parallel lines

For a small island with enough room (just) to move about in, we sure do like having our towns, cities and counties carved up by administrators waving their sharpened HBs on a lazy Tuesday.  Through centuries of governmental landgrabs and civil servant line wobbling, there is barely half-a-year free of local administrative boundaries, or parliamentary boundaries, having changed for the benefit of democratic cohesion and representative validity.

Common changes which carry on without much comment outside the local press, if at all, are the product of the Local Government Commissions, hardy souls whose responsibility starts and ends with the Town Halls and Civil Centres of Great Britain. Right now, if you’re that way out of an evening, you can comment on the proposed council ward shake-up of Purbeck council. THRILLING, I am sure you agree. Some of you may even learn where Purbeck is, for I’m sure it came as news to me.

Next week sees the bigger brothers of the local boundary shakers take to the centre stage of political discussion, and boy, will it be bigger. You may have heard the cries of “Gerrymandering!” from the summer of last year, from ill-informed bitter opponents of the somewhat overdue plans to cut the number of MPs and do something about the huge difference in Westminster constituency sizes.  When the Boundary Commission for England publishes its proposals for the 500 English seats in a weeks time, followed by Northern Ireland and Scotland before November, and Wales in the new year, it will be part of the greatest constitutional shake-up since devolution.  Not since 1945 have Westminster constituencies been subject to such radical reforms.

First off – the reasons why it’s obviously a good idea to take an axe to 50 Members of Parliament and a stretching device to those seats which border soon-to-be-abolished constituency units.  Quite obviously, all boundaries are fake. All of them, completely invented. From the decision to draw country lines round mountains and through lakes by means of happenstance and expediency, through to contemporary council ward shapes, every attempt by some form of establishment or other to carve up nation states begins with circumstances nobody wants. It’s a measure of man how we agree to the invisible lines which bind us into boxes and files and codes: most significance is only drawn in this country through somewhat petty partisanship.  I often wonder what opponents of the forthcoming parliamentary boundary review would do in Israel or Somalia or Western Sahara.

We need smaller, more relevant democracy in this country, one in which the machinery of party politics is left to tick and tock far away from the streets and playing fields of peoples every day lives. To lost 50 MPs in one go is but a small step – it is necessary to take the axe to the ‘payroll vote’, reduce the size of most Town Halls and create more local, responsive parish/neighbourhood councils. Reducing the number of MPs by just 50 to 600 is a small, vital, and progressive step in the right direction. Having done nothing to reform the parliamentary establishment, it’s very rich of the Labour Party to sound off about ‘representing the people’.  Losing 50 MPs saves money in the long term, and opens up the possibility of greater,  more significant reforms in the long term.  Proportional representation, above all, an elected Senate, an axing of two-tier local government….Can you hear the creaking in the old guard’s strides?

What begins next week is not gerrymandering. The Labour Party can cry all it wants (not least because they did so well in persuading the Boundary Commission under their regime to divide Derbyshire, East London and a fair amount of Wales in their favour).  By making the new parliamentary seat rules so tight, so rigid, so difficult to twitch, alter, manoeuvre, the Coalition has created a refreshing alternative to the old school horse trading of years gone by. Having followed the most recent review, which ran up to the 2010 election having started over 10 years previously, I know only too well how ‘stitched up’ everything felt.

There is nothing in the Great British Rule Book which dictates “An MP must not represent both rural and urban communities”. We are a small island, where urban sprawl exists almost everywhere, and the outdated ideas of ‘rural isolation’ and ‘high street magnetising suburbs to its core’ all reek of ancient arguments dusted off by those most likely to do well from favourably drawn lines. It is not beyond the means of any conscientious MP to represent town, city and farmland in one go.

Cheaper democracy, and more vibrant too, as candidates fight over unfamiliar territory at the next election. Yes, the resulting constituencies in some parts of the country may have some contrived elements – watch out Leeds, things aren’t going to be pretty – though when did it become necessary for the United Kingdom to be marked up in straight boxes? This is not the United States, we do not need compact squares and rectangles to make it easier to colour in the lines.

Cheaper, vibrant, more reflective of the ‘commute to work’ culture, and more relevant to the population shifts in northern cities and the affluent south. The recent previous reviews finalised their ideas ready for 1983, 1997 and 2010;  from this year onwards, the reviews must take a maximum of 5 years. The most recent English review saw parts of the country experience two general elections and a change in Prime Minister before they finally got the chance to vote in the seat designed for them half-a-generation gone. It’s not very modern of our democracy to take outdated population figures and expect representative seats to be drawn from them.

Cheaper, vibrant, up to date, relevant, reflective – and independent. We are not the US – appropriation  is carried out by pen pushers and map mechanics, not political appointees and the interested parties. Our parliamentary representation is the more precious and important because of the way in which we draw our lines; it is vital we retain that independence, something opponents of the new regime seem to take for granted.

Is it a Tory gerrymander? No, and it is not because Labour supporters have proven it. The left-leaning Democratic Audit published its report and found rock solid Labour seats in Manchester, Liverpool, east London and Scotland remained even with the tougher, tighter electorate rules. As I discovered when thinking about submitting my own proposals to the Commission, the domino effect caused by the new regulations make the creation of isolated blobs of party support very hard indeed.

Labour’s opposition seems to be tainted by two flavours – bitterness that they didn’t get here first when they had the chance, and uncertainty over the safety of their smaller, compact inner city seats. It should do our parliamentary system some good if Labour, and all other parties, have to fight that little bit harder in newer, more unusual seats. Why the Labour Party is so obsessive in their opposition is beyond me; are they so cynical? Or bored, and in need of anything to shout down if it’s seen as easy enough to do?

Our attitude towards the ever changing, always shifting representative means seems mostly shrug-shoulders and rooted in the past. We cling to “Greater Manchester” and “Merseyside”, both of which no longer exist. We occasionally scratch our heads at “Middlesex”, and look in vain for “Clwyd”.  Our incessant bored fiddling with figures and numbers have awarded Southport with a PR postcode and L-accented Post Offices.  Next week sees one opportunity to take seriously the new chapter in representation which will revitalise our relationship with candidates, parliamentarians and politics. It’s lazy and churlish to whinge about the radical nature of the review process; remember, only 50 MPs are going. I would prefer far less with a proportional voting system; maybe you want even fewer than 500 by 2020.

If you want more information about the great boundary re-jig, then Wikipedia is your friend. Whatever happens when the Boundary Commission for England declares its provisional plans next week, let’s try and get through it without too much bruising.

I have been asked to advise the North West Region Liberal Democrats on some specific constituencies for the North West of England, and will be present at a number of North West public consultation meetings on behalf of them.. The proposals I linked to in this post are my own ideas, almost all of which are absent from those which are being considered by the NW Region.