Are boundary changes a threat to the United Kingdom?

This article was written for the site by Andy Carter, a member of our CLP:

One of the Conservatives’ manifesto policies for the current parliament is a reduction in the number of seats from the current 650 to a more modest 600. At first sight this seems a fairly innocuous proposal and one which might well chime with a public who have become increasingly disillusioned with politicians generally. At a time when public services are under unprecedented pressure to cut budgets it seems only fair that MPs too should do their bit when thousands of public servants have either lost their jobs altogether or are being asked to accept wage freezes. After all, losing one’s seat is an occupational hazard (or should be) for a democratically elected politician.

Look a little closer though and there is more to the proposals than a straightforward streamlining and cost cutting exercise. If we have fewer MPs then we need to reorganise the boundaries of the current constituencies. The Conservative proposals have taken advantage of this requirement to undertake a wholesale review of the UK’s constituencies and redraw them for their own advantage. A number of Tory marginal seats will be transformed into safe seats while some comparatively safe Labour seats will become marginals.

To be fair, the changing of parliamentary boundaries has always been periodically necessary regardless of a change in the number of seats and has taken place many times in the past to reflect changes and shifts in the population from one region to another. Furthermore, the relative population of the South-East of England has risen in proportion to the rest of the UK so some shift in the balance of seats towards this region might be right and proper. However, there are inconsistences in the proposals which seemingly point at a more sinister agenda. The population of Greater London has also increased greatly in the last few years. Having reached a low point of 6.7 million in 1988 it has now rapidly increased to over 8.4 million and will soon pass its highest ever previous level yet the Tories are still proposing reducing the number of London MPs by five.

A cynic might conclude that the fall in the number of London MPs might be somehow related to that city’s tendency to return a majority of Labour MPs. This would tend to be borne out by the predictions for which parties would be most affected by the proposed changes. Almost all of the seats lost under proposed changes would be currently held by opposition parties with the biggest losers being Labour and the SNP.

Swathes of seats will be taken from the North of England, the Midlands, Wales and Scotland. To the Conservative grandees carrying out these changes these are strategic manoeuvres. They see these changes as the spoils of war and a chance to build in a tactical advantage for future elections which will give them the edge for a generation, perhaps even permanently. However, they are playing a very dangerous game in which the very fabric and cohesion of the United Kingdom may be at stake.

When the boundary proposals were first drawn up in the previous parliament the reduction in the number of Scottish seats was most probably seen as a simple tactical assault on a Labour heartland. However, the bruising effect of the Referendum campaign and the subsequent collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland has left a charged and dangerous political landscape north of the border. Make no mistake, the SNP can and will capitalise on a reduction of the number of Scottish parliamentary seats as an attack on Scotland characterising it as another example of English hegemony over Edinburgh’s affairs. Furthermore, the prospect of a near permanent Conservative government as a result of these boundary changes will be profoundly disturbing for the majority of Scots and will hasten calls for a re-run of the Referendum and the almost certain exit of Scotland from the UK.

If Scotland were to depart from the UK, perhaps Wales would not be far behind as they too would find themselves very much at odds with a parliament dominated by the English shires.

In England, we would then potentially be left with increasingly desperate, marginalised communities in the old Labour heartlands of the old industrial towns and inner city areas. In the aftermath of the election a spoof petition calling for the Scottish border to be extended as far south as Sheffield gained tens of thousands of signatures. The petition is intended as a joke but it’s a joke with a serious point. For many in the North of England the policies of the Holyrood government are much more palatable than those of the current government in Westminster.
Of course the break-up of the United Kingdom is not at all what Conservative Central Office had in mind when they drew up these proposals and many Conservatives would be horrified by this analysis of their likely impact. There will doubtless be some Conservatives who genuinely have the kind of ‘Little England’ mentality that would welcome the departure of Scotland and Wales along with our exit from the European Union. However, the majority of Conservatives don’t fall into this category. As a naturally Unionist party if they stop and think about the impact of these boundary changes it may be that enough of them care about the long term survival of our United Kingdom that they will put this above short term party political gain. The government’s majority in the Commons is wafer thin and for the first time ever the Tories do not have a majority in the Lords. We only need to convince a small number of Conservatives of the dangers of these changes to put the brake on them.

Finally, there is the role of David Cameron himself. All prime ministers regardless of party have half an eye on the history books. What they say and do to win an election is often largely forgotten ten or twenty years later, but it is their big decisions that create their lasting legacy. Lord North is still chiefly remembered for losing America nearly 250 years ago. Nobody wants a legacy like that around their shoulders, something we should remind him of at every available opportunity.