Political Commentary: Labour could beat the boundaries

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The Independent Online
IT IS all the fault of James Chuter Ede. As Attlee's Home Secretary, this austere figure decided something had to be done about wild variations in the sizes of constituency electorates. Thus, in 1948, was born the Boundary Commission.

Barbara Castle, in her recent memoirs, lays much of the blame for Labour's losses in the 1950 election on this. It was, she says, 'a perfectly correct democratic exercise', but adds: 'To proceed with it at the height of unprecedented post-war economic difficulties looked like a penchant for political suicide.' The changes it made to constituency boundaries cost Labour about 30 seats in 1950 - and played a significant part in its defeat a year later.

And so, on the whole, it has been ever since. The Boundary Commission's findings, produced on a 15-year cycle, have usually been unhelpful to Labour. Not because of any prejudice on the part of the commission itself - under Mr Justice Knox, the Boundary Commission for England (there are others for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is discharging its task, as always, with scrupulous impartiality.

It is rather the inescapable facts of political geography; the enduring habit of the aspiring middle classes to leave the towns and cities for the suburbs and the country - and sometimes the North for the South - to buy their own houses, and in many cases, to stop voting Labour when they do so. Of course it is a good deal more complicated than that, but the fact remains that the three principal revisions since 1948 have all had an adverse impact on Labour.

Subsequent Labour politicians have been less willing to don the hair shirt than Chuter Ede. In 1969 the then Home Secretary, James Callaghan, blandly announced to the Commons, to the fury of the Conservatives, that he was calling on Parliament to reject the commission's findings. Labour thus fought - and lost - the 1970 election on the old boundaries. In 1982 Michael Foot, then Leader of the Opposition, sought in vain to overturn a large number of the commission's findings in the courts.

Against this background, there were deep fears before the last election about how Labour would fare in the current boundary review. The most doom-laden view was that the 1992 election might be the party's 'last chance' to assume power. There were projections that the Boundary Commission, adjusting the electoral map to a demographic process that had been accelerated by the Thatcher years, would cost Labour upwards of 20 seats.

It is not working out quite like that. The English commission has a great deal of work still to do. Although it has produced all its preliminary proposals, the lengthy process of appeals and public inquiries has only just begun in most counties. Labour is still officially predicting that the result - on 1992 voting figures - will be a net gain to the Tories of between five and 17 seats. But both main parties now privately predict that the gains will be at the lower end of that scale, perhaps seven or eight. On a 5 per cent swing to Labour - admittedly very difficult to achieve - the effect would be neutral.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, Labour has been approaching the appeals process with a new professionalism. Instead of wasting its resources on an expensive, belated and abortive court case, it has assigned one of its most competent officials, David Gardner, to criss-cross the country and argue Labour's corner in front of the assistant commissioners before the final decisions are made; and it has already secured some victories.

Second, Mr Gardner has, even in Tory areas, sometimes been able to profit from alliances with parish and district councils unhappy, for non-party reasons, about the loosening of traditional local ties and boundaries.

The Tories also have a consummate professional in charge of boundaries - Robert Hayward, who was unlucky enough to be the candidate in Christchurch. Indeed the relationship between Mr Hayward and Mr Gardner, forged in scores of town halls and railway compartments over the past few months, is said to be one of high mutual respect.

But Mr Hayward has faced problems, particularly in strong Tory areas, of jealousies between rival Tory-held constituencies and councils, with the result that the party has sometimes appeared divided at hearings. As the appeals process moves from the shires to Labour's urban strongholds, Mr Gardner will encounter similar problems. But Labour is now the more centralist of the two parties, and it is easier for it to dictate to constituencies. Mr Gardner has also benefited from the commission's slightly greater tendency than in the past to favour the 'doughnut' over the 'sandwich'.

Here an explanation is needed. One of the key battlegrounds between Mr Hayward and Mr Gardner is the larger- and medium-sized towns. Generally the Tories favour a division into two seats - the sandwich - in which the boundary runs through the middle to create constituencies that are each part-urban and part-rural. Labour tends to argue for one 'core' urban seat and for the other to be confined to the rural hinterland that surrounds it - the doughnut. In other words Labour would rather be confident of winning one of the seats than risk losing both. In a number of new or revised urban core seats such as Bedford, Loughborough, Redditch, Crawley, Worcester and Watford, Labour either has, or looks like getting, its way.

In London, the Tories are are also expected to suffer, with ministers and ex-ministers such as Peter Brooke, John Wheeler, Sir George Young and most famously Norman Lamont (who is said to be interested in the new Vale of York seat where his wife Rosemary has connections) chasing a reduced number of seats.

Labour is also fighting the proposed disappearance of the Norwood seat on the grounds that the commission's figures are based on an electoral roll reduced by under-registration because of the poll tax.

None of this should disguise the fact that the Tories will still be the overall gainers. And a gain of eight seats means an increase in the majority of 16. Labour is set to have losses in the West Midlands compensating in part for its likely gains in London. Mr Hayward is winning some victories. It is simply that the Boundary Commission's findings are not proving the disaster for Labour that was once anticipated.

The Tories cannot expect to coast to victory on the basis of the new electoral map; that may be good news for Labour but it does not alter the fact that Labour still has to follow its erstwhile supporters out of the core urban seats, particularly in the North, if it is to win.

It still has to ensure, in other words, that abandoning Labour does not automatically go with the new conservatory, the ample garden, the garage and membership of the local sports club. But that's another story.