The publication of the independent Boundary Commission’s initial proposals to redraw constituencies in England and Wales has predictably sparked much public debate. Communities are understandably poring over the detail of the draft proposals, but as they do so it is vital we do not lose sight of why reform of our constituency boundaries is essential for a modern democracy.
It was nearly 180 years ago that the Chartists first proposed in their People’s Charter of 1838 the principle of equal sized constituencies. The injustice that they saw was obvious: if the electorate in one constituency was twice the size of another, then effectively one person’s vote in a smaller constituency would be worth twice that of a voter in the larger constituency.
Today, that injustice still remains. Wirral West, with an electorate of 54,232, is given equal representation to Manchester Central, with 87,339 voters. In Bristol West 82,067 voters are given the same democratic right as nearby Bath, with just 60,996 voters, while seats such as Arfon in Wales (37,739) are judged the democratic equal of North West Cambridgeshire (89,991).
The sheer difference in size between the largest and smallest constituencies in England and Wales is perhaps best illustrated by a simple calculation. Take the total sizes of the 20 largest constituencies and the 20 smallest constituencies – the difference between the two is a similar size to the population of Cornwall. The difference in size between the largest 30 seats and the smallest 30 seats is similar to the population of Leeds. The need for reform was clear to the Chartists 178 years ago, but now- more than ever- reform is essential.
In fact, in recent years, the yawning gap between the largest and smallest seats has only grown worse, creating an even greater democratic deficit. Analysis by the Cabinet Office reveals that in every region across England and Wales, the difference in size between the largest and smallest constituencies has continued to widen. In the North West, for example, the largest seats have grown from 79,000 electors in 2000 to 87,000 in 2015, while the smallest seat has shrunk from 56,000 to around 54,000 over the same period. In Wales, it is an identical situation, with the smallest seat of Arfon shrinking from around 43,000 to 37,700, while the largest seats have grown from 68,000 to 72,300.
Current boundaries are drawn up on these vastly out of date figures from 2000. By 2020, if we continue to rely on this data, then MPs will be representing seats at the General Election drawn up on figures two decades old. This is an unprecedented situation – never has such out of date information been used as the foundation of our Parliamentary constituencies.
The current boundary review has already been legislated for by the previous Parliament: indeed, its further delay is a result of action taken by Labour and Lib Dem MPs to vote for the boundary review to be delayed and begin now. The review was also a clear manifesto commitment of this Government. There can be no further delay to the historic injustice of unequal constituencies: it would be unprecedented if MPs were allowed to fight the next General Election on seats drawn up twenty years ago.
The proposals themselves, as the Boundary Commissions have made clear, are a ‘first draft’. There will now be extensive consultation on the proposals, before revised proposals are drawn up and published next year. The Boundary Commissions are keen to hear all representations on their proposals, and there is a specially designed consultation website available at www.bce2018.org.uk to view the proposals and comment on them.
We want a democracy that works for everyone: if we are to achieve this, then the principle of equal-seats, effectively restoring the principle of one-member one-vote, ending historic inequalities in our electoral map, must be delivered by a Conservative government.