Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Boundaries Review - An Outrage Against Our Democracy

I am against the whole idea of the Boundary changes.

There is, of course, a strong chance that Sedgefield will lose the Labour MP it has had since 1983, but that merely exasperates me with the Labour Party, which I cannot believe seems simply to be lying down and accepting its extinction as a party of rule.

No, I oppose the Tory Boundary changes IN PRINCIPLE, as an attempt to emasculate our democracy.

We are told that the reduction of MPs will save £12million. Are they serious? £12m is exactly what it cost the country for the Pope’s visit last year. It is the cost of a second-string Blackburn footballer. It is the cost of Chris Evans’s most recent Ferrari … or the new Gwent Record Office. In other words, it is a drop in the ocean, and to trot it out as the justification for a complete rewriting of our democratic fabric shows the disdain with which the current government treats its public … and its tongue-tied, impotent opposition.

So what so angers me about the current Boundary changes?

A first objection

Well, for a start, it involves a cut in the number of MPs – 13 fewer in England, actually. On what basis, one wonders, are we proposing fewer MPs?

In 1861, when Britain was not even a democracy, and no women and fewer than a third of the men had the vote, there were nevertheless 466 MPs in a population of 19 million – one MP for every 40,000 people. By 1921, when Britain was more-or-less a democracy, a population of 35 million had 492 MPs (70,000 people per MP). By 1950, the ratio had risen to 1:80,000; today it is 1:97,000. Cameron’s changes will take it to 1 MP to every 102,000 people.

What was it about Britain in 1921 that could afford an MP for every 70,000 people which in our super-affluent society we cannot afford today?

I suppose you could argue that modern technology means that MPs nowadays have better access to their electorate, but, then again, it is hardly as though we are all feeling ‘over-represented’ nowadays. I don’t hear many people complaining that they can’t move without one MP or another asking if they can help them.

For doctors, of course, it is different. Textbooks see it as a sign that Britain is more ‘advanced’ because it has 1 doctor to every 440 inhabitants. Togo is supposed to be less advanced because it has 1 doctor to every 25,000 inhabitants. Apparently, politically, it works the other way – Togo’s parliament has 81 deputies at a ratio of 1 deputy to every 60,000 people. Britain, the cradle of the world’s democracy apparently only needs 1:100,000.

Well I think not. I think the steadily increasing ratio is a sign of the steadily increasing isolation of our lawmakers from their constituents. It may well explain the steadily increasing apathy of people towards politics. And I resist this attempt to disrupt my access to the legislature.

A second objection

Secondly, I resent the way it has been done. I am an historian. I know about the rotten boroughs before 1832. I am aware that, sometimes, population changes and it is necessary to adjust constituencies to accommodate those changes. But is this what lies behind the current boundary changes? Has the commission been consolidating communities, adjusting anomalies? Of course not. It has just been an exercise in number-crunching, as the Commission has sought to set a 75-80,000 figure of electors for every constituency. The guy on the News was boasting about it! I get the impression for all the world that they started in the top-right-hand corner and then just moved south, drawing a line round every 80,000 people, until they reached the bottom-right.

In County Durham, one constituency stretches from Haltwhistle by the Roman Wall to Gainford near Darlington; it’s not a constituency, it’s a province. It also includes, along with acres of moorland and scattered rural market towns, the industrial town of Consett. How can one MP meaningfully serve such a constituency? How can anybody in their right mind seriously suggest that that will give those people ‘representation’ at Westminster?

We study prisons, and the Nazi concentration camps, and regret how those systems reduced the people to mere numbers. But that is how the Boundary Commission has treated us. We are not people, with needs and a character to be accommodated – we are just numbers, to be shoved in anywhere convenient to make the numbers ‘work’.

Take our own proposed constituency of Sedgefield-and-Yarm. Newton Aycliffe was originally in Bishop Auckland; it stood at the south-east corner of a Dales constituency. In 1983, a reorganisation decided that we were not a Dales community at all – it put us in with Trimdon, Wingate, Ferryhill et al., and we found ourselves in the south-west corner of a mining constituency. We were like a fish out of water and, to be fair, it has taken us a quarer of a century to come to terms with the rest of our constituency.

Now, no sooner have we done so, than we find that we are to be the north-east corner of a Tees Valley constituency. Newton Aycliffe, then a large stretch of rural land, then the River Tees, and into North Yorkshire, and you will find our new stable-mates, Yarm, Eaglescliffe and Ingleby Barwick in South Stockton.

What have we in common with these places? Nothing. I’ve never even been to Ingleby Barwick.

We are being herded like sheep into convenient folds. We are being treated appallingly. And nobody seems to have noticed. Nobody seems to be questioning the morality of the exercise. They’re all going like sheep to the slaughter. We're behaving like the bland, voiceless unpersons they take us for.

A third objection

There has been no care or consideration for communities in this reorganisation.

Take, for instance, my own community of Newton Aycliffe.

We have just had a Boundary reorganisation – at local government level. In fact, the community took it very seriously. The town Residents’ Association held a community meeting about it. Local political groups lobbied. The Town Council threw in its weight. We formed a 'community' view.

One of the things that we argued was that boundaries should ‘make sense’. They should enclose communities which meant something to people. And we also argued that boundaries should be coterminous; people get confused when they vote with one ‘community’ for parish elections, but with another for county elections. When that happens, it destroys much of the point of voting – you aren’t voting for the health of your community, you’re voting to put some chap with a political label into a position of power … and there’s no wonder that people get apathetic.

To their credit, I have to say that the Boundaries Commission listened – they did a good job where Newton Aycliffe was concerned. Our town is now split into a number of sensible ‘divisions’, and the parish ‘wards’ sit within them. One of our great successes was that we finally persuaded the Boundaries Commission to match the western boundary of the town with the western boundary of the constituency. One of the anomalies of the previous system had been a ‘Shildon-and-Middridge’ division which returned a County Councillor for a division which was half in Shildon and half in Newton Aycliffe – so that the Shildon part was in Bishop Auckland constituency, and the Aycliffe half was in Sedgefield. It was a nightmare to organise politically, and the result was that sometimes we got a Shildon County Councillor who was a stranger in Newton Aycliffe, and sometimes we got an Aycliffe chap who was at sea in Shildon. Lately, the division has returned two councillors, one from each community, who rarely talk to each other, and treat the division as two separate divisions. Crazy. In June of this year, the Boundaries Commission cut off Shildon from Aycliffe altogether, and turned the faces of the division’s two halves to their respective ‘natural’ communities.

Until yesterday, that is. Because the latest Boundaries Commission proposal, of course, has re-jigged all the constituency boundaries and – wouldn’t you know it – ‘East Shildon’ has now been drafted back into Aycliffe to make up the numbers and, after barely three months of coterminous boundaries, instead of having a constituency boundary which ran through a County division, we now have a County boundary which runs through a constituency. Madness. And the people of East Shildon must be bewildered. Before they were in Bishop Auckland constituency, with a dog’s-dinner of a County division which paired them with Aycliffe. Now they have a sensible County division which unites them with the rest of their town … and are part of a dog’s-dinner of a constituency which pairs them back with Aycliffe.

What kind of scheme – what kind of people – can brazenly propose a boundaries review which purports to be fit for purpose … and yet splits the tight-knit community of Shildon down the middle for constituency purposes? These people have no shame or sense of justice.

You can see more of this chaotic thinking which has simply thrown disparate communities together, or split them asunder, in the mere name of my proposed constituency – ‘Sedgefield and Yarm’. It used to be Sedgefield, but so much has been lost in the north and west of the constituency, and so much added in the south, that the Commission has obviously felt that the name ‘Sedgefield’ – now merely a small village in the top-right corner of the constituency – would be deemed inappropriate. So they have tacked on ‘and Yarm’ (a small market town in the bottom left), to acknowledge the inclusion of the communities across the other side of the Tees in North Yorkshire. In fact, neither Sedgefield nor Yarm are the major population or economic centres of the new constituency – the biggest places are Newton Aycliffe and Ingleby Barwick. Presumably ‘Newton Aycliffe and Ingleby Barwick’ was thought to be too much of a mouthful – or perhaps they thought that maintaining the word ‘Sedgefield’ preserved an element of continuity … HA! They needn’t have bothered. This Bassett’s Allsorts of a constituency bears no relation to the previous constituency. It is a completely new Frankenstein of a constituency, and goodness knows how we’re going to breathe life into it when we try to make it ‘work’.

Because, you know, that’s the rub … making the unit ‘work’ politically. The Boundaries Commission has shifted communities here and there to make the numbers work, but they have forgotten that politics is about people working together. Where boundaries are sensible and coterminous, this is easy – you work in ever-widening circles, but the PEOPLE are the same. Where boundaries are not coterminous, it’s a nightmare, because you work with one set of politicians for one thing, another for another, and each group is discrete from the other. You spend a lot of time going to meetings with people, none of whom you know – they know each other, but when you speak, however sensible your comments, they look at you as if to say: ‘Who the hell are you?’

It’s all about ‘which way your face is turned’. By the new constituency arrangements, Aycliffe will look north to Durham for its County Council matters, but will now look south to Yarm and Ingleby Barwick for its Parliamentary matters. This is NOT a minor inconvenience. When you are trapped in a confusion of different authorities, it precludes joined-up thinking for your community, and it stultifies coordinated action … which I suppose is a wonderful thing for those who see government as imposing their own wishes upon us.

A fourth objection

And that brings me to my fourth rage against the machine, which is that I believe the new boundary proposals are a denial of democracy, and a deprivation of my rights as a citizen. They turn on its head the whole concept of ‘representation’ at Westminster.

Democracy is government by the people, for the people. Nationally, we cannot have a participatory democracy, of course – we have a representative democracy, and send our ‘representatives’ to Westminster to ‘represent’ us. I am aware that, by the British system, that man may not always share my political beliefs but, nevertheless, the principle is crystal clear – when he sits there in the House of Commons, our MP is NOT his own man. Theoretically – on principle – he is representing us in the highest body of the constitution, and thereby he is ‘our voice in the government’.

This is critical, because you have to realise, therefore, that the human being sat there in Parliament is NOT a person. He is the community which elected him. I don’t know if they still do so, but MPs never used to call each other by name in the House, but referred to each other as ‘the Honourable member for Sedgefield’ etc. – i.e. it wasn’t ‘Phil Wilson’ sitting there, but ‘the people of Sedgefield’.

Now of course all this is in theory. ‘The people of Sedgefield’ have voted in an election, but they represent a wide spectrum of political, social and economic interests. There is little 'community view' across the ‘constituency-community’ (as there can be, for instance, within smaller communities on many matters). So to be honest – even a quarter of a century after the constituency was reorganised – I don’t know whether we yet live up to our billing as a ‘constituency-community’!

Nevertheless, I do know that, for a quarter of a century, people from the different towns and villages in the constituency have been having to cooperate politically, if nothing else to organise the election campaigns, and I do know and respect people from Wingate, and Trimdon, and Bradbury and Mordon etc. Given a few more quarter-centuries, we might even begin to be ‘getting there’ as a political community!

And what I DO know is that this new boundaries reorganisation utterly ignores all the principles of community representation. Not only ignores, but overturns ... destroys. I know it sounds alarmist and overstated, but this Boundaries Commission has overthrown the principle of our democracy.

The new boundaries reorganisation has not been about creating meaningful ‘constituency-communities’! It has been simply and solely a number-crunching exercise, throwing towns and villages into different boxes to make the numbers work. Yarm has been thrown in with Sedgefield, Newton Aycliffe with Ingleby Barwick, not because they have anything in common, or any shared interest, or similar heritage, but purely because the numbers add up to c.75,000. The principle of a constituency-community sending its representative to Parliament has been lost.

‘Come off it’, I hear you say, people get new MPs all the time – when they retire, or when a different party is elected. The people of Aycliffe may be losing one MP, but they’ll get another, so what’s the difference?

But you’ve missed the point…

The new proposals treat the voter as an individual, whose democratic rights end when he has cast his vote; they have lost the perspective of an election as a mechanism by which the individuals-in-community select their representative.

And - further (and to a degree consequentially) - they incorporate an underlying assumption … they act as though … it is the MPs who run the government – ‘We need only 502 MPs to run the government, so we’re reorganising the boundaries to reduce the number.’

Indeed, it is easy to see why the MPs and the Boundaries Commission have lost perspective, and have come to see themselves as the people who run the government. But they are mistaken, and they have forgotten THE crucial principle of our democracy, that Parliament is not a group of important people who have been voted into power, but a coming-together of the different communities to determine their own destiny.

And to be able to do that meaningfully, those communities need an ‘identity’. And to have that they need continuity. You cannot just throw 70,000 unconnected people together and let them vote for the person who will make their laws ... and pretend that that is a democracy. It reduces our democracy to a ‘Britain’s-Got-Talent’ show – a day where we cast our vote and select our celebrity-to-be.

To work properly, democracy needs to be much more than a vote, and MPs properly should grow organically out of their community. And for that to happen the constituency needs to be a meaningful entity. Constituencies grow and develop; they need a history and a sense of shared destiny. They need time to grow their MP.

They need leaving alone.

Now I know that the Tories will argue that inner city constituencies are too small, and that they elect too many Labour MPs to be ‘fair’. To be honest, that is fair comment. I would counter-argue that inner-city areas have lots more problems, and that perhaps they need more MPs-per-person to care for them. But – as I said above – I also have to admit that communities wax and wane, and what is a meaningful community one century may very well not be the next.

So – yes – there DOES need to be some gradual organic change, to ensure that the constituencies-on-the-map match the communities-on-the-ground.

But is anyone daring to suggest that the current review is ‘gradual organic change’, and that it is trying to ensure that our constituencies are ‘meaningful communities’? I think not.

Where are the riots?

I am horrified at the Labour Party’s response to this proposed reorganisation. One MP in my local newspaper, facing the mutilation of her constituency and the loss of her seat, states cheerfully that some of the changes ‘make sense’ and that she will just have to work harder to recommend herself to the electorate. Other MPs are trying to ‘fiddle with the edges’, importing electors here and shedding electors there to try to restore the political balance.

Ed Milliband accuses the government of ‘gerrymandering’ (which it palpably is NOT), but promises to ‘work with’ the review (which he absolutely should NOT).

Why is NOBODY denouncing the review in principle? Why is nobody trying to overturn the whole exercise? We rioted about the Poll Tax, marched about university fees, but we're apparently going to roll over and accepted the dismantling of our constituencies without a murmur.

I suspect it is because all our MPs are from the Westminster village, and that they all naturally see themselves in the terms that this Boundaries Commission review casts them – as clever people elected by a vote to rule the country. And that is why they have missed the autocratic bent of the review, and the outrage to democracy it represents.

We beat AV. The nation rose up, and we voted to stay with what we’ve got.

And that is what we need to do again.

Every constituency needs to INSTRUCT its MP, whatever the party whip, to go down to Westminster and to do his job – to represent his constituency – and to decide in Parliament that our constituency will NOT be dismantled.

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