Thursday, 3 June 2010

A Devonwall constituency?

BBC Radio Cornwall's Graham Smith has caught onto a problem which has been concerning a number of us for a few months. That is the Conservative manifesto pledge both to cut the number of MPs and to equalise the number of voters in each seat. Both are laudable aims, but they run into significant trouble because of the unhelpful geography of the UK.

The Boundary Commission has always been tasked with trying to make constituency sizes as equal as possible. But they have also worked to rules which say that boundaries should not cross county lines and that 'special circumstances' can be taken itno account. Hence we have one constituency which is about 27,000 voters - the Western Isles - but cannot be combined with any others because it is so distant. At the other end of the scale, the Isle of Wight has over 110,000 electors but is considered too small to split into two seats and woe betide anyone who suggests combining part of the Island with a bit of Hampshire.

The rules proposed by the Conservatives were aimed at trying to stop the over-representation of (Labour dominated) Wales and Scotland. But they would have a significant effect on Cornwall. If we take the Conservative pledge to cut the number of MPs by 10%, Cornwall would be entitled to 5.27 MPs. If we only had five then each seat would be bigger than the margin of error allowed for by the Tory plans - of about 3% either way. And clearly Cornwall is far below the threshold for six MPs under this scheme.

The only logical consequence of the Toy plans would be for a cross border 'Devonwall' seat, either combining part of Plymouth with Saltash and Torpoint or affixing Launceston or Bude to West Devon. Both would be an anathema to history and to the people of both Devon and Cornwall. This is an issue which I have yet to hear a Cornwall Conservative explain away in a believeable fashion.

In addition, the exacting nature of the equal size rule would create massive headaches for those charged with drawing the boundaries. We would see streets divided in half and natural communities split in a far worse way than occurs at present.

The Lib Dems also want to see a cut in the number of MPs but with much greater flexibility so that natural communities could be maintained and there would be no need for Devonwall seat.

Of course the Lib Dems also want to see a change to STV - a fairer voting system where electors can choose between candidates of the same party as well as between parties. STV works in multi-member constituencies so there is no need to artificially divide natural communities. As a result, Cornwall would have five MPs, each of whom would represent the whole of Cornwall.

Having talked to many Lib Dem MPs about this, I know that they will stand up for Cornwall and are not prepared to allow a Devonwall seat. It would be interesting to hear whether Cornwall's Conservative MPs would be prepared to vote against their manifesto on this issue. In fact, I'd be surprised if they even understood the impact on Cornwall of the policies they fought for.

1 comment:

Gareth Aubrey said...

If this proposal does get as far as a formal boundary review it'll be chaos; as well as the examples you've given, there's Anglesey, Orkney and Shetland, you can bet there'll be cross-river constituencies in London, Glasgow, Bristol, Newcastle/Gateshead...