There are a lot of government announcements at the moment, some seemingly with a shelf life of less than 24 hours. But there was one quiet data release yesterday morning that will definitely affect the next general election, likely to be in 2024. It was the publication by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) of the number of registered electors, as of March 2020 in each local authority, constituency and ward across the UK.
These numbers are important because they will determine the number of parliamentary constituencies each nation and region will have, and the also the detail of the new constituency map, which could include boundary changes that might significantly alter the political complexions of a number of seats.
The current map was settled in 2007 on the basis of figures dating back to February 2000, so it is definitely time for some updating to reflect movement of population. However, the rules that apply now are different from those that were used back then, and different again from the rules that the Cameron-Clegg government introduced in 2011, which led to failed boundary reviews in 2013 and 2018.
The 2011 scheme would have reduced the size of the House of Commons to 600, while in the 2020 version it is fixed at 650. This is a sensible accommodation to political reality – MPs do not like voting themselves out of a job. Reducing the number to 600 would have caused major disruption to all constituencies and – perhaps particularly painfully to the current government – the damage would have been severe in the “Red Wall” and pitched a lot of new Conservative MPs against each other in a vicious game of musical chairs. There was a ready-made excuse in the form of Brexit to relent on cutting the number of MPs – all that new sovereignty will require more MPs to exercise and scrutinise, apparently.
How will the new electors statistics affect London? Since 2000, the capital’s population has grown faster than the national average and it is now entitled to an extra two parliamentary constituencies – there will be 75 London MPs rather than 73 in the next parliament. If boundaries were drawn on the basis of population, London would gain even more, because the capital has particularly large numbers of people who are hard to register (young people and private tenants) or who are not eligible (foreign residents need constituency services, too).
We cannot tell what the detail of the new constituencies will look like. The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) will publish its initial proposals in the summer, and these are then open for consultation. Political parties, local authorities, civic societies and other interested groups and individuals can submit their views on the initial proposals and set out alternatives.
We can, though, make some cautious predictions and point out roughly where new seats will appear. Inner east London has boomed in population – Newham and Tower Hamlets have four seats between them at the moment, but are entitled to five in future. Lambeth and Croydon are under-represented currently, so one of London’s two new seats might well be drawn somewhere around Norwood.
Where the effects of boundary changes on the election outcomes in existing seats are concerned, a lot depends on the detail – there are some marginals, such as Dagenham & Rainham and the three in Barnet, that could be flipped either way, depending on their exact composition – but the additional two seats will probably on balance help London Labour.
The new constituency map will fit less satisfactorily than its predecessors with those of other familiar boundaries – the boroughs, and communities within each borough. This is a consequence of the new rules making the number of registered electors the paramount consideration – other than five constituencies based on islands, they must have a minimum of 69,724 electors and a maximum of 77,062 electors in those all-important data tables just published. There is no wiggle room for situations such as Barnet, where the convenience of having three whole contained within the borough comes at the cost of the constituencies being a little too large.
Most boroughs will have to be grouped with neighbouring ones, even if on their own they might qualify for a number of whole seats. Some of the established pairings of boroughs will have to be broken up, or have an additional partner added to make up numbers – Bexley plus Greenwich, for instance, cannot keep the five seats they currently have together. It is even possible that the Boundary Commission could draw a map of London that is an interlocking glob of constituencies that don’t separate out into coherent borough groupings at all.
The leaders of the three largest English parties are all London MPs, so each of them will be keeping a keen eye on some individual details, as well as the overall picture.
Keir Starmer’s Holborn & St Pancras constituency is currently too large, and it will have to lose some wards, either to neighbouring Cities of London & Westminster (making that more marginal still) or to a reconstituted Hampstead seat. Ed Davey’s Kingston & Surbiton is also a bit big, but it is on the edge of London and it will continue to exist in something like its current form.
Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge & South Ruislip seat is the most interesting of the three. It is just about the right size, but because the seat to its north (Ruislip, Northwood & Pinner) straddles the boundary between Hillingdon and Harrow, there would be disruptive changes if those boroughs changed partners. The easiest way of solving the problem under the new rules appears to be swapping Tory South Ruislip for the very Labour Yeading and north Hayes, which would flip the seat to Labour.
But who knows what the Boundary Commission will come up with or indeed whether Johnson will still be interested in representing Uxbridge in any form? It feels risky enough at the moment predicting what will happen in the next 24 hours, let alone the next four years.
Photograph, from happier times, by Max Curwen-Bingley.
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