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Owen Jones has claimed that the Tories are trying to rig the next election (Marc Lozano CC BY-SA 2.0)

“The Tories are trying to rig the next election” — or so proclaimed Corbynista cheerleader Owen Jones on his YouTube channel last month. Expect to hear much more along these lines as the final recommendations of the Boundary Commission for redrawn constituencies for the next election come to be voted on in the Commons either this month or in October.

What is the basis of Jones’s claim that the Conservatives are trying to rig elections? At the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the then Leader of the Opposition David Cameron pledged to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 to reduce the cost of politics. The non-partisan Boundary Commission has been in charge of drawing up constituency boundaries since 1949. It was given a number of remits, of which ensuring constituencies of equal size was only one — gradually, respecting existing constituency and local government boundaries gained priority. This has led to a growing disparity in constituency size. At the time of the last boundary review being implemented in 2010 the smallest non-island constituency, Arfon, had 40,707 electors and the largest, East Ham, had 91,531. (The island constituencies of the Isle of Wight, Orkney and Shetland, and Western Isles — or Na h-Eileanan an Iar as it likes to be called — will continue to be treated differently under Tory proposals.)

As the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, chaired by Sir Bernard Jenkin, states in its 2018 report, “At the 2015 General Election seats won by the Labour Party had on average approximately 4,000 fewer registered voters than those won by the Conservatives . . . It has been estimated that at the 2001 General Election, fought using the boundaries introduced in 1997, if the Labour and Conservative parties had received the same vote share, Labour would have received 142 more seats.”

This was the background to the Coalition government’s 2011 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act. This reduces the size of the Commons from 650 to 600 seats; increases the frequency of boundary reviews to every five years, i.e. during each full parliament under the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, instead of every eight to ten years; and mandates the Boundary Commission to prioritise constituency size over all other concerns — only permitting a 5 per cent plus or minus difference from the quota ideal size in the number of electors for each non-island constituency. The notion that county boundaries need no longer be strictly respected created much manufactured anger — after all, how could one MP possibly represent people as different as the residents of west Devon and east Cornwall?

The first boundary review under the new provisions was stopped by the Commons in 2013 after the Lib Dems withdrew their support following the defeat by backbench Tories, led by Jesse Norman, of their own proposals for House of Lords reform. The 2015 and 2017 elections were thus fought on old boundaries drawn up by a review started in 2000 and completed in 2007.
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