The boundary review is legitimate, it’s the process behind that’s not
The boundary commissions have now published their initial proposals for achieving a reduced House of Commons (down by 50 members to 600) and, at the same time, attempting to equalise the size of constituencies nationally. This has been followed by two kinds of wearily inevitable response. The first is from Labour, who claim that the proposals are undemocratic. The second is from the usual suspects pushing their various barrows of electoral reform and House of Lords reform. The latter is completely irrelevant to the debate. Though one can forgive them for attempting to raise their profile, it is distracting. The former is also wrong. The review is not undemocratic at all, it’s a rigorous process set out in law (the cut-off date for the electoral register count is defined in law, not taken on a whim or for political expediency). The Labour argument is weak and poor. The reason the review has happened is because there is no credible opposition capable of stopping the government of the day doing what it has a right to do. Labour have a thin moral argument too since this is exactly what they did when they were in government.
Historically, it’s clear that the boundary review process is extremely open to input and submission, so long as these follow the principles of electoral law and representation. This means that the challenges that are likely to succeed will be about where boundary lines have been drawn. To argue that one community has been separated from another similar one. The ones that won’t are about the electoral register, the number of seats, the Commissions have no power to act on these.
The proposed seat of Marple and Hyde is a good example here, logically it makes sense since it fits the size criteria. However, in reality, it draws from two very different areas; four boroughs in Stockport and four in Tameside, separated as they are by Werneth Low, a significant piece of rural hillside. These communities have nothing whatsoever in common. Further, they are stripping out one-half of a strong Labour seat and bolting it together with a current Conservative and traditionally LibDem one, where Labour have barely scraped through since the year dot. Now, this isn’t a reason in itself to oppose the change but it does highlight the cultural differences between the two communities.
Wales, because of its dispersed rural population is also hit hard, losing more constituencies (and significantly more as a percentage) than other regions. Again, these communities could strongly argue for exceptions to the size criteria, as could some parts of the Highlands and Islands in Scotland, which loses three seats in the current standings.
But it is Labour, and Labour in London in particular, that will suffer the most. Despite the headlines about losing George Osborne’s Tatton seat, the real hit is with the inner-city Labour seats. That isn’t undemocratic, but it might be considered unfair. Until you note that the current boundaries were simply the result of a Labour government framing the last boundary review to suit themselves.
And perhaps it is this point that really needs to be drawn out. Whilst the process is legitimate and independent, the framing of it is not. The framing and criteria for the review is a political exercise that both major parties have gerrymandered at every opportunity. Perhaps if we are to have a fair and genuine review of Parliamentary membership, representation and constituency sizes then this should be entirely in the hands of an independent body, kept much further from political interference. That would also be the time to introduce a review of the upper house and the mechanism for electing our representatives.