Wales under review

Much later to the party than their counterparts across the other bits of the country, the Boundary Commissioners for Wales are gearing up to show off how they’ve managed to carve up Cymru under the new parliamentary constituency rules.

Reducing the number of MPs to 600 was never going to be without controversy – the English Commission was accused of treating the exercise like men of Empire armed with a ruler, a sharp HB and northern Africa. Their “Mersey Banks” will go down in legend.

Welsh MPs and commentators have been heavily critical of the consequences of the law, as the country will lose ten MPs,  25% in one strike. Arguments for and against have been oft-repeated – the Valleys seats are too small, the Valleys seats have to be that small, Welsh language constituencies must be protected, there should not be any protection for seats in Wales as there has been in the Highlands. Perhaps inevitably, Labour have been most critical, claiming the new legislation disrespects the Welsh people and their parliamentary history. In one waft of a hand, ten constituencies are removed from the map, Wales loses any influence within Parliament for purely partisan reasons.

These claims are so much fluff and bluster. The loss of MPs everywhere as part of this process does not rob anyone of their voice, influence or supply of green ink to write letters to the local gazette on the matter. Britain has always had too many parliamentarians – the reduction to 600 should be a first-step, not the final destination. Wales has its own Assembly and will have forty MPs shouting very loudly for attention – I don’t believe the loss of influence argument much at all.

The Welsh Commission have left it this late through all manner of confusion and administrative cock-ups. Their Local Government colleagues dropped enough balls to drown the First XI, which impacted on the national review. We’ve finally got whispers and hints on what’s to come this week, putting into motion the very tight timetable which has to end by October 2013.

North Wales should be the easiest for the Commissioners to fathom. Ynys Mon (Isle of Anglesey to you and me) has to be attached to the mainland somehow, which is handy because the Menai Strait isn’t exactly the Amazon (if you allow me to coin a phrase). The towns of the North Welsh coast are compacted together like neat jigsaw pieces, so expect Wrexham, Denbighshire, Flintshire and (Aber)Conwy to be largely touched. Good news for the three parties in contention to mop up the seats here – y Blaid will pick up the Anglesey/Bangor seat, Labour and Conservatives will divvy up the rest. One to watch? Wrexham, a dim and distant Conservative target which might yet one day turn blue.

South Wales has a trickier time of it. There’s a fair few mountains and valleys which get in the way, and the small town attitude is not mere awkwardness. The pride and tradition of the industrial and mining past will live on as long as women of ample bosom have enough breath in their lungs to belt out “Land of my Fathers” at fifty paces. This is where the problems start. Cardiff will lose a seat, and this puts the Liberal Democrats under particular strain in holding on to their only bit of the capital city. Swansea will be divided into two – one bit attached to Gower – whilst Newport is likely to be broken up into “doughnut” style into central and outer seats.

What happens to the Labour bankers (if you will) depends on how many mountain passes and mining villages the Commissioners choose to split down the middle.

Mid Wales will see both east and west sides of the country carved up as never before – the statutory minimum constituency size is not kind to sparsely populated rural hinterlands and as a result there will be clumsy rural/urban combinations. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be concerned with how the Carmarthen/Pembroke mathematics work out. Geography may have to mean nothing for the sake of making the numbers work – as the English Commission has so enthusiastically displayed.

For your perusal, a very convincing 30-seat Wales is presented on the Syniadu blog, written by blogger Penddu.

The Boundary Commission will present its initial proposals this week on their website

Ballot papers decide elections though the administrator’s pencil is sharp enough to make points in the fabric of democracy. How Wales is governed in the long-term depends on the decisions of the Assembly and of Westminster – the loss of 10 MPs in one go will colour that debate intensely.

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Vote 2011 – Every Loser Wins

Football managers are experts at finding diamonds in the rough (even Arsene Wenger, whose track record at actually witnessing contentious episodes on the pitch is quite the stuff of legend). Mssrs Molyles, Grant and the rest are wheeled out for post-game interviews to spout, by and large, the same things. “Yeah, it was two points dropped away from home, but you know, the lads really shone today and to come away with a point at this end of the season, you know, yeah, it’s really changed the way we look at the remaining games.”

This week I have been reminded that politicians can find positives in every situation with just as much ease and attraction to the tenuous. With so many elections on the same day – a veritable orgy of democracy – it’s little wonder how our elected elders have analyses the same source material and found completely different conclusions. Just off-side? Questionable linesman decisions? It’s all same-difference….

I will begin with Labour, whose leader Ed Miliband has been doing the media rounds talking much whilst saying little. “There are alternatives to everything this Government is doing” he says (well, sorry, “this Conservative-led government”). Sadly, Ickle Miliband is yet to outline exactly what those alternatives are. His Party were signed up to make public spending cuts in the same mould of the Coalition, so the “unspoken alternatives” he is failing to outline discredit his argument.

Labour did very well in two parts of the country – across Northern England they battered the Liberal Democrats seven shades of Sunday. Many great Northern towns are now without any LibDem representation at local level, or at the very least have seen their numbers slashed to bare minimum. Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Newcastle, Hartlepool, Hull, Leeds, Bolton – each city witnessed colossal drops in LibDem support. Here in Preston, our vote share collapsed in keeping with many others across the region, although we held onto one of our historically safest areas and increased our share of the vote in the target ward of Tulketh. As with all these towns and cities, we will be focusing on the Labour Party’s rule to ensure they keep to the budgetary constraints accepted by the Council before the election was called.

In Scotland, unlike Wales, the Labour Party suffered terribly. The SNP ripped apart the totems of Labour support – the Central Belt has almost no Labour MSPs at constituency level. Glasgow is over-half Nationalist, even Gordon Brown’s Kirkcaldy ditched Labour for the SNP. Fingers have pointed at Iain Gray, whose leadership did not inspire activists never mind voters, though the SNP’s success is clearly one of coherent policies. Labour went for negativity and attack, both of which failed to chime with voters who wanted to hear positivity and leadership.

Supporters of y Blaid may well be looking askance at their nationalist cousins. Labour’s working majority at Cardiff Bay clearly shows the difference with their leadership and campaign messages in the two nations. Could it be that Plaid Cymru stepping away from independence talk has made their brand weak and unattractive? What does falling to third do for Plaid’s future?

And now the Liberal Democrats. Well….

….Okay, so in Scotland we did appallingly badly. Wiped off the mainland in constituency terms we are now the Northern Isles Party in that regard, saved from total embarrassment by the vagaries of the d’Hondt voting system and its top-up seats. Clearly Scotland voted for its national parliament with one eye on Westminster politics; Scottish people have great difficulty in accepting any political alliance with the Conservatives can be sold for the national interest. That great guaranteed hotbed of liberal support – the Highlands – tossed us away like a caber. Just like the Labour Party in the South, so we have been attacked by our core supporters for not offering a credible or distinctive policy package and until we can speak with our own voice again Scotland will not e forgiving to whoever leads the Scottish Liberal Democrats in the future.

In England’s local elections, the Liberal Democrats suffered terribly in the North of England. The figures are stunning and sobering. Liverpool slapped us at every opportunity, Manchester ditched us entirely, and Sheffield stuck two fingers up at Clegg in his beloved backyard. Newcastle and Hull got rid of LibDems only a year after giving them control of their respective councils. Handfuls of LibDem councillors across Cumbria fell without so much as a handshake.

The lesson was very different in the South. We still run Eastbourne Council having lost 5 seats straight to the Conservatives, an increase of 8 Conservative Councillors didn’t change our control of South Somerset, and Portsmouth is still under our control (with no increase in Labour representation at all).

We have to learn from this. The messages we gave to voters over the period long before last year;s general election still hold true. We have thousands of dedicated councillors who fulfill their role as street champions and local representatives far better than their Labour equivalents. There is no sense of entitlement to any of our councillors and their wards. Clearly the Coalition is having a damaging effect on our representation, but that is not a reason to ditch it all in and start again.

The Conservatives won seats and councils last week, one of the first times that a ruling party has made advances after in their first year. They consolidated their southern support whilst making very limited increases from the midlands up (indeed the story in Birmingham is one of almost complete Tory collapse). Tories are still almost completely absent in the industrial towns across Lancashire, Manchester and Yorkshire. There may be blue bits in Sefton, but there most certainly are not in Liverpool, St Helens or Knowsley. In Wigan, the leader of the Tory group lost his seat in Orrell. In Chorley, the Tories lost control of the Council.

The winners/losers argument for the post-match interview is, therefore, whatever you want it to be. Labour cannot claim to have “won” the election period, having been demolished in Scotland and only reclaiming old ground in the North. Neither can the LibDems even suggest things are looking alright, for it clearly isn’t. The Tories need to examine how they break out of their comfort zones, because it still has yet to happen.

Two final points – the BNP were wiped out of Stoke Council, and seem to have only one defending councillor re-elected across the country. Their slow and satisfying collapse continues and long may that continue.

And I cannot leave without mentioning the AV Referendum. We lost. It’s terrible that the No brigade managed to drag victory from the ditches of its awful campaign, not least because this slams shut on meaningful electoral and constitutional reform for a generation. There is no two ways about this – saying No to AV has killed off any chance for a fairer, more representative voting system in the UK and that is a scandal for a so-called developed Western democracy. Labour had 13 years in charge to make a go of this, they failed, and this week their lack of action has come home to roost.

Some election periods are dull. Not this one. Much change, not least in Scotland, with constitutional and representative hoo-ha to follow. For those who found the AV campaign “a bit much”, incidentally, you wait until the boundary changes start…