David Blunkett: Constituency changes cross the boundary of good sense

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What on earth could the Boundary Commission and the redrawing of parliamentary constituency boundaries have to do with you? I don’t imagine this question is on the lips of people across Yorkshire. But in terms of whether you have a voice that counts, and whether you know who to hold to account for major decisions taken, this really does matter.

It is simple: if people haven’t a clue who their MP is, and if MPs are detached and haven’t a clue what’s going on in the community, then democracy is not working.

One of the worst outcomes of what has been proposed is that those in favour of a dramatic change in the voting system may get their way.

This year the electorate decisively rejected the so-called “Alternative Vote”, and by doing so indicated their overwhelming rejection of messing about with the first-past-the-post system of electoral process. What this new set of proposals now being implemented to boundary changes will do is break that link with the constituency MP and the individual constituency member. In doing so, they will of course, in the medium and long term, then end up justifying the change to multi-member single transferrable vote or “list” systems where you tick a box for the political party and have no ongoing relationship with the individual MP.

What’s more, repeating this exercise every five years will finish off any notion of holding to account the MP you voted for last time. In other words, the Conservatives have managed to get themselves into a position where they are going to end up with a process justifying the exact opposite of what they themselves were defending last year.

At the recent opening of a new Asda store in my constituency, several people approached me quite spontaneously – people who knew who I was and that I was there because I cared about the neighbourhood. They had seen from recent press reports that the proposals meant that my own constituency would be split three ways – across Sheffield, Rotherham and Barnsley – and in effect would no longer exist.

They were shocked to learn that neighbourhoods adjoining each other, where families had grown up and where schools, tenants’ and residents’ groups and GP surgeries served a defined area, were going to be split in all directions for parliamentary purposes.

The Boundary Commission for England have added to the problem because unlike in Scotland and Wales, they have decided that local authority wards should not be split. This is an arbitrary decision because they are perfectly prepared to split constituencies across local authority boundaries and to carve communities in half.

Why does this not make sense? Because in rural areas, these electoral wards can be as small as 2,000 people, whilst in the major cities they can have as many as 20,000.

There are, of course, individual constituencies which cross boundaries at the present time, but they are very rare. For the big cities the majority of MPs are very clear who they represent and why.

There is a good reason for this. How on earth can one MP speak on behalf of three different towns whose interests may often conflict or indeed be diametrically opposed?

Under the present proposals, in Sheffield we could have the farcical position of having MPs who on one day ask a question or make a speech in defence of their own city and its specific needs, whilst having to indicate to the Speaker that perhaps later in the week they would wish to intervene on behalf of Rotherham or Barnsley.

Of equal concern is that this erosion of democracy in the boundary changes is being coupled with a move to Individual Electoral Registration (IER).

Currently, the vast majority of electors register via the annual canvass. Local councils are compelled to promote electoral registration, and electoral registration officers try to compile an accurate register. But IER will change all of this.

There will be no household canvass in 2014, no requirement to co-operate with registration officers and no statutory responsibility on local councils to encourage registration. This is a very worrying development. In the UK we currently enjoy a high level of completeness in our electoral register at 90 per cent.

Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission, has warned that this change will trigger a significant drop-off, down as much as one third.

Moreover, it is likely that this “drop-off” will be much more significant in inner-city areas. MPs will be selected with a much weaker democratic mandate, and this new system will disadvantage some of those people most in need of representation.

All of this is unnecessary, for with a little leeway in numbers of electors, we could retain an identity with traditional communities. But in the minds of those for whom numeric parity is more important than community identity, this argument will have little sway.

There is still time for them to think again – but time is running out.