Mersey Banks

In Cheshire, North West, redistricting on September 13, 2011 by dadge

The parliamentary boundary review process used to be ridiculous; now it’s stupid. It’s clear that in many areas the Commission has been unable to find a satisfactory arrangement of constituencies because of the new 5% rule, which states that all seats must have an electorate between 72,810 and 80,473. This has led them to create some huge review areas, for example the three in London with around 1.5 million voters in each. Big review areas are a mistake because if in the future you just need to change one or two constituencies this will have a knock-on effect on loads of other constituencies.

But the more obvious problem is the creation of seats like Mersey Banks. (pdf) This seat stretches from Port Sunlight, a suburb of Birkenhead on the Wirral, across to Weaverham, a suburb of Northwich in mid Cheshire, and over the Mersey (by boat) to Ditton, a suburb of the old Lancashire town of Widnes. Not only that, its main centre, the town of Ellesmere Port, has had two bites taken out of it and given to Chester. The whole seat is reminiscent of past and present gerrymandered seats in the USA, and yet this isn’t the result of gerrymandering, it’s the result of stupidity. It’s the result of the 5% rule.

Earlier this year parliament voted in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, one of whose provisions is this unhelpful rule. In the past there was no rule about how close to the average each seat should be, and the rules that there were made it clear that maintaining geographical ties was much more important than size of electorate.

Now, somebody, I don’t know who, prevailed on David Cameron that we needed to introduce a rule that all seats should be within certain limits, electorate-wise. (His first suggestion was 3.5%, but that would’ve been crazy.) There is a mythology here that states that (1) a huge difference in constituency sizes skews election results; specifically, (2) that “Labour seats” tend to be smaller than “Tory seats”, making it more difficult for the Tories to win elections. Now, statement (2) is true, but it does not actually follow logically from statement (1). The problem is not the variation in constituency size per se (although bringing the variation within limits of +/-10-12% would be no bad thing), the problem is which seats are big and which are small. The new rules tackle that problem directly by ensuring that seats throughout the UK are about the same size (unlike the previous rules that allowed seats in Wales and some other areas to be a lot smaller than average) and procedural changes have been introduced to ensure that the constituency map of the UK keeps pace with population change, instead of lagging by 10 or 15 years. But the 5% rule is unnecessary and painful, for electors and MPs.

And yet those MPs, most of whom know very little about psephology apart from what their parties tell them or what they read in the papers, went along with it. Anyone who is an expert in this field could’ve told them that the result would be Mersey Banks and all the other weird seats that are in the current proposals, but did any of them think to ask?


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