Has it come to this?

In redistricting on October 18, 2011 by dadge

…or, The Perils of Daisy-Chaining

I regularly get apologists for the Boundary Commission whining at me that since it’s possible to redistrict the whole of England without splitting a single ward, it’s unecessary to split wards, so the Commission has done its job properly, counter-proposals shouldn’t split wards, and none of the constituencies that are finally agreed will split wards.

These people are  missing the point. A British parliamentary constituency has never been – and should never be – just an assemblage of wards.

Redistricting is a balance between:

1. minimum change – For the sake of MP’s and their constituents, it’s not good to change who you serve or who you are served by – unless by means of an election! The government has explicity removed the minimum-change requirement from the Commission this time, because of the difficulty of limiting change in the face of the new law about balancing electorates, but that does not give the Commission carte blanche to disrespect the current constituency map.

2. keeping to local authority boundaries – The law is clear that the Commission should respect county, unitary authority, and London borough boundaries. It has singularly failed to do that this time, therefore I would say that it has misdirected itself and set its redistricters off on a daisy-chaining exercise that is completely unwarranted.

3. respecting local ties – This has always been one of the mantras of the Commission and the Review, yet it appears to have gone out of the window. People in towns that they’re planning to split are campaigning against this new cavalier attitude, but will they be ignored?


4. balancing electorates – When I was new to this game, back in 2001, I took the creed of  “one person one vote” so literally that I said the Boundary Commission should start at Land’s End, put the first 70,000 voters in the first constituency and then just carry on, sweeping in an arc across the country, until the 650 seats were filled.

The Commission (and others) explained to me there’s more to redistricting than that, and as I came to understand the process better I started to agree with them. There is a need to balance electorates within reasonable margins, say +/- 10-12% (which the Commission often failed to do in the past) but there’s no need to be anal about it. I analysed the 2001 and 2005 elections and discovered that, if we exclude the seats that were way too small or way too big from the analysis, random variation in constituency size has no effect on the result. 


Having established the above criteria, I have no idea how the Commission came to the decision not to split any wards in its Review. Without splitting wards only the 4th criterion can be met, whereas with ward-splitting  all four criteria can be satisfied.

Well, I say I have no idea, but in fact I have several ideas:

1. Expediency. It’s time-consuming to get the sub-ward-level data you need to work out the electorates of constituencies where wards are split. So let’s not bother, eh.

2. Keeping the genie in the bottle. There’s a fear that allowing ward-splitting would make the consultation process excessively complicated, and encourage gerrymandering. The Commission should have greater confidence in its abilities to cope with these possibilities. And I’ve made one suggestion of how ward-splitting could be limited effectively.

3. Pressure from parliament. Politicians think wards are very important building blocks, not just in redistricting, but in political life as a whole. In the House of Lords Charles Falconer proposed an amendment to the 2011 Act that would’ve prevented the Commission from splitting wards. Reading the debate*, the tension between the 5% Law and the Wards Rule is raised, and it’s suggested that if the no-split-wards policy is to be maintained, the 5% margins should be widened to 7.5% or 10%. But while Lord Falconer backed down, the Government did not, and when Nick Clegg and others in the Government voice their support for the Commission’s policy of not splitting wards I wonder whether they are as knowledgeable about the consequences as they are in The Other Place?

4. Is it possible that the Commission don’t know what they’re doing? It’s all very well for Nick Clegg not to understand the science of redistricting, it’s another thing for the Commission themselves not to understand. Yet the Commission is made up of two lawyers and a council manager, only one of whom appears to be an expert in electoral law, and none of whom is a geographer or a statistician. I would be interested to hear from any geographers who were approached by the Commission for advice in the run-up to the current Review.

As far as statisticians are concerned, most of the workforce of the Commission are statisticians! I’d be interested to hear if any of them, like the little boy seeing the Emperor in his “new clothes”, had the nerve to tell their masters what a no-split-ward constituency map was going to look like.


Has it come to this? This is the type of tool that is now available to aid redistricting in the UK. Wonderful though it is, it only encourages the kind of daisy-chaining we should be seeking to avoid. As you can see, I had a go at Wales (I started in Holyhead) only to discover when I got to Glamorgan that I’m 20,000 voters short! (On the image you can also see one of a couple of wards that I found that refused to be clicked on.)

The local-authority and constituency boundaries are there, but not easy to spot, and to make a tool like this really effective it would need to highlight orphan wards and wards that have changed seat, list how many authorities each seat includes wards from and how many seats each authority is split between.

Redistricting isn’t a numbers game, it’s an important part of our democracy, producing constituencies which aid the democratic process by giving electors a proper sense of representation. The ward fetish is getting in the way and has to end.

*There was a good (and very long) discussion of the issues in the House of Lords, 24/1/11, Hansard columns 679-744. Lord Falconer introduces his amendment at column 716, but withdraws it at the end.


One Response to “Has it come to this?”

  1. “I got to the end that I’m 20,000 voters short for the last constituency!”

    That won;t happen if you keep an eye on the average of assigned and average of unassigned

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