Hitting the Boundary

By Luke Akehurst / @lukeakehurst

The next general election is going to be tough to win, with a starting point of 29%, Labour’s second worst score since 1918, and only one previous instance of Labour returning to power after just one term in opposition.

The Tory gerrymander… sorry I meant equalisation of constituencies and reduction in size in the House of Commons … was supposed to make that task a lot more difficult.

A superficially unanswerable case had been made that the commons should be cut from 650 to 600 MPs to help answer public concerns about the expenses Scandal (fewer MPs, fewer expenses claims, geddit?) and that constituencies should have a more rigidly equal number of electors (note electors, not total population, hitting inner-city areas with low levels of voter registration), overriding established rules that constituency boundaries should take into account real communities, local authority boundaries and geographical features like rivers.

The driver for this was a Tory belief that the way constituency boundaries are drawn has favoured Labour, giving us more seats for fewer votes. That may temporarily be true, but I am old enough to remember it’s not permanent as in the 1980s we argued they used to help the Tories.

The precise total cut of 50 MPs was picked because the Tories cynically calculated this maximised the relative damage to Labour. Any fewer MPs below 600 and the cuts would have less unequally affected Labour.

Unfortunately for the Tories, they appear to have been hoist by their own petard.

Research by Lewis Baston at Democratic Audit published in the Guardian on Monday models the Boundary Commission process using their rules and comes up with a new set of boundaries that hardly changes the balance between Labour and the Tories (17 Labour losses and 16 Tory ones) but eviscerate the Lib Dems, who it predicts would lose 14 seats, 25% of their total parliamentary party, which is already vulnerable due to their slump in the opinion polls. The secret to this is the comparative isolation of most Lib Dem seats: they don’t often have Lib Dem areas next to them that could be added to them if they need a bigger electorate.

This is good news as it means the Boundary Commission could produce lines that put Labour a bit nearer the winning line versus the coalition, rather than moving it further away.

But it is only one model of an almost infinite number of permutations the Boundary Commission could come up with. The coasts and edges of regions have geographical considerations that reduce the choices the Boundary Commission could make, but in the middle of regions such as London or the West Midlands there are many different ways to cut the cake. So Labour people shouldn’t get complacent about the potential adverse impact on us of the real proposals, as opposed to this model.

The best case scenario would be for the Lib Dem turkeys to have realised they have voted for an early Christmas, and an opportunity arise in parliament to vote down the whole thing. Even if the commission’s proposals don’t hurt Labour the reduced number of MPs still decreases people’s level of parliamentary representation, gives MPs a larger workload reducing their ability to fight effectively for individual constituents, would produce perverse boundaries that combine traditionally separate communities’ representation, or split long-established electoral units. The chaos involved in reselections where MPs might fight MPs of the same party for a reduced number of seats, and CLPs are thrown up in the air and come down again like a kaleidoscope is not something Labour should welcome.

In the mean time discipline is the key to Labour getting the best overall outcome from this process. In previous reviews we have done better than expected because we have trusted our expert psephologists – first David Gardner, now Greg Cook – to orchestrate a collective Labour response to the Boundary Commission proposals. All the MPs and CLPs in each area have then supported this consensus position in the interests of the party as a whole, rather than fighting the corner for our own local interests as Tory MPs and Constituency Associations sometimes do. This will involve tough choices: some MPs will have to accept the abolition of their own seat if it helps Labour’s overall position; whilst some MPs and CLPs may have to accept losing a safe Labour ward and seeing their own majority cut if it bolsters our position in a neighbouring marginal. Acting collectively to secure the best overall outcome for Labour is our best hope of getting a boundary outcome as relatively benign as the one Lewis Baston has modelled.

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