative column. There are also very mild changes in the three borders seats of Dumfries and Galloway; Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale; and Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire. I can’t see any of these having any impact on the Conservative wins in 2019. However, Scottish leader Douglas Ross’ Moray seat is completely dissolved under these proposals.

The chunk covering Keith, Buckie and Cullen (all historically Banffshire, it must be said) is pulled into Banff and Buchan. These are more SNP-leaning than Moray as a whole, whilst the Turriff ward that’s shuffled out is generally Conservative-leaning. I think that’d have significantly narrowed the Conservative lead in 2019, but not enough to hand the SNP the seat.

The very large southern spike of Moray is actually just a single ward, adding a small SNP-friendly area to a Gordon and Moray South constituency. Add in that Conservative-friendly Turriff ward and the loss of two more SNP-friendly wards from Aberdeen, and I reckon this would overcome the SNP’s roughly 800 vote majority in the current Gordon seat, thus ensuring a continued sixth seat for the Conservatives on 2019 figures.

The final, and by far largest, portion of Moray becomes part of Highland East and Elgin, alongside Nairn, the Ardersier area, plus Badenoch and Strathspey. Although this is the more Conservative end of Moray, the Highland portions have more of an SNP lead over the Conservatives than the SNP-led bits of Moray did – in large part because of lingering Lib Dem support in this area. I’m therefore pretty confident in saying this would have been SNP.

Moving down to Tayside, a new Angus and Strathmore seat would combine Montrose, inland Angus, and north-western Perthshire. These areas would be more Conservative leaning than the four constituencies they are drawn from, but the SNP had pretty strong results in all of those. That makes this a Conservative prospect to win next time, but probably an SNP win in 2019.

Finally, Perth and Tay covers the rest of Perthshire, which has been shorn of Kinross-shire. The boundaries may be very different but it’s basically the same size electorate as the existing Perth and North Perthshire. That probably means very little real difference to the relative SNP vs Conservative balance here given it’s still “Perth and a big rural chunk”, and thus it would have been SNP in 2019.

Net Impact

With all of the above in mind, the net effect on 2019 results would be pretty mild – the same sized haul for the SNP, Conservatives and Labour, with the Lib Dems effectively being the losers from Scotland’s two-seat reduction.

Other Awful(ly Fun) Proposals

Obviously, the primary impact of boundary changes is political – who’d benefit or not in seat terms. As I’ve noted repeatedly, that’s one of FPTP’s biggest flaws. Results shouldn’t vary so much based on where the lines are drawn, and if you think any of these proposals are truly awful, then that’s where the blame lies. That said, here are some other changes that really stuck out to me as being particularly wild and worth a chuckle over.

In my home city, Glasgow Central is anything but. It lacks most of the city centre, most notably either of the two main railway stations, and extending to Robroyston makes “central” quite laughable. Renfrew North is primarily wild by the fact it includes the Cardonald area from Glasgow. Though not shown in the maps above as it’s really very tiny, West Dunbartonshire has also nibbled a little bit of Yoker from the edge of Glasgow.

Dundee East and Arbroath plus Dundee West and Gowrie are both pretty incredible. The previous Dundee seats did extend beyond city boundaries, but these long thin ribbons along the Perthshire and Angus coasts look more like Arbroath Smokies than they do sensible local areas.

Mid Forth Valley is the necessary combination of Clackmannanshire (too small for a constituency itself long before now) with another area, this time the northern stretch of Falkirk. This isn’t actually a million miles off a historic constituency, just with Denny in place of an exclave on the other side of Falkirk town, but it does look visually striking, especially with my accidental use of a rather sickly green.

Edinburgh East is also not entirely unprecedented in including a lick of Musselburgh, but it is indeed just a lick, not the whole town. It’s such a small inclusion that they didn’t even put it in the name, despite renaming the remaining area (not shown) East Lothian Coast as a result.

Some other notable little bits I haven’t specifically mapped include the breaking of Fife’s borders to absorb Kinross, which is likely to be resisted but mathematically some form of breach is impossible to avoid. An Argyll seat extends to take in areas to the north historically part of that county, whilst retaining the Bute and Lomond areas. Bute may not be happy to be dropped from the name, mind you. There’s also an awkward Motherwell and Clydesdale North seat that adds quite a rural stretch to what is otherwise a highly urban seat.

Next Steps

Remember, these are just initial proposals. Public consultation is now open until the 9th of December. You can respond on the Commission website here, as well as see an interactive map of the proposals. Bear in mind however how finely balanced these proposals are. You might have a very good idea for how to make your constituency less weird, but even if the Commission agrees, ripple effects will simply make some other area(s) weird instead. “Just moving 2,000 voters” in your seat might end up moving 20,000 between a handful to preserve overall balance.

As much fun as I’ve had pointing out some of the sillier proposals, bear in mind that the fault for oddities lies with the voting system not the Boundary Commission. They know what they are doing, and where it looks daft, it’s because it’s had to be daft because of FPTP. I expect the revised proposals will be very different in terms of their exact boundaries, whilst still preserving the same overall level of chaos.

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