When the Boundary Commission for England released its initial proposals to reduce the number of constituencies across the country, you couldn’t hear yourself think over the shouts from the Labour Party of “fix”, “fudge”, and “gerrymander”. Got a Bingo Card? Full house before noon. “It’s a Tory stitch-up,” came the cries, and at the first glance it was almost enough to believe the hype.
Now the instant reaction buzz has died down, number crunchers have taken their time over the spreadsheets and maps, and found some rather interesting details which Labour’s critics may find interesting.
If we focus on the North West of England, the conclusion is very clear; Labour do very well out of the proposed changes, even if those include such insane creations as “Mersey Banks” (two sides of the River Mersey connected by the M65 and a couple of dual carriageways) and a “Leigh” seat which excludes Leigh town centre whilst requiring prospective parliamentarians to navigate Chat Moss.
From the website Electoral Calculus comes news about Greater Manchester. Rather than demolish the strongholds and citadels of Manchester, notoriously undersized Labour bankers as they were, the BCE proposes to strengthen Labour’s in built majority. Current LibDem seat Manchester Withington is calculated as a Labour hold; the same conclusion is made by UKPolling, who decides current MP John Leech would fall by just short of 2,000 votes.
The proposed Manchester Central (which also incorporates Salford city centre and Salford Quays) would fall from an 11,000 to 8,000 seat majority for Labour, not exactly a collapse. Indeed, factoring in the Hazel Blears factor (her cheque-waving fixed-grin arrogance cost thousands of votes last year), the seat could have an automatic majority beyond the existing figure.
There are notional gains for Labour too – the newly divided Burnley would present them with two notionally held seats. “Rochdale North and Rawtenstall”, a creation destined to force BBC news presenters to sound like Jane Horrocks, and “Rochdale South” would move further away from the grasp of the Liberal Democrats who regard the town as their northern spiritual home.
Under the new proposals, Warrington, Chester, and Bolton shift away from marginal status, which for Bolton at least should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. The proposed “Westhoughton” (which should be called “Westhoughton, Horwich South, Hindley and Leigh. And also Atherton”) creates a cushioned safe-hole of nearly 10,000 votes (around 7,000 using Electoral Calculus).
What this means in the wider picture brings two conclusions; that the in-built natural Labour bias has not been fully eradicated. Neither the BCE nor Democratic Audit found a way to jigsaw Manchester or Liverpool in such a way to make them any less safe for Labour. The second conclusion underlines the extent to which Labour misunderstands the concept of ‘gerrymandering’, almost certainly wilfully. The new rules presented the BCE with a challenging remit, something which occasionally produced unfortunate accidental brain-farts one assumes can be redressed (taking Fishwick out of Preston, for example, something which hasn’t been the case in any context since the mid 1830s). What has happened in the NW is an interesting result of taking boundaries further out into towns which have been consistently undersized before – in quite a lot of cases, it is the Labour Party which benefits the most.
Of course, there is quite a lot of tea-leaf stirring here. These predictions are drawn from past local electoral results and stats, and in politics as in business, past performance is no indicator of future behaviour. It’s notable that the loudest critics of the scheme to reduce the size and cost of Westminster have missed out the specific consequences in those parts of the country where first glances would have given the impression of impending disaster.
The whole episode makes things very tough for the Liberal Democrats, who I have supported for over 10 years now. We lose, notionally, two seats, and that is a significant number in a region where vote share and constituency numbers have never correlated particularly impressively. If anything, the results show just how much greatly strengthened should be our resolve against the Labour Party, in parts of the country where we have consistently out performed them.
If Labour go into the 2015 election thinking, genuinely or not, that the boundaries have been stacked against them, they may discover the flip side of getting what you wished for.