The numbers are out which will determine how many seats each part of the UK gets at the next Westminster election. As you may remember, the original plan to cut 50 seats from the House of Commons has been dropped, but the tight constraints remain on constituency sizes - they should be within 5% of the UK average, with certain exceptions; on which more below. I had a brief moment of excitement when I thought that Northern Ireland might lose a seat, but I was looking at the wrong table, and it remains at 18 seats. The numbers are:
|England minus two Isle of Wight seats||39,748,705||541.59||(+2)||543||+10|
|Scotland minus two island seats||4,023,611||54.82||(+2)||57||-2|
|Wales minus Ynys Môn||2,270,262||30.93||(+1)||32||-8|
The previous round of proposed changes was quashed by the Northern Ireland Court of Appeal, which found that 1) the Commission had not adequately explained its application of Rule 7, which allows the Commission to vary seats in Northern Ireland by up to 5% from the average for NI alone, and 2) that it had not sufficiently taken into account public consultation responses in the final stage of the process. It was academic anyway, as the changes were never put to Parliament for approval. One significant change to the process this time round is that Parliament doesn't get a choice, and the Boundary Commission recommendations will come into force automatically.
A quick aside on the first point: I personally urged the Commission not to be shy about invoking this extra flexibility for the last round of revisions, in order to make its own work easier. The Commission did so for both its revised proposals and its final report, but the courts found that while the Commission was not wrong to invoke the lower limit, it should have explained itself better. When I previewed the figures this time last year, I thought that it might be possible to get away without needing to invoke the rule this time round. The numbers have shifted only a little, but enough that I am not as confident that it can be done - the average NI seat is going to be 2% smaller than the UK quota, so you're starting with a deficit of 1400 for each seat when the wiggle room is only 3669 from the average.
I think the 5% variation in constituency size is way too tight anyway- worldwide, only the notoriously contested redistricting of the seats of the U.S. House of Representatives has a tighter margin - but I also think that we will probably need to see a couple of revision cycles go through with that unrealistic restriction before the powers that be catch themselves on and it gets changed. (I have been told that the Conservatives were originally looking at a 2% rather than 5% variation in constituency size, back in 2008; that really would have been difficult and painful to implement, and would certainly have meant breaching ward boundaries all over the place.)
The Electoral Office has now published the parliamentary electorate as on March 2020 for the existing 18 seats and for the old electoral wards from which they are constructed; and the seats will be drawn to match the parliamentary rather than local government voters. British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens can vote in all elections; citizens of the other 24 EU countries can vote in local and Assembly elections, at least for now; expat voters can vote for Westminster elections, but not local or Assembly elections.
(There is a not very interesting discussion to be had about whether electoral boundaries should take account of the number of registered voters or the total population. Worldwide, about a third of countries allocate seats on the basis of the number of voters, and about half on the basis of total population. Personally I incline a bit towards basing them on the number of voters, which in the UK is just as easy, if not easier, to track, and also I don't really see why areas with larger non-voting populations - children and non-citizens - necessarily deserve greater representation. But I am not especially bothered.)
Coming back to the main point, what will the new Northern Ireland electoral map look like? The first thing to note is that there is already a big problem with the sizes of the 18 constituencies. There are 1.29 times as many voters in Upper Bann as in East Antrim, which is way too big a variation. NB that both East Antrim and Upper Bann are held by the DUP; looking at the five largest and five smallest seats, in both cases three are held by the DUP and two by SF, so this isn't especially a party political issue.
Looking at the quota for the UK as a whole (the average electorate for the 645 seats apart from than the five island constituencies) we can see that eleven of Northern Ireland's 18 constituencies deviate from it by more than 5%. The UK-wide quota will be 73,392.66, so in principle each seat should have no less than 69,724 voters and no more than 77,062. Under the rules, Northern Ireland is allowed extra wiggle room, if necessary, taking the lower limit down to 68,313. (Which would mean that East Londonderry is actually OK; but I think the geography of West Tyrone means that it will have to change anyway.) This map shows the divergence from the UK-wide quota of each of the 18 Northern Ireland seats, and the table gives the same figures and also the number of voters by which each seat exceeds or falls short of the permissible size (including also the potential lower margin for Northern Ireland).
(Maps above and below adapted from the one on the Northern Ireland Assembly website.)
|East Antrim||64,907||-11.6%||-4,820 (-3,406)||DUP|
|Belfast West||65,761||-10.4%||-3,966 (-2,552)||SF|
|Belfast East||66,273||-9.7%||-3,454 (-2,040)||DUP|
|West Tyrone||66,339||-9.6%||-3,388 (-2,274)||SF|
|North Down||67,109||-8.6%||-2,618 (-1,204)||Alliance|
|East Londonderry||69,359||-5.5%||-368 (OK)||DUP|
|Fermanagh and South Tyrone||72,945||-0.6%||OK||SF|
|Newry and Armagh||81,329||+10.8%||+4,263||SF|
The good thing about this is that there are a number of seats which will hardly have to change at all. There will have to be some smoothing at the edges, because the map of electoral wards, which are the building blocks for the constituencies, has been drastically changed and there is no seat whose boundaries exactly match the new ward boundaries. But if we colour in the under-quota seats in red, the over-quota seats in blue, and the within-quota seats in green, we can see that the question resolves into three distinct geographical challenges.
That leaves two broad zones to consider. First, the south-eastern belt of six seats, three of them contiguous and over-sized (Newry and Armagh, Upper Bann and South Down) and three of them contiguous and undersized (East Belfast, North Down and Strangford). If the neighbouring seats of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, Lagan Vally and South Belfast are left largely alone due to already being the right size (apart from straightening out the boundaries for the new wards, and the adjustment to the Lagan Valley/West Belfast border mentioned above), there aren't a lot of solutions. I could see the following emerge:
- Upper Bann takes Tandragee and Loughgall, with upwards of 7,500 voters, from Newry and Armagh, which puts Newry and Armagh at the right number;
- Upper Bann then cedes Banbridge and Loughbrickland, with around 18,000 voters, to South Down, which puts Upper Bann in the zone;
- at the other end, North Down gives East Belfast the two western wards, Holywood and Loughview, with 6,400 voters, which sets East Belfast right;
- North Down must take the entire Ards Peninsula (once you've taken one ward you have to go all the way), with 18,000 voters, from Strangford, which puts it in the zone;
- Strangford now needs at least another 21,000 voters, and South Down needs to lose about the same number. The seven wards comprising Downpatrick and its immediate hinterland have 20,500 local government voters, which may not be enough; if you add Dundrum that's 23,700 which is probably safe. Strangford should be renamed East Down at that rate.
- a nibble is taken from Foyle to help the numbers - perhaps Eglinton ward, with 2,850 voters, annexed to East Londonderry, though it could be Slievekirk, with 2,600, added to West Tyrone;
- West Tyrone expands northwards by a couple of wards (certainly Park, with 2,600 voters, and either Slievekirk as noted above or Claudy with another 2,600) - it would probably have to be renamed Sperrin due to too much non-Tyrone territory;
- East Londonderry needs another 3,000-5,500 voters now,and that probably means Giant's Causeway and Kinbane, with 5,200 between them; that takes it almost to Ballycastle, so East Londonderry would probably get renamed Causeway Coast;
- North Antrim is now OK on numbers, but cannot give any more ground to East Antrim;
- Neither South Antrim nor North Belfast has a lot to give, but I guess if all the necessary ward boundary adjustments are resolved in East Antrim's favour, it may only need another ward or two from one or both of its southern neighbours (Jordanstown from South Antrim? Carnmoney Hill from North Belfast?) to get the numbers to come out. North Belfast might also take a nibble from West Belfast to ease the numbers.
That's also the biggest political shift. Strangford/East Down certainly gets enough Nationalist voters for them to elect a Nationalist to the Assembly, and to give the DUP's opponents at Westminster elections a tactical boost; South Down on the other hand certainly loses a Nationalist seat at Assembly level. The Ards Peninsula moving into North Down at the cost of more favourable territory in Holywood certainly makes life interesting for Stephen Farry of the Alliance Party, but it's far from a killer blow. Those who feel that they may have something to lose from the process will of course have plenty of time and opportunity to make their voices heards.
This will be a lot less painful than the proposed maps when we were looking at a reduction in the number of seats from 18 to 16 or 17, and frankly I hope that something like this goes through. In the end, rearranging boundaries for 18 seats is a lot less painful than chopping one, let alone two, from the map.