Tuesday 13 September 2016

Theresa May and the Boundary Review

And just like that my constituency disappears. Wrapping like a skeewiff cummerbund around the svelte middle of the Potteries, Stoke-on-Trent Central stretches from a hint of countryside up Stockton Brook way, and snugly grips Baddeley Green, Abbey Hulton, and Bentilee. It takes in Hanley which, confusingly for outsiders, is Stoke's city centre (not Stoke town itself), and scoops downwards to embrace Eaton Park, Etruria, Shelton, before bending towards Newcastle-under-Lyme and making room for Hartshill, Penkhull, Boothen, Oakhill, and Trent Vale. These suburbs, estates, districts aren't going anywhere, but in a Boundary Commission land grab the North will advance South and the South will advance North with a new border settled more or less outside my front door. Stoke-on-Trent Central is set to become a memory that, from 2018, will be recalled only by election geeks and Wikipedia. Life is set to continue, but the Potteries are losing an MP. It won't be pretty either. Making three into two means at least one loses out, and who is that going to be? It might all of the incumbents - others could be waiting in the wings for a chance to acquire a seat for themselves. With high stakes such as these, Labour Party politics for the next couple of years threatens to be interesting, and that's without factoring in Jeremy Corbyn, the hundreds of new local members, and the ongoing battle for the party's soul.

This isn't entirely unprecedented. We have been here before. In 2011 and 2012, under Dave's instruction, the Boundary Commission redrew the political map of Britain. Their brief was to equalise the number of electors per constituency and chop down the number of MPs by 50 to, as the government then put it, cut the cost of politics. In reality, it was a feeble attempt to link the "national emergency" posed by the deficit to the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries for Conservative electoral advantage. The LibDems killed it off while they were in Coalition but, unfortunately, with last year's Tory majority the fix was always coming back. And so we have today's first draft, drawn up again on the same principles which, if implemented, will make it much more difficult for Labour to ever win a general election. With fewer marginal seats to fight over it makes them even more important, apparently demanding a Blair-ish triangulation strategy to win over the timid, conservative-leaning voter in the timid, conservative-leaning swing seat. It's almost as if the whole thing is designed that way.

This, however, is but the first draft. There's to be a repeat of the consultations and public gnashing of teeth. And, to be fair to the Boundary Commission last time, they did make some pretty big changes after listening to thousands of submissions. I recall previous proposals feeding Stoke Central anabolic steroids and swelling to a silly size, biting chunks out of the North and South constituencies now poised to share its unloved carcass. This followed the first draft in which Central reached out and nicked a bit of Staffordshire Moorlands around Werrington. As a large, relatively well-to-do village, I was privy to one or two snobby letters dead set against to the proposal, claiming this leafy dormitory for folk who mainly work and shop in the city "had nothing to do with Stoke-on-Trent". I digress. Once representations are made, I expect there will be more changes. But ultimately, the outcome is the same" the Potteries loses an MP, and Labour gets stiffed.

There are many more problems with the boundary review as presently constituted. Chief among which is constituencies are getting redrawn according to the registered electorate, not population, and those electorate figures are from December 2015. This was after hundreds of thousands dropped off the register thanks to changes to the registration process, and before two million extra people re-registered to take part in the EU referendum. It is hopelessly out-of-date and is set to recompose British politics off inaccurate data.

For Theresa May, this attempt to cook the next election's books is a test of her alleged One Nation Toryism. As someone who's always been sceptical about a snap general election (even putting down an amendment to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act requires Parliamentary time, which comes with plenty of warning), and as May has ruled one out, I believe she has a clear incentive to keep the boundary review going. Uncharacteristically, this is one set of findings she won't be kicking into the long grass. And yet, if it does go through, it could store up very serious problems for British politics.

As noted recently, the reason why revolutionary movements have a tendency to either become domesticated or disappear in liberal democracies is because constitutionalism opens up political paths for the achievement of objectives without the constant mobilisation and pressure of extra-parliamentary activity, be it demonstrations, strikes, occupations, or other forms of direct action. If the constitutional path is choked off, then it is reasonable to assume that more radical, confrontational politics strike down thicker and wider roots. This is what May's Tories are playing with. I'm not suggesting a huge revolutionary movement will rise up, but if something as simple as the everyday interests of the labour movement are locked out of official politics because of boundary fixes, they will find expression in other ways. Some of which might be sharp, militant, and violent.

And so the ball is very much in May's court. How much does she want to see the Tories win? Is she as entirely short-sighted as per her late and unlamented predecessor, or will she stop and think for a moment? Dave, as a man afflicted with a disastrous gambling habit was happy to risk the legitimacy of the British political system for the small reward of a few dozen extra seats. Is May?


Speedy said...

I'm left with the impression of adults and children - the Tories play grown up politics, they know what they are there for - to shaft ordinary working people and protect the interest of capital. The Left wring their hands and threaten violence, why don't they throw their toys out of the pram too?

The first thing Corbyn said was this was "not fair", like some kid in a playground who's had his tricycle snatched away. Of course its not fair! Doh!

This is what the Tories do, this is why Labour was invented, and this is why you can expect more and more or this.

Mummy and daddy are driving the car now, they're deciding where it's going, and the rest can put up, shut up, or grow up.

Makhno said...

"Mummy and daddy"? Jesus wept. Given the context, I can only assume that your parents were Fred and Rose West.

Stu said...

As you say, there is room for debate on these. There are individual Tories who will lose out too (just not so many) so maybe dial back the class war and work to change this. I think there is a case for rebalancing the seats with demographic changes. But there is no case for using an inferior data set to draw them up when a far better one exists, and there is no compelling case for reducing the seats. Comparisons with the US Congress are fatuous because the state legislatures have so much more power.

On the other hand, there is a much much stronger case for taking a scythe to the Lords. Kick out the last of the hereditaries who are't 'working' peers, and introduce a retirement age (85?) and/or a maximum term (say 15 years).

If you see this as a chance for real change rather than a chance for yet another demo, or for blood-curdling threats, you might even get a positive result.