Thursday, 29 September 2016

Brexit: and 'London ignoring local communities still further, particularly in the South-West'

An understandable view from a Cornish Liberal-Democrat, one might say, from yesterday's Plymouth Herald:

Devon and Cornwall need electoral reform, not new boundaries, 
says Lord Tyler

By WMN_MartinF | Posted: September 28, 2016 By LORD TYLER

The twin rail and road bridges over the Tamar

Comments (1)

The threat of the constituency boundary changes to Cornwall's political integrity is serious; even if I was not a direct descendant of Bishop Jonathan Trelawny, and therefore biased in favour of maintaining our identity, the practical implications are formidable.

As MP for North Cornwall I knew for whom I was working, with no split allegiances or complicated relationships with distinctly different local authorities. David Cameron's supercilious comparison of the Tamar with the Amazon (a vital link between communities, not a natural boundary) was evidence of London ignorance.

The proposed changes have wider significance. The EU referendum was a wake-up call to the political establishment. People who felt they hadn't been listened to for decades tossed aside casual certainties among remote decision-makers. Now the Government seems set on ignoring local communities still further, particularly in the South West.

Conservatives claim that the process will create 'equal votes of equal value', by ensuring a roughly equal number of electors in each constituency. Yet the process will still leave a plethora of safe seats across the country, in which Conservative or Labour candidates are returned with little or no effort.

What the political and media establishment has not yet realised is the extent to which the process of re-allocating constituencies will drive the UK even further from being the compassionate and united country most decent people want it to be. While Liberal Democrats are backing citizens' rights to a say on the final 'Brexit' deal – a referendum on the facts about life outside the European Union – there will be huge pressures on moderate Conservative and Labour MPs to ignore what most people want, and instead cleave to the most extreme and dogmatic elements in their parties.

Tory scraps over what Brexit means (beyond just "it means Brexit") will not stop at the door of Number Ten, or at the limits of London. These arguments will seep into every corner of Conservative Britain as local associations are reconstituted around the new constituencies and given the opportunity to select their parliamentary candidates afresh. For a while, the chairman of a Conservative association will enjoy at least as much power over an MP's career chances as the Prime Minister does. This group is likely to want the 'hardest' form of Brexit possible, with divisive controls on immigration prioritised over the UK jobs which depend on our membership of the EU's single market.

Despite the majority of current Conservative MPs favouring continuing access to customers in the single market, Daily Telegraph research before the referendum showed 75% of the party faithful were for Leave, even when Remain had a substantial lead in the country.

Meanwhile the Labour leadership civil war reveals two bitterly opposed factions, betraying those looking to them to provide effective opposition. The boundary review will finally blow inside out the flimsy common umbrella under which their MPs have sheltered. Every Labour-held constituency facing substantial change can embark on de-selection. I don't fancy the chances of any MP who opposed Jeremy Corbyn.

A few days ago Laura Kuenssberg, BBC Political Editor, asked: "Will MPs vote to sack themselves?" Faced with a certain challenge to their political careers – and in many cases complete loss of livelihood – Labour and Conservative backbenchers may be emboldened to fight to keep their current constituencies. Ms Kuenssberg speculates, "Theresa May is perfectly prepared to ditch the previous PM's promises, still has a tiny majority and a difficult agenda to pursue. With risks of discontent over Brexit and grammars already, it would be one way of mollifying angry backbenchers as and when things get tough."

For decades, arch defenders of first-past-the-post voting system have claimed that, despite its obvious defects, at least it prevents 'extremism'. Not so while MPs look to their increasingly extreme constituency memberships for career security. Any election after October 2018, when these new boundaries come into play, would be full of candidates who have had to appeal to the most unrepresentative group of voters, their own party members. However, an early election would be contested, of course, within existing boundaries.

The only way to secure new legitimacy for our politics is to institute real 'equal votes of equal value'. That means cancelling this boundary-tinkering exercise and reforming the electoral system. It would be a rescue package for the open, tolerant, united Britain so many of us felt was left behind on June 23, hauling our politics away from territory on which I fear divisive nationalism and xenophobia could prosper.

Meanwhile the threat of "Devonwall" lies in the hands of Conservative MPs. For once the national interest, the clear preference of the communities affected and their career prospects point in the same direction; who will have the guts to say so ?

Lord Tyler was Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall 1992-2005

Devon and Cornwall need electoral reform, not new boundaries, says Lord Tyler | Plymouth Herald

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