Journal columnist Dave Wilson has suggested that proposed parliamentary boundary changes serve Conservatives’ needs. That’s not right, says Cllr Neil Baker:
Dave Wilson made some interesting points recently about demographic changes in Canterbury, the wider constituency and the related political implications.
I’m not going to disagree with any in detail, but he did raise the issue of parliamentary constituency boundary changes.
While I’ve never personally been involved in drawing up suggestion for new boundaries at any level of government, be it nationally, county or city, the suggestion that the Electoral Commission is proposing the current Canterbury constituency is carved up into two new seats – namely Canterbury & Faversham and North Kent Coastal – is something I would challenge.
And “challenge” with the current boundary review is a good word to use. Trying to change boundaries to ensure each elected person represents the same number of people is difficult enough when the numbers of representatives is kept the same is tricky enough, when only population movements have to be taken into account.
Changing them when the number of representatives alters, in this case from 650 MPs to 600, is almost impossible.
To outline the process, in an admittedly very broad-brushed manner, it starts with the Electoral Commission producing an initial draft, which then goes to consultation and everyone – including political parties – can make alternative proposals.
Revised proposals are then drawn up based on this input by the Electoral Commission. A further consultation takes place and, eventually, the Electoral Commission signs off new boundaries.
On the surface, I can see why a cynic would think “oh, look, marginal Canterbury is being split into two seats with notional Conservative majorities” but there are various reasons why this isn’t the case.
I shall try and outline some below:
1) The initial proposals from the independent, non-party Electoral Commission had the split in place. This was some time before last year’s general election in 2017.
2) When the number-crunchers in the Conservative Party nationally, who have far better brains than me, sat down to look at them, they did so on a regional basis. An alteration put forward was for the Seasalter ward to move from the proposed North Kent Coastal seat into the proposed Canterbury & Faversham one. This was when Conservative Party HQ (wrongly, as those who observe trends and demographic changes could have told them) didn’t consider the current Canterbury seat to be at any risk. The change was to balance other changes they wanted to make elsewhere in Kent.
3) Of course, every party – as I’ve been on record as saying before – will put forward counter-proposals that will benefit their party overall more than other parties. At least on paper. With the best will in the world, this will always be the way as political parties exist to win elections, which means winning more seats than anyone else. Per the above point, for the Conservative Party this meant boundaries winning as many seats as possible across the region rather than hacking around with individual seats for the sake of the individual seats.
4) The Electoral Commission is not full of idiots. It knows what political parties are up to. If it is obvious that blatant gerrymandering is going on, it will just chuck out those suggestions. There are also rules in place to stop utterly stupid attempts to rig the boundaries – all constituencies have to have a population within a certain range and have to be contiguous. There can’t be a constituency comprising various parts of an area that happen to be strong for one party or another that aren’t all physically joined up.
Once the process ends, I imagine nobody is 100% happy to 100% unhappy.
For instance, I think splitting Seasalter from the rest of Whitstable is complete madness as it breaks a community link, something the Electoral Commission apparently is keen to avoid.
But to tweak part of, for instance, Dover means potentially tweaking a seat in Thanet.
It’s a very complex process, mathematically, as a change to a small area of Canterbury can lead to, due to having to balance population figures, mean creating an impossibly small, or large, or completely daft, seat in somewhere like Eastbourne.
Demographic changes in Canterbury, and indeed anywhere, are interesting to ponder.
And I would not dream of arguing that they do have an impact on how elections are approached.
That said, I’ve always felt that whatever boundaries, the ballot boxes start empty and every person standing, every party contesting a seat at any level, has to try and ensure they get more votes in those ballot boxes than anyone else.
While I do have issues with what I see as splitting historic communities, the modern age allows forms of communications which mean, in my view at least, voters care less about where their boundary is.
They care more that they can get hold of the person representing them, be they an MP, county or district councillor.
All of that said, I don’t think these proposed new boundaries will ever actually be contested at a general election.
I doubt they will get through parliament and if the next general election isn’t until 2022, they will already be out of date.
The whole process will have to start again, based on more up-to-date population size data.
Which, any sense of politics I have aside, is not ideal as the existing Parliamentary constituencies across the country are out of kilter with each other.
Some MPs represent far more people than others. We aren’t at the level of the old rotten boroughs, where a landowner and his dog, almost literally, could elect an MP in one area, while it took ten thousand in another.
But for the sake of fairness there surely has to be a move towards an equality of residents per representative.
Cllr Neil Baker is a member of the Conservative Party and the Canterbury City Council member for Tankerton Ward.