Electoral musical chairs comes to Wales – will voters and politicians lose out?

Electoral law is in the news again in the UK, and this time it’s Wales’ turn. Radical plans to reduce the number of constituencies in Wales were published by the Boundary Commission this week. But what do they mean for Wales?

What is happening?

One of the first Bills introduced to the UK Parliament by the coalition government formed in May 2010 involved reducing the number of MPS from 650 to 600. The Coalition justified this on the basis that it would save the country money. The reputation of MPs was low at the time on the back of the expenses scandal so it was popular policy. However, partisan calculations were not doubt present as well.

Boundaries are proposed in the UK by independent bodies called Boundary Commissions, not by politicians themselves (thankfully!). Reducing the number of MPs requires reducing the number constituencies so they have been busy drawing up new proposal to cut the UK electoral map into 600 rather than 650 pieces. Plans have already been published for Scotland and England. This week it was Wales’ turn.

What effect will it have for Wales?

Four main things:

Unfamiliar and confusing seats

First, old constituencies will largely go out the window. There will be 30 brand new constituencies and 15 will be wholly contained within a new constituency. Only 10 remain the same. You may need to check where your MP will be!

These new constituencies may be unfamiliar but also confusing. This is because the government has also stipulated that constituencies must be drawn up by maths and not communities. Boundaries used to be based on the idea of communities – MPs were to be elected to represent distinct communities, and electoral equality was secondary to that goal. The Boundary Commission had the thankless task of drawing up boundaries which are between nearly 73,000 and just over 80,000 voters. Many constituencies have therefore had to be broken up to meet this criteria. Small towns that used to be a constituency may not be big enough any more and might have to join with somewhere else. There will be some odd constituencies. One Plaid MP expressed concern about:

” two totally different communities being put together despite a large mountain separating them, as well as a number of proposals where two villages in the same community have been separated. We are also worried by the size of some of the proposed constituencies.”

For example, Caerphilly will no longer have its own constituency because it will be twinned with Cardiff North. Llanelli will take some areas currently within the Gower boundary. Neath will expand to include parts of Gower, Swansea East and Aberavon. There’ll be a new seat called Gower and Swansea West.

Less power for Wales in Westminster

Many people in Wales may not be concerned that 10 MPs will be losing their jobs – espeically at a time when many in Wales are losing theirs. But Wales and individual citizens will lose out. There will be fewer MPs at Westminister representing Wales. Most of Wales’ constituencies were around 57,000 citizens in size. The new electoral quota of c.76,000 registered voters means than Wales will have only 30 MPs, rather than 40. This cuts Wales’ representation by a quarter. Architects of the system say that this is because Wales has long been overrepresented in Westminster in the past and the new changes make for equal representation. Nonetheless, Wales will have less influence in UK government as a result of these changes. Individual citizens may find that their MP is now more remote and less able to represent their views because they have to represent 75,000 citizens and not 53,000.

Career uncertainty for politicians

There will be considerable political uncertainly for MPs and in the longer term, AMs. Constituency redrawing always brings uncertainly for politicians because it makes their jobs unsafe. Many politicians have safe seats which they know they will win. However, this time it is an even more intense game of musical chairs with 10 seats being taken away. There will be a political scrap within parties for prize seats. Some high profile politicians may end up without a job.

More re-drawing for 2020

Further re-drawing may happen again very soon. The new system bases the constituencies on the number of registered voters in each constituency. However, the UK government is currently planning to make changes to the way that people register which is widely thought to reduce the number of people on the register. From 2014 it plans to introduce a system of individual registration which will make it more bureaucratic for a citizen to register to vote. When this was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2002 there was a 10% drop in the register, within the effect being greater in urban areas. If registration levels drop by 10% in the UK, then most constituencies will not be the right size anymore and another round of constituency redrawing may begin.

The government denies that a decline in levels of registration will occur as a result of plans to implement individual electoral registration. My own research suggests, that unless serious compensatory mechanisms are put in place, this will happen.

Who will gain?

The Conservatives in Westminster had become concerned with how the existing boundary system benefitted the Labour Party in general elections and this was one of the motives for the reforms. The changes will certainly help the Conservatives in 2015, although not as much as they might hope. It will however, effectively reduce representation in areas that do not support the Conservatives e.g. Wales and urban Britain in general.

Within Wales the position is different. Increasing the size of the constituencies tends to disadvantage the smaller parties – these being the Conservatives and the Liberals. The Conservatives and Liberals may find themselves with less Welsh representation in London – which would seem like an own goal.

If we get a new electoral system for the Welsh Assembly as a result of the constituency changes, then power within Wales will also be significantly affected.

What happens next?

The Boundary Commission has only published proposals. They will undertake public consultations (details are on their website) and voters can attend these and have their say about their constituency. There is time to make your views known.

The final proposals have also been to be approved by Parliament. It was initially thought that this approved was a given. The Coalition has a majority in government so would be very likely to approve their own plans. However, some Conservative MPs have become very concerned about how disruptive these plans have become – especially if their own seat is at risk. Baroness Warsi has said that ‘I agree with some of our MPs that some proposals are mad and insane’ . Mark Field MP has described the changes as ‘…somewhat more disruptive than we had in mind’. There is still every chance that the whole process might collapse and constituency redrawing never happens.

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