By Jonathan Isaby
When the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was going through the House of Commons, Isle of Wight Tory MP Andrew Turner passionately made the case for his island not to be linked to the mainland after the forthcoming boundary redistribution.
With the reduction in seats from 650 to 600 and a deviation of only 5% to be allowed for any electorate (except for the far-flung Scottish seats of Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar), the Bill as currently constituted would mean about two thirds of the Isle of Wight's 110,000 electors being in one constituency, with the rest of the island being attached to a seat in mainland Hampshire.
The cross-party One Wight campaign – for which I expressed my support here – has been calling for the island to be allowed keep a single MP, effectively consenting to being slightly under-represented in Parliament.
And there was good news for islanders from the House of Lords this week.
Former Conservative Party chairman Lord Fowler, who has been an Isle of Wight resident for over 25 years, tabled an amendment during the Bill's passage through the House of Lords on Wednesday, saying:
"The consequence of what is being proposed in the Bill is that a new constituency would be formed that would be partly on the mainland and partly on the Isle of Wight, in spite of the fact the two parts would be eight to 10 miles apart, over a stretch of sea and with expensive ferries being the only means of communication. It is claimed that there must be this kind of new constituency because it is essential that all constituencies should have electorates of around 76,000, when the Isle of Wight has 110,000. No exceptions are possible, except the two in the Bill both concerning island constituencies and where the electorates are not abnormally high but abnormally low.
"My amendment would allow there to be one or two constituencies on the Isle of Wight. Most importantly, it follows the amendment put down in the other place by Andrew Turner, the excellent Member of Parliament for the island who was elected on a manifesto that promised opposition to a cross-Solent constituency. You might think that his amendment would have been carefully considered in the other place, but you would be absolutely wrong. Due to the timetabling arrangements in the other place, which perhaps underlines a little the debate that has gone before, he was allowed no time at all in Committee, four minutes on Report and no opportunity to bring the proposition to a vote.
"I cannot believe that this is a sensible way of governing this country. If nothing else, this amendment gives the other place the opportunity at least to consider the proposition concerning the Isle of Wight. I emphasise that the proposition is supported by every political party on the island; we speak as one on this. It would be the first time since the Reform Act 1832 that the unity of the Isle of Wight in parliamentary terms would be destroyed. It would be a bad deal for the island and for whatever area of the mainland forms part of the proposed new constituency.
"There are several practical reasons why the proposal is not in the public interest. The most basic point is that however you put together a new, divided constituency, no one believes that you can create a community, yet all the political parties in this country talk at some length about the importance of building communities. This proposal goes smack against that objective. If a new constituency was created out of part of Portsmouth and the east of the Isle of Wight, the travel difficulties involved in moving between one part and the other would be both immense and expensive."
"Nor are the interests of the island and the mainland necessarily the same. For example, on another part of the island, the islanders want an improved ferry service from Yarmouth to Lymington, but they are strongly opposed by the mainland Lymington River Association, which wants nothing of the kind. There is no community of interest.
"There has been no consultation with the people on the island about this proposal. Had there been, the Government would have discovered that all three political parties are opposed to a cross-Solent constituency – as are the county council, including the independents, the other councils on the island and, overwhelmingly, the public, 18,000 of whom have signed a petition against the proposal, which was collected in literally only a couple of weeks."
"The Boundary Commission looked at the proposition of a cross-Solent constituency in 2007, using figures from 2000. The electorate in 2000 was, even then, 103,000-33 per cent larger than the average-and the commission considered severing part of the island and putting it with a mainland constituency. However, it concluded that to do so would "disregard the historical and unique geographical situation". It found that it would "create confusion and a feeling of loss of identity" among the island's electorate. It also stated that "communications would be difficult both for the electorate and the Member of Parliament".
"I am sad to say that, despite that conclusive and independent thumbs down, the Government have persisted with this proposal. I say directly to the government Front Bench that both coalition partners promised an end to the "politics of ignoring the people" – and I dare say that the Labour Party has made a similar pledge. Frankly, it is no more than common sense. Yet the proposal to preserve the position of the Isle of Wight and to give it similar consideration to that of the Scottish islands has the support of its Member of Parliament, of neighbouring MPs, of political parties on the island, of the councils, of the business community and, above all, of the public. I do not think that the public and the community on the Isle of Wight could have made the position any clearer than they have. I very much hope that in the debate today and tonight the Government will not try to ride roughshod over this public opinion and ignore it."
The amendment was passed by 194 votes to 120, with the support of 28 Conservative peers, 14 Lib Dem peers, all Labour peers voting and 25 of the 28 Cross Benchers participating in the division.
The 28 Tory rebels backing the amendment included seven former Cabinet ministers (marked *) as well as the newly ennobled Lord Flight:
- The Earl of Arran
- Viscount Astor
- Lord Bowness
- Baroness Browning
- Lord Crickhowell*
- Lord Denham
- Lord Eden of Winton
- Lord Flight
- Baroness Fookes
- Lord Forsyth of Drumlean*
- Lord Fowler*
- Baroness Gardner of Parkes
- Lord Glenarthur
- Lord Higgins
- Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts
- Lord Howe of Aberavon*
- Lord Lamont of Lerwick*
- Lord Marlesford
- Lord Mayhew of Twysden*
- Lord Newton of Braintree*
- Lord Norton of Louth
- Baroness O'Cathain
- Lord Selsdon
- Baroness Sharples
- The Earl of Shrewsbury
- Lord Swinfen
- Lord Trefgarne
- Lord Tugendhat