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17 October 2017

What would boundary changes really mean for the Conservatives?

The actual difference as far as political advantage goes is less than 0.5 per cent.

By Stephen Bush

Will boundary changes do what Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Owen Smith and Theresa May couldn’t do and get shot of Jeremy Corbyn?

The Boundary Commission has released its revised proposals for the new 600-seater House of Commons, and Corbyn’s Islington North seat is among the casualties – torn asunder between Diane Abbott’s Hackney North, which is reconstituted as Finsbury Park and Stoke Newington, and Emily Thornberry’s Islington South which is now just Islington.

Other big names at risk include David Davis, whose seat’s disintegration could make the nearby Labour constituencies a little less safe but may leave him without a berth, and Boris Johnson, who gains an extra tranche of Labour voters.

The importance of boundary changes is often hugely overstated – the Conservative preoccupation with them is a vestige of a failed pre-Cameron era of politics in which they couldn’t win over affluent ethnic minorities and social liberals so just engaged in strange fantasies about removing them from electoral consideration.

The actual difference as far as political advantage goes is less than 0.5 per cent – Labour need a 0.5 per cent bigger swing to win the next election, the Conservatives need a 0.5 per cent smaller one. Boundary changes tend to advantage the Conservatives because of the long-term population shrinkage in the north and its increase in the south, though after the demographic realignment that occurred in June, that isn’t the unalloyed boost for the Tories that it once was. 

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The bigger change is that in a 600-member Commons you have fewer heterogeneous seats, which means that it is easier for both parties to win decent majorities. (Don’t forget, no one has managed that since Tony Blair way back in 2005.)

But these things matter in close elections, particularly as the Conservatives seem to have entered a post-Cameron era of failed politics in which they can’t appeal to well-paid minorities or social liberals. These changes would be enough to give the Conservatives a very small parliamentary majority – my very, very, very rough estimate this morning is 302 seats out of 600.

There is some jostling around today about who loses out and who gets to keep their seat. But ultimately the number that tells you this reform is dead in the water is 15 – that’s how many Conservative MPs would find themselves without a seat in the new Commons.

Before the snap election, the whips found it easier to buy co-operation from Tory MPs who would lose out because of the perception that those MPs could be shuffled into Labour seats that would easily turn blue once voters got a chance to express their feelings about Corbyn.  It goes without saying that that particular line of argument doesn’t go down as well with Conservative backbenchers as it once did. And as for the alternate option of a well-paid parachute, AKA a seat in the House of Lords, plans to shrink the size of that chamber, as revealed by Lucy Fisher in today’s Times, means that option isn’t as attractive or as easily available as it once was anyway.

In any case, although we have to wait until January to see the final proposals from Northern Ireland, there is no way to shrink its parliamentary allocation without disadvantaging the DUP, so that’s nothing doing. As the other opposition parties are all set to vote against, it’s hard to see how a parliamentary majority can be found to approve these boundary changes.

What happens then? Well, the government can either start the whole process again from scratch, with a fresh Act of Parliament for a 650-seat House of Commons, which ought to get through the House comfortably but might struggle to complete its passage in time for the next election even if parliament goes the full five years. Or if the existing review is voted down and no alternative is put through in time for it to be implemented, the next election will take place on current boundaries, all of them based on a review that took place way back in 2005, that will be 17 years old by 2022.

Who does that advantage? Well, the short answer is “nobody”. It increases the difficulty of winning a stable parliamentary majority for anyone – and makes hung parliaments, coalitions, and deeply unrepresentative results more likely.