As part of the negotiations that led to the formation of the current coalition government it was agreed, on the insistence of the Conservatives, that the new government would legislate to reduce the number of members of Parliament from 650 to 600. This was to be accompanied by a review of the boundaries of each parliamentary constituency across the UK with the intention for, as far as possible, each constituency to have the same size electorate. The motive behind this was widely seen as an attempt by the Conservatives to correct the disadvantages they face from the imbalances in the current system.
This was written into the Coalition Agreement and has since become law in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. So the process of reviewing the boundaries of every constituency in the country is beginning and is supposed to be completed in 2013. Mark Pack has a good explanation of the process;
“Across the UK, the number of constituencies is being reduced from 650 to 600, with similar reductions in each part of the UK: England 502 in place of the current 533; Wales 30 in place of the current 40; and Northern Ireland 16 in place of the current 18.
These numbers come from allocating constituencies in proportion to the electorate of each of the four parts of the United Kingdom, using the Sainte-Laguë method. The two Scottish island constituencies and the two Isle of Wight constituencies are not included in the constituency allocation process.
The electoral quota for the review, which is the average electorate per constituency across the UK, is 76,641, with the electorate of each constituency having therefore to be within the range 72,810 to 80,473″
The quid pro quo for agreeing to this review for the Liberal Democrats was that they would get a referendum on the question of changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote. That hasn’t worked out very well for the Lib Dems. It remains to be seen whether the redrawing of the constituency boundaries does in the end benefit the Tories.
However, it does mean that the next general election will be held on different constituency boundaries from the last one and changes will be made to almost every seat, including the two in Luton.
While it has not yet developed any proposals the Boundary Commission for England has published some of the rules it will use when drawing up the boundaries and this has enabled some people to start to speculate on what the changes could be. One of the most thought through attempts at such guess work is the model devised by Lewis Baston on behalf of Democratic Audit. One of the things that models like this clearly show is that the calculation of the new boundaries is complex, has to be looked at in the context of the changes being made to a region as a whole, and that they are best understood by looking at the impact on each county.
- Democratic Audit’s predictions for the East of England (including Bedfordshire) can be found in this PDF.
Bedfordshire currently has 6 seats but under the new arrangements is entitled to 5.64. This means that at least one constituency in Bedfordshire will need to cross a county boundary. Baston’s prediction is that this will be in the north of the county with a new seat that crosses into Cambridgeshire and encompasses St Neots. Across the rest of the county, in simple terms, the rest of the constituencies shift northwards.
In Luton he suggests that Luton South will expand to take over the rest of the South East Bedfordshire ward of Central Bedfordshire Council, a part of which it currently contains, and the Saints ward from within Luton Borough.
Luton North will lose the Saints ward to the south but will expand to the west, essentially taking in Houghton Regis.
However, this is just one model. Baston himself points out that an alternative would be a shift to the south into Hertfordshire;
“The Hertfordshire crossing would allow a perhaps tidier arrangement of counties over the eastern region as a whole, but the potential crossing points are not easily identified – perhaps Harpenden with Dunstable or south Luton (which would produce a seat with very little in common), or Hitchin with an east Bedfordshire area.”
I have to say the potential for amusement at the reaction to a Harpenden and South Luton seat from the residents of both places is rather large!
My expectation is that the Luton constituencies will shift either northwards or eastwards. For the sake of coherence I would hope that they stay within the urban area. So my preference would be for a Luton South seat that expands northwards and takes in more of Luton’ wards, and a Luton West seat that takes in Houghton Regis and possibly parts of Dunstable.
What impact will these changes have on the parties in Luton?
Well my guess would be not as much as you might think. It is likely that the changes will make one or both of the Luton seats more marginal. But whether the actual configuration we end up with could be seen as benefiting one party or another is doubtful. It is unlikely that it will be that clear cut.
Until we get firm proposals from the Boundary Commission it will be difficult to tell. However, that won’t be for a little while yet. So there is still plenty of time for anoraks to have fun speculating on the outcome.