Drawing the Lines of Democracy

Boundary Commission for England’s proposed constituencies for 2023; Copyright © Boundary Commission for England

New Constituency Boundaries

The Boundary Commission for England is in the second phase of public consultations right now, and until 4 April. You can find information on the changes to the constituency boundaries that the BCE is proposing here.

The reason that we have to change constituency boundaries every so often is population change. There are only 650 seats for MPs in the House of Commons. In 1950, one MP represented 55 000 voters: in the present day, the average is some 73 000. By law, a constituency (new or old) must contain at least 69 724 voters and, at most, 77 062. 

What’s New?

The 2022 proposals allocate constituencies:

  • England 543 (+10)
  • Scotland 57 (–2)
  • Wales 32 (–8)
  • Northern Ireland 18 (no change)

Of the ten new English constituencies, eight are in the South East, one of them in Kent (the Weald). Only two are in the North. This shows that there is still population drift from Wales and, to a smaller extent, Scotland into England, and that London and all surrounding areas exert a pull. This is in spite of Government efforts to relocate big government departments out of London, to revive the desirability of places like Darlington,which will shortly get 200 jobs from the Department of Culture Media and Sport.

They’ll Never Believe It

Some people are cynical about boundary changes and assume that whichever party is in government will sway the boundary decisions. But the Boundary Commission, on their website, are emphatic that they are independent of government. They are bound by some key criteria:

  • the size of the total electorate for each constituency must be roughly equal (limits as listed above)
  • they must avoid splitting wards
  • boundaries must have regard to the existing ties of the community
  • they must engage in public consultation

There Is Method In Their Meetings

So there are two rounds of face-to face meetings, arranged in each region. The second round of such meetings is underway now. The one for Kent will be at Ashford Civic Centre on 24–25 March, bookable by Eventbrite.

My previous article last year focused on the new Weald constituency proposed for Kent which will split the current Ashford constituency into two. The main reason for this is obviously the population increase in Ashford with all the new housing developments.

Take a Little Here, Give a Little There

However they are not proposing to change ward boundaries (that is the function of the local government boundary review – a separate process). What this national boundary commission proposes is to shift the rural wards west of Ashford into the new Weald constituency, and two wards to the North into Faversham constituency, and take two North Downs wards into Ashford.

The process of democratic consultation is transparent in that the comments so far received can be read on the website of the boundary commission. Each of the political parties (Conservatives, Labour, LibDems, Green) have put in comments. The Conservatives actually have two alternative proposals for the Weald constituency, whilst Labour and the Greens fundamentally agree with it as is. The LibDems are bothered that the proposals still leave Maidstone split into three, and would prefer to see an elongated Faversham constituency that takes some of Weald but skirts Maidstone.

Beware of Local Feelings

The local Ashford LibDems rather sympathise with the view of the Kingsnorth Parish council that they should be with the Ashford constituency rather than go to the Weald (the existing ties criteria). There is also an individual, Peter Whitehead, who has put in detailed counter-proposals at BCE 81068 for the Kent boundaries. (I wonder why he is so diligent? Is he an “Independent”?)

The Boundary Commission also specifies whether a constituency is “cc” (county) or “b” (borough). This “b” designation is confusing, as many places that are boroughs in local government are in “c” for this purpose. The purpose is electoral finance.

Spending Limits for Elections

There are strict limits on how much may be spent on an electoral campaign by any candidate – a sensible regulation that stops the nation sliding back to “pocket boroughs” and ruled by the rich. But this is a fearsome set of rules that has to be complied with to the last penny by every party agent. They allow more money for rural areas, the rationale being that it costs more to get around with leaflets and canvassers in a large far-flung area. In urban areas, delivery is quicker and cheaper door-by-door.

More recently this finance difference has been challenged by those who analyse elections. In urban areas, elections are often fought more fiercely, by more minority parties. With such competitiveness, it would be good for democracy if those areas could spend more. Added to this, rural areas tend to have older voters, and the big cities, with large universities, tend to have more young people.

Winners and Losers

Some have argued that this difference in spend allowance disadvantages younger voters and minority parties. This means that some of the classifications of the boundary commission in urban areas are contested, as it has financial implications for those active in electioneering.

Most people are completely unaware of all these niceties of democratic elections. But it is a good thing for the UK that we have an independent boundary commission and a transparent system of public consultation. And we should be thankful to the people who pay attention to it, and submit proposals or counter-proposals (34 204 comments so far).

Don’t Take Democracy for Granted

Democracy has to work in detail. If we get careless about it, it can become a sham, like in many places in the world ruled by dictators who stage show elections. Russia staged sham elections in eastern Ukraine in the constituencies it wanted to declare for Russia and it is alleged that they cheated on the vote counts.

Ukrainians are well aware of the need for local democracy and are furious that one elected mayor has been hooded and kidnapped. They are willing to sacrifice their lives for democracy to the last man standing. Here in Kent, England, we need to support democracy down to the last detail, even if it seems a bit boring.