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The Guest Slot – Harry Hayfield

April 23rd, 2006

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    Boundary Changes : The Great Leveller or An Unfair Advantage?

Since the Second World War there have been seven boundary changes to the United Kingdom parliament. Some have been caused by changes in the UK constitution (for instance the reduction of the Scottish seats) and some have been caused due to the underpopulation of urban centres and the overpopulation of rural areas, but do these changes favour any one party or do they reflect the whole country?

Ted Heath won Election 1970 with a majority of 30 (overturning Harold Wilson’s 96 Labour majority in 1966) when the boundary reviews started, by the time they had finished Britain had gained an extra five constituencies (which you may think seems not much effort for what was a radical sort through of the constituencies that had been in existence since 1955), but boy did the Boundary Commission of the day have it’s work cut out.

A massive 350 constituencies were “rejigged” and to give you an example of the sort of problems they faced, let’s take the two constituencies in Havering borough in London. Romford (in the north of the borough) had an electorate of 79,448 in 1970 whilst Hornchurch (in the south) had an electorate of 99,800 giving the borough a grand total of 179,248. Now that is plainly miles too many for just two constituencies so the Boundary Commission said “Right, let’s split Romford and Hornchurch in half and place them on the left hand side of the borough, and create a new Upminster constituency in the right hand side of the borough”.

So the Boundary Commission have made their judgement and now it’s down to the parties to campaign like billyo. But hold on a second! In 1970 Romford was won by Labour (Lab 53% Con 47%) and Hornchurch was won by the Conservatives (Con 50% Lab 42% Lib 9%), what’s happened to all those people who have found themselves in this new Upminster seat. Well, thanks to those technical whizzkids at the BBC Election Unit we have an answer. It appears that Romford loses Conservatives voters to Upminster and Hornchurch loses Labour voters to Upminster, so by that logic Romford becomes a solid Lab seat, Hornchurch a solid Con seat and Upminster must be therefore a bit of a mix of the two.

And it’s not the only seat to be left in a sort of limbo either. Kingswood, Dudley West, Putney, The Wrekin, West Bromwich West, Hazel Grove are all in the same boat as well as Devon North. (Hang on a moment! Are you trying to tell me that Jeremy Thorpe, Lib MP for Devon North didn’t win his seat!) No, in 1970 Devon North was Lib 44% Con 43% Lab 12% Dem 0% and that allowing for the boundary changes the Liberal majority over Conservative would be reduced even further. But don’t worry the BBC have a way out of this little problem. “If the name’s the same, then so is the party”. So what does all this rejigging do to the party totals.

Well, the clear loser is Labour who lose 9 London seats and the biggest gainers are the Conservatives who gain 11 Home Counties seats, so when we tot up the new starting post positions based on Election 1970 we find that compared with the Con 330 Lab 287 Lib 6 Others 7, the new positions are Con 338 (+8) Lab 284 (-3) Lib 6 Others 7. In other words, a Conservatives do the best out of that boundary change. And as we know, February 1974 led to a hung parliament.

The next set of boundary changes came into play in 1983 increasing the House of Commons by fifteen MP’s and here the benefits for the Conservatives were even more marked. At the 1979 General Election, the Conservatives won 339 seats, to Labour’s 269 and the Liberal’s 11 with 2 Plaid Cymru and 2 SNP members as well giving the Conservatives a majority of 43, but thanks to those wonderful boundary changes that majority rocketed up to a massive 68! How? Well, again Labour seats with a low electorate were merged and new Conservative seats with a high electorate established. The Conservatives gained 20 seats, Labour lost 8, the Liberals lost 2 and the Others (in Northern Ireland) gained 1, so it was no real surprise at all that the Conservatives won the 1983 general election.

There was a slight boundary change in 1992 when Milton Keynes got split into two and the interesting boundary change in Scotland when Loch Tay was brought into Tayside North and that several hundred fish now had a Conservative MP to represent them in Westminster as opposed to a Lib Dem MP.

But rhe next big boundary change came in 1997. Surely in the midst of an impending Labour landslide Labour would be rewarded. No chance! Election 1992 saw the Conservatives win 336 seats, Labour 271, Liberal Democrats 20 and the Others 24, along came the Boundary Commissioners, rejigged the country and left Britain with 343 Conservatives (+7), 273 Labour (+2), 18 Liberal Democrats (-2) and 24 Others. Yet again, the Conservatives gained seats as a result of the Boundary Commission.

At the most recent changes, caused by the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, again Labour had a poor showing due to boundary changes managing to lose 10 seats (of the 13 got rid off), so when the next set of boundary changes comes around for the 2009/2010 general election, what can we expect? Well, the simple answer is “More of the same!”

Using the same method as the BBC back in 1974 and using information published by Martin Baxter on his website, I’ve done a calculation for the new boundaries at the next election and surprise, surprise, the Conservatives gain whilst Labour lose seats! As we know at Election 2005, Labour won 356 seats to the Conservatives 198, the Liberal Democrats 62 and the Others on 30. After all the rejigging of the Boundary Commission, what do we get? Labour winning 348 seats (-8), the Conservatives winning 213 seats (+15), the Liberal Democrats winning 60 seats (-2) and the Others winning 29 seats (-1). Yet another example of the Conservatives gaining due to boundary changes!

But it doesn’t all go the Conservatives way in this latest rejig of seats. Clwyd West in Wales for instance was a sign of great jubilation as the Conservative got their first seat in North Wales for nearly 8 years, but hold on a second! Lab 36% Con 36% Lib Dem 13% Plaid 11% Others 3%! “No” cry the Clwyd West Conservatives, “don’t say we have to gain the seat all over again!” I’m afraid so and it’s not just the Conservatives who have the occasional hiccup. Take the Liberal Democrats and their mighty gain of Rochdale. Sorry Menzies it’s back to square one for you there (Lab 41% Lib Dem 40% Con 11% Others 8%) and even Plaid Cymru have troubles losing Arfon to Labour by 95!

So seven sets of boundary changes since the Second World War and since 1974 every single boundary change has helped the Conservatives and hindered Labour! What we do know is that come the next election, David Cameron will have a spring in his step as he sets off in his battlebus (but a spring created by the Boundary Comissioners!)

Harry Hatfield

Note by Mike Smithson.
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