Monday, 29 June 2015

The art of changing boundaries

In my last post ( I spent some time looking at the likely impact of the impending boundary changes on the numbers of seats in different regions and the potential impact on the seat numbers of different parties.  In this post I shall look at how the detail of the boundary review might assist or hinder the different parties.

National party strategic considerations

What, however, would be better for the national parties?  To answer this, we need to think about what the parties need.  They will simultaneously wish to:

1) Maximise their current notional seat count
2) Maximise their chances of taking new seats
3) Minimise their chances of losing seats
4) Keep incumbents happy

But these aims are inconsistent, so the parties will need to choose which are most important to them.  This will vary for each party.

Right now the Conservatives are fairly content with how things stand.  They have an overall majority on a lead of 6.5% of the national vote share.  They will retain power, however, only if they have a substantial seat lead over Labour so they need to ensure first of all that the smallest possible poll lead will produce the most seats possible.  If they go below that level they're expecting defeat anyway so the margin of defeat is less important than maximising the chances of success at or above that level.

Labour, by contrast, are already in a losing position.  The current shares of votes are unacceptable to Labour and they need to plan on the basis that they are going to do better.  They will want to ensure that small improvements in their vote share will result in as many extra seats as possible.  

From Labour's perspective a reduction in their notional seat count now following a boundary review may not necessarily be bad news if the result is to bring the possibility of winning more seats in play in 2020 should their vote share improve.  They shouldn't be planning on the basis of their current vote share: that is a losing proposition, as we saw in May.  

For example, York Central and York Outer are respectively a safe Labour and safe Conservative seat.  If they were combined and then divided on a homogeneous basis, the Conservatives would have two marginal seats that would both fall on a swing of just over 3% to Labour.  Labour might conclude that such a reorganisation might suit them if they were working on the basis that a swing of 3% was the minimum that they were targeting.

So each party needs to identify a seat share that they regard as the minimum acceptable and then take decisions on the boundary review with that in mind.  There is no point in Labour giving up a seat in the manner described above if it is not going to be recouped on a smaller swing than that presently required for their target number of gains.  And there is no point in the Conservatives seeking a redistricting that results in a notional gain on current vote shares if it makes retaining power on a slightly lower vote share harder.

Selling the strategy to incumbents may on occasion prove difficult and that cannot be overlooked.  In particular, the Conservatives want to get the boundary changes through if they can since it will in general benefit them.  So they don't want to upset incumbents unduly: they have a vote on the matter.  It may be better to get an arrangement that isn't the very best for the national party if it is decent enough and keeps an incumbent happy.

As for the best tactic for each party in a given area, much will depend on the detail of local voting patterns.  

Developing strategy into tactics

But some general tactics are apparent.

For now, let's work on the basis that the reduction in seats to 600 takes place. 
Based on the national total of registered voters in the May 2015 of 46,425,476, that would produce a range of possible seat sizes of 73,508 to 81,244 registered voters with a par of 77,376 voters.

In the south of England, Labour's weakness actually simplifies its strategy.  Some seats will look likely to drift out further of Labour's reach as a result of the reduction in seat numbers and these strict limits on seat sizes - larger seats will generally favour the party that is dominant in the area still further.  

The process will be uneven.  For example, on the general election registered voter numbers Cambridgeshire and Suffolk would be due an additional seat between them even with a seat reduction from 650 to 600.  Meanwhile, Peterborough is below the minimum number of registered voters so it will need to take on more rural (and presumably Conservative-voting) voters from an adjoining constituency.  Ipswich, another constituency where Labour has a keen interest, is likely to suffer the same fate, being a constituency only just above the minimum threshold for registered voters in a county which elsewhere has oversized constituencies.

But some seats where Labour are interested will actually need to be reduced in size.  In more populous seats in which Labour have some strength, like Watford and Waveney, Labour will be looking to shed outlying rural districts from the constituency which will be presumed to be more Conservative in the hope of creating a Labour seat.

In less populous adjacent constituencies with Labour strength, Labour will seek to construct a new seat which takes the best of their support from both.  The tactics here can be trickier.  Both Luton seats are undersized.  Do Labour seek to have the core made into a single seat, accepting the loss of a single seat but creating a single Labour stronghold, or do they accept the attachment of large rural areas to each in the hope of getting both but risking losing both?  Given their current seat tally, they need to take the chance, I think.  This gives the concept of political betting a whole new meaning.

Minor problems

So far I have had much to say about Labour/Conservative battles in the south.  But the smaller parties need to watch out.  For example, the Conservatives will be keen to disrupt UKIP so far as possible.  It would be utterly unsurprising if the Conservatives proposed an arrangement in Essex which left the current Clacton constituency bisected, halving the effect of Douglas Carswell's formidable incumbency and swamping both new constituencies with Conservative voters.  This constituency is going to need some adjustment, being underweight in registered voters, and the Conservatives will want to make it as difficult as possible for him.  

I expect that Labour will have similar thoughts about Brighton and may well seek to despatch Caroline Lucas by providing her with a new cohort of Labour voters to challenge her grip on her seat or partitioning the seat out of existence.  And both main parties may well seek to partition isolated Lib Dem constituencies like Southport, Sheffield Hallam, North Norfolk and Leeds North West.  Even as the electorate becomes less and less inclined to vote for one of the two main parties, the minor parties will find it harder to get or keep Parliamentary representation.

Major problems

By means such as those I described above, Labour managed in the mid-1990s to get a boundary review that actually worked against the Conservatives by bringing into play seats that would not previously have fallen on a landslide.  Might such tactics work again?  It would be much harder this time, as can be illustrated with four pictures:


In these four areas, Labour have over 100 seats in solid blocks.  All four blocks will suffer substantial reductions in seats under the review. If the seat count is reduced to 600, three of the 18 Labour seats in Birmingham and the Black Country, one of the four Labour north east Welsh seats, two of the 18 English Labour seats in and around Merseyside, two of the 22 Labour seats in and around Manchester, three of the 26 Labour seats in the north east and four of the 19 Labour South Wales seats look set to go.  That's nearly a third of the seat count reduction accounted for already (and the seven seat reduction in Scotland and two seat reduction in Northern Ireland will do the Conservatives no harm either, taking us up to 24 seats lost from Parliament without the Conservatives having to leave the sofa). 

The chances of offloading any of these 15 seat losses in Labour heartlands onto other parties looks limited, given the solid nature of these Labour blocks, painstakingly built over a generation.  Labour will be doing well if it avoids a dozen notional seat losses in its heartlands before it gets started. 

A reduction in seat count to 600, if achieved, is likely to benefit the Conservatives nationally considerably.  It would be bad for Labour and particularly bad for the Lib Dems, with serious challenges for both the Greens and UKIP.  Each party would need to think carefully about how best to protect its position, bearing in mind what they are trying to achieve in 2020 rather than focussing on what the reorganisation would mean in the context of the May 2015 result.
  But will it be achieved?  Conservative incumbents are going to need a lot of reassurance before they are going to feel able to support it because their seats are likely to be chopped and changed a lot.  That process of reassurance hasn't started yet.  The Conservatives need to decide whether they want to try to get this through.  If they do, they need to start laying the ground right away.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting earlier this afternoon:

Friday, 26 June 2015

The boundaries of reason: the possible shape of the 2020 election

I previously looked back at the impact of demographic changes on party politics from 1992 to 2015.  That's all well and good, but what changes can we expect for 2020?  To determine that we first need to consider what the new boundaries are likely to look like.
It might be thought that the future musings of the Boundary Commissions are imponderable, but we have quite a lot of clues to go on.  We should use them.

The terms of any boundary review are closely delimited in legislation.  The following will occur unless the law is changed or the proposed boundary changes are defeated in Parliament:

1) The election will be fought on 600 seats.
2) There will be two Isle of Wight constituencies, a constituency for Orkney & Shetlands and a constituency for Na h-Eileanan an Iar.
3) The 600 seats will be allocated between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland according to a strict formula based on the number of registered voters as at the review date in each.
4) Except for the exceptions already noted, the seats will have a population of 95% to 105% of the average constituency size (there are size requirements that are relevant only in Scotland and Northern Ireland has special rules).

These are pretty prescriptive rules. There are already rumblings among Conservative MPs that the seat count should be kept at 650.  As we shall see, this may be in the interests of individual Conservative MPs but it is unlikely to be in the interests of the Conservative party as a whole.

The next thing to realise is that the Boundary Commissions have already started looking at this once (until their work was brought to a juddering halt by the Lib Dems ganging up on their coalition partners: as we shall see, this was absolutely correct from a narrow party interest).  So we already can see the general direction of travel.

For the moment I'm going to work on the basis of a 650 seat Parliament to explore what difference the boundary review might make.  While this is not what the law currently requires, it makes it easier to see what difference the impact of movements in registered voters might have.

Allocation of seats around the component parts of the UK

So, what should we expect?  The first thing to do is to determine the number of registered voters in each part of the UK.  This will be set at the end of this year, so we don't have the precise figures, but the numbers from the general election should provide a fairly decent guide.  We have the electoral commission's preliminary results:                                                                                                          

This gives a national total of registered voters of 46,425,476.

I've separated these out into the component parts of the UK:

From these we can derive the following totals of registered voters:

Northern Ireland:1,236,683
Wales: 2,282,297
Scotland: 4,094,784
England: 38,811,712

When the seat allocation is eventually determined, it is done by a broadly proportionate approach.  Since we don't have the relevant registered voter numbers yet, it is pointless doing anything more than a pro rata approach.  If the seat allocation stays at 650, we can expect Northern Ireland to get roughly 17 seats, Wales to get roughly 32 seats, Scotland to get roughly 57 seats and England to get roughly 543 seats (with one seat up for grabs).  If the seat reduction to 600 seats takes effect, we can expect Northern Ireland to get roughly 16 seats, Wales to get roughly 30 seats, Scotland to get 52 or 53 seats and England to get 501 or 502 seats.  This is almost exactly what the allocation would have been if the boundary review had gone ahead last time.  So much for all the fuss about the voter registration changes.
Either way, English MPs will become still more dominant in Parliament.  This can only be good news for the Conservatives, who dominate much of England and rely on it for almost all of their seats.

Allocation of seats within England

Just as important as how the seats are distributed in the UK is how the seats will be distributed in England.  The Boundary Commission for England is not legally obliged to follow the same approach when allocating seats between English regions, but in practice it intended to do so in the last Parliament and I expect it to do so again this time.

The English regions had registered voter totals at the general election as follows:

Eastern: 4,364,656
East Midlands: 3,350,769
London: 5,401,616
North East: 1,941,841
North West: 5,240,724

South East: 6,419,548
South West:4,076,494
West Midlands: 4,140,587
Yorkshire & the Humber: 3,875,477

This would result in the following seat allocations, based on England having 543 seats in a 650 seat Parliament (I have assumed a 650 seat Parliament for ease of comparability):

Share of registered voters
New seat count
Old seat count
Change in seat count
East Midlands
North East
North West
South East
South West
West Midlands
Yorkshire and the Humber

 *Plus two Isle of Wight constituencies

Again, this seems to benefit the Tories.  More seats are being added in their strongest areas while the seat count in the North West and the North East, two of their weaker areas, continues to decline.

Putting numbers on these changes

So, what would these movements mean in real seat numbers?  Unfortunately, we cannot simply apply a formula because much depends on how the boundaries are actually set.  Thinking about the detail of boundary commission reviews will need to be the subject for another post, but some general principles can be laid down now.

1) Boundary reviews are bad for incumbents.  The more extensive the boundary alterations, the less of an advantage incumbency gives.

2) Within an area, a seat reduction will increase the advantage of the party with the most support.  To give an extreme example, if Wales were reduced to one constituency, Labour would expect to take 100% of seats in the area.  Considered on a wider scale, it would obviously be to Labour's detriment to have only one seat within Wales, but within Wales itself it would accentuate its political dominance.

3) With a seat reduction in an area, regional strength of trailing parties will outweigh general strength in the area.  For example, if Wales were reduced to four constituencies, Labour might reasonably hope to take all four constituencies.  But it would probably be most worried about losing a seat to Plaid Cymru because of its regional strength in north west Wales.  The fact that the Conservatives poll twice Plaid Cymru's vote share across Wales as a whole would not affect this calculation.

4) An increase of seats in an area will naturally tend to produce more seats for the dominant party in the area, but the increased granularity may help another party gain an odd seat where a pocket of support has previously been swamped by the dominant party's support in previously-attached areas (this is the inverse of the last two points).  For example, Peterborough is a Conservative-held marginal seat comprising a city with outlying areas attached.  Making the reasonable assumption that the city is more Labour-leaning than the outlying areas, I infer that if the seat count in the area were increased and the boundaries were confined more tightly around the town, Labour might hope to pick up a new seat in an area of Conservative dominance.  Incidentally, this will tend to work better for Labour than for the Conservatives, given the way in which Labour support tends to cluster in towns.

With these principles in mind, and without going through the detail of my thought process (which is more art than science in any case), my guess is that if the votes cast in May were cast on the boundaries of a new 650 seat Parliament that I have outlined above, the seat count would be something like:

Conservative: 335
Labour: 229
SNP: 55
Lib Dem: 8
Plaid Cymru: 3
Green: 1
Speaker: 1
Northern Irish parties: 17

So I imagine a hypothetical increase in the Conservative majority by ten or so, but it wouldn't fundamentally alter the dynamics of the next election.  I feel that I have made midpoint assumptions in coming to these numbers.

The impact of switching to a 600 seat Parliament

But as the law stands, the boundary review will be conducted on the basis that we will get a 600 seat Parliament, and that will intensify some of the effects that I have just noted.  The new 600 seat Parliament would be comprised roughly as follows:

Scotland: 52
Wales: 30
Northern Ireland: 16
England: 502
     - Eastern 56
     - East Midlands 43
     - London 70
     - North East 25
     - North West 68
     - South East 83 (including two Isle of Wight constituencies)
     - South West 53
     - West Midlands 54
     - Yorkshire & The Humber 50

The seat reorganisation would be relatively minor in the Eastern, South East and South West regions, given the minor adjustments in seat counts, and these are as it happens all overwhelmingly Conservative areas.  They would, however, be very extensive in Wales, the North West and the North East: all Labour areas (Scotland also would be seriously affected).  Of the Conservative-leaning areas, only the West Midlands would see heavy reorganisation.

The consequence might well be that the bulk of Conservative incumbents could see their incumbency damaged in only minor ways, while Labour incumbents would be much more likely to see their incumbency seriously affected.

It gets worse for Labour.  Many of the constituencies with the lowest number of registered voters are in contiguous Labour-held areas.  On a shrinking seat count determined by numbers of registered voters, that is the worst permutation for a party, because there is much less scope to recoup lost seats in the area by taking seats of a rival party.  Leeds, Bradford, Hull and Liverpool are all stuffed full of constituencies with very low numbers of registered voters, all with large Labour majorities.  If the seat count in those areas is reduced, that will probably come straight off the top of the Labour seat total.

Meanwhile, the smaller parties all get hit still harder because of the consequences of reducing the seat count noted above.

My artist's impression of how the results of the last election might have translated onto reasonably normal boundaries on the new basis is something like the following:

Conservatives: 316
Labour: 209
SNP: 50
Lib Dems: 5
Plaid Cymru: 2
UKIP: 1 (maybe)
Greens: 0
Speaker: 1
Northern Ireland: 16 

By this stage, the Conservative majority, now hypothetically 32, is starting to look very solid given the smaller size of the House.  Again, I don't feel that I have particularly stepped out in one direction or another.

So if you want to see why the Opposition (and the Lib Dems in particular) might seek to block the boundary review, this is why.  Their task is hard enough, without the Conservatives being given a still greater head start.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting yesterday:

Monday, 22 June 2015

The long view: comparing the 1992 and the 2015 election results

We spend much time looking at the most recent developments.  But every now and then it is profitable to stand back and look at longer term trends.  That is most easily done by comparing elections which produced quite similar overall results and then looking at the detail.  The 1992 and the 2015 election results are sufficiently similar overall to make that a valuable exercise.  Except in Scotland.  

The overall result in 2015 was as follows:
Con 330 
Lab 232 
SNP 56 
Lib Dem 8 
Plaid Cymru 3 
Green 1 
Speaker 1
Northern Irish parties 18
The result in 1992 was as follows:

Con 336
Lab 271
Lib Dem 20
Plaid Cymru 4
Northern Irish parties 17

(The outgoing Speaker had retired).
As you can see, the Conservatives tallied much the same seat count in both elections, Labour did considerably better in 1992, as did the Lib Dems, while the SNP went from nowhere to third place.  For Lib Dems surveying these two election results, it must feel like clogs to clogs in five elections.  They have fewer seats now than they had then. The only seat held in both elections is Orkney & Shetland.

Let's start with the big point of difference, Scotland.  In 1992, the SNP were nowhere.  They had fewer seats than Plaid Cymru.  It is easy to forget, but the Conservatives as well as Labour and the Lib Dems had substantial seat numbers in Scotland.  A generation on and the landscape is unrecognisable. 

Scotland's seat count has declined by 13, reducing its numerical significance in Parliament even as demands for independence and further devolution have catapulted up the political agenda.  And the SNP have effectively wiped the other three parties off the map.  In the same period, Plaid Cymru have gone nowhere.

This is, of course, a disaster for Labour who at a stroke have lost a large block of MPs.  They will either need to be recovered or replaced elsewhere.  Right now, the latter looks much more achievable.
If we look at just England and Wales, the results converge:

Con 325
Lab 222 
Lib Dem 11 
Plaid Cymru 4 


Con 329 
Lab 231 
Lib Dem 7 
Plaid Cymru 3 
Green 1 
Speaker 1
These results are as close as you will ever get any two election results.  So substantial differences in the detail will have real meaning. 

There were 11 more seats in England and Wales in 2015 than in 1992. But the distribution of the seats has been uneven. Despite the rapid population growth of London, there are 11 fewer seats in greater London now than in 1992 (the newcomers must in large part be non-voting immigrants). There are five fewer seats in the north west and the north east combined than in 1992 (regional boundaries were a little different then).  Meanwhile, there are seven extra seats in the south west, four extra seats in the east midlands, an extra seat in the west midlands, two extra seats in Wales and 13 extra seats in the south east and east. The seats have been accumulating in more Tory-friendly areas over the last 24 years. 
And this is the real story. Labour are not taking fewer seats now than in 1992 in the south. They took ten seats in the south west, the south east outside London and the east in 1992 and 12 seats in the same areas in 2015. But the Conservatives, benefiting from this southwards drift of population, are taking 20 more seats in these areas. Labour's failure to find a message for southern England is becoming ever more damaging to their chances. 
We see the same picture in the east midlands, where Labour have the same seat tally as in 1992 but the Conservatives have gained ground, pocketing all the increase in seat count in the area. Only the west midlands have decisively swung away from Labour.  

In Wales, Labour have lost a quarter of its vote share in under 25 years (and 40% of its vote share since 1966).  So far it has not significantly affected its seat count, though it is drifting down, because the rest of the vote is still more fragmented with the rise of UKIP.  But Labour looks vulnerable in Wales in the longterm if this trend continues.  The example of Scotland should be fresh in their minds.

If Labour have underperformed in these areas relative to 1992, there are areas of outperformance too. They have increased their stranglehold on the north east and the north west, getting four more seats in these regions even with a reduced seat count to aim at. Most strikingly, they have conquered London, holding 60% of the seats now as opposed to the 40% of seats that they held in 1992.  But again, there are fewer seats in London than there once was.

It is anachronism to refer to the Core Cities in 1992, since this grouping of the largest cities outside London was only set up in 1995.  Labour always found strength in the larger English cities, but Labour have strengthened their position in the English areas now covered by that grouping still further.  In 1992, the seats in what is now covered by the Core Cities in England divided as follows:

Labour: 82
Con: 31
Lib Dem: 2

Now, the split is:

Labour: 83
Con: 16
Lib Dem: 3

The seat count in the Core Cities in England has declined, but Labour are getting ever closer to a whitewash.  55% of all Labour seats are now found in an English Core City or in London.  The perspective of the average Labour MP may be unhealthily influenced by concerns of constituencies that are not particularly representative.

Wherever they have strengthened over the last 23 years, Labour are getting a larger slice of a smaller cake.  Meanwhile, the Conservative-dominated areas of England have gained seats, benefiting the Conservatives by default.  Labour risk being on the wrong side of longterm demographic trends.  

There is another way of looking at this.  Twice at low ebbs Labour have been reduced to nominal seat counts in the rural south, but in better times in the interim they have picked up a lot more seats in those areas.  They simply need to rediscover that art.

Even in good times, however, the Conservatives have found themselves progressively squeezed further out of their weaker areas and are losing London.  Labour have an immediate demographic problem but the Conservatives have a much more enduring demographic problem.  Their room for further progress is limited unless they can unlock more seats in areas that have been turning their backs on them for a generation.  Meanwhile, the distance that they could fall is much greater.  George Osborne is developing policies such as the Northern Powerhouse to appeal to the Core Cities.  Will they be enough?  We shall see, but I doubt it.  Both main parties are facing longterm trends that should trouble them deeply.