Crossing the line
Why Wales’ new parliamentary boundaries place maths above geography.
Re-drawing Welsh parliamentary constituencies was always going to be a thankless task for the Boundary Commission forWales. The Parliamentary Voting Systems & Constituencies Act (2011) not only reduced the size of the Commons from 650 to 600, but also narrowed the variation in size constituencies. The Act set a quota for the standard size of constituencies and allowed a variance of up to 5% above and 5% below the standard size. Currently, that meansWestminsterseats must comprise between 72,810 and 80,473 electors.
While on face value this reform may seem logical and fair, in practice it has thrown up major problems for which communities in Walesmay pay the price. It’s a vision of equality where the maths matters but our communities don’t.
Dividing Walesinto thirty neat and equal units is impossible. In 2010, the Electoral Reform Society Wales published a report Reduce & Equalise which projected how boundaries inWales might be redrawn using such a tight variance. It wasn’t easy. Because of our geography: our mountains and rivers,Wales has a well defined set of natural boundaries. Add to that historic patterns of urban and rural development, and then consider local social, economic, cultural and linguistic links and suddenly our rather small country becomes considerably more complicated. Had the variance been less restrictive: say 10%, the Boundary Commission forWales would have been empowered by the UK Government to draw a more sensible map. As it stands, the strict 5% variance means that manyWestminster seats will cross and break up traditional communities in favour of large new artificial constituencies such as “North Powys”, and the “Heads of the Valleys”.
Machynlleth is now in the parliamentary constituency of Gwynedd; North Powys stretches into Clwyd; Mountain Ash, homeless after the demolition of the Cynon Valley becomes part of Rhondda, while a few miles north Aberdare’s marriage of inconvenience with Merthyr Tydfil creates the new Heads of the Valleys constituency (which one voter described as ‘a road, not a community’).
Llanelli gains possession of large parts of Swansea, while Wentloog between Cardiff and Newport joins the new constituency of Newport West & Sirhowy Valley, linking communities as far north as Ystrad Mynach (not to be confused with the old Newport West, most of which is now in Newport Central).
Getting parliamentary boundaries right is an important task which impacts on the quality of democracy and representation.
Reducing the size of the Commons without reducing the size of the government, places an added strain on MPs to hold ministers to account and scrutinise legislation. Many of the proposed constituencies force together different communities of interest and geography – often with differing needs and issues. Add to that an increase in the volume and breadth of casework; and the fact that unregistered voters are not considered in the current assessment of constituency size but are still entitled to support from their MP; and the weaknesses become clear.
The proposed constituency of Caerphilly & Cardiff North is a prime example. While there is little doubt that whoever is elected to Parliament to serve the people of this new constituency will endeavour to serve all constituents equally, in reality the social and economic challenges facing the Valley’s town are very different to the northern suburbs of the capital with which it now joins.
Ultimately if the new boundaries appear to fly in the face of common sense then responsibility rests with the UK Government. Whitehallministers must look again at the tight variance. Until then, the Electoral Reform Society is urging people to respond to the public consultation with objections and alternative suggestions by April 5th 2012, details of which are available at http://www.bcomm-wales.gov.uk.
Stephen Brooks is director of the Electoral Reform Society Wales
For more information on ERS’ work on boundaries please visit http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/boundary-review/
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