Gerrymandering the Nation

Has Nick Clegg shot himself in the foot by agreeing to constituency boundary changes?

It’s both a statement of fact and a grudging commendation to acknowledge that the Conservative Party have not spent thirteen years in the wilderness waiting the best part of a generation to reclaim power nationally. The Boundary Commission proposals, part of the Parliamentary Voting and Constituencies Act 2011, were the trade-off for Nick Clegg’s ill-fated Alternative Vote referendum in the coalition agreement. At first glance the Bill brings together a shared aim of reducing the number of MPs whilst making each constituency equally proportioned. However, in practice David Cameron will aim to effectively gerrymander the British political system, making a prospective future Labour government more difficult, as well as progressive policies needing the support of a carousel of different parties.

This new-found notion of fairness from Tory HQ has some idiosyncrasies, but behind the arithmetic lies the true Machiavellian intentions. Firstly, constituencies must be equally sized. This is a notion many people view favourably; however the mechanics of such an arrangement need to be carefully arranged so as not to disenfranchise certain sections of the population. The Boundary Commission has therefore decided, crucially, to arrange each constituency on registered electors rather than population. In England, this means the proposals are for 502 constituencies with 76,641 electors per constituency, give or take 5%, meaning each constituency has between 72,810 and 80,473 electors. The smallest currency a constituency can deal in is wards, so effectively we are left with a jigsaw of oddly populated wards trying to fit in the very precise constituency model presented by the Boundary Commission. This is not so good if you happen to hold a seat in a densely populated urban area, yet with a small electorate, as you risk some of your wards being shaved off to join other seats, and subsequently sending their figures into disarray. This eventually leads to wards being thrown into larger, rural constituencies that are less densely populated. An oasis of urbanism thrown into vast swathes of “Little England”.

Nowhere is this more apparent than my home constituency of Blaydon. Under the Boundary Commission’s proposals the Hexham constituency is found wanting in terms of registered electors, and to make the numbers balance Blaydon constituency is sliced up, with the southern wards going to Sunderland. This pushes an area called Chopwell into the Hexham constituency (along with other solid Labour wards) to make a super-constituency stretching 2,604 km2 across rural North-East England. A more politically pertinent reason for why I have chosen Chopwell as the representation of the absurdity of the boundary changes is because it has the nickname of “Little Moscow”. During the Cold War, in a show of solidarity with the East, it is rumoured the Union Flag was removed from the library and replaced with a red one bearing the Hammer and Sickle, and on a Sunday morning the local priest had found his Bible removed and replaced by Das Kapital. These stories may have been romanticised down the years, but should you ever visit Chopwell you will not fail to notice the two main streets are called Marx and Lenin Terrace. Should the Boundary Commission’s proposal go ahead, they will be represented by Conservative Guy Opperman MP, old Harrovian and former Wiltshire councillor. The Labour councillors wishing to organise politically in this constituency will have to travel 40 miles from Chopwell to Rothbury to attend their constituency Labour Party meetings.

Those who disagree with my argument may label my description as specious; after all, in an era of supposed “new politics” Conservative MPs wrote a political pamphlet as early as 2004 which called for a 20% reduction in constituencies, with the remaining being divided up into equal sizes. David Cameron boldly claimed “Today, we’ve got far too many MPs in Westminster. More people sit in the House of Commons than in any other comparable elected chamber in the world. This is neither cost-effective nor politically effective: just more people finding more interfering ways to spend more of your money. I think we can do a better job with fewer MPs.” Extraordinarily tough words from Mr Cameron, given as of April 2011 he had packed 117 brand new, unelected, unaccountable life peers into an already bloated House of Lords. If you were to freeze the House of Lords membership at its current figures and then subsequently push through the legislation Mr Cameron and Mr Clegg are proposing, then you have 502 English Members of Parliament sitting in the House of Commons accountable to their public compared to a gargantuan 792 life peers sitting in the House of Lords accountable to no-one. Given 39 members of the House of Lords are currently temporarily excluded, the disparity between the Lords and Commons is even greater.

Despite my wholesale opposition to this age-old practice of the Conservative Party attempting to take power away from the hands of society and place it in the hands of capital, I cannot help but find myself engrossed in the possibilities of this Eton mess of a gerrymander. Labour have typically faired quite poorly from past Boundary Commission proposals, with the Quango reporting even before the 2005 election that its proposals would mostly see the result of any general election as a hung parliament. On current proposals, some interesting challenges present themselves in human form with Emily Thornberry, Labour MP for Islington and South Finsbury, adding the ‘less than socialist’ City of London to her currently under-endowed constituency. What’s more, should she have a massive increase or decrease in electors due to deaths / people turning voting age / a significant portion of the 10,000 of her constituents who are eligible to be on the electoral roll but aren’t suddenly deciding to do so, her constituency is too big and the whole process of dropping and adding wards starts again. Also, it should be pointed out that if you fancy voting under the Commission’s plans you must re-register periodically, or risk forgetting and suddenly seeing your constituency carved up all over again. Confused? You will be.

Should we attach blame to this clearly reprehensible situation we find ourselves in? Should we accept that this proposal is the right thing to do and progressivism has simply had its day in England despite outpolling the Conservative vote in every election bar one in the past century? Or do we risk our very parliamentary fabric being ripped apart by the champions of the economic policy which left the country in the disenfranchised state that it is in? If we are to let any future election let it be on the Liberal Democrats. Let it be on Nick Clegg, the turkey who voted for Christmas; indeed his party will pay dearly under the proposals and his own seat will come under heavy Labour attack from the less-privileged wards of Sheffield which will be added to his prosperous Hallam constituency. These are worrying times for a party that started life as an encapsulation of modern social democracy. A party comfortably ideologically attuned to progressivism as opposed to Tony Blair’s shift rightward whilst at the helm of the Labour Party. This will offer no comfort to the Lib Dem MPs, mostly women, who already sit on wafer-thin majorities up and down the country. For Nick Clegg, it is the price he will have to pay for that most insatiable of wants in politics: the vice of power, the quest to be the eminence grise between Conservative electoral might and Liberal electoral objectives. When Nick Clegg decided the Alternative Vote was more of a priority than assuring worried families about jobs and the ability to put food on the table, he effectively wrote his own epitaph. Liberal Democrat electoral defeat will be the making of his headstone.

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