Musical chairs at Westminster as the boundaries are shifted again

By Angus Bromhead

On Tuesday morning, Lib Dem, Labour and Tory MPs alike would have been choking on their muesli and preparing to whinge as plans were revealed to shift constituency boundaries considerably (again). At least fifty seats are at risk in the nationwide game of musical chairs.

The changes are larger than expected and look to affect a number of high-profile Members of Parliament who will be forced to jostle for seats in previously safe constituencies. The Boundary Commission aims to reduce the number of seats to 600 from 650.What are the changes and what does this reduction mean for parliament and the electorate in general? Perhaps more importantly, do we care?

The changes do not at first seem to discriminate in favour of any one party. However, what is surprising is the number of MPs affected. In fact, as few as 77 constituencies will not be changed, which means that the majority will face significant changes and challenges in upcoming elections.

One outraged Tory MP was heard to complain: “The Boundary Commission has worked very hard to make us all feel miserable’’; which is a little glib considering the severity of cuts imposed on the vast majority of the population. Notable MPs under threat include George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Chris Huhne, Ed Balls, Vince Cable and Tessa Jowell amongst others. The trifling 12M savings are not a valid explanation in comparison to vast government debts.  Whilst the public is unlikely to show much, if any, pity the reasons need exploring.

Imaginative boundary sculpting has long been a staple of British democracy since the early days of the infamous rotten boroughs. A cynic’s response is that the incumbent government will almost always shift boundaries to their advantage and serve their strategic ends in the next election. Labour was certainly accused of this.

Considering the Boundary Commission’s supposed independence, another reason is that changes are needed to respond to population movement. Cities, suburbs and towns tend to grow and shrink depending on people’s prosperity and the constituencies need to change as a result.  Perhaps the best explanation, this time, is that the shifts are an attempt to shrink our proportionally large parliament.

In comparison to countries of a similar size such as France and Italy, Britain has long had a disproportionate number of members of parliament. The current boundary system means that constituencies can have as many as 92,000 or as few as 41,000 voters.  New boundaries will drastically reduce this disparity which can only be a good thing for voters within 5% of the average.

On the whole this seems like a progressive and positive move in the right direction. Whilst it is not necessarily Labour’s fault that the distribution has tended to be to their advantage, the alterations will work to make the system fairer and diminish the bias.  Allegations that having fewer MPs will mean that the electorate would be even less linked to their MP do not hold water. Instead, there will be more marginal seats and politicians will be forced to work harder for their local constituents and the various parties’ policies will have more of an effect. This voter urges you not to listen to the outraged complaints of MPs and realise the importance of parliamentary reform.

Reformists need not get too excited. MPs are being encouraged to give their views in a 12 week consultation period even before the Bill makes it to parliament for debate in 2013. It is unlikely that the changes will be fully implemented in time for the next election. Public trust in the accountability of politicians and the validity parliamentary representation is at an all-time low, so many believe that any measures taken to improve this must be good. When the music stops should we care about the feelings of MPs affected in this process?  Not a bit of it- they now have an opportunity to show their worth and tighten links with constituents.


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