The Impact of Research on Electoral Reform

Professor McLean's long-term research on the electoral system of the UK - most particularly voting systems, public choice and electoral boundaries - has informed debate on constitutional reform over the last three decades.

Reforming the Distribution of Parliamentary Seats

During the 1990s, McLean's research exposed contradictions within the rules for the iterative redistribution of Parliamentary seats in the UK. Since 1944, there has been considerable growth in the number of MPs in the United Kingdom Parliament. Most of the rise has taken place in England, where the population has increased much more rapidly than in the UK's other three constituent countries. However, concurrent changes in the number of MPs representing Scotland and Wales have meant that those two countries have become 'over-represented' in the House of Commons. As well as establishing this empirical base, McLean's research showed that this came about as a necessary consequence of the unintended interaction of the Rules for Redistribution in the (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1944 when the House of Commons introduced the pre-2011 system for determining the number of constituencies and defining their boundaries.

The research showed that the Boundary Commissions' statutory rules for redistribution were mutually contradictory: one rule required the Commissions to cap the size of the House of Commons, while others required them to increase the number of seats at every redistricting. McLean argued that this central contradiction confused ensuing reforms, and as such that the system of public inquiries into redistribution and associated problems were a waste of time and money.

Resolving Disparities in Public Expenditure

In parallel, since the 1970s Iain McLean has been researching the financial aspects of the make-up of the UK. His research has informed the understanding of the ways in which the constitutional settlement of the UK has played out in terms of equity of public expenditure across the different regions and countries of the UK. Publishing widely on the topic, McLean's analysis created an analytical base for attempts to reform the systems used to distribute public spending across the territories of the UK.

Funding and electoral representation are interconnected but not mutually interdependent systems. McLean has been able to demonstrate that both have been incoherently and, at least to a degree, inequitably designed in the United Kingdom. The Barnett formula - the mechanism to allocate public spending across developed regions - tended to give too much of any increment in public spending to Scotland, and too little to Wales. The question of how to resolve these internal UK funding disparities has drawn on McLean's historical and statistical analysis of these allocation systems.


McLean has advised Parliamentary select committees and since at least 2004 has been in dialogue with the Boundary Commission and the Electoral Commission. Ahead of the European elections in 2004 the Electoral Commission proposed four methods for rounding UK European Parliamentary Constituencies. McLean, with Peyton Young (Dept. of Economics) and others suggested that the Electoral Commission reject all four of its proposed methods and substitute them with an alternative method.  This method was subject to external review, withstood rigorous assessment of its merits and was applied in the 2009 European elections.

This experience and research record meant that McLean was well placed when, after the formation of the Coalition government in 2010, House of Lords reform and constitutional issues came once more to the front of the political agenda. After attending a Cabinet Office seminar in 2010, a period of close involvement in the political process began. Along with other academics - including Ron Johnston, Peyton Young and Simon Hix - McLean was asked to advise on reforms of the processes to draw constituency boundaries for the House of Commons and to assist with House of Lords reform.

This process culminated in contributions to the formulation and drafting of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. The importance of the academic work undertaken in Oxford in these reforms was clear: the statutory rules for the redistribution of seats, shown over a number of years by McLean's research to be mutually contradictory, were eliminated in the new Act.

Further reading:

Ron Johnston and Iain McLean, Choosing between Impossible Alternatives: Creating a New Constituency Map for Wales, 2004, The Political Quarterly 2005, 67-80

M. Balinski, R. Johnston, I. McLean and H.P. Young, Drawing a New Constituency Map for the United Kingdom: the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies
Bill 2010. London: British Academy Policy Centre 2010. ISBN 978 085672 591 33.

S. Hix, R. Johnston and I. McLean. Choosing an Electoral System London: British Academy Policy Centre 2010. ISBN 978 0 85672 588 3

Iain McLean What's Wrong with the British Constitution (OUP 2010),


Iain McLean