Saturday, November 29, 2008

A nice big seat

I've just seen the piece BBC News: MP with... the biggest constituency about Andrew Turner, MP for the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight is the constituency with the single largest number of electors of any in the United Kingdom and as such it frequently features in the numerous online discussions about constituency sizes that have appeared over the year. I've seen so many people make wild claims that the reason the Isle doesn't have two MPs is because of an inherent anti-Conservative bias amongst the Boundary Commission. So let's have a brief look at the facts.

When the Boundary Commission decides on the approximate number of constituencies in a review area (usually a county, unitary authority or London borough) it does so on the basis of a "quota" - the average number of voters per the current number of seats. It then either rounds the number to the nearest whole or combines two areas to avoid excessive disparity.

In the latest review the Isle qualified for 1.48 quotas. Rounded to the nearest whole that comes out as one seat not two. Now if this was a mainland area the solution would be to combine it with a neighbouring authority and have one seat straddling the two. But there's a big obstacle to this - the Solent. So the result is that the Isle problem must be solved entirely on the Isle.

Note Turner's comments about the possibility of giving the Isle two seats:
With so many people living there, the Isle of Wight is, he says, only a few hundred voters short of being big enough to divide into two constituencies.

It is something he vehemently opposes.

"You need to have one MP for the island. It is important. Maybe they should reduce the overall number of MPs at Westminster instead.

"That would increase the number of constituents in each seat, and then it won't be a problem."
To my knowledge neither the current nor the last boundary review saw a Conservative counter-proposal for two seats. In the mid 1990s the Liberal Democrats did make one very late in the day but apart from the timings (they were motivated by a realisation that the Isle could fall into their hands) there is no obvious way to divide the Isle naturally and equally. And it would divide the Isle's voice - something that is strongly valued as evidenced by Turner's comments. This time there was just one objection lodged to a single seat, and it wasn't by a party.

And so the Member of Parliament for the Isle of Wight is left with the single largest electorate to represent. But Andrew Turner doesn't mind. Numeric exactitude would be damaging to the British way of doing things. British constituencies are based on natural ties and recognisable areas, not the random clusters of favourable voters with little roads used to link them that one finds in the US Congress.

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