How are Parliamentary boundary reviews carried out?

The Boundary Commissions - book coverThe Boundary Commissions: Redrawing the UK’s map of Parliamentary constituencies first came out in 1999 but got a much newer paperback edition as boundary reviews have come back into the news in recent years. It easily wins the title of best book on the topic by being pretty much the only one, but even against competition it would be a worthy tome.

The speed with which technology has developed is shown by the book’s acknowledgements, which thank JANET for having made collaboration between the authors easier – JANET having been one of the early computer networks which let people at different universities share files and send emails. Only slightly over a decade on the internet is so commonplace that this reads like a very dated acknowledgement.

Three times in the nineteenth century there were wholesale changes to Parliamentary constituencies, coming alongside each of the Reform Acts and therefore being a matter of great partisan controversy. As a result, in the twentieth century Britain moved to a system of Parliament laying down rules for regular boundary reviews and independent bodies conducting them. However, those rules have been, as David Butler’s foreword puts it, “in some ways confusing and contradictory”. In addition, the staff carrying out the reviews have often been inconsistent in the ways they did their work, both within England and between the four nations of the UK.

As a result, the latest – and major – changes to the boundary review process, brought in after the book’s reprint, may have been accompanied by many controversies but those debates did not include many defences of the quality of the previous process. Even so, the way boundaries were drawn up in the twentieth century without direct detailed political meddling is a good record compared to the blatant gerrymandering that occurred in many other countries, even established democracies such as the USA. What did happen was incumbent governments once delaying and once speeding up a review to suit its political interest, but that is very different from direct political interference in the drawing up of individual constituency boundaries.

The book reads and serves as a detailed textbook on the topic, making it both heavy reading at times yet also an essential source of reference information, especially considering the information specially gathered for the book, such as extensive interviews with participants in boundary reviews.

Though it predates the boundary reviews starting in 2011, it does place some of their major issues in an historical context, showing both how there has been a steady, long-term move to achieving greater numerical equality between seats and how the timing of reviews relative to general elections is a frequent way in which governments have sought to influence the process.

That makes it still a relevant and useful book as the current Parliamentary boundary reviews commence.

You can buy The Boundary Commissions: Redrawing the UK’s map of Parliamentary constituencies by DJ Rossiter, RJ Johnston and CJ Pattie here.

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