A guest blog by Faha
(All maps may be accessed on the Boundary review website here -BD )
The Westminster UK Boundary Review is scheduled to resume in 2016. The previous review was suspended after the final boundaries had been determined by the 4 Boundary Commissions of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This was due to the opposition of the Liberal Democrats who initially supported the conditions under which the Boundary Review was to take place. After the Conservative Party was unwilling to support reform of the House of Lords the Liberal Democrats withdrew their support for implementing the new boundaries for the 2015 Westminster election. The legislation was changed so that review was postponed but had to be completed by 2018. There is also a provision that the review will be based on the December 1st 2015 parliamentary electoral register. David Cameron and the Conservative Party have announced that they will proceed with the review and that the number of seats will be decreased from 650 down to 600. This was the basis of the previous review and Northern Ireland was to lose 2 of its 18 seats and was allocated 16 MP’s. The previous Northern Ireland review was completed and these were the final boundaries that were proposed (see attached map). The major changes were that the South Belfast constituency was abolished and the wards were divided up among Belfast East, Belfast West and Strangford. East Derry was also dramatically altered with the Coleraine urban area transferred to North Antrim and the remainder of East Derry merged with the entire Magherafelt district council as well some wards from Cookstown district council into the newly named Glenshane constituency. The electoral result would have been the loss of the SDLP MP for South Belfast and the defeat of the current DUP MP Gregory Campbell. The new Glenshane constituency would have a combined unionist vote of less than 40%.
The 600 seats will be allocated based on the December 1st 2015 parliamentary electoral register. This register was 46,354,197 at the time of the May Westminster election and approximately 1,240,000 were on the Northern Ireland register. A constituency can only vary by +/- 5% from the average per constituency. Special exceptions were made for 4 constituencies in the Isle of Wight, the western isles of Scotland and the Orkney and Shetland islands. With 600 constituencies and a total electorate of 46,354,197 the average per constituency would be 77,257. Based on the Northern Ireland electorate, Northern Ireland would be allocated exactly 16 seats. It appears Northern Ireland will lose 2 seats as it did in the previous review. Or would it???
There is a new complicating factor that did not exist in the previous review. Since that time Individual Electoral Registration (IER) has been introduced to Scotland, England and Wales and the previous Household registration was phased out. IER was introduced in Northern Ireland in 2002. During the implementation of IER in the rest of the UK 1,900,000 who were on the register during the era of Household registration did not register under IER. However, they were still included on the electoral register in order to be given more time to register under IER. Any who had not registered under IER were to be removed by December 2016. In July 2015, the Conservative Party announced that this date would be moved up to December 1st 2015 in order to coincide with the December 1st date that will be used for the Boundary Review. This announcement created some controversy, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats claiming these 1.9 million will be disenfranchised. A Conservative Party spokesman stated that these 1.9 million had been contacted up to 9 times and still had not registered under IER. It is likely that most of those 1.9 million will not register under IER and will be dropped from the electoral register prior to the compilation of the December 1st register. This was what occurred when IER was introduced to Northern Ireland in 2002. The 2001 electoral register contained 1,198,000 people and when IER was introduced the number decreased to 1,072,000 in 2002. That was a loss of 10% of the electorate. Why the dramatic decrease? There are many reasons why these individuals did not register under IER but were registered under Household registration such as:
- They were dead
- They had emigrated to a foreign country or were attending a university abroad
- They were double registered (students who were registered at both a home and university address)
- They were not capable of registering due to a medical condition (dementia, severe autism, etc.)
- They were in prison
- They had absolutely no interest in politics and refused to register. These people may have been included on the household register since the head of household listed them but as individuals they will not register.
Based on the history of IER in Northern Ireland I believe that most of those 1.9 million will be dropped from the electoral register and the December 1st electoral register could be less than 45,000,000. The average per constituency may be less than 75,000. Thus, the number of seats allocated to Northern Ireland could be higher depending on what the final number on the Northern Ireland register is on December 1st. I estimate that another 25,000 voters would increase the Northern Ireland total to 17 and another 65,000 would increase the total to 18. There are approximately 140,000 people in Northern Ireland who are eligible to be on the parliamentary register who are not currently registered. This estimate is based on the 2011 census, excluding EU nationals (most who are not eligible)
One would expect that all the Northern Ireland political parties would desire more MP’s for Northern Ireland and would mount a major voter registration drive to increase the number of voters on the electoral register. This motivation would vary by political party and I will explain why. It has to do with the electoral implications of 16 seats versus 17 or 18.
The UUP have the strongest incentive to increase the number of voters on the electoral register. They would likely lose both their MP’s with 16 seats. Fermanagh South Tyrone was to expand to include the old Torrent DEA which is almost 90% nationalist and part of the Killyman ward (95% unionist) was to be transferred to Upper Bann. With these boundaries the nationalist vote would increase 4% and the unionist vote decrease by 4%. That would amount to a shift of 4,000 votes and since Tom Elliot only won by 530 votes SF would have easily won if the election had been contested on the new proposed boundaries. The UUP MP in South Antrim would also be in danger of defeat with only 16 constituencies since it was proposed that South Antrim be altered so that Ballymena town and surrounding wards would be added. This is strong DUP territory with the DUP vote 3 times that of the UUP. Since Danny Kinahan won by less than 1,000 votes in the current South Antrim he would have lost if the election had been contested under the new proposed boundaries. The UUP have a very strong incentive to increase the number of MP’s in Northern Ireland to 18 so they can contest the next election on the current boundaries.
The DUP also have a strong incentive to increase the number of voters on the electoral register so that Northern Ireland has 18 MP’s. It is true that South Antrim would revert to the DUP if there were only 16 constituencies. However, the DUP would probably lose Southeast Belfast (East Belfast) if there are only 16. If you look at the proposed Southeast Belfast most of the Castlereagh East wards were removed and East Belfast was extended deep into South Belfast to include many nationalist majority wards which are also wards where Alliance has a good vote. In looking at the district council vote in 2014 the Castlereagh wards that would be removed had a 75% unionist vote with the DUP near 50% and Alliance only at 12%. The Alliance vote would have been higher in the Westminster election. The DUP won the Westminster election by 2,600 votes and it appears that the DUP vote exceeded the Alliance vote by more than 2,600 in the Castlereagh wards that would be removed. The South Belfast wards that would be added have a good Alliance vote and with even minimal tactical voting by nationalist voters Naomi Long would have won the election if the proposed boundaries were in place for the 2015 election. The DUP would also lose the seat of Gregory Campbell with only 16 MP’s so there is a strong incentive for the DUP to increase the number of voters on the register to preserve the current East Derry boundaries.
The SDLP also have a strong incentive to increase the number of constituencies to 18 in order to preserve the South Belfast constituency. There would also be a beneficial effect in the Assembly elections as constituencies such as Newry and Armagh and South Down have far too many voters and the unionist wards on the periphery that would be removed would result in a 5th nationalist MLA in both. That 5th MLA would be SDLP in both.
SF have no incentive to increase the number of voters on the register as it would be less likely that they could retake Fermanagh South Tyrone with 18 constituencies. Of course, with a possible looming Assembly election they do have an incentive to increase the number of nationalist voters on the register. However, whether there are 16 constituencies or 18 will have no effect on the number of SF MP’s that are elected with Fermanagh South Tyrone less likely with 18.
The political parties have less than 2 months to increase the number of voters on the electoral register and should be motivated to do so in order that Northern Ireland has more representation at Westminster.