There was some excitement in this morning’s papers about the impact of the proposed reforms to constituency boundaries. Suggestions that Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, might lose his seat have made headlines.
Expert psephologists are being rather more cautious about projecting any partisan impact of the changes. These are, after all, only initial proposals. Whilst MPs won’t get an opportunity to vote the Boundary Commission’s eventual map down, the parties do now have an opportunity to feed back.
Historically, the Conservatives have not always handled this process well. Anthony Seldon, in his book Major: A Political Life, noted how in the 1990s: “weak local organisation and coordination led to the fumbling of the opportunity presented by the Boundary Commission review.”
With discipline breaking down as the post-Thatcher era began, apparently there was at least one instance of two associations turning up to a boundary meeting with separate barristers. As a result, an anticipated 40-seat gain for the Tories ended up being a mere five.
There may be a lesson there for today. Not because of a similar risk of association infighting – the process is, like everything else, much more centrally organised these days, and is in the hands of the veteran Roger Pratt at CCHQ. But because there’s also another reason not to jump to conclusions about “the biggest shake-up of boundaries in decades”, which is that the old logic of the reforms has been rather overtaken by the 2019 election.
When the plans were first mooted under David Cameron (alongside the unsaleable intention to cut the number of seats), equalising constituency sizes hurt Labour, which won large numbers of disproportionately small seats, and thus boosted the Conservatives. But with the Tories having broken through in a lot of those seats at the last election, that happy outcome is now much less certain.
And when we examined this question as part of our ‘Securing the Majority’ series last summer, some MPs also warned that a serious boundary shake-up could wipe out the first-term dividend newly-elected parliamentarians often enjoy.
So a full picture of the partisan impact of the changes will have to wait. But it nonetheless interesting to take two snapshots of the battlefield – one in the ‘Red Wall’, and one in the ‘Blue Wall’ – and prognosticate a little. Follow along at home with this very handy interactive map, courtesy of Election Maps UK.
For the latter, let’s look at true-blue Buckinghamshire. All seven seats here returned Conservative MPs at the last election, and most by comfortable margins. What impact are the proposed changes likely to have?
Overall the county gains a seat, rising to eight. This has been done by carving the new seat of Princes Risborough out of the southern parts of the Aylesbury and Buckingham constituencies.
Despite this Milton Keynes notionally loses one, with Ben Everitt’s seat of Milton Keynes North, already a county constituency, shedding its remaining territory in the town and becomes Newport Pagnell, likely to be rock solid. Meanwhile Buckingham would absorb parts of the old Milton Keynes South to become Buckingham and Bletchley. Given that Greg Smith enjoys a majority of over 20,000, this is unlikely to cost him much sleep.
Milton Keynes South, what’s left of it, becomes just Milton Keynes. As a more urban seat it is likely to be closer to Labour than it was, although local sources suggest there’s a three-way split which ought to make it winnable. Iain Stewart’s natural home is apparently Princes Risborough, so it would be fought by a new candidate.
Aylesbury changes shape quite dramatically, shedding a swath of southern territory. The new seat is much more concentrated on the town itself, and may also therefore be more competitive for Labour.
Both Chesham and Amersham and Wycombe remain roughly the same, although the latter becomes ‘High Wycombe’ – a rare example of the Boundary Commission’s enthusiasm for longer names being a force for good. It is the county’s most marginal seat and will probably continue trending away from the Party. On the other hand, Beaconsfield becomes Marlow and South Buckinghamshire for no obvious reason.
Overall then, little for CCHQ to complain out. These changes might put one or two seats slightly closer to the opposition, but this is probably offset by creating a new, quite safe Tory seat.
Now let’s look at an offensive battlefield: South Yorkshire. The Conservatives made a handful of gains here in 2019, but there is plenty of scope for growth – especially in the wake of the dramatic results at the locals, which saw the Party go from zero seats to 20 on Rotherham Council.
According to local sources, “winning all three Rotherham seats on these boundaries is a decent prospect.” Minor changes to Alexander Stafford’s seat of Rother Valley are unlikely to make much of an impact, Rotherham itself becomes “slightly more winnable”, and Wentworth and Dearne loses the Dearnes (the area with the weakest Tory vote) and is reborn as Rawmarsh and Conisbrough.
Doncaster Central (Labour majority: 2,278) becomes Doncaster Town by taking part of Don Valley that is “very good for us” – in fact local Tories suggest that “on these boundaries we should be looking to win it.” The consequence is that Don Valley itself may be harder to hold, although Nick Fletcher should probably be OK. Likewise, minor changes to Penistone and Stocksbridge are apparently unlikely to cause Miriam Cates much difficulty.
Elsewhere there is churn but less change: the rejigged boundaries in Barnsley will apparently produce broadly similar results to the status quo, as will alterations to Ed Miliband’s seat in Doncaster North (although this remains winnable). Likewise, nobody seems to expect any exciting results from a relatively conservative reshuffling of Sheffield.
On the face of it, a rosy outlook for the Party. But of course, South Yorkshire is an area where the old electoral map survived the last election. There are others, such as South Wales. But the impact of the reforms could be quite different elsewhere.