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What’s in a constituency name?

3 min read

Constituency names proposed for the next election would be the longest and most cumbersome since Britain first began with single-member one-person one-vote constituencies in 1950. Philip Cowley explores why

In 1950, the average constituency title was 12.8 characters long. It is currently 15.1, and the proposals of the various boundary commissions weigh in at 16.4. In 1950, just 14 per cent of constituency names contained 20 or more characters; the equivalent figure for 2010 was 26 per cent. The figure for those now proposed is 33 per cent.

Constituency names comprising just one word (“Gower,” “Westbury,” “Ayr,” and so on) are in real decline. In the 1950s, more than 40 per cent of constituency seat names consisted of a single word; that is currently true of just over 30 per cent, and it is due to fall again to 27 per cent.

Relatedly, there has been a noticeable rise in the use of the dread word “and” (as in “Windsor and Maidenhead,” or “Moray and Nairn”), linking two (and sometimes more) communities. In 1950, this applied to just 53 constituencies. It currently applies to 161. Of the names proposed for the next election, a full 224 constituencies have “and” somewhere in their title.

In other words, in 1950 “and” featured in fewer than one in 10 constituency names; it features in more than a third of those proposed for 2024. The new boundaries are the first time there will be more constituencies with “and” in their title than there are constituency names consisting of a single word.

This prolixity is being driven by two factors. The first is that boundary redistributions in the United Kingdom have increasingly come to prioritise creating seats consisting of (roughly) equal electorates over the desire for seats to represent actual communities. The current boundary reviews have been given much stricter limits on the extent to which inter-constituency variation is allowed in size. All other things being equal, constituencies named after organic communities might be expected to have shorter, easier, names than those where prioritising the mathematic principle leads to a need to create constituencies out of multiple different areas all with their own identities.

In addition, the process of boundary redistribution now includes greater public participation. Constituency names are a frequent source of dispute at public hearings. Boundary commissions have in the past been relatively relaxed about agreeing to changes in nomenclature, seeing it as a relatively easy way to demonstrate being consultative, without having to make substantive changes to a seat in a way which would have knock on effects on other constituencies.

Constituencies named after organic communities might be expected to have shorter, easier, names

We can measure this directly, by comparing the seats originally proposed in this set of reviews to the revised versions just released. The process of consulting the public has added an additional 15 “and” constituencies, for example, and driven up the average overall length by 0.6 of a character. The original proposals were already the longest and most cumbersome; public consultation made them even worse.

Does this issue require immediate ministerial action? Probably not. Is it perhaps the nerdiest thing you’ve ever read? More likely. But still, it is worth considering at what point constituency names become too cumbersome to be easily or accurately used. Do these longer titles get used, in full and accurately, or are they just abbreviated or mangled? If the latter is the case – and anecdotally, it seems to be – then perhaps we should at least attempt to keep their number to a bare minimum.

Philip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University London

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