Rattled by the rush

Just been watching Politics Show, about the Coalition’s plans to stitch up the next election reduce the number of MPs and redraw constituency boundaries so that every seat has roughly the same number of MPs. Leaving aside the first issue – something of a cheap shot, to play on the general public disillusion with politicians and the feeling we’re taking too much from the public purse – let’s look at the boundaries.

First point is – the Boundary Commission (now part of the Electoral Commission I think) has always had the task of regularly redrawing constituency boundaries, every ten years or so. My constituency lost two wards and gained two wards this time round as part of the re-jigging, and previously there were changes at the 1983 election (which meant Tony Benn lost the seat) and at the 1997 election (which turned a tiny majority for Jean Corston into a very comfortable one). 

The current boundaries were decided in 2005/6. I don’t know if they were based on information from the 2001 census, and predictions of future growth, or just the electoral rolls at the time. (One of my bugbears – so much is decided on the basis of the census, and figures collected in 1999, which in the case of Bristol are now vastly out-of-date. Roll on the 2011 census).

The objective is meant to be to aim for constituencies of around 67,000 voters. Paul Smith tells me that Bristol West – a constituency where there is probably considerable under-registration of voters, given its demographics – has 88,000 voters on the electoral roll, and a population much greater. And a very young population at that, e.g. large BME families with kids who will be eligible to vote in the not too distant future. So they’re not very good at getting it right.

I simply don’t see how this exercise, creating 500 constituencies out of 650, can be  done over one summer, which the ConDems plan. They need to do it in a rush, because that’s the only way they will get everything through in time to fix for the next election. But how on earth can it be done in anything but a rough back of a fag packet way?

In Bristol, for example, they’d probably carve it up into three seats, rather than four. I suspect Bristol South would get Brislington and Stockwood, i.e. everything south of the river, Bristol East would get the inner city wards, and the rest of Bristol West would merge with Bristol North West. I wonder what Stephen Williams, who has signed up to this deal, makes of that?

The coalition has the numbers to get this through parliament. It’s grossly undemocratic (as are the attempts to secure a five year fixed term by requiring a 55% threshold for dissolution) and as something which actually reduces the individual’s right to representation, given that they’ll be sharing their MP with many more people, should be put to the country in a referendum. But it won’t be.

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  • ralasdair  On May 23, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Add to this the fact that the Coalition want to pack the Lords, it seems a very bizarre ‘new politics’ that ends up with more unelected Lords and less elected MPs. Well, bizarre until you realise this change will skew the system back in favour of the Tories…

  • Chris  On May 23, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    Was it democratic when Labour did exactly the same thing in my constituency ? They took a Lib Dem seat and merged it with two surrounding Labour seats to make two, slightly larger, safe Labour seats instead ?

    Then there’s the 55% issue. Labour (who were the governing party in Scotland at the outset) set the rules in the Scottish Parliament at a far higher percentage than in England, in fact at almost 2/3rd of the parliament in order to vote for a dissolution. Democratic in Scotland but not here ?

  • Gary Barford  On May 23, 2010 at 2:04 pm

    Of course, your opposition to redrawing the boundaries has nothing to do with the fact that they massively favour Labour.

    Labour in 2005 achieved a HoC majority of 66 with 9,562,122 votes (35.3%) versus 8,772,598 votes (32.3%) for the Conservatives.

    The Conservatives in 2010 were 20 seats short of a HoC majority with 10,683,787 votes (36.1%) versus 8,604,358 (29.0%) for Labour. Yes, the Conservative share was bigger than Labour’s 2005, the Labour share worse than the Conservative’s 2005, and the second worse in recent history other than 1983, and the Conservatives were still denied a majority.

    If you want to complain about the 55% rule, why don’t you also complain about the 66% rule needed to dissolve the Scottish Parliament before its fixed term is up, which was put in place by a Labour government.

  • kerrymccarthy  On May 23, 2010 at 3:16 pm

    Think you’re slightly missing my point – that redrawing boundaries is complex (and it’s wrong to say ‘Labour did this’ unless you’re impugning the independence of the Boundary Commission? and shouldn’t be rushed. There’s no way they can do this over one summer.

    As for the 55% rule – it’s been discussed in detail elsewhere, and I don’t think the Scottish comparison stands up, but I will blog about it at some point.

  • Chris  On May 23, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Just so I am clear then…

    We can’t blame Labour for boundary changes, but we can blame the Tories…

    The Scottish comparison “doesn’t stand up” yet it’s ok there but not in England.

    I wasn’t expecting you to be objective, this is a pro-Labour blog, but your complaints simply don’t carry any merit whatsoever.

  • splinteredsunrise  On May 23, 2010 at 5:51 pm

    The boundaries don’t necessarily work against the Tories. Inner city constituencies returning Labour MPs on low turnouts don’t necessarily have smaller populations than shire constituencies returning Tory MPs on high turnouts. What really works against the Tories is them piling up huge majorities in safe seats while failing to win competitive ones. Can’t be remedied without PR.

    Also, most constituencies aren’t that unequal, and the few big exceptions are down to geography. You want to take a quarter of the Isle of Wight and bolt it onto Southampton? Or subsume Orkney and Shetland into an enormous Highlands and Islands constituency? Try getting that past a local inquiry, and these exceptions aren’t enough to skew an election outcome.

    There’s also a Northern Ireland context here, since under the peace process the Assembly uses the 18 Westminster constituencies, returning six members from each. If Cameron wants to reduce that to 15 or even 12, that throws a lot of things in the air and he’ll have to face serious local opposition.


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