Of all the deals and compromises that went into the historic Coalition Agreement, the one with the profoundest impact on British politics will surely be the Lib Dems’ trade of a referendum on their holy grail of electoral reform for David Cameron’s biggest review of parliamentary constituency boundaries since the 1950s.
Last year’s heavily defeated referendum on the Alternative Vote – a non-proportional system that not even Lib Dems favoured – was humiliating, and they could
prove proportionately the biggest victims of the boundary review, losing up to a fifth of their present 57 seats.
We have just entered the second consultation period of a protracted process in which the independent Boundary Commissions won’t report their final recommendations to the Government until October 2013. Currently, therefore, the English Commission is encouraging all and sundry to ‘Have Your Say’ about their initial proposals, in what it assures us is Act 2 of the drama, rather than a tying up of loose ends, as might have been the case in previous reviews.
All major parties, of course, will be having their say – and none louder than the Lib Dems here in the West Midlands, where they want major (30) or minor (11) revisions to 41 of the Commission’s 54 constituency proposals across the region, and are also objecting, perfectly legitimately, to key bits of its methodology.
Much of this methodology was dictated by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, which set up this exceptional review – but not all. The review’s dual purposes are to reduce the number of MPs – from 650 to 600, and in England from 533 to 502 – and to have constituencies with near-identical numbers of voters, which, Conservatives believe, will reduce the substantial pro-Labour bias in the electoral system.
To achieve this electoral parity, virtually all UK constituencies must have electorates within 5% of the national quota of 76,641. Cold statistics are thus the overwhelming driver of this review, ultimately outweighing factors like physical geography, current constituency and local government boundaries, and community ties far more than in previous reviews – making the commissioners’ task considerably harder and their proposals almost inevitably more contentious.
An early decision by the Commission was to allocate constituencies, using the quota, among the nine English regions – the West Midlands’ allocation being 54, compared to the current 59. In the West Midlands, however, the commissioners went further and, for ‘practical purposes’, grouped local authority areas into three sub-regions: the metropolitan West Midlands plus Warwickshire, to which they allocated 31 constituencies, down from 34; Staffordshire/Stoke-on-Trent (11 down from 12); and Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin (12 down from 13).
This approach probably made it easier to avoid splitting individual electoral wards between constituencies, and resorting to some form of postcode democracy – both strongly desirable and, particularly with Birmingham’s huge wards of around 20,000 voters, difficult to achieve.
Even so, it seems in places the sub-regions may have hampered, rather than increased, flexibility, and the result – across the whole region, argue not only the Lib Dems – have been changes that are more extensive and disruptive than were necessary. Looking at the summary in the accompanying table of the Commission’s initial proposals for Birmingham, you can see their point of view.
The review has created its own jargon, and we have all the examples here. Most striking are the four ‘orphan wards’: a single ward – Shard End, Soho, Sheldon and Oscott – taken out of Birmingham and put into a constituency with wards from one or more other local authorities. The obvious point here is that four Birmingham wards actually make up a constituency, and as a consequence, claim the Lib Dems, instead of the 10 wholly or largely Birmingham seats to which the city’s population entitles us, we have only 9 – two, incidentally, with other councils’ orphans.
Worse, Meridenand Walsall South are also ‘triborough’ seats – containing parts of three different primary local authorities – and it really is hard to see how the ‘minority’ wards in such situations can avoid at least feeling marginalised. For MPs, already with new, larger constituencies, casework must inevitably become more difficult when you have multiple councils to deal with, as well as the many other groups and bodies that are organised on a borough level.
The Lib Dems’ counter-proposals are unapologetically Brumcentric. They disregard the physical geographical features – major roads and motorways, rivers – that apparently underpin some of the Commission’s thinking, and on occasion seem to sever more than seal community ties.
However, they manage to place all four ‘orphans’ in necessarily reconfigured Birmingham-dominated seats – Oscott in Perry Barr, Soho in a new Handsworth, Shard End in Erdington, Sheldon in Yardley – and no Birmingham ward forms part of a triborough.
Alternatives are also proposed for some of the Commission’s other almost roundabout revisions. Sutton Coldfield’s break-up is avoided by the retention of New Hall and the addition of Little Aston fromLichfield, rather than Kingstanding, which would go to Perry Barr. Yardley, by retaining Sheldon, remains unchanged, and the boundary between Birmingham and Solihull unbreached.
The Lib Dems seem convinced of two big things. First, that their proposals for the West Midlands and other regions meet the statutory quota requirements, while reflecting existing boundaries and community identities better than those of the Commission. Second, that the Commission will give them a serious hearing and consideration. The other parties behave as if they hold similar convictions. They’re not acting as if they think it’s all over, and I reckon on this occasion they’re right.
Ward changes in Birmingham’s proposed new parliamentary constituencies
Proposed new constituency
Ward changes from existing constituency (% of new seat)
Scale of change and
|7 seats retaining existing constituency names and comprising 4 existing Birmingham wards|
|Birmingham Edgbaston||Keeps: Edgbaston (24);Gains: From Hall Green: Moseley & Kings Heath, Sparkbrook (51); From Selly Oak: Selly Oak (25);Loses: To Harborne: Bartley Green, Harborne, Quinton.||Place – massive shift south and east: worth a name change? Politics – Labour, and no longer ultra-marginal.|
|Birmingham Hall Green||Keeps: Hall Green,Springfield (51);Gains: From Selly Oak: Billesley, Brandwood (49);Loses: To Edgbaston: Moseley & Kings Heath, Sparkbrook||Place – substantial shift south; Politics – would stay safe Labour.|
|Birmingham Ladywood||Keeps: Ladywood, Nechells (50);Gains: From: Hodge Hill: Hodge Hill, Washwood Heath (50);Loses: To Perry Barr: Aston; To Smethwick, Sandwell:Soho.||Place – as much the existing Hodge Hill seat as Ladywood;Politics – still safe Labour.|
|Birmingham Northfield||Keeps: Kings Norton, Longbridge,Northfield (74);Gains: From Selly Oak: Bournville (26);Loses: To Harborne: Weoley.||Place – less than most;Politics – still Labour, but slightly more marginal.|
|Birmingham Perry Barr||Keeps: Handsworth Wood, Lozells & East Handsworth, Perry Barr (74);Gains: From Ladywood: Aston (26);Loses: To Walsall South: Oscott.||Place – shift to south-east;Politics – still safe Labour.|
|Birmingham Yardley||Keeps: Acocks Green,South Yardley, Stechford & Yardley North (74);Gains: From Hodge Hill: Bordesley Green;Loses: ToSolihull: Sheldon.||Place – shift to north-west;Politics – Labour strengthened, ultra-marginal Lib Dem in 2010.|
|Sutton Coldfield||Keeps: Sutton Four Oaks, Trinity, Vesey;Gains: From Erdington: Kingstanding;Loses: To Erdington: Sutton New Hall.||Place – shift to west; Politics – hardly any shift at all, still safe Conservative.|
|2 seats comprising 4 existing Birmingham wards + 1 from an adjacent council area|
|Birmingham Erdington||Keeps: Erdington, Stockland Green, Tyburn (65);Gains: From Sutton: Sutton New Hall (23); From Solihull: Castle Bromwich (12);Loses: To Sutton Coldfield: Kingstanding.||Place – shift to north-east, and across council boundary; Politics – probably Cons, not Lab in 2010.|
|Birmingham Harborne(new name)||Gains: From Edgbaston: Bartley Green, Harborne, Quinton (66); From Northfield: Weoley (22); From Sandwell: Old Warley (12)||Place – new name for two-thirds of existing Edgbaston seat;Politics – Labour marginal.|
|4 seats comprising 1 existing Birmingham ward in a constituency largely in an adjacent council area|
|Meriden||Keeps: 5 wards (64);Gains: From N. Warks: 3 wards (11); From B’ham Hodge Hill: Shard End (25);Loses: To B’ham Erdington: Castle Bromwich; To Kenilworth & Dorridge: 3 wards.||Place – significant, and across three council areas; Politics – still Conservative, but less safe.|
|Smethwick(new name)||Gains: From Sandwell: 6 wards from Warley and W. Bromwich E (79); From Birmingham Ladywood: Soho (21)||Place – two-thirds of existing Warley, but across two council areas; Politics – still safe Labour.|
|Solihull||Keeps: 6 wards (78); From Birmingham Yardley: Sheldon (22);Loses: To Kenilworth & Dorridge: 2 Shirley wards;||Place – not major, but across two council areas; Politics – still very marginal Lib Dem.|
|Walsall South||Keeps: 4 wards (50);Gains: From B’ham Perry Barr: Oscott (24); From Aldridge-Brownhills: Streetly (14); From W. Bromwich E: Great Barr with Yew Tree (13).||Place – major, and across three council areas; Politics – probably Conservative, not Labour, in 2010|
Chris Game is Honorary Senior Lecturer, Institute of LocalGovernment Studies (INLOGOV),Universityof Birmingham.