Is London Under-Represented In Parliament?

By Jonn Last edited 34 months ago
Is London Under-Represented In Parliament?

Photo by Zefrographica from the Londonist Flickr pool

London, as every Londoner is sick of hearing, is a bit spoilt. It has a pretty comprehensive transport system, yet still it wants more. It sucks up a disproportionate share of the national income, yet it never seems satisfied. And you know who's to blame of course. The metropolitan elite. London dominates our national politics, and hard working families from everywhere else in the country are bloody well sick of it.

This has begun to bother us, just a bit. Because, while there is clearly a certain amount of truth to it (there really is), there's a question that's been niggling at us. Looked at in purely parliamentary terms, isn't London actually a bit, er, under represented?

The short answer to this is "yes". The longer answer is "no". The even longer answer is "hell yes". After that things start to get a bit complicated, but we'll come back to that in a moment.

Let's start with the yes. Here's a table showing the populations of the eight regions of England at the time of the 2011 census, plus the number of constituencies for each of them. Looks reasonable enough, right?

constituencytable1

Well, this is what happens when you work out the average population of each constituency in each region:

constituencychart

The average population of a constituency in London in 2011 was around 112,000 people — around a tenth more than any other region, and nearly a third more than in Wales.

Conclusion: despite what everyone thinks, London is actually massively under-represented in Parliament.

You hear that, Scotland? Quit whining.

OK, we're being a little cheeky here, and using just a tiny bit of sleight of hand. You've probably noticed by now that we've conflated population and electorate, and those are obviously not the same thing. Children don't have the vote. Neither do many immigrants (EU citizens can vote in local and European elections; Irish and Commonwealth ones can vote in general elections, too).

London has a more international population than other parts of the UK — so, if equal electorate size is the goal when designing constituencies, then you'd expect its constituencies to have larger overall populations.

It's not clear that equal electorate (as opposed to population) size is a better way of deciding how to distribute MPs, and as it happens, that's not the only goal anyway. When defining its constituencies, the Boundary Commissions (one for each of the UK's four nations) actually have other goals in mind, too. They're trying to minimise the number of constituencies that cross major geographical boundaries (river estuaries, mountain ranges, etc), so that each MP represents a coherent area. They're also tasked with keeping constituencies within the boundaries of local government units — counties, unitary authorities, London boroughs — whenever they can.

All four Boundaries Commission are trying to get their constituencies as close to a particular target size ("electoral quote") as they can, admittedly. But even then things aren't simple, and those quotas vary between the nations. In the last boundary review, conducted between 2000 and 2007 and whose results came into force for the 2010 election, English and Scottish constituencies had an electoral quota of 69,935 voters per constituency. But in Northern Ireland it was 60,969 and in Wales 55,640. In other words, those two countries have more MPs by design.

In terms of their distance from that quota, London's constituencies actually don't do that badly. The current constituencies were based on the distribution of voters in the year 2000; at that time, London had a total electorate of 4,974,025, giving it an entitlement to 71.12 constituencies. In the event we got 73, with an average electorate of 68,137 — in other words, in fact, London is over-represented after all.

Except — no, it almost certainly isn't. Because look again at the date in the previous paragraph: London's constituencies were designed based on the electorate as it was 15 years ago. Since then, London's population has grown by more than 1.5m people — more than 20%. And while some of those extra Londoners are too young or too foreign to have the vote, many of them aren't. So yes, London is probably under represented after all.

And yet, and yet...

For all the hours we've spent crunching the numbers on this, all the words we've just poured upon you, it's hard to feel that this really matters. Because number of MPs isn't the only, or even the best, metric for defining political power.

Whichever constituency they represent, most MPs live in London much of the time: it's hard to look at Ed Miliband as a representative of Doncaster, Nick Clegg as Sheffield, George Osborne as Cheshire. All have London written all over them.

And London's dominance of the Lords, the civil service and, yes, the media, is clearly a big factor, too. Worst of all, arguably, is that the Treasury, where so much of the real power lies, undoubtedly does have a London-centric world view.

So — does London have too much political influence? Yes. But also, no. It depends how you count. Oh god will this bloody election campaign never end?

Last Updated 07 April 2015

Mike Katz

Excellent analysis, and I don't disagree with your conclusion, but two points worth making. First, on a practical level, if you live in a over-populated constituency, especially a complex London seat, when it comes to constituency casework your MP will be more stretched and have less time and resources to spend on you, compared with a less populous seat. Second, some would say there is a basic democratic principle at stake if your vote has less value (in terms of how many it takes to elect an MP) than somewhere with a smaller population. (However, that was an argument deployed by Tories to argue for the chaotic, abortive boundary review, so a large pinch of salt is needed!)

Nicholas Bennett

Of course in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland much of the sort of case work an English MP deals with is the responsibility of MSPs, AMs and members of the NI Assembly.