On Thursday and Friday the lead hearing for the East Midlands region took place in Derby. The Assistant Commissioner (AC), Douglas Edwards, seems a nice chap, though it must come as a shock, even to an experienced professional like him, to suddenly be overcome, at 10.15 a.m. on a wet Thursday morning, by a tidal wave of maps, data and placenames. Just as I was about to leave I met Charles Pattie, the electoral geographer from Sheffield, and I can’t help wondering why the Commission doesn’t employ geographers, rather than lawyers, to run these hearings.
The AC pointed out that the purpose of the hearings was not to engage in a debate on the Commission’s proposals. This is true, but why not? It does seem odd that anyone can go and criticise the proposals, but no-one from the Commission will answer back or attempt any justification for what they’ve done. Bizarre. The secretary to the Commission, Simon James, made the telling remark that “the only criterion is meeting the statutory electoral range.” I hadn’t heard this admission before, and it explains a lot.
Labour were first at the rostrum; their presentation was delivered, with a notable absence of maps, by their political strategist Greg Cook. Now call me suspicious, but I assume that no maps = crazy shit ahoy, and Labour’s proposals were certainly the most radical on offer. Instead of two cross-border seats, Greg mooted three, with Coalville-Keyworth being replaced by Swad-Ashby and Long Eaton-Stapleford. He’s certainly right that those pairings look logical, but forcing Derbyshire to share two seats with other counties probably wouldn’t go down too well. (I don’t think he’s right to describe the Erewash border as “poorly defined” though I know what he means.) The devil is in the detail, as they say, and when you see how Labour are splitting Broxtowe up you’ll appreciate that their idea was better in theory than in practice. Another Labour gem to look out for is Derbyshire Dales and Dronfield.
Labour’s plans for Derby involve what I call “leeching” – they’re roping in Ockbrook and Aston to make the numbers up for their North and South Derby seats. MP Chris Williamson spoke later in support of this plan.
Next up were the Lib Dems, in the shape of CEO Chris Fox. Nice big colourful maps up on the screen this time, showing us another radical alternative: they’ve gone for the Melton-Bingham and Rutland-Corby cross-border seats that I went for! GMTA?
Chris made big play of the fact that he got the local associations to draw up the plans for their areas, and I think the Nottinghamshire plan is very good. The Derbyshire plan I’m not so keen on – I’m sure it makes sense, but I can’t see the Commission going with the Greater-Derby-style seats or the A61 eel (which stretches from Bolsover to Holbrook) or the Mid-Derbyshire amoeba. He described North East Derbyshire district as “artificial” and said it should be eliminated. He has a point there – I’m not sure it’s even possible to get from the north to the south of the district without going through Chesterfield, but I remember plans to split it at the last Review getting short shrift.
Time for a stolen coffee (Everyone was drinking the free coffee in the lobby until the Conference Centre let us know, through the AC, that it wasn’t for us!) and then the veteran Roger Pratt presented the Tory counter-proposals. One thing you can be certain of with Roger, that you can’t say with certainty of the other two parties, is that He Knows What He’s Doing. And what he did this time was congratulate the Boundary Commission on their plans and just tweak them here and there.
I think there’s an important message to bear in mind here, which is that the terms of this Review, and the revised Policies of the Commission, are very beneficial to the Tory party, and they know that if the Initial Proposals just go through “as is” the champagne corks will be popping on Millbank.
Roger’s presentation contained much wisdom, with regard to things like coterminousness, constituency names, and the reuse of previous boundaries, but his praise for the Commission’s plans for Nottinghamshire was disingenuous to say the least. He even wheeled a lady out to tell us how wonderful she thought it was that Rushcliffe was going to be smashed to pieces and her village of Gotham was going to be appended to Broxtowe. To use the local idiom, there’s summat up there.
The last presentation before lunch was by Robert Howard, a localist who had prepared the current Nottingham wards. He took us on a virtual bus tour of the city in order to explain how it should be divided between constituencies, and, looking at his report, I notice he’s squeezed Nottinghamshire into 10 seats, so I’m not sure what the Commission would do with Northamptonshire.
In my presentation I concentrated on Derby (arguing that no-one should be scared of splitting a ward), Nottinghamshire (far and away the worst part of the Commission’s proposals) and Leicestershire (the knock-on effects of removing Melton rather than Coalville).
The best turn was Sam Boote, a LibDem from Rushcliffe, who held up the map of the proposed constituency of Coalville and Keyworth (pdf) and proceeded to take the piss out of it for the next ten minutes. Bravo, sir!
Quote of the day: “This isn’t a numbers game though in the end it comes down to numbers.” Chris Fox
You’ll see the ominous word “wards” on the screen in the photo. Labour continue to be apologists for the Commission’s policy of not splitting wards, even though it’s bound to cost them several seats at the next election. Greg’s excuses were: (a) precedent; (b) polling district data is inaccessible; (c) the process would be complicated further; (d) participation would be reduced. To which I say (a) plenty of other precedents have been broken at this review; (b) I’ve done very well so far in finding PD data online, and if I can do it, so can the Boundary Commission! (c) a fair point, but the people of England are worth it; (d) nonsense.
Greg’s point about participation referred in the main to party activists, who he said would be put off if the ward they lived or volunteered in was split. This is debatable, and anyway, are we really going to spoil the whole process for the sake of a couple of hundred party workers who live in the three dozen wards that would be affected? And participation in the whole review process would be much improved if people weren’t strait-jacketed by the pressure not to split wards. As it is, in several cities people are faced with something of a fait accompli – options are very limited, and what options there are are equally ridiculous.