6 June 2011

Facing Up To The Challenges Of The New Boundary Regime

It's time to dust the cobwebs off the blog, this time merely to suggest that the Liberal Democrats need to significantly reform the way we operate if we are to survive the upcoming national political climate.


The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 could have introduced two major changes to the way general elections. The voting system was subject to a referendum and subsequently rejected by voters, so only the constituency changes are now to go ahead. In summary, the changes are:

• Reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600;
• The electorate in each constituency will vary by no more than 5% (with a few exceptions for islands and sparsely populated areas of Scotland);
• The new boundaries are to be in place for the next general election and will be reviewed every 5 years (and with fixed term parliaments, that means boundary changes between every general election).

This is a big shake-up, and changes a lot about what we currently understand about what a parliamentary constituency actually is. To fit within the strict 5% variation limit, the Boundary Commission will need to radically change the nature of the political map, and change it regularly. Constituencies in your area could well be in a state of complete flux from election to election.


Article 4.3 of The Constitution of the Federal Party sets out how Local Parties must organise themselves. Basically each Local Party can be either a single parliamentary constituency, or a combination of multiple constituencies. Given these boundaries are liable to change every 5 years, our grassroots will need to reorganise itself every 5 years to fit to the ever changing boundaries.

This organisational problem is then compounded by research by Democratic Audit, which shows that the Lib Dems are likely to see the biggest proportion loss of MPs to the boundary changes. Unlike the Labour and the Conservatives who win swathes of neighbouring seats in their core territories, our seats are more isolated, so bringing in parts of other seats will generally hurt us harder. This effect is further strengthened when the focus of our campaigning is in our target seats at the expense of neighbouring no-hope seats.


So we need a more stable set of boundaries for our Local Parties can build up without having to frequently reorganise, and we need to spread our campaigning beyond the existing rigid constituency boundaries, with an eye on neighbouring wards that could be part of the battlefield for the next general election.

Article 3.3 of The Constitution of the English Party gives us a way forward. It additionally allows Local Parties in London to organise themselves along Borough lines rather than solely constituency lines. This should be extended to all district-level government.

This has numerous advantages: Local authority boundaries are far less fluid, saving a lot of time and energy when boundaries change. They give a reasonably well-established outline of existing communities around which to organise and campaign locally, and naturally give the boundary of a specific council for the Local Party to target at all times. More broadly, tying Local Parties to Local Authorities generally fits better with the Lib Dem commitment to localism, and could cause a small shift in culture away from national politics and towards local issues (not that I feel this is really a problem as things are).

There is one big disadvantage that needs tackling: Whereas constituencies are reasonably constant in size, districts vary massively - from the tiny Isles of Scilly with just a couple of thousand people, to huge Birmingham with a population over a million. There would need to be flexibility in any new rules to allow small districts to merge and large districts to split, but this should be done on other tiers of local authority boundaries.

Another problem is with electing the parliamentary candidate, but this could be the time when Local Parties organise themselves for the general election on the forthcoming election's boundaries, so that the membership is worked out and a candidate elected.

Needless to say there are multiple other issues that would need addressing were this to happen. But the cost of not adapting to the new landscape may mean a lack of coordination and self-inflicted defeat. It's time for the party to start planning ahead and ensure that it is fit for purpose in the future.

I feel this may be the time to draft my first conference motion... Eek!


Bolivia Newton-John said...

See Mark Pack's warning on terror about boundary changes, with which is generally agree: http://www.libdemvoice.org/lewis-baston-boundary-changes-24373.html - the LD vote is not as susceptible to Death By Mosaic data as the two class-based parties (for obvious reasons!)

Though your point about structure is obviously valid. In London as you say we have split-constituency local parties, and indeed the appended half that my borough shares with Greenwich gets fairly neglected. It would be a worry if this became more widespread. Good luck with the motion!

Bolivia Newton-John said...

That said, in general, I strongly support the move to reduce and equalise the constituencies. May do as much if not more to tackle safe seats/lazy MPs than AV would have done.

Duncan Stott said...

Thanks for your comments, Bolivia...

How do you think constituency reduce + equalise will tackle safe seats/lazy MPs? I don't see it myself.

Richard Gadsden said...

I think the frequency of change will make organising on the basis of parliamentary constituencies rather daft, and it will make a lot more sense to have a structure more like London, where the base structure is the local borough/district council, and there are parliamentary committees elected by the members in a given constituency for the purposes of organising the election campaign.

This will allow the majority of the country to concentrate on local elections (as they should) while the minority of winnable seats will mostly get a big impetus to selection etc when the boundary review triggers the formation of the parliamentary committees.