Boundary Battles - the fight to stay on the electoral map
As the boundary commissions lay out their proposals for redrawing the political map of Britain from July 2023, some MPs may face a fight to find a seat. Laurence Sleator reports
In 1812 when Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry approved a new Boston Senate district boundary deemed favourable for his own party, his name inadvertently became a byword for electoral manipulation forever.
With the odd shape of the patch resembling a salamander, an outraged local newspaper coined the phrase “gerrymander” to signify the boundary monster Gerry had created.
Since then, from national elections to the smallest parish ward, nothing exercises politicians more than perceived attempts from the other side to game the system – or gerrymandering. It means any attempt to redraw the electoral map becomes one of the most contentious processes in Westminster. And this current review is no different.
The four – one for each of the United Kingdom’s nations – independent boundary commissions in charge of the process have laid out their proposals for what the 650 parliamentary constituencies should look like from July 2023.
Though up to two more rounds of consultation await, the plans see England handed an extra 10 seats in the House of Commons, with eight taken from Wales and two from Scotland; Northern Ireland keeps its 18 seats.
The purpose of the review is to equalise the number of voters in each constituency, with each seat – bar five protected islands – supposed to contain between 69,724 and 77,062 electors.
There is consensus it is needed: currently more than 60 per cent of seats sit outside this threshold, with the current Westminster boundaries based on electoral data from around 20 years ago.
Frustrated commissioners have watched their years of hard work amount to nothing as the coalition government argued over how to cut the number of MPs to 600, before successive prime ministers dithered over the options.
As politicians bickered, population shifts meant people flocked to the south-east, south-west and London, and this is reflected in the latest allocation of seats.
All are given more constituencies at the expense of the north-west, north-east and the West Midlands.
Based on the demographic of voters in new seats and historic voting patterns, pollsters can now make a stab at predicting which party benefits from the changes.
There is nobody more f***** in Parliament by this boundary change than me
Lord Hayward, a Conservative peer and election expert, says that based on historic results he would expect his party to benefit to the tune of between five and 10 more seats next time round.
“Look at the regions that are the big gainers: the south-east gains seven [Westminster seats], the south-west gains three, East of England gains three, London gains two. If you take out London, all the areas I’ve reeled off are heavily Conservative areas,” he tells The House.
But, he adds, Labour would not necessarily bear the brunt of the changes, with some losses offset by gains in London.
Instead, it is the smaller parties that may suffer, with Plaid Cymru, the SNP and the Lib Dems all affected by the cut in seats for Scotland and Wales; the challenge for Sir Ed Davey’s party is also made tougher in the south-west.
Watching just as closely as the pollsters are MPs themselves. When the commissions map out the invisible lines that run through the UK, whole wards of voters unsympathetic to an incumbent party can be added to their patch, or steadfast supporters removed.
This shift can be enough to make an incumbent MP with a handsome majority nervous, increase the odds against them in a marginal seat, or leave some without a seat altogether.
According to Lord Hayward, former government minister Chris Skidmore could be “squeezed out” in Kingswood as his South Gloucestershire seat takes in more of Labour-backing Bristol.
Big names like Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and ex-cabinet ministers Gavin Williamson and Matt Hancock all face a blue-on-blue battle with their neighbouring Conservative MP over who gets to stand in the redrawn seats.
Elsewhere, ex-Lib Dem leader Tim Farron, now the only non-Conservative MP in Cumbria, will face a tough challenge to stay in Parliament after more than 20 years representing Westmorland and Lonsdale, and Labour MP Cat Smith, currently MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood , will be torn between representing either the people of Lancaster or those in Blackpool North and Fleetwood in future.
She is critical of the plans, saying the cuts in seats in Scotland and Wales may fuel nationalism in those nations.
“It is problematic that there will be those who will make the argument that this is a transfer of seats from Scotland [and] Wales to south-east England,” she says. “Given the broader political narrative that is particularly unhelpful right now.”
With any boundary review, it is inevitable that some MPs will fall through the cracks.
Andrew Percy, currently Conservative MP for Brigg and Goole, is a good example; under the plans, his seat will be ripped into four.
“As I said to my office [when the proposals were announced], ‘I’m not just f*****, I’m royally f*****’. I literally just ended up laughing at myself. There is nobody more f***** in Parliament by this boundary change than me, I don’t think.”
Splitting the seat has left Percy in limbo; under party rules he has no right to challenge Conservative MPs who hold the seats surrounding his. “All of them have said to me they want to stand again – we’ve had perfectly polite conservations about it,” he says.
Percy is now considering his future. “I’ll have done this 14 years by then. I always imagined I’d do this for eight to 10 years, so if there isn’t a seat for me, there isn’t a seat for me. I’m fairly accepting of it, I’m fairly philosophical about it. Do I want to rush off and become an MP in Surrey because there’s a seat available? The reality is no. I’m from the local area, I enjoy representing the local area.”
While Percy is not contemplating leaving to fight elsewhere, it is a path some ambitious MPs do decide to take.
Do I want to rush off and become an MP in Surrey because there’s a seat available?
Ahead of the 1997 general election, with Tony Blair riding high in the polls and the seat of Ealing Acton reconfigured, Lord Young of Cookham – then Sir George Young, transport secretary in John Major’s government – knew he was in trouble.
“It was difficult. You’re busy climbing a political ladder here at Westminster and suddenly you discover the bottom of the ladder is on a pavement that has disappeared,” Young tells The House.
The “bicycling baronet” gave up his seven-mile daily cycle into Westminster when his local association – aware the writing was on the wall – told him to start looking elsewhere for a safer seat, with Young eventually securing North West Hampshire – beating John Bercow to the nomination.
In Westminster parlance, the flight of a sitting MP to a safer seat is known as a “chicken run” – although, publicly at least, every MP will have a principled reason for leaving. For the accused, the definition of the phrase itself should be subject to scrutiny. “I think you have to distinguish between seats that were marginal and become more difficult, and seats that are fundamentally changed. Although [chicken run] was a term that was used, I didn’t find it was attached that often to me,” Young says. “There were other people – I’m not going to name any names – whose seats became more difficult.”
The conclusion of this review is somewhat different to its predecessors. Due to MPs’ previous inability to agree (and conscious the public may not react well to millions of pounds being wasted) the legislation enacting the review was amended so the commissions’ final recommendations are implemented automatically – without MPs getting a vote.
That means those looking to continue their ascent of the greasy pole may be faced with some tough decisions.
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