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On the redrawing of constituency boundaries

Michael Crick | 16:54 UK time, Tuesday, 3 August 2010

There are several interesting aspects to the proposed reorganisation of constituency boundaries which have barely been explored.

First, why is the number of seats being cut from 650 to only 600? Before the election the Conservatives were talking about a ten per cent cut, down to 585. And the Liberal Democrats wanted to cut the number of MPs much further, down to 500.

Did David Cameron and Nick Clegg decide that such radical cuts would cause too much disaffection among backbenchers who stood to lose their seats in the forthcoming musical chairs?

The redrawing of boundaries also means that the selection of Parliamentary candidates for the next election has effectively been frozen for more than three years. Under the proposed timetable, it won't be until October 2013 that we know for certain where the new boundaries and seats are.

In recent times local parties have been keen to pick their candidates in target seats very early, sometimes within only a few months of the previous election. The thinking has been that the longer a challenging candidate is in place then the longer they have to get themselves recognised and established.

Unlike previous boundary reviews, where it was pretty obvious that many seats would be unchanged, this time almost any seat may be redrawn, except the small seats of Orkney and Shetland and the Western Isles, which in a last minute deal in Cabinet committee have been exempted from the process of equalising constituencies.

The exemption of these northern Scottish island seats was not, I understand, originally planned by the Tories at all. The argument being that they are difficult areas geographically and it would add to the problems if they were extended onto the Scottish mainland. But before 1918 both seats were jumbled up with parts of the mainland.

The other last minute Cabinet deal was to limit any seat to 13,000 square miles, which is seen as a sop to the Lib Dems, and a measure to stop Charles Kennedy grumbling about the coalition (as his huge highland seat is just about that size).

Personally, I can't really understand the geographical size argument. The US states of Alaska and Montana, which are far larger than any British seat, manage within only one member in the US House of Representatives. Ditto Western Australia in the Australian Parliament.

Anyway, because the process combines the reduction in seats with the equalisation of sizes, and since in future seats will be allowed to cross county boundaries, the process is a lot less predictable this time.

And now, for the planned May 2015 general election, all the selection processes will be concentrated into the last 18 months of this Parliament - between October 2013 and April 2015.

That's very convenient for the two Coalition parties. For it means that they can postpone for three years any decision on whether to have any kind of electoral pact (something increasingly mooted at Westminster).

The Coalition partners might decide, for example, not to stand against each other's sitting ministers.

Without the boundary review, relations between the Coalition parties might otherwise have been quite fraught at constituency level once rival candidates started emerging.

The Conservative associations in Eastleigh and Taunton, for example, (the seats of Lib Dem ministers Chris Huhne and Jeremy Browne), might have been asking Conservative HQ within the next few months for permission to start their selection rounds.

Now the start of local Lib-Con constituency warfare should at least be postponed until the end of 2013 at the earliest.

I personally wouldn't rule out some kind of electoral pact in 2015. The two parties have done it before, most recently in a few seats in the early 1950s.



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