Westminster Boundary Review 2023: Finally, the End


Honestly, it’s boundary change central in Scotland at the moment. Last month, Boundaries Scotland came out with their first pass at new constituencies for the Scottish Parliament, which I went into significant detail about here. That’s been followed just a few weeks later with the Boundary Commission for Scotland (a legally distinct but related body) releasing its final recommendations for new UK Parliament constituencies in Scotland.

I’d previously talked a bit about their initial proposals back in October 2021, and then some more depth on the revised proposals in November last year. This saga has gone on a lot longer than that however! Remember, a first attempt by the Coalition Government at reducing the UK Parliament to 600 MPs was blocked by the Lib Dems as quid-pro-quo for enough Conservatives rebelling to prevent Lords reform from going through. A second attempt was scrapped under Boris Johnson, ostensibly in recognition of the fact Westminster would have a higher workload following Brexit.

Having gone over it at length in the previous linked pieces, I’m not going to repeat myself too much about the process here. But to summarise:

  • Scotland is losing 2 MPs not due to a sinister anti-Scottish bias, but because of natural population changes.
  • The Boundary Commission is a non-partisan and impartial body that does its work to the best of its ability.
  • The rules governing boundary reviews are laid out in law and the Boundary Commission has to follow those.
  • Yes a bunch of these constituencies look awful, but that’s because First Past the Post is awful even at doing the key thing we’re told it’s meant to be good at, which is local representation.

Overview of Changes

Yet again, I’m going to quickly summarise changes rather than attempt to do so exhaustively. The map below gives a visual of the revised proposals (coloured) versus both current boundaries and the initial proposals. You can find more detailed maps of each constituency on the BCS website.

No Changes At All

Although the changes are dramatic overall, 10 seats have nonetheless escaped unscathed, notably all of those covering Ayrshire. That includes the two “protected” islands constituencies, but is a reduction from 11 unchanged seats in the revised proposals.

  • Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock
  • Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (proposed changes reverted)
  • Central Ayrshire
  • East Renfrewshire
  • Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Protected)
  • Kilmarnock and Loudon
  • Midlothian
  • North Ayrshire and Arran
  • Orkney and Shetland (Protected)
  • West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine
Initial Changes Maintained

7 constituencies underwent changes in the initial stage of proposals, but haven’t been modified again either at the revised or final stage:

  • Aberdeen North
  • Aberdeen South
  • East Kilbride and Strathaven
  • Hamilton and Clyde Valley
  • North East Fife
  • Paisley and Renfrewshire South (named Renfrew South in the initial proposals)
  • Rutherglen
Revised, Resubmitted and Repeated

17 constituencies were revised at the second stage, but have remained in the same form for the final recommendations, though in many cases with name changes:

  • Angus and Perthshire Glens (renamed from North Tayside)
  • Arbroath and Broughty Ferry (renamed from Dundee East and Arbroath)
  • Argyll, Bute and South Lochaber
  • Bathgate and Linlithgow
  • Coatbridge and Bellshill
  • Dumfries and Galloway
  • Dundee Central (renamed from Dundee West)
  • Edinburgh East and Musselburgh (renamed from Edinburgh East)
  • Edinburgh North and Leith
  • Edinburgh West
  • Glasgow East (renamed from Glasgow South East)
  • Glasgow South
  • Glasgow South West
  • Glasgow West
  • Livingston
  • Lothian East (renamed from East Lothian and Lammermuirs)
  • West Dunbartonshire
One Last Tweak

6 constituencies, arranged here in pairs, had really tiny changes that will impact at most a handful of voters – strictly speaking then, a change, but not meaningful:

  • Glasgow North (loses) and Glasgow North East (gains), small portion of Sighthill, so it is all in one constituency
  • Edinburgh South (loses) and Edinburgh South West (gains), literally one block of flats but that knocks the latter constituency out of the totally unchanged column
  • Inverclyde and Renfrewshire West (loses) and Paisley and Renfrewshire North (gains), currently undeveloped land by Bishopton
Now Are You Happy?

That leaves 16 constituencies which have had more significant changes in this final round. Rather than list them here, I’ll go through them in more detail in the next section. Note that one of these constituencies is effectively a double count, as the change since the revised proposals is to return it to the existing constituency boundary.

Political Impacts

As ever, the main thing people are interested in with boundary changes is what the political effects will be. Through this series I’ve generally been talking about seats that would have been marginal in 2019 terms, and I’ll continue to do so here. It is however important to be aware that since the revised proposals there has been rather a lot of political turmoil in Scotland, with the SNP really quite badly bruised at the moment. Based on current polling, a lot more seats than the ones I’ll talk about are “marginal”, but it’d take a lot more time to do comprehensive analysis of those, and the general theme is “if it’s in the Central Belt, Labour have a good chance of winning it regardless of boundary changes.”

As with the analysis of the revised pieces, I’ll be using my unparalleled collation of detailed data from last year’s local elections, including right down to polling district level, to help gauge the impact of boundary changes, after Independents and candidates outside the Holyrood 5 parties and Alba are eliminated and their votes redistributed. Note again that this is not a projection of either 2019 or next election vote shares. Instead, it’s about seeing what the partisan balance is like. If a new boundary is 3% worse for a party in May last year than the current boundary, we can reasonably assume it would have also been worse for them in 2019.

🟡Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross has further expanded since the revised version, adding a stretch centred on Ullapool to a constituency which had already had Kirkhill, Beauly, Black Isle, Dingwall and Strathpeffer bolted on. Given the Lib Dems’ majority in the existing CSER in 2019 was just 204 votes and these changes add genuinely about 20,000 votes from SNP-held seats, there’s no way this isn’t SNP in 2019 terms. Adding Ullapool in seems to reset the rough partisan balance between the SNP and Lib Dems back to where the initial Highland North proposal had it. That’s a harder win for the Lib Dems, but I do think this remains within the realms of possible.

This leads to a consequential change in 🟡Inverness, Skye and West Ross-shire (previously dubbed Inverness-shire and Wester Ross) that’s unlikely to have had major impacts in 2019 terms. It does however fix something that people had been unhappy about in one of the previous attempts at boundary changes, which is making sure Culloden isn’t split from Inverness by taking it back from…

🟡Moray West, Nairn and Strathspey (renamed from Nairn, Strathspey and Moray West) already contained the bulk of the existing Moray seat, but due to having lost Culloden it picks up the stretch between Elgin and the Spey centred on Lhanbryde. That’s a change which favours the Conservatives, though with a slim majority of 513 votes in 2019 on the current boundaries, I’m still certain that this redrawn seat would have been in the SNP column then. 

🔵Aberdeenshire North and Moray East is next in the chain of consequences, as having lost that foothold on the western bank of the Spey, it instead picks up a cluster of inland villages including New Pitsligo, Strichen, Mintlaw and Longside. This actually ends up having pretty much the same net effect on both the Conservatives and SNP, each losing equally to the Lib Dems thanks to reducing the Moray component (where the Lib Dems are very weak) and boosting the Aberdeenshire portion (where they are much stronger).

Last but not least in this cluster, 🔵Gordon and Buchan (renamed from Aberdeenshire Central) only loses the areas listed previously to its northern neighbour – it doesn’t need anywhere else added to keep it within the rules. That slight redrawing infinitesimally favours the Conservatives over the SNP, plus also slightly boosting the Lib Dems. Remember that compared to the existing Gordon seat, this is entirely within Aberdeenshire without any Aberdeen City component, hence my reckoning it’d still clearly overturn the SNP’s 819 vote majority in Gordon and have seen a Conservative victory on 2019 votes.

🟡Perth and Kinross-shire (renamed from Perth and Loch Leven) is the commission’s answer to the deep unhappiness at splitting Kinross-shire and including part of it in with a Fife constituency. That small portion, around Scotlandwell, is returned to the fold here, whilst losing the Aberuthven area, which we’ll get onto in a little while. These changes are very small and hard to parse because of a combination of split and merged polling districts, but basically don’t change anything.

The chain of consequences from Perth and Kinross-shire is that by taking Scotlandwell from 🟡Glenrothes and Mid Fife (renamed from Glenrothes), it then takes West Wemyss from 🟡Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy (renamed from Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath), which takes Kingseat from 🟡Dunfermline and Dollar (renamed from Dunfermline and East Ochils). The only one of these marginal in 2019 terms is of course Cowdenbeath and Kirkcaldy, but changes as shown in the chart above are minuscule.

With all due respect to the good people of the Kingdom of Fife by the way, you’re not so important you get to avoid the legal requirements governing boundary changes. I know pairing Dunfermline and Dollar is a bit weird, but it’s not a uniquely bad one and it’s the fault of FPTP, not the boundary commission. Just re-emphasising that as it’s the one that’s prompted most grumping in my mentions.

There’s another more significant set of consequential changes in the area too. 🟡Alloa and Grangemouth is a major redrawing of the Clackmannanshire and Forth Valley proposal. The most contentious part of that had been including the area around Auchterarder from Perthshire within the seat, which is removed this time. This also sees changes on the 🟡Falkirk end, which has traded away Grangemouth and gets Denny in return. Neither of these would be marginal in 2019 terms, so no charts here.

That Auchterarder component, alongside Aberuthven which was mentioned back in the Perth and Kinross-shire seat, instead get added to a 🟡Stirling and Strathallan seat, which means Stirling almost but didn’t quite make it through this process without changes. That probably is a more natural tie, centring that lobe of the constituency on the Allan Water, even if it makes for a more awkward visual. This will help the Conservatives’ chances, but still not enough to have made it a marginal in 2019 terms.

There are paired swaps between 🟡Airdrie and Shotts (renamed from Airdrie) and 🟡Motherwell, Wishaw and Carluke (renamed from Motherwell and Clydesdale North), with Newmains going into the former in exchange for New Stevenston and Carfin. No partisan balance estimates here as I don’t think either of these would have been marginals in 2019 terms, even if they are now in polling terms.

Similarly, there’s a swap between 🔵Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk and 🔵Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale, with the area around Clovenfords being returned to the former. Although this breaks with the boundaries of the existing Tweeddale wards, it’s does follow the historic boundaries of that county, as well as returning BRS to the status quo. Obviously that means the 2019 result is obvious in that constituency, whilst other changes to DCT aren’t enough to shift it from the Conservatives either. 

The last major politically consequential change, the Lib Dems will absolutely not be able to believe their luck with 🟡Mid Dunbartonshire, a significant redrawing of the revised Bearsden and Campsie Fells, itself a significant redrawing of the initial Kelvin North, which was a major redrawing of East Dunbartonshire, which this final proposal is actually a very minor change from. Basically, the existing East Dunbartonshire constituency does not cover all of East Dunbartonshire Council because it’s too big, with Kirkintilloch being where the split lies. Given Kirky has a population around 23,000, splitting it was a great example of how FPTP doesn’t actually guarantee “local” representation.

The Boundary Commission tried to sort that in their earlier proposals by removing all of Kirkintilloch and Lenzie into another seat, which as much as people may not have liked the crossing of council boundaries, that was inevitable and they actually made a kind of sense. The first time, adding Lennoxtown, Milton of Campsie and Kilsyth made sense in that all of those areas were historically Stirlingshire and lie along the main road south of the Campsies. The second time, with Stepps and Muirhead rather than Kilsyth, made sense as those were in the old Strathkelvin District alongside Bishopbriggs and the Campsie villages. This final version basically keeps the existing East Dunbartonshire, with minor tweaks in Kirkintilloch, but adds the Campsie villages.

That is the most minor change possible to the constituency, and though it weakens the Lib Dems relative to the existing constituency, it’s far better for them than either of the versions that included North Lanarkshire components. I reckon this has single-handedly saved their prospects in the seat – remember, the figures above are from local elections not Westminster, and although the 2% boost for the Lib Dems may not seem that huge, it’s coming from areas where people in the Labour and Conservative columns in the locals are already primed to vote Lib Dem tactically at Westminster in a way folk in Kilsyth or Stepps simply weren’t.

The consequence of this is that the 🟡Cumbernauld and Kirkintilloch redrawing of what had been a proposed Kilsyth Hills and Cumbernauld seat now actually only contains part of Kirkintilloch, which despite the name of the seat remains split, and indeed split such that the town centre isn’t in the constituency with its name. I actually regularly cycle out to Kirkintilloch for one of my “standard” exercise cycles, and I won’t actually reach the Cumbernauld and Kirkintilloch constituency. In case you can’t tell, I just think this is the height of silliness if we’re aiming for “local” representation, but again, the fault lies with FPTP.

What Next?

After two failed reviews, the terms of this review effectively removed the need for the UK Parliament to approve boundary changes. Instead, the UK Government have a four month period to give effect to these proposals, and are unable to modify them in any way. Bearing in mind the usual caveat that the UK’s core constitutional principle of “Parliament can do whatever it bloody well likes” could still mean a last minute ditching of the proposals, it nonetheless seems pretty certain these changes will go ahead.

The last hurrah for the 2005 constituency boundaries in Scotland is likely to come in the widely expected Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election. Whoever wins that (likely Labour candidate Michael Shanks) will be lucky to get even a year out of representing that constituency, as although the next UK General Election is due by January 2025 most people’s money is on not having to endure another miserable winter campaign. 

Whenever that election does roll around, we’ll all have to get used to hearing some different names to what we did during the past five elections. We’re also likely to see a bit of shuffling in terms of where existing MPs stand for re-election, if indeed they do, given the number of constituencies that have been dramatically altered. In line with the BBS focus on the less-covered elections at Holyrood and Councils, I won’t be doing full estimates for 2019 results on the new boundaries, and will leave that to the many, many folk who cover Westminster in depth.

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