I have just read a very interesting article on the process which will lead to a new set of constituencies for the 2020 General Election. The LSE article highlights the fact that the four Boundary Commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are drawing up new boundaries based on a map of 600 UK constituencies rather than the current 650. This was a Conservative manifesto commitment which will mean equal sized constituencies across the UK with exception of a handful of island constituencies. This is undoubtedly fairer and more democratic than the current arrangement where Wales (and by extension Labour) is grossly over-represented in Westminster, and where urban seats often have smaller electorates than many rural seats. The net changes are likely to benefit the Conservatives by anything from 20-25 seats overall, leading some on the left to complain of “gerrymandering” and “rigging” the system. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact the changes will be implemented by the impartial boundary commissions and will right many historic wrongs in the current electoral map.
A separate issue (but linked by some) is the change to individual electoral registration by voters. Under the new system each voter has to register themselves if they wish to vote. No longer will the head of the household, or University, be able to register all occupants of a property. This has led to a drop of around 600,000 in the number on the electoral register, with falls particularly marked in university towns. This should not be a surprise as most students were previously registered in two addresses, that of their parents, or previous home address, and the address where they lived during their studies. There was nothing illegal or wrong about this as long as they only voted once in any given election. The fact is that the vast majority probably didn’t vote at all, and the politically active could vote twice and were very unlikely to be detected. Much of the fall in numbers is probably down to students only being registered at a single address. However, a second and more sinister factor was the manipulation of the register by some in certain urban areas. Local authorities do their best to monitor and check unusually large numbers registered at any given address but it did not stop some head of households registering unfeasibly large numbers to vote in their house. I well remember identifying some houses in predominantly Asian parts of Reading with 8 or 12 people on the register for a 3 bedroom house. Also finding streets where the same people were registered in more than one house which happened to be owned by the same person. Duplication is relatively easy to clear up when you spot it, but over-registration is much harder. It was often claimed in Reading that people were brought in from Slough by train and taxi to vote only to then be transported back from whence they came. It won’t surprise readers to know that this was in Labour voting areas. To help prevent this I would like to see a further step taken of having to produce identification to vote in order to ensure that only the correct registered person actually votes.
The changes coming for 2020 should be welcomed by all who respect and value democracy in the UK. The fact that constituencies will be much more equal in size and that there will be fewer MPs on the public payroll can only be a good thing. The average constituency size of 74,000 is a reasonable number for any MP to represent and is around the number that most English MPs have represented by and large for many years. The House of Commons will be a more comfortable place with 50 fewer bottoms to squeeze onto the green benches and the number of officers, staffers, stationery and other support needed will be consequently reduced.