Sunday 18 September 2016

Joined-up government

The proposals for a radical re-drawing of Westminster constituency boundaries published last week are predicated on two main arguments. First, they will even up the number of voters in each constituency (fair enough), and second is the much less convincing populist notion that we need to reduce the cost of politics.

Predictably, the losers in this exercise are not happy. Stephen Kinnock, whose Aberavon constituency would disappear, called it "barefaced gerrymandering", but Aberavon has around 45,000 voters, whereas Tory Cambridgeshire North West has roughly double that number.  A decision to stick with current boundaries really would be gerrymandering.

Overall, there will be 50 fewer elected MPs, but since 1997 Blair, Brown and Cameron between them appointed more than 630 life peers, with Cameron ("cutting the cost of politics") notching up more than 240 of them. That was an average of 40 for every year he sat in 10 Downing Street, and they can all claim allowances and expenses if they feel like travelling up to Westminster and signing in.

More patronage, less democracy and savings of bugger all.

If things weren't already bad enough for Labour, the boundary changes will make it all but impossible for them to win a majority in the House of Commons, no matter who leads the party, for the foreseeable future.

The changes will reinforce the overwhelming dominance of the prosperous, Tory-voting south-east of England over the rest of the UK. Wales, with less than 5% of MPs, will become even more of a political and economic irrelevance in Westminster than we are already, ruled permanently by a party three quarters of us did not vote for.

Neither Corbyn nor Smith nor anyone else in Labour has a solution to this. Their sat-nav has taken us down a single track road and driven us into a bog. Keep on voting Labour and sending a message to Westminster, says Lab-nav impotently, even though nobody in Westminster is listening, and the AA man no longer ventures outside the Home Counties.

Independence is the only way out.

But let's take a look at the proposals on a more parochial level.

Cenarth and Llangeler

Cenarth ward (that's Newcastle Emlyn to you and me), and Llangeler (that's Drefach Felindre in reality) jut out into Ceredigion at the north-west extremity of the constituency of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. Neither Carmarthen East and Dinefwr nor the neighbouring Ceredigion constituency have enough voters to meet the target of around 75,000 electors per constituency, and so the Boundary Commission for Wales has shuffled the pack, played with different permutations and decided to take the two wards out of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, lumping them into a new super-sized constituency to be called Ceredigion a Gogledd Sir Benfro.

Ceredigion a Gogledd Sir Benfro will take in the whole of Ceredigion, plus most of the northern half of Pembrokeshire (but not Llanrhian, St Davids or Solva), and a slice of Powys around Llanidloes.

Even with all that, this monster would still be about 4,000 voters short of the UK Government's target.

Reading through the Boundary Commisison's proposals, it becomes clear that this job was a two-stage process:

1. Rearrange the pieces, trying to create constituencies with roughly 75,000 voters in each.
2. Cast around for geographical/cultural/economic justifications as to why these pieces really do belong together.

Apart from helping to make up numbers, the justification for moving Cenarth and Llangeler wards is that Newcastle Emlyn has "very close links" to Adpar. So close, in fact, that if it weren't for the county border, they would be the same place.

Carmarthen East and Dinefwr would be renamed Caerfyrddin and acquire the chunk of western Carmarthenshire (Carmarthen, Whitland, St Clears, Laugharne, etc.) which is currently bolted on to the very different southern half of Pembrokeshire.

It is true that Newcastle Emlyn has more in common with Ceredigion than it does with Carmarthen, 17-ish miles and half an hour away along some scenic, but tortuous roads. 20 minutes if you put your foot down, break all the speed limits and don't get stuck behind slow moving lorries, expletive deleted horse boxes and pensioners heading off for fish and chips at Morrisons.

But this is Britain where reform always means a bit of sticking plaster, string and a few nails applied to give an extended lease of life to some knackered, moribund concept, like the unfair and undemocratic First Past The Post voting system.

The Boundary Commission's recommendations are for Westminster seats only, so we will end up in different constituencies for Westminster and Assembly elections, while remaining part of Carmarthenshire for local government purposes. Apart from anything else, that will create an organisational nightmare for the political parties.

The risk to small areas such as Cenarth and Llangeler in these changes, detached from one constituency and bolted on to another, is that we will fall through the cracks and end up in a kind of political no man's land.

In addition to that change, and as a result of a completely separate exercise in boundary tinkering, Cenarth and Llangeler wards are due to merge to create a single, 2-member ward spread over a large, deeply rural swathe of territory for county council elections.

Just as with the Westminster proposals, the result will inevitably weaken the link between voters and their elected representatives.


Anonymous said...

Trouble is that when there are differences in the populations of constituencies it make votes worth less in one than in another. The boundaries commission is independent so we should have confidence that there is no gerrymandering - its just the way the dice has rolled this time.

In relation to your point about he House of Lords I agree - it is time that this particular institution was consigned to the dustbin of history.

your point about Proportional representation ignores the fact that we had a referendum a short time ago and it was rejected by a thumping majority as I recall

Cneifiwr said...

I think the piece made it pretty clear that ironing out discrepancies in voter numbers was fair, and it was Stephen Kinnock who accused the commission of gerrymandering.

The referendum was not on proportional representation but something called the Alternative Vote. That would be a bit fairer than FPTP, but a long way short of PR.

With the Tory press lined up against the idea and a very badly fought campaign, most voters probably did not have a clue what they were being asked to endorse (a bit like the more recent referendum, only with much less disastrous consequences).

What most voters don't appreciate is that the outcome of every general election is decided by a few thousand voters in a small number of marginal seats. Most votes cast in general elections simply don't count, which explains, among other things, why most of us never get to see Labour and Tory bigwigs on battle buses. They know they would be wasting their time, but they are not honest enough to tell voters in safe seats that they might as well not bother voting.

Voting Labour or anything else in a Tory safe seat (or vice versa) may be your right and make you feel that you have a say, but in reality you don't. You might as well stay at home.

In north Pembrokeshire at election time you could see a lot of Plaid posters and billboards, but Plaid had no chance of winning. Plaid voters were effectively disenfranchised. In the proposed new constituency, which will be a Plaid/Lib Dem marginal, Labour and Tory voters will suffer the same fate.

As a Plaid supporter, I don't think that's fair or democratic. Do you?

Anonymous said...

I think you fall into the trap of all commentators who don't achieve the result they want. Its all the fault of the electorate. The electorate are not clever enough. The electorate don't understand the issues.

Your point about STV and proportional representation is narrow. The country voted heavily against PR and that's that.

Any political candidate needs to attract votes from other parties - if they don't do this they don't win. We have first past the post for Westminster elections and Plaid just have to do better I'm afraid.

Plaid could make a start on this by accepting the Brexit vote and digesting the fact that Wales voted out more heavily than England Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Cibwr said...

I can't agree, the AV referendum was never about PR - it was marketed as a fairer electoral system not PR. If you ask the question about fair representation there is a general consensus in favour.

Emlyn Uwch Cych said...

I think the Cenarth-Llangeler merger is off for the 2017 Sir Gâr elections. Cardiff Bay has decided that since the Local Government Boundary Commission hadn't finished rejigging all the electoral wards in Wales, for the sake of certainty we'd keep what we have (with Llanelli councillors getting elected on fewer votes than those in the rural north west).

Anonymous said...

Mind you - according to the BBC if proportional Representation was in at the last general election The Tories would still have been the largest party with UKIP taking 85 seats !

The AV system has disadvantages but are you really honestly saying that if asked, the population would have gone for full PR.

The AV vote was quite a healthy turnout 40% with around 70% rejecting change.