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LOCAL ELECTIONS 2012 IN RETROSPECT

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LOCAL ELECTIONS 2012 IN RETROSPECT

Posted on 12 June 2012 by admin

Local election results – England and Wales

The 2012 local elections, leaving the London mayoralty aside, were a considerable success for Labour. While in 2011 Labour did very well in the big urban areas and not so well elsewhere, in 2012 Labour advanced pretty much everywhere that the party is a viable proposition, including such places as Weymouth, Tamworth and Great Yarmouth where the Conservative vote held up well in 2011, suggesting that the party is making progress on a much wider front than last year.

In terms of benchmarks and targets for party performance, Labour exceeded all realistic expectations. The party made a net gain of 823 seats across Britain, comfortably over the 700-720 that was the highest legitimate benchmark for a good performance. The party also took nearly all of its target councils, including some which had been regarded as rather ambitious targets: my previous paper describes Dudley, Cardiff and Redditch for instance as tough asks for Labour, but the party won the first two easily and the third narrowly. The only failures were Swindon (where the Conservatives retained a 1-seat majority despite Labour polling more votes) and the always peculiar West Midlands borough of Walsall.

As expected, Labour won the inaugural contests for the new mayors of Liverpool (in a landslide) and Salford (easily).

However, given the low turnout in these elections, it may be more a case of the Conservatives being in much worse shape in 2012 rather than a large positive movement to Labour. Turnout at around 32 per cent in England was poor, particularly in comparison with last year when it does appear that the AV referendum increased turnout (also significant is that the 2011 elections took place in more suburban and rural areas where turnout is higher anyway, while 2012’s elections were mostly urban). However, while it was pretty low, turnout was not as bad as it was during the first term of Blair’s government and not too much worse than years such as 1995 (which saw a big drop in turnout and a Labour landslide). In most areas, for every ten people who voted Conservative in 2011 about six did so this year, while for every ten Labour voters in 2011 there were about eight or nine this year. The net effect was a significant swing to Labour.

Looking at the local elections, another ‘hung parliament’ general election emerges as a strong possibility. A strongly regionalised swing, favouring Labour in the north and the Conservatives in the south, has interesting consequences, particularly when combined with the Liberal Democrats’ resilience in many of their stronger constituencies and the success of the SNP in Scotland. A swing to Labour will take out a few Tory remnants in the north, a swing to Tory will conquer Labour’s remaining outposts there – but these swings may well not be enough to win a Commons majority if there are 30 Lib Dems, 16 Northern Ireland MPs and perhaps 15-20 Nationalists.

The swing was less regionalised than it was in 2011, but it was still clear that Labour were doing less well in the south than in the north in terms of their recovery since 2008. Perhaps the main difference from 2011 was that the Midlands joined the North in swinging hard towards Labour, rather than joining the Tory South as it did last year. The Midlands will be the key battleground in political strategy in the next period – the Black Country marginals west of Birmingham and the smaller towns outside the metro area, and the towns and suburbs around Nottingham and Derby – will be crucial.

In general, it was another appalling year for the Lib Dems, and the hostility to the party in some areas (particularly the big cities) was just as evident as last year. The Lib Dems did worse in Liverpool, and were once again at the wrong end of a wipe-out in Manchester. In the areas where Conservatives compete with Lib Dems, honours were fairly even between the two parties, in contrast to last year when there was a strong trend to the Conservatives. The Conservatives did manage to gain Winchester from no overall control, although the Lib Dems had a swing in their favour in Portsmouth.

Local elections always demonstrate the peculiarities of some political micro-climates. The Conservatives did well to cling on in Swindon (despite Labour winning more votes), and there were a few strong Liberal Democrat showings against the national background of devastation. In Eastleigh and Watford they won landslides, and in Portsmouth they made significant gains from the Conservatives. There were even a few patches where wards that had gone Labour with a vengeance last year returned to the fold, particularly in Hull but also a few scattered outposts from Wigan to Basildon.

For the ‘other’ parties in England the results were mixed. The BNP lost all the seats it was defending and managed to field many fewer candidates than in 2008, and appears to be collapsing as a political force. The Green Party also did quite well, winning 40 seats (a net gain of 11), consolidating its position in areas of strength (Norwich, Solihull) and picking off a number of other wards where it has targeted its campaigning efforts. It may emerge, given the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in the northern metropolitan areas, as the principal opposition force to local Labour control in due course.

It was quite a good election for UKIP, in that the party won 12-13 per cent of the vote where it stood. In wards where both it and the Lib Dems were standing ‘paper candidates’ (i.e. people standing to represent the party on the ballot in areas where they do not expect to win and do very little campaigning) the UKIP candidate usually got more votes. In some areas (Great Yarmouth, Dudley, Basildon) UKIP polled quite serious vote shares of over 20 per cent in many wards. However, it has not managed to target its campaigning effectively for local authority elections, in contrast to the Greens, and it made no net gains in the elections despite its strong vote. The lack of targeting seems to me to be a puzzling aspect of UKIP strategy; it would surely be in the interests of the party to prioritise gaining elected local representatives, but it seems to concentrate on building its vote share, perhaps as a means of putting pressure on the Conservatives.

Wales, because every seat in 21 of the 22 councils was up for election (rather than a third of the seats, as with most of England), saw a huge turnover of seats and sweeping Labour gains, effectively reversing two sets of quite bad losses in 2004 and 2008. Overall, Labour made a net gain of 231 seats across Wales, with the Conservatives (-61), Lib Dems (-66) and Plaid Cymru (-41) all suffering losses. The most dramatic result was the Labour win in Cardiff, with a gain of 33 seats. But there were also some quite surprising Conservative losses of control of their councils in Monmouthshire and Vale of Glamorgan, where the party has generally been on an upward trend.

 

Local elections – Scotland

Because local elections are conducted under a proportional system in Scotland, changes in seats are less dramatic but in some ways the story there is the most surprising of all. The SNP gained, but by less than some over-optimistic expectations, and so did Scottish Labour despite their drubbing in the Scottish Parliament election last year. Both parties profited from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, the SNP making a net gain of 57 and Labour of 58. In Edinburgh, where the Lib Dems had led the council since 2007, the Lib Dems dropped to three seats (and saw one of its candidates famously outpolled by a man in a penguin costume), Labour emerged as the largest party and formed a coalition with the SNP to run the city, the first Labour-SNP coalition in Scottish politics.

The SNP will be very disappointed. In many elections in the past, the SNP has ramped up expectations and believed its own hype, and seen the results come well below what was hoped. In the Scottish Parliament elections in 2007 and, dramatically, 2011 this did not happen, but this old pattern has reasserted itself. The reality was that it was a moderately encouraging result for the SNP but not a breakthrough, and had it not been for the expectations and the results of the 2011 elections it would have been seen as good news for the SNP.

The importance of the elections was in the possibility that local government, collectively – with the trade unions the main non-Nationalist area of public life in Scotland – would become part of the developing SNP establishment. The SNP duly won outright control of two councils – Dundee and Angus – where this might have been expected given the SNP’s long-established strength in that part of Scotland. They fell short in other north eastern councils such as Aberdeenshire and Moray, and were cut out of a share of the administration by deals between Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Independents. The hopes of using local authorities and COSLA to support the push for independence in the forthcoming referendum came to nothing. Labour lost one council (Midlothian) it had gained because of a defection, held two (Glasgow and North Lanarkshire) and most surprisingly gained two (Renfrewshire, displacing an SNP-Lib Dem administration, and West Dunbartonshire). Labour also came out ahead in seats but without an overall majority in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In Aberdeen they formed a coalition with the Conservatives and Independents and in Edinburgh with the SNP.

With control only in Dundee and Angus, and the SNP locked out by surprising coalitions among the other parties in other councils (Lab-Con is the formula not only in Aberdeen but also in Stirling where the SNP did well, Inverclyde, Falkirk and even South Ayrshire where the parties have been harshly competitive), something clearly has been going on. A lot of it has to do with the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The parties opposed to independence (i.e. Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and most Independents) have decided to deprive the pro-independence parties (SNP and Green) of the levers of power in local government. Local government could have been used as a way of promoting independence, and giving pro-independence SNP activists publicly funded full time positions running councils, but this will not now happen. This could be an important result of the 2012 local elections.

London

The result was more or less as expected, with Boris Johnson re-elected as Mayor and Labour dominating in the Assembly election. However, Johnson’s margin of victory was smaller than many had expected during the campaign – 3 points after distribution of second preferences rather than the 6-8 points suggested by most polls and some expectations of a bigger win for Johnson than that because of differential turnout. Johnson’s re-election had been so widely expected that it had effectively been ‘priced in’ to media assessments of the results, and the fact that it was fairly narrow was added to the evidence that the Conservatives had a bad night.

What appears to have happened is that the suburban Conservative vote, which had turned out very strongly for Johnson in 2008, was less enthusiastic this time, probably as a reflection of dissatisfaction with the central government’s performance. Labour also seems to have had, this time, a superior ‘get out the vote’ operation on the ground, perhaps particularly in strong areas like Newham and Barking & Dagenham (where anti-BNP campaigning had revitalised the party in 2010) and in Enfield and Hackney.

But it was not quite enough to get Ken Livingstone across the line. In 2000 he was vastly popular and won as an Independent, and in 2004 he was much more popular than the Labour brand, but in 2008 the electorate appeared to be getting tired of him and this was even more evident in 2012, even though his first preference vote was its highest ever. Unlike before, his popularity did not reach beyond Labour’s – and did not even extend to all of the Labour Party. There were appreciable numbers of Labour supporters who did not vote for him.

 

Labour Assembly list % Mayoral FP % Mayoral advantage %
2004 25.0 36.7 +11.7
2008 27.6 37.0 +9.4
2012 41.1 40.3 -0.8

 

Conservative Assembly list % Mayoral FP % Mayoral advantage %
2004 28.5 29.1 +0.6
2008 34.6 43.2 +8.6
2012 32.0 44.0 +12.0

 

The election will have no particularly strong influence on policy in London, with Johnson (who has been notably slow to change much that he inherited from Livingstone in 2008) now overseen by a strengthened Labour group on the Assembly,  although the Assembly’s power is so weak that it will not be much of a constraint.

The detail of the election reveals some fascinating demographic and social trends about London. Working class areas of outer London appear to be changing rapidly and becoming much more ethnically mixed – for instance in Enfield and Croydon – while a wedge of London to the south west is becoming increasingly dominated by the wealthy (Wandsworth, Wimbledon etc).

What seems to have happened to the social bases of each candidate is that Livingstone lost the liberal middle class vote he had done very well among for a Labour candidate – Hampstead, Richmond, central Ealing, Muswell Hill, Wimbledon… but recovered some ground among the outer London white working class that he had done particularly badly among in 2008.

Overall, Labour’s Assembly election results were good – but perhaps not that good. The party was 9 points ahead on the list vote, although in the General Election of 2010 Labour led by 2 points. The swing was therefore 3-4 per cent to Labour, while in general the swing in the rest of England was around 8 per cent. There are a couple of viable alternative explanations for this discrepancy:

  • Perhaps having Livingstone at the top of the ticket dragged down the Labour share in all the elections in London, while Johnson probably dragged up the Conservative list. This can work through turnout – if a Labour supporter is unenthusiastic about Livingstone, she may just fail to vote, while an unhappy Conservative may find himself reluctantly voting only because he likes Johnson.
  • Perhaps the swing to Labour in London really is less than it is outside the capital. This could be because Labour did not do as badly in London in 2010 as elsewhere, so there is less of a mountain to climb. Or it could be because of other particularities of the politics and sociology of London.

It is likely that both factors contributed a bit to the small Labour swing in London.

 

Local elections – effects

The effect of local elections on the national political environment is complex. While they are largely determined by the state of general public opinion, they have feedback effects. Governments that suffer bad results often see their position decline once the elections are over, sometimes in public opinion (as with the severe and surprising Tory losses in 1993, or Labour’s drubbing in 2008) and often in broader ‘climate’ terms.

After a bad defeat, the media become more critical, troublesome backbenchers make more and louder trouble than they have already been doing, previously loyal MPs start to murmur dissent, ministers start to fear or hope for reshuffles, and in general a bad atmosphere descends. Sometimes, as in 1993 and 1995, it degenerates into a real crisis for the government; it nearly did in 2009 as well but the anti-Brown plotters mishandled it. So far in 2012 the political effect on the government from the local elections has been fairly modest. The government is still in trouble, but it has not deepened since the ‘omnishambles’ period of March and April, and in some polls the Labour lead has subsided a bit as May has gone on. But the local elections have consolidated the new post-Budget political narrative (and reality) of a government in trouble, rather than the ‘Labour failing and Ed is hopeless’ mood with which we started 2012.

The elections are part of a pattern of events. One casualty has been the reputation of George Osborne as a political strategist, given that his budget contained one extremely provocative measure (the top rate tax cut) and a number of smaller measures that have caused a series of minor political explosions and alienated several interests (pasties, caravans, historic buildings, pensioners…) at once. There has also been, it appears, an effort to shift blame onto Osborne for this from elsewhere in government, for instance briefing that Andrew Cooper at Number 10 was not permitted to test the tax cut with public opinion, or that Osborne wanted to cut to 40p but was stopped by Cameron and Clegg. Conservative journalists have written stories suggesting that Osborne has not been working hard enough, trying to divide his time between the Treasury and political strategy and doing neither well enough, and his lack of attention led to him being ‘bounced’ by the Treasury civil servants into a number of the minor changes that have proved politically difficult. Neither has Cameron’s leadership looked very sure-footed since, with tetchy performances at PMQs and apparently ever-deeper problems with Hunt and Leveson.

The Conservative Party is in a more disenchanted condition than it has been probably since 2003; while only eccentric lone voices such as Nadine Dorries have been open with harsh criticism of Cameron, there is a murmur of unease with the direction of policy under the coalition, with Cameron’s personal performance and attitude to his MPs, and for the first time with the party’s electoral prospects. The government has been in place for two years without a reshuffle, other than emergency mini-reshuffles after the resignations of Laws and Fox, and the mood of instability, plotting and every-man-for-himself that comes with reshuffle speculation has started (although Number 10 is trying to say that the reshuffle will be in September, not before). The high votes for UKIP in a number of constituencies will have impressed some Tory MPs – UKIP at around 10% in his Bury North constituency will merely encourage rebellious right-winger David Nuttall to be even more rebellious, for instance.

The election results combined with the economic news , and the sense that the argument for austerity is starting to be lost with the ‘double-dip’ recession and the election result in France, is shifting views. The Conservative right is keen for some ‘red meat’ to give to supporters who are abstaining or voting UKIP, in the form of dropping the gay marriage proposal, confronting Europe some more and adopting the Beecroft proposals on employment law.

The Lib Dem response to another horrible set of results was fairly calm. If a person is punched in the face twice, the second punch is less shocking (even if it may end up doing more long term damage than the first blow).This has been the fourth year in a row of local election losses, and after the trauma of their worse-than-expected massacre in 2011 they were resigned to a bad result in 2012. There were some crumbs of comfort in some areas where the results were better than last year (Hull, Basildon, Wigan and others). The Lib Dems, I think, know that the die was cast in 2010 by joining the coalition on the terms they did, and that there is not a lot they can do about it now except to hope that they survive the journey to 2015 and that there is a record of achievement in government to show for it with which they can impress voters at the election.

Part of the reason for the passive response among MPs is that for many of them the local results were not bad, often appreciably better than last year. This table shows the local election results in a number of Lib Dem held seats in England where there were local elections. In some the chances of Lib Dems holding on against Labour seem very remote, but against the Conservatives in suburban England they did pretty well. Rebellious MPs Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) and Bob Russell  (Colchester) saw their local election colleagues do well, and in Chris Huhne’s Eastleigh the Lib  Dems won another landslide victory. These sorts of figures give the party some hope that where there is a functional Lib Dem local organisation, a local MP and a number of electors who have a partisan identification with the Lib Dems, survival is possible.

 

2010 general election

2012 local elections

 
 

Con

Lab

LD

Con

Lab

LD

‘Result’

‘Swing’
Manchester Withington

11

41

45

5

57

25

Lab

18% to Lab
Burnley

17

31

36

6

53

34

Lab

11% to Lab
Cheadle

41

9

47

33

17

36

LD

2% to Con
Cambridge

26

24

39

15

43

25

Lab

17% to Lab
Southport

 

36

9

50

21

20

35

LD

None
Portsmouth South

33

14

46

25

21

47

LD

5% to LD
Colchester

 

33

12

48

23

21

39

LD

1% to LD
Hazel Grove

34

13

49

27

23

42

LD

None
Sheffield Hallam

24

16

53

17

23

39

LD

11% to Lab

 

For Labour, the results have consolidated Ed Miliband’s leadership. This would have been regarded, a year to six months ago, as being a paradoxically good thing for the Conservatives! But Miliband has grown in confidence and stature during 2012 and the elections have helped him in terms of his personal confidence and in encouraging Labour to have faith in him. Labour’s mood has, sensibly, been of satisfaction rather than complacency and the party tried hard to take a humble tone after the election results. But with a solid election win, a sense that the party’s arguments about economic policy are being vindicated and at last gaining some traction, and a party organisation whose greater efficiency was shown in its campaigning this year, Labour is in a better mood than it has been probably since autumn 2007.

Last but not least in importance, the election results in Scotland were the first dent in Alex Salmond’s armour for a long time; Scottish councils are unlikely to be used as forward bases to push for independence, and we are back to close rivalry of Labour and SNP rather than SNP domination. The launch of the Yes campaign for the independence referendum (25 May), after the local elections, did not seem part of a triumphant progress towards the SNP’s goal.

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Ten wards to watch on election night

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Ten wards to watch on election night

Posted on 03 May 2012 by admin

 

Or… which councils’ websites should you have open as browser tabs by 11pm on Thursday 3 May?

 

The local election polls close at 10pm on Thursday, but in contrast to the general election in 2010, a large number of counts are starting on the Friday morning. This is probably sensible from the point of view of allowing time to verify postal votes and to get the counting done after a good sleep rather than by tired people being paid overtime, but it does cut down on the fun for those of us who watch election results and like to drawn conclusions from the first straws in the wind.

The Press Association  helpfully publishes a list of anticipated declaration times. These are basically the times at which councils expect to have finished the count, so results in individual wards will be available considerably beforehand and allow us to see which way the wind is blowing. The following wards are worth looking out for, because they will be counted overnight and because they will tell us something about the national picture – or in a couple of cases just give a glimpse of interesting local peculiarities.

  1. 1.       Blundellsands, Sefton

Blundellsands is the remaining Conservative ward of Crosby, north of Liverpool, and it has been very close in the last two sets of local elections, with the Tories winning by 85 votes in 2010 and 21 votes in 2011. If Labour win this ward, it is a sign that they are on course to gain control of Sefton. That would be notable because no party has had a majority since 1986, and Labour has never won it before – a symbol of long term political change in the North West. Andrew Teale has written a rather good guide to the complexities of Sefton elections at Britain Votes - and see also his Greater Manchester preview.

Sefton election results 

 

  1. 2.       Little Horton ward, Bradford

Until the victory of George Galloway in the Bradford West by-election at the end of March, Bradford seemed one of the surer Labour victories. Labour would not even have to do as well as in 2010 to secure control. However, it remains to be seen how much of Galloway’s vote transfers over to his Respect colleagues in several Bradford wards. Labour losses to Respect in two wards, Manningham and City, seem to be expected but there is doubt about other wards, including inner city Little Horton, which is actually in the currently Lib Dem Bradford East seat. The Guardian wrote up the ward campaign.

Bradford election results.

 

  1. 3.       Peartree ward, Southampton

Southampton is one of the key Labour targets in the 2012 local elections and Peartree is one of the key marginal wards in the city. It is a suburban area lying to the east of the River Itchen, and since 2011 it has had the distinction of having one councillor from each of the three main parties. The Conservative seat gained in 2008 is up for election, and the Lib Dem elected in 2010 has left the council causing a by-election. Labour’s win in 2011 was surprising and narrow. If Labour win one or both of the seats today then they probably have a majority in this marginal city. For more on Southampton, see Southern Front.

Southampton election results. 

 

  1. 4.       Chipping Norton, West Oxfordshire

West Oxfordshire is the council for David Cameron’s Witney constituency, and the town of Chipping Norton is associated with Cameron and his ‘set’. The Conservatives are defending a seat here in the local elections. However, it is one of the more marginal areas of West Oxfordshire and Labour held the other council ward in Chipping Norton last year.

West Oxfordshire election results

 

  1. 5.       Lydiard & Freshbrook, Swindon

Every seat in Swindon is up for election this year because there have been ward boundary changes. It is just about feasible for Labour to take overall control from the Conservatives, although it is quite a tall order. If the Conservatives hold this newly drawn outer suburban area, whose component parts have previously been in marginal wards, then the Tories have probably retained their majority in Swindon and probably therefore good prospects in holding the two marginal Parliamentary seats. I’ve written more about Swindon for Southern Front.

Swindon election results

 

 

  1. 6.       Amblecote, Dudley

Dudley is another key contest between Labour and Conservative. The parties each won 12 wards last year, something of a disappointing result for Labour, and Labour needs to win 15 seats this year for a majority, and Amblecote would be one of them. It is a Black Country town lying between Stourbridge and Brierley Hill. The Conservatives were 317 votes (8.5 percentage points) ahead in the 2011 local elections, so Labour needs a significant swing since then. The UKIP vote is well worth watching in Amblecote and Dudley more generally. They won 8.5 per cent across the borough (12 per cent in Amblecote) in 2011 and if they improve their showing could tip the balance between the two main parties.

Dudley election results

 

7.       Fant, Maidstone

The Conservatives will almost certainly retain control of Maidstone council, but this ward is a real curiosity. It is, as it were, the Latin Quarter of Maidstone, on the left bank of the Medway, and it is a four-way marginal. The Conservatives gained it from Labour in 2008, but the Lib Dems came out on top in 2010 before the Tories won again in 2011 but with only 29.4 per cent of the vote. The fourth-placed Greens won 21.4 per cent. Labour will be trying to break back onto the council and show a small ‘red shoot’ in Kent.

Maidstone election results

 

 

  1. 8.       Cockett, Swansea

Labour should be on course to regain their majority in Wales’s second city – although Cardiff is a tougher nut to crack. A key step on the way is the Cockett ward in western Swansea, a four-member ward (some Welsh wards have more councillors than any in England), where Labour must hope to sweep aside the Lib Dems – who in turn gained the seat from Plaid Cymru in 2008.

Swansea election results

 

  1. 9.       Heanor East, Amber Valley        

Heanor is traditionally one of the more Labour towns in the marginal borough and constituency of Amber Valley, and it was a particularly depressing result for Labour in their disaster year of 2008 when the BNP won both Heanor East and Heanor West. The sitting BNP councillor is defending the East seat this year. In the 2010 local election (the last time these wards were fought) Labour had fairly narrow margins over the Conservatives.

Amber Valley election results

 

10.   Bradwell North, Great Yarmouth

Eastern England turned in Labour’s worst results in the 2010 general election, and results in the region in the 2011 local elections were very patchy. One of the less successful patches was the marginal town of Great Yarmouth, and Labour has to hope that they have improved their position in 2012. Bradwell North, a residential area south west of the town centre, is one of the key wards Labour must win to gain control for the first time since the Tories gained it in 2000. Southern Front has an article on Yarmouth.

Great Yarmouth election results

 

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Lewis Baston – Evidence to Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

Lewis Baston – Evidence to Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee

Posted on 08 March 2012 by admin

HoC Political and Constitutional Reform Committee Thursday 8 March 2012

Wilson Room
Meeting started at 10.01am. Ended at 11.44am
Recall of MPs
Witnesses

Lewis Baston, Democratic Audit
John Turner, Association of Electoral Administrators

Source and alternative player (Windows Media Player)

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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.

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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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