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11 February 2021updated 04 Sep 2021 8:24am

What will boundary changes mean for Labour and the Conservatives?

The planned redrawing of parliamentary seats is likely to benefit the Tories, but not to the extent that some believe.

By Ben Walker

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For the last four general elections, MPs have represented seats across the country that have undergone no change in geographical size or shape. The current seats were drawn up based on electoral data taken from December 2000, and there has been major population movement since.

Why does this matter? Consider this example. If, in 2019, you were standing as a candidate in Stoke-on-Trent Central, you would need only 27,265 votes for a guaranteed victory – 50 per cent of the seat’s electorate, plus one. To be guaranteed a win in, say, Bristol West, you would need 49,930 votes.

This discrepancy is not ideal in a first-past-the-post electoral system. Since 2010, two boundary reviews have tried to resolve the issue, but both were eventually abandoned, following opposition from Labour and some Conservative MPs. A third review – which will almost certainly be completed – is due to present its initial proposal later this year. 

Boundaries will be redrawn according to electoral wards, and the current review stipulates that each constituency must “have no less than 69,724 parliamentary electors and no more than 77,062”, a range of just over 7,000 voters – or 5 per cent either way. In practice, this rule change will mean a cut to the number of MPs in Scotland, Wales, and northern England, and an increase to the number of MPs in London, East Anglia, south-east England and the West Country.

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Boundary Changes: Which constituencies face the most change?
Constituencies with less than 69.7k electors are categorised as having too few voters whereas those with more than 77.1k electors are categorised as having too many.

This mathematical attempt at equalisation hasn’t impressed everyone. The SNP MP David Linden, for example, has argued that the advantage to England is “wholly unfair”. But the notion that boundary changes are inherently unfair is difficult to defend: the Boundary Commission in the UK is non-partisan and, since 2000, there has been a genuine shift in the shape of our electorate. Scotland and Wales have long been over-represented in the House of Commons, and while it could be argued this has provided protection against English dominance at Westminster, the creation and ever-growing influence of the Scottish and Welsh parliaments could mean this protection is not as necessary as it once was. 

The reality is that, as of 2019, the average English seat had 75,000 voters. The average Scottish seat, meanwhile, had 69,000 voters, and the average Welsh seat had 58,000 voters. Redrawing the boundaries will certainly reduce the number of Scottish and Welsh seats, but that is not the sole motivation behind it. 

What does the boundary review mean for the nations and regions?
Allocation of constituencies to each home nation

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The regional rebalance will also mean that more of the 650 UK constituencies will be based in regions currently favourable to the Conservatives. The Tory-held seats of Norwich North in Norfolk and Harlow in Essex are two examples. These constituencies, once bellwether marginals in the final days of the last Labour government, currently have fewer electors than is required by the rules. As such, both are likely to add one or two new Tory-leaning suburban and rural wards to their totals.

In the case of Norwich North, where the Conservatives currently hold a ten-point majority, the addition of some northern rural wards is likely. Once redrawn, the seat will therefore likely be somewhat safer for the Tories than it is under the current boundaries.

Boundary rules mean Norwich North may need to take in more rural wards
Mapped: Norwich North in its current form (blue); with potential additions (striped)

In London, the boom in the number of voters in the inner East End means the likely creation of one to two potentially safe (or semi-safe) new Labour seats. But while this might seem like good news for the party, in practice, it risks a knock-on effect in more Conservative-leaning seats in Greater London. New boundaries around Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, for instance, mean seats may have to absorb a border ward or two from the current Ilford North seat (which has a Labour majority of 10.4 points) or the ultra-marginal Dagenham & Rainham seat held by Jon Cruddas (a Lab majority of 0.7 points). Though details of the first proposals are still unknown, it’s doubtful Cruddas’s seat will remain untouched or be redrawn in a way that necessarily increases his majority. 

It is a similar story in the urban north, with some potentially inverted results. The urban populations in and around places such as Leeds Central, Manchester Central, Liverpool Riverside and Nottingham South have boomed, so that their neighbouring constituencies will either be physically shrunk somewhat or cut in two. 

This means some or all of the urban wards will be joined up with one or two exclusively or predominantly suburban seats. As each of these urban conurbations are smaller than Greater London, and geographically closer to Tory-held suburban constituencies, the Conservatives may see their majorities wiped out as they absorb a Labour-leaning urban ward or two. The Tory-held seat of Bury South (with a majority of 0.8 points) springs to mind, and may – just may – notionally flip under new boundaries.

Despite this, the net benefit, owing to the simple geographical redistribution, is likely to favour the Conservatives. This may not, however, be to the extent that some hope or fear. For every town or city that needs to absorb a rural area or two, there’s an inner city division now bloated to the point that it needs to mix with, or perhaps overpower, the land of marginal suburbia. Claims that the Conservatives may gain around an extra ten seats thanks to the changes are plausible, but it is wise to remain cautious: when the official proposals are published, it may be that the estimated gains are not as large or as certain as some alarmists would have you believe.