Labour’s opposition to democratic fairness is depressing but predictable. Equal sized constituencies was the fifth of the six demands made by the Chartists, a movement often cited by the left as a proud part of their heritage, but it seems that today’s Labour Party is less interested in democratic fairness than in party advantage. Contrary to their angry denunciations, it is not “gerrymandering” to insist that each constituency should be a similar size – it is a fundamental requirement for each person’s vote to carry equal weight.
Ten Conservative seats would be lost, 28 Labour, four Lib Dem and one Green. That’s according to Anthony Wells’ estimate of how the last election would have turned out had it been fought on these notional boundaries. This is, of course, not including the forthcoming review of Scottish boundaries, which will for obvious reasons affect the SNP more than anyone else.
This is just the first draft. While today’s proposals are discussed as though they are set in stone, in reality they are not – they’re the starting point for a consultation process which will last three months and take place online and in local events around the country.
Who could challenge the details? In the past we’ve seen local and regional Labour branches prove particularly proactive in engaging with the consultation process – even to the point of hiring lawyers in some cases to ensure they have the greatest possible impact with the Boundary Commission. By contrast, the last time boundaries were discussed there were quite stern instructions from CCHQ to Conservative associations that, as this was part of the Government’s programme, local Tories ought not to complain about it too much.
Local Conservative Associations will not be universally happy. Just because this review is something the Government supports does not mean it will secure unanimous support at a local level from Conservatives. Some may dislike the impact on their local electoral prospects, while the increased willingness of the Commission to stretch constituencies across borough and county boundaries may leave some councillors unhappy about the political implications - the new boundaries could have a knock-on effect on local priorities, or even on the process of redrawing council ward boundaries.
This is therefore a test of the new administration at CCHQ… The Conservative Party has already arranged a series of meetings for Association Chairmen and council group leaders in each area in order to gather local views on the proposals – and presumably to communicate CCHQ’s advice and policy on the topic. Patrick McLoughlin, the new Party Chairman, now has the unenviable job of steering a course through numerous competing concerns.
…and it will also test the new Prime Minister’s authority. With a small majority, asking Tory MPs to vote through a set of proposals which will abolish some of their own seats is a tall order. Cameron’s solution was to issue a “no MP left behind” pledge, promising that everyone who wanted a seat would still have one. The difficulty is, that isn’t simply in the Prime Minister’s power to promise – selections are rightly controlled by local Associations, not the leadership. Work is underway to agree new rules on selection shortlists which would at least give serving MPs an advantage, but a lot will come down to whether MPs trust that the new Prime Minister will stand by and then deliver on her predecessor’s promise. Trust, authority, patronage and brute power could all come into play.
It could all be for nothing. There are a huge number of moving parts to this process – not least in the Commission’s calculation of the boundaries for every single seat – but there’s still a risk it could all come to nothing. If the formal consultation process, and the informal reassurance process inside the Conservative Party, fail to secure the support of Tory MPs, then the boundary review could fail in the Commons. That would be a huge loss – these reforms are overdue, and every passing year further increases the scale of inequality between constituencies.