Archive | September, 2011

The Boundary Commission for England has been unnecessarily radical in its proposals, often ignoring local government boundaries. New constituencies may lack community cohesion and local loyalty.

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The Boundary Commission for England has been unnecessarily radical in its proposals, often ignoring local government boundaries. New constituencies may lack community cohesion and local loyalty.

Posted on 23 September 2011 by admin

Last week, the Boundary Commission for England presented its proposals for new constituencies based on 600 rather than 650 parliamentary seats. Democratic Audit’s Lewis Baston undertook a parallel analysis in June, and while he finds some similarities, he argues that the Commission may create tri-borough seats, orphan wards and the crossing of the boundaries of upper-tier authorities and counties, which may lead to seats that have little or no community cohesion.

Comparing the initial proposals published by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) on 13 September with the Democratic Audit (DA) model boundaries published in June, has – as the author of those proposals – been an interesting exercise. In many cases the Commission’s ideas were very similar to mine. Nearly all the South West was uncannily similar (except for south Devon), as were large parts of the South East and West Midlands. Even in areas where the BCE map differs a lot from the DA map there are occasional familiar faces, like ‘Battersea and Vauxhall’.  But there were big differences in some areas, particularly North Yorkshire which was unaffected in the original DA model but reshaped by the BCE.

Some of the differences arise simply because there are, in most regions, a large number of viable alternative maps which reflect to a greater or lesser degree considerations like administrative geography, continuity with previously existing seats, and the always contestable nature of ‘local ties’.

Some of the difference, more interestingly, arises from differences in method – not in the overall rules that were set in legislation, but at the level of policies and assumptions. Some of the assumptions we made in the Democratic Audit model were not reflected in the BCE proposals.

One should start by being gracious, and pointing to a feature of the BCE report which is clearly superior to the Democratic Audit original model. It does not involve splitting any wards, while the original DA model split 13. In part, pressure of time when the DA model was released in June led us to propose some split wards while there were acceptable alternatives that emerged on closer inspection. But there was also an underlying aim of trying to reduce disruptive change and allow constituencies to be constructed that did not cross county boundaries or allow strong continuity with existing seats. This led to several ward splits in metropolitan areas.

The BCE’s avoidance of ward splits, even in difficult circumstances when it must have been tempting, is therefore to be admired. However, it comes at the cost of more radical disruption, plus creating some very peculiar seats in urban areas and crossing boundaries wholesale between London and metropolitan boroughs.

One of the assumptions in the Democratic Audit model was that the BCE would avoid creating ‘tri-borough’ constituencies. This assumption was, unfortunately, inaccurate. We regarded constituencies that contained parts of more than two primary local authorities (it will be inevitable that some constituencies will cover several district councils in two-tier areas) were undesirable. Local government boundaries both reflect and help create local communities of interest and identity. A constituency that combines parts of three authorities is unlikely to have any cohesion as a unit and will command little recognition or local loyalty. Constituency representation, in terms of casework, advocacy of local interests and the valuable but unsung role the MP plays in building networks and partnerships in the local area, will be significantly more burdensome when there are multiple local authorities with which to relate. As well as councils, local business and civic groups are often organised at borough level.

It is possible to produce viable maps which avoid splitting wards while also avoiding tri-borough seats. The tri-borough seats give one reason to expect considerable change between the initial proposals and the revised recommendations.

There were two alternative approaches to creating seats that cross county boundaries that the Democratic Audit model considered feasible or desirable, given that the rules under which the Commission was instructed to work required there to be some seats which straddled county boundaries.

One option (‘best fit’), which was embodied in the original Democratic Audit model published in June 2011, was to attempt to construct a limited number of cross-county seats working from points where there are significant numbers of electors either side of the county line and some degree of interchange or commonality between them. This involved more than the minimum number of cross-county seats: for instance, Suffolk was paired in the model. The original model had 21 cross-county seats (4.8 per cent of English seats outside London).

Probably the simplest assumption would be that cross-county seats are pretty undesirable in themselves, and that their number should be minimised. A minimal crossings rule would have produced 15 cross-county seats (3.5 per cent of England outside London).  There is room for interpretation with ‘artificial’ county boundaries, for instance those between Cheshire and the southern boroughs of Greater Manchester, which might involve multiple crossings if that fits better with local ties. But in general, on reflection, minimisation may have been the best working assumption.

However, the number of cross-county constituencies in the BCE initial proposals was surprisingly large. In total, there are 27 constituencies (6.2 per cent of English seats outside London) which straddle county boundaries.

In some regions, the BCE has adopted a minimal crossings rule: East Midlands, South East and South West. It seems to have gone for a version of the ‘best fit’ rule in two regions, West Midlands and North West.

Its recommendations in three regions seem to wander casually across county boundaries. In Eastern England, the Bedfordshire-Hertfordshire border is crossed three times, and there is also an unnecessary (but arguable on ‘best fit’ grounds) Cambridgeshire-Suffolk crossing. In North East the boundary of Northumberland is crossed an incredible four times. In Yorkshire and the Humber there are three constituencies straddling the line between North and West Yorkshire, which is striking given that all the North Yorkshire constituencies are currently the right size.

Several of these cross-county seats involve small additions from one county to a seat based overwhelmingly on another county (for example, a tiny bit of Northumberland in Whitley Bay), a recipe for that section to be marginalised within the politics of the constituency and not represented as effectively as the majority section. While there is much in the BCE report which is inevitable given the constraints under which it was operating, it does appear that there are an unnecessary number of cross-county seats and tri-borough constituencies.

Another feature of the Democratic Audit model was that it went out of its way to avoid splitting smaller towns. These are often the most effective embodiment of community identity, with strong voluntary and social institutions which the ‘big society’ is supposed to cherish. Some splitting is necessary even under the pre-2011 boundary rules and the new rules will require more division of small to medium sized towns. It was impossible to avoid completely in the DA model; suburbs of Dunstable (but not the town itself) were put in with Luton, and Formby was split, for instance.

But the BCE report takes an axe to a swathe of smaller English towns: in Yorkshire there is carnage. The Mirfield seat takes chunks of both Batley and Dewsbury, and Wakefield city is horribly divided. In Surrey, a random chunk of Weybridge is torn off and added to Spelthorne (constructing a seat here was always going to be a problem, because Spelthorne is a very well-defined geographical unit whose electorate falls just short of the threshold).

An orphan ward is a ward of one local authority which is put into a constituency with no other wards drawn from that local authority. Prima facie, it is undesirable to create orphan wards, because it is unlikely that they will have strong ties of identity to the rest of the constituency. If an MP’s casework, networking role and participation in local political debates is focused mostly on the politics of one authority, the electors of the orphan ward are likely to be peripheral to the politics of the constituency. The BCE proposals create nine orphan wards in London alone, while the original DA model had two and it is quite possible to produce a map with only one London ‘orphan’.

The new rules required the BCE to undertake a radical review and suggest a map that bore less relation than previously to administrative geography or community identity. Once the legislation had been passed, this much was inevitable.

However, it does appear that the BCE has been unnecessarily radical in some areas, particularly North Yorkshire, and that it has had an unduly lax attitude to tri-borough seats, orphan wards and the crossing of the boundaries of upper-tier authorities and counties.  However, its decision to avoid any ward splits is welcome and sensible.

It is possible, even within the rules, to draw a tidier map than the BCE has done. One is tempted to take a Machiavellian reading of some of the odder proposals like ‘Mersey Banks’ – that it is so preposterous that it exists to attract representations in the consultation period. By withdrawing it later on, the BCE can show itself as responsive and provide an illustration of the new consultation procedures ‘working’. Or it may just have been that there was insufficient time for better thought-out proposals given the need to cover the whole of England in a period of months.

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All Change

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All Change

Posted on 22 September 2011 by admin

Take care when assessing the impact of boundary changes on the next election, cautions Lewis Baston

When the Boundary Commission for England published its initial proposals earlier this month, there was a lot of information to absorb quickly. Some aficionados and anoraks (including myself) were intrigued by how they approached the task and phenomena like cross-county and ‘tri-borough’ constituencies. MPs were naturally obsessed with local details. But everyone wanted to know what the implications would be for each of the political parties.

Figures estimating the partisan effect of boundary changes should always be taken with a pinch of salt, as there are different methods which all have their advantages and disadvantages, but which can produce different results. There is no absolutely reliable data, and one has to use local election results, with various tweaks and adjustments, to guess. A number of interesting constituencies would be incredibly close on the boundary changes, to the extent that it is pretty much impossible to ‘call’ them reliably – for example, the new Abingdon and Oxford North might or might not have gone Tory rather than Liberal Democrat in 2010 but it is very debatable. The best method for estimating the notional results of new constituencies is that used by the indefatigable Plymouth duo of Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, but it is arduous, does not produce quick results, and even then is sometimes off-beam.

The Guardian produced some rough workings of the partisan effect of the changes, which ‘feel’ about right looking at the results as a whole: the Conservatives down six seats, Labour down 14, the Liberal Democrats down 10 and the Greens down one seat. This is towards the upper end of what the Conservatives might have hoped for from the process, although Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report has produced some workings which are a bit worse for Labour. Allowing for the other three nations, overall changes would be Conservatives down 10, Labour down 22, Liberal Democrats down 13 and others down five. In terms of the composition of parliament, this would mean 296 Conservatives – just short of an overall majority that would require 301 seats. The changes therefore, if one re-runs the 2010 election, put the Conservatives significantly nearer the winning post but do not carry them over the threshold to a majority.

However, it is important to realise that the next election will not be a re-run of 2010. This point is utterly obvious, but often seems lost in discussions about boundary changes. We are not dealing simply with new boundaries, but with a combination of new boundaries, a new political situation and the responses of individual MPs to the boundary changes. The more interesting question about the boundaries is what happens if there is a modest-sized swing to Labour at the next election. The current polling average of Labour 40 per cent, Conservatives 36 and Liberal Democrats 11, translates into something like a Labour majority of 40-50. Under the new boundaries this would unquestionably be lower, although exactly how much lower will depend on how many Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats are marginal enough for Labour to swing over in the next election. A four-point lead is enough for Labour to scrape a majority, probably, but not enough for a comfortable win like 2005 (when the party’s lead in vote share was three per cent). The Conservatives still need a lead of eight per cent or so to win an overall majority – less than on the previous boundaries but still a considerable margin. Of themselves, the boundary changes still leave another hung parliament looking a fairly likely result in 2015 – although if the Liberal Democrat vote slumps the size of ‘hung parliament territory’ shrinks accordingly, whatever the boundaries.

Boundary changes also pose constituency-level challenges. While adverse changes to marginal Labour seats are worrying for individual incumbents, these are sometimes an (effectively disguised) stroke of good fortune for the party as a whole. Halifax, for instance, is flipped from Labour to Conservative under the new boundaries, but Linda Riordan remains its Labour MP. A good incumbent should be able to get themselves known, campaign hard and attract support in new areas. If there is any national swing to Labour, and if incumbents do the work, then places like Halifax should be Labour ‘gains’ in 2015. In the 2010 election boundary changes made Joan Ryan’s Enfield North seat notionally Tory, but she managed to damp down the swing to 0.7 per cent compared to neighbouring seats with actual Tory MPs which swung by between six and eight per cent.

If there is a national swing to Labour, and if incumbents do half as much better than the national trend as Ryan did in 2010, boundary changes are survivable. Enfield North, incidentally, is probably flipped back to Labour in the latest set of boundary changes but will be harder to win back than the raw figures suggest because it now has a first-term Tory MP.

Another feature of boundary changes is that they will require a broader political and campaigning approach. Areas in ‘hopeless’ seats are often left organisationally derelict, and the same can happen of course in some ‘safe’ areas. When territory is moved from a hopeless area into a marginal, it will need to be brought quickly up to speed in terms of its organisation and campaign readiness. This is a stiff task. Chingford and Woodford Green may be a safe Tory seat, but Chingford and Edmonton is a crucial Labour-Tory marginal. The Chingford wards involved will need to get busy with gaining members, canvassing and persuading electors who may not have heard much from Labour locally before.

The subtleties of boundary changes will be particularly exercising the minds of Liberal Democrats. The party is particularly vulnerable to boundary changes because its majorities are on average smaller than Labour or Tory (12 per cent, rather than 18 to 19 per cent), and because they are usually surrounded by areas that do not vote Liberal Democrat. For instance, their seat in Burnley is shipwrecked because it is split and the larger part is combined with part of Hyndburn, where the Liberal Democrats are so weak that they hardly contest local elections. In the past, Liberal Democrat incumbents have sometimes been amazingly successful at coping with boundary changes, like Sarah Teather in 2010 or David Alton in 1983. This does require high-pressure campaigning, and it has also in the past relied on the fact that very few people would absolutely never consider voting Liberal Democrat, and therefore most people were open to persuasion. They will encounter more resistance when they try this trick in 2015.

The Boundary Commission for England report is far from definitive. There now starts a process of consultation, and some of these initial proposals look almost certain to be revised by the time final proposals emerge. For instance, it is difficult to see the infamous ‘Mersey Banks’ constituency surviving a consultation process. We will not know the definitive picture until 2013. There is also uncertainty over whether the House of Commons will approve whatever new boundaries emerge, although it would be foolish to assume that the changes will not take place. Even if they are approved, the new rules involve ‘permanent revolution’ – a new boundary review is supposed to start after the election and there will be another new set of constituencies for the 2020 election. This second review will be based on December 2015 electorate totals, which may be even more grossly inaccurate than the current ones because registration will become effectively voluntary by then. There is a formidable organisational, legislative and political task facing Labour, and the initial reports are only the first stage.

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It’s Not All Over On Electoral Reform

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It’s Not All Over On Electoral Reform

Posted on 19 September 2011 by admin

The possibility of another hung parliament means there should be another chance to change our voting system, says Lewis Baston. First, the cause needs to stop being so insular

The May 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) was a humiliating defeat for electoral reform. By a majority of 68 per cent to 32 per cent, the  electorate voted No. Autumn 2011 may therefore seem an unlikely moment to be optimistic about the future prospects of changing the electoral  system, but I believe the prospects are bright, provided some hard lessons are learned from what happened in 2010-11.

My new book, Don’t Take No For An Answer, is about the future of electoral reform but also a backward look at the referendum when everything  went wrong. It is a blackly comic tale of duck houses, deathbed conversions, megaphones and the rise and fall of Nick Clegg, from zero to hero  and then down to negative territory within one strange British political year. The Yes campaign may have accused No of being dinosaurs, but was itself the campaign that was lumbering towards oblivion.

Winning on AV would have been a tough call even for the best campaign. Although a referendum is usually a demand from people who want  eform, the history of referendums shows that they tend to produce small-c conservative results. AV itself was famously a ‘miserable little  compromise’ that aroused little enthusiasm, and the campaign struggled unsuccessfully to define why the referendum was happening and what problems it would solve. The Liberal Democrats went, between the 2010 and the 2011 referendum, from contributing a quarter of the vote and
general goodwill to a tenth of the vote and huge amounts of scorn. Labour were divided and uncertain, and after some dithering the Conservatives heavily against.

The Yes campaign, disastrously, tried to make the referendum about ‘make your MP work harder’, probably the most misguided and stupid slogan found outside the world of price comparison websites. They were comprehensively beaten by an unsentimental, even ruthless No campaign, which still managed to be more genuinely pluralist than the supposed democracy advocates of Yes.

The optimism about the future is because there will be another opportunity, hopefully in better circumstances than in 2010-11. The question is  more whether the reform movement can change itself enough to win.

Changes in the geography of elections have meant that ‘hung parliament territory’ covers a large part of the spectrum of plausible election outcomes. To win outright  requires the Conservatives or Labour to win a lead of 90 or more seats over its rival, a target the Conservatives missed even when everything was working in their favour in 2010. While in 1964 Labour or the Tories could have won with a popular vote lead of less than 1 per cent, in 2010 the Tories needed a lead of 11 per cent and Labour a lead of 3 per cent to win outright. The numbers may look a bit different in
2015, mostly because we can anticipate fewer Lib Dems elected and very slightly because of the new boundaries that will come in. But both effects are likely to be less dramatic than many Tory or Labour partisans will be hoping.

Far from being lost for a generation, electoral reform may well be back on the agenda within ten years. Another hung parliament will give the Lib Dems leverage to reopen the issue, and will also provide more evidence that FPTP does not produce single party majorities with any reliability. The basic problems – unrepresentative results, governments lacking sufficient consent, low participation, MPs claiming exclusive rights to speak for constituencies despite a majority voting against them – will still be there. The real risk for electoral reformers is not that the issue will vanish, but that it will come around again and another opportunity will be wasted as humiliatingly as it was in 2010-11.

The electoral reform cause needs to be fought more intelligently and flexibly if another bear trap like the AV referendum is to be avoided. Despite the disappointing experience after the Jenkins Report in 1998, when the promised referendum was never delivered, another inquiry – with a guarantee of a referendum – may be better than a reform option cooked up as a Downing Street wheeze as it was in 2009, or a hasty coalition deal as in 2010. The history of referendums suggests that the case for change is usually only won after a national conversation has taken place and a
consensus position evolved, as with the Scottish referendum in 1997 and the Welsh referendum in 2011. The 2011 referendum campaign happened essentially from a cold start. In future, a citizen-led process to involve people other than the usual worthies in devising an alternative system may be the way forward.

Electoral reformers also have to take account of the genuine reservations that people have about change – part of the problem in 2011 is that there was insufficient understanding by the Yes campaign of why people might be unwilling to take a leap of faith, and why arguments about stable government and ‘tried and tested’ fall on receptive ears in troubled times. Trying to pretend that politics and partisanship are not important does not work, particularly on such an intrinsically political issue as the voting system. It was wrong, as a matter of fact and of political tactics,for Yes to
claim to be about ‘people v politicians’.

Between now and the next opportunity, the electoral reform cause has to reform itself – to stop being such an insular, self-satisfied little world. Burying the term ‘democracy sector’ would be a start. It needs to think more strategically about party and interest group politics. There are conversations to have with business, trade unions, and advocates for women, ethnic minorities and the poor. For the Liberal Democrats this should mean thinking about what to demand and how to play the cards they are dealt in a future hung parliament. The chances of getting a result
may be better with a longer run-up and a better proposition than in 2011. There are other reform demands such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for English local government.

The Labour Party should be doing its bit to learn lessons as well, and bear in mind that it has never won a majority in an election immediately following its ejection from power. In 1955, 1974 and 1983 the Labour vote fell in each case, with minority government in 1974 only made possible because the Tory vote fell even further. Labour modernisers should consider what a Labour electoral reform would look like, before any hasty talks in smoke-free rooms have to take place. Labour could also show a bit of reforming goodwill by supporting the government’s House of Lords
plan, which involves the coalition parties spending political capital to accomplish a long-term Labour objective.

The Conservatives got the result they wanted in the referendum, but in the long term they may suffer for it. AV would have enabled a soft electoral  pact with the Lib Dems and possibly several terms of power, albeit shared. FPTP is a chancy shot at a term or two of single party rule.

Reform proposals often come back stronger and better after an initial defeat. The devolution Scotland and Wales won in 1997 was much more than the half-baked proposals that lost (or in Scotland’s case won too narrowly) in 1979. Irish Home Rule was more radical, and came closer to victory, each time after the defeat of 1886.

Within six years of Lansbury’s defeat in the women’s suffrage by-election in 1912, women were voting.I look forward to something better than AV being on the agenda before long – and then winning.

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Lewis Baston on The Daily Politics 12th September 2011

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Lewis Baston on The Daily Politics 12th September 2011

Posted on 15 September 2011 by admin

Lewis Baston interviewed opposite the House of Commons for the BBC’s Daily Politics show, Monday 12th September 2011. A draft of potential constituency boundary changes, prompted by the Coalition’s desire to reduce the number of MPs with a view to cutting costs, has just been released.

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Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

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Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

Posted on 13 September 2011 by admin

Few English MPs will escape changes to their constituency borders in today’s Boundary Commission’s recommendations, writes political consultant Lewis Baston.

The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) report published today is unsettling reading for nearly all MPs, including those from the government benches who voted it through with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Few MPs will escape having changes made to their constituency boundaries, and a few will find their seats abolished, or changed so radically that they would have been defeated on the new boundaries in 2010. Some MPs will be pitched into fights against each other.

The proposals implement the coalition government’s new policy on parliamentary boundaries which was enacted in February 2011. The government insisted that the total number of constituencies was reduced from 650 to 600, and that – with four exceptions – every seat had to be within 5 per cent of the average size. Size here is measured by the number of people on the electoral register as of December 2010.

Peculiar boundaries

While the legislation was highly controversial between the parties, the Boundary Commission itself is an impartial body which does not take party political consequences into account. It has to try to create units with the right number of electors that make some sort of sense on the ground, and given the constraints it generally does well.

However, the rules under which the commission has had to operate have created some very peculiar constituency boundaries in some areas, although in general they have tried hard to avoid unnecessary disruption.

Perhaps the strangest new seat is the unfamiliar Mersey Banks constituency, a sort of successor to Wirral South which contains a random piece of Widnes unconnected, even by a bridge, to the rest of the seat.

For Conservatives there is the tantalising possibility of a Tory member for Sedgefield (technically, Sedgefield and Yarm). Tony Blair’s old stronghold is radically altered and grouped with the areas which made the current Stockton South a Conservative gain in 2010.

Gloucester city centre becomes part of the Forest of Dean constituency, an idea that was greeted with dismay when I floated the prospect in a local newspaper.

Political consequences

While the Boundary Commission is neutral, most observers are keenly interested in the party political consequences. In general, the changes seem to help the Conservatives a bit relative to the other parties, but the effect is not dramatic. In some areas, such as West Yorkshire and east London, they will be probably be pleased but in others such as Derby and North Yorkshire there is a lot of disruption for no political gain.

The party that really suffers is the Liberal Democrats, because their seats tend to have smaller majorities and be yellow islands in a blue or red sea. The axe falls on a number of seats the Lib Dems currently hold, including expected losses like Carshalton & Wallington, and Burnley, but also surprises like Westmorland & Lonsdale held by party president Tim Farron and unhelpful alterations to seats including Chris Huhne’s Easleigh and John Leech’s Manchester Withington.

While Nick Clegg personally has little to fear in his redrawn Sheffield seat, the implications for the party are ugly – and we have not even seen what happens to the beleaguered Scottish Lib Dems yet.

More to come

Today is a very important step in the process of redrawing constituency boundaries, but it is far from the end of the road. There are Boundary Commissions for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which will publish their reports separately between now and January.

The proposals in all these reports, including England, are now open to consultation and there will be a number of local hearings to gather evidence about what people think about the proposed boundaries and the alternatives that will be offered by the main political parties.

The Boundary Commission is keen to hear from civic groups and ordinary people as well as the parties, whether they support or oppose its ideas, and invites responses through its website. It does sometimes revise its ideas and publishes new proposals.

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“Don’t Take No For An Answer: The 2011 Referendum and the Future of Electoral Reform”

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“Don’t Take No For An Answer: The 2011 Referendum and the Future of Electoral Reform”

Posted on 10 September 2011 by admin

Authors: Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie

The May 2011 national referendum was only the second ever in the history of the United Kingdom. Those who had campaigned for decades for electoral reform were given, finally, a chance to make the case for change as the nation decided for or against the Alternative Vote (AV).

Yet, whilst opinion polls in the months before the vote showed the Yes campaign to have a small lead amongst the public, on polling day it was comprehensively defeated: more than two-thirds of voters opted instead to maintain the status quo. The Yes side won in only ten of 440 counting areas.

Don’t Take No For An Answer tells the story of that referendum, in all its blackly comic detail – from duck houses to deathbed conversions.

Yet it is not simply an historical account. It seeks to understand what went wrong for the Yes campaign, and why. It also looks to the future – how to ensure that electoral reform returns to the political agenda and how to run a reform campaign capable of success.

Don’t Take No For An Answer is an analysis of the mistakes made in the past. But it also contains a message of hope – that the chance for a referendum will come again and, this time, those in favour of reform will not take no for an answer.

Published on 16th September 2011 by Biteback Publishing

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What say will voters have in redrawing of the electoral map?

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What say will voters have in redrawing of the electoral map?

Posted on 06 September 2011 by admin

The government’s contentious legislation to reduce the number of MPs and introduce a new system for drawing parliamentary boundaries was passed in February 2011. It set out an ambitious timetable for final recommendations to be voted on by the House of Commons in October 2013, which required some fast work by the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) in particular, which has 502 new constituencies to design. The BCE staff has been hard at work all spring and summer and the Commission publishes its eagerly-awaited ‘initial proposals’ next Tuesday, 13 September 2011. Recommendations for Scotland and Northern Ireland will also be published this autumn, while those for Wales are held up until January 2012.

The English Commission’s proposals will be acutely controversial. Before now, constituencies have always been contained within a single county (except for a few cases of very small counties like Rutland). The new rules will require some constituencies to cross long-established county borders, with a particularly unpopular hybrid between Devon and Cornwall, and several other straddle seats for example in Dorset, Leicestershire, Herefordshire and Northumberland.

Because they impose rigid restrictions on the allowed size of 596 of the 600 new constituencies, the new rules will result in some strange proposals in major urban areas as well. The Commission will have a choice between two undesirable options in places such as Leeds, Stockport, Wakefield and Birmingham where there are very large local authority wards (wards are the traditional building blocks for parliamentary constituencies). The choice is between splitting wards between constituencies, or creating some constituencies that will not reflect any recognisable community of interest and will spill across local authority boundaries.

When I looked at this in June I thought that the Commission might allow some ward splits to make it easier to form seats that make sense on the ground. However, the BCE seems to be strongly opposed to splitting wards and it seems likely that it will avoid doing so, even at the cost of creating some contorted boundary lines.

The new rules also restrict the opportunities for public comment on the outcome. The previous procedure involved public inquiries for all but the most innocuous proposals, while this time there will be no inquiries. The initial proposals will be open to public consultation for 12 weeks from 13 September 2011. This is not a lot of time to absorb a complex set of proposals covering the whole of England. It is also not long for local people, groups and even MPs to devise alternative proposals.

The new more restrictive rules mean that it is quite possible to come up with an idea for your area which makes perfect sense in itself, but is completely impossible because it would force another constituency outside the allowed limits for size. The level of technical skill and work required to make allowable alternative representations may be too much for non-experts to manage without assistance.

The government conceded during the Bill’s parliamentary progress that there would be a number of public ‘hearings’ during the consultation period. The BCE has announced its timetable of hearings for October and November 2011. The hearing for Truro will no doubt be particularly interesting given the unpopularity of the ‘Devonwall’ constituency.

There will be another very short period – 4 weeks – in spring 2012 in which people will have the opportunity to comment on other evidence submitted to the Commission, which will be the only occasion on which the main parties’ plans will be subjected to any public scrutiny.

The BCE has no choice about the law under which it works, and it plans to try hard to make the process as accessible as possible, through the hearings, a special website and a web form through which representations for and against the proposals can be made. But the short timetable and the restrictive rules imposed by the government will make it difficult for the public to make its wishes known during this boundary review.

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