'Poll tax effect' distorts boundary review

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THE BOUNDARY Commission will deprive Labour of winnable seats at the next election because the Government has forced it to use an inaccurate record of England's voters in its review of constituency boundaries.

A detailed study of how the independent commission will determine which parliamentary seats survive after the mid-1990s shows that, in London in particular, constituencies will be abolished because the poll tax prompted tens of thousands of voters to 'disappear' from the 1991 electoral register.

The missing people tried to avoid paying poll tax between April 1990 and April 1993 by not registering on electoral rolls. Various academic and Office of Population Censuses and Surveys (OPCS) reports estimate that between 350,000 and one million people were involved.

Home Office legislation obliges the Boundary Commission to use the 1991 electoral rolls as its information base. Any county or London borough will contain several parliamentary constituencies. The commission assumes that the ideal constituency would contain 69,281 voters. If, after dividing this figure into the total number of voters registered in the area in 1991, there are 35,000 voters or fewer left, the commission might abolish one of its seats.

The present review will stay in force until the next boundary review in 2006. It is supposed to reflect genuine population movements - such as growth in the South - to ensure, as far as is possible, that each vote across the country has equal worth. But a comparison of the 1991 English electoral rolls with OPCS estimates of the real population in each district concludes that the rolls have 'been compromised by people being unwilling to admit to their existence.'

In a study for the forthcoming British Election Survey, Iain McLean and Jeremy Smith of Warwick University show that constituencies could be abolished even though there is no reliable evidence that their populations have fallen.

In London, where the formal commission review begins later this month, at least five constituencies will disappear because of distortions caused by poll-tax evasion.

The authors predict that Greenwich, Lambeth and Waltham Forest will each lose one of their three seats. Hammersmith will fall from two seats to one, and Croydon would lose one of its four. Nine of the present constituencies in the five boroughs are Labour; six are Conservative. The Tory seats include three marginals.

Avon, Derbyshire and Warwickshire will each be denied an extra seat because of the poll-tax effect. Labour sources believe that Brent, which had enormous problems collecting the tax, could also lose a seat.

A Boundary Commission spokesman last week accepted the survey's predictions, but hinted that rather than Hammersmith and Lambeth losing one seat apiece, constituencies which cross borough borders might be created for the first time.

The commission had no legal right to take arguments about the effect of the poll tax on voter registration into account, he said.

Professor McLean said that it was 'bizarre that the next boundary changes, which will survive into the next century, will depend on what everyone recognises to be an unfit electoral register'.

The Labour Party and local Labour councils already plan to challenge the commission's allocations. The Conservatives predict that the review will give them between 12 and 24 extra safe seats before the next election.

Any opposition action in the High Court could have great electoral significance if it manages to delay the boundary changes until after a general election.

The Labour leadership is wary of stating its intentions in public. Jack Straw, the shadow Environment spokesman, said the party would consider its rights to appeal against the review on a 'step by step basis.'

'It is another twist of the knife that the poll tax is continuing to exert its malign force from beyond the grave,' he said.