Wheeler Briefing: stop the great Tory seat robbery

by Peter Wheeler

On Friday last week, the boundary commissions for England, Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland, each announced the start of the process of reviewing the boundaries of the Parliamentary constituencies on which we will (probably) fight the next general election.

This review will be conducted in line with the recent Parliamentary voting and constituencies bill, and is the Tories’ reward for agreeing to a referendum on AV.


Since 1944, independent Parliamentary boundary commissions have conducted periodic reviews of the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies. The review launched on Friday is the sixth. Each country in the UK has its own boundary commission, which submits a report directly to Parliament, the reviews happening roughly every 10 years and coming into effect at the election after they have been accepted.

The boundary commission would publish provisional recommendations for boundaries, usually on a county or London borough basis. These would be open to public comment and, usually a public enquiry, before the boundary commission published its final proposals. Currently, the boundary commission is required to come up with seats that are roughly equal in electorates (around 68,715 in England ) but is also required to take a number of other factors into account , for example:

  • local government boundaries ;
  • geography
  • community ties


The new legislation cuts the number of seats from 650 to 600 with an average electorate of 76,641.2

The maximum deviation, with a couple of exceptions, is 5%, giving a minimum size for a Parliamentary constituency of 72,810 and a maximum size of 80,473. The only exceptions to these minimum figures are the non-labour seats of the Isle of Wight, Orkney and Shetland and na h-eileanan (formerly the Western Isles) where, apparently, electoral equality isn’t so important.

The first report has to go to Parliament by October 2013 and thereafter every 5 years, as opposed to the current ten. This would be just over 18 months before a general election – if the Parliament goes full term.

The boundary commissions have announced that the distribution of seats after the review will be as follows:

52 Seats (minus seven)


502 Seats (minus 31)


30 Seats (minus ten)

Northern Ireland

16 Seats (minus two)

The boundary commission for England has said that it will publish proposals for new boundaries on a regional basis with seats allocated as follows:


56 Seats, minus 2

East Midlands

46 seats, minus 2


68 seats, minus 5

North East

26 Seats, minus 3

North West

68 Seats, minus 7

South East

83 Seats, minus 1

South West

53 seats, minus 2

West Midlands

54 seats, minus 5


50 seats, minus 4

The boundary commission seems strongly committed to using electoral wards as the basic building blocks for its proposals and will only divide wards where it is otherwise impossible to meet the electoral quota.

They aim to publish their provisional recommendations in the autumn and, in a surprise move will “ be visiting areas across all of England to hear views on the re-drawn boundaries”. Everyone will have a chance to see and comment on the proposals.


– 50 seats disappear – mainly in strong Labour areas.

– Greater frequency of boundary reviews will lead to boundaries changing at every election – meaning greater instability for electors and parties.

– The abolition of public enquiries is a major blow to local democracy – provisional recommendations were often changed as a result of enquiries. It will be interesting to see what the boundary commission “visits” amount to.

– Because recommendations are based on electorates rather than the population of a seat, MPs in inner city seats represent many more people because of higher levels of under-registration in these areas. Though these people may not be on the register they still have problems, giving Labour MPs significantly higher work-loads.

– The Conservatives make much of how we have a far larger legislature than comparable democracies, ignoring two facts:

a) in both Europe and the USA there are a significantly larger number of legislators at a local level: US States, French Mayors;

b) the size of the House of Commons has risen by 4% since the war, the electorate by 40%.

– Crucially for Labour – uncertainty about boundaries makes it difficult for the party to pick candidates in the key marginal seats we need to win and encourages those who would dispense with the members selecting their own candidates.


Let’s be clear, these proposals won’t help Labour and will probably lead to a net loss of seats. We can, however, minimise the damage. This was very much the position with the fourth review in the early/mid 1990s – the last time we were in opposition.

The Tories arrogantly  took it for granted that they would gain 20 seats. Instead, Labour got organised, worked hard at drawing up proposals which united the party , public and our elected representatives and then argued for them in a disciplined fashion. The leadership took the process very seriously and the result was that Labour managed to restrict Tory gains to a handful and make them look amateurish in the process.

The key factor in the process was that the party was determined to win and set about doing so in an organised fashion. That’s the spirit we need to re-capture.

Peter Wheeler is an activist, organiser, trade unionist and former elected member of Labour’s national executive committee.

Tags: , , , ,

Leave a Reply