Ron Johnston obituary

Human geographer who showed that voters are influenced not only by their beliefs, but by where they live and work

Ron Johnston, who has died aged 79, was a human geographer whose work in the field of electoral geography was drawn upon by political parties and policymakers, and influenced legislation on constituency boundaries.

Also renowned as a historian of his subject, due to his magisterial account of Anglo-American human geography, Geography and Geographers (1979), and a prolific scholar who published about 40 books and 800 papers on a wide range of subjects, from the late 1970s Ron specialised increasingly in elections. In books such as Geography of Elections (1979), co-authored by Peter Taylor, and Putting Voters in Their Place (2006), which he and I wrote, Ron showed that voters’ decisions are influenced not only by their personal beliefs, but also by where they live and work.

He demonstrated that, contrary to common belief, national television and media campaigns had not rendered constituency campaigning obsolete. In fact, he showed, the harder candidates worked on local campaigning, the better they did.

But it was his work on electoral systems and constituency boundaries that was most influential. Britain’s first-past-the-post system is disproportional, giving larger parties a larger share of seats than votes. Ron demonstrated that it could also be biased: even if two parties obtained the same vote-share nationally, the geography of their support could result in one winning more seats. Moreover, he showed that, between 1992 and 2010, a systematic bias favoured Labour over the Conservatives. Had the two parties tied on the national vote in 2001, Labour would still have obtained about 140 more seats.

Part of the pro-Labour bias resulted from traditional Labour-voting constituencies having smaller electorates due to declining populations, and because of Scottish and Welsh over-representation at Westminster, so that it took fewer votes to elect each Labour MP. But, Ron also showed, most of the pro-Labour bias between 1992 and 2010 was created by other factors, such as turnout and efficient campaigning. In the three most recent UK elections, the Conservatives benefited from more efficient constituency campaigning.

To minimise inequalities in constituency electorates, independent boundary commissions periodically redraw Britain’s constituency map. In The Boundary Commissions (1999), co-authored by David Rossiter and me, Ron revealed the inner workings and consequences of these reviews, and exposed the contradictions in the legal framework guiding the commissions’ activities. The framework enshrined two main principles: the arithmetic (equalising constituency electorates) and the organic (respecting community ties). But before 2011, when legislation changed, it did not prioritise one over the other, nor did it specify just how much electorates should vary from one seat to the other.

When in 1983 Labour took the commissions to court (hoping to delay a review that would lose them seats), Ron was an expert witness, showing that the constituency map could be redrawn in thousands of different ways, many producing greater equality than the commissions’ plans. Subsequently, he designed alternative rules for boundary reviews. This influenced the new legislation in 2011, establishing the priority of the arithmetic principle, and setting tight limits on the permissible range in constituency electorates. But the new rules, Ron realised, made it likely that future reviews would produce unprecedentedly radical changes to the constituency map, with adverse consequences for continuity of community representation. In front of parliamentary committees, he exposed these likely unintended consequences and described how they might be mitigated, again influencing (unsuccessful) attempts to modify the legislation.

Born in Swindon, Wiltshire, Ron grew up in the nearby village of Chiseldon, where his parents, Phyllis (nee Liddiard) and Henry Johnston, ran the village post office. He went to the Commonweal school in Swindon, and remained proud of his roots, never losing his local burr.

Building on a childhood fascination with maps, he studied geography at Manchester University, graduating in 1962. While there he met Rita Brennan, a fellow student, and they married the following year. He stayed in Manchester to study for an MA, then in 1964 travelled to Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, to take a PhD place and a lectureship. There he began to establish his early reputation, in the field of urban social geography, measuring the rate of social and ethnic segregation. He continued this research, also in the UK and the US, for the remainder of his career.

In 1967, he joined the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and was rapidly promoted to senior lecturer and reader. He returned to the UK in 1974 to take up a chair in geography at the University of Sheffield, and wrote the landmark Geography and Geographers, which ran to six editions and was widely translated.

He served as head of the geography department (1982-85), chaired the university’s main planning committee, and in 1989 was appointed pro vice-chancellor for academic affairs. In 1992 he became vice-chancellor of Essex University, but, increasingly frustrated by administration, he resigned in 1995 and returned to full-time research at Bristol University.

A keen church bellringer, he rang to a high level and was president of the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. Inevitably, he also wrote about it, claiming that An Atlas of Bells (1990) sold more copies than any of his other books.

He received numerous awards, including the Royal Geographical Society’s Murchison award and the Victoria Medal, and the Association of American Geographers’ lifetime achievement award. In 1999, he received the Vautrin Lud prize, geography’s highest award, and was elected a fellow of the British Academy the same year. In 2011 he was made OBE. But Ron wore his distinction lightly. He was personally warm, humorous and generous. Throughout his career he built strong friendships and collaborative partnerships that stood the test of time.

He is survived by Rita, and by his children, Chris and Lucy.

• Ronald John Johnston, geographer, born 30 March 1941; died 29 May 2020


Charles Pattie

The GuardianTramp

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