This week, former Croydon Central MP ANDREW PELLING looks at what the Boundary Commission might have in store for our present three Parliamentary constituencies when it publishes its report tomorrow
Time to get out the anoraks. No, not to deal with the windy autumn weather. It’s time for us nerds of electoral geography and psephology to emerge from our darkened rooms to compete to be “top anorak” in analysing the fundamental changes that could be proposed for Croydon’s Parliamentary boundaries tomorrow.
Politicians are getting nervous, because September 13 could be unlucky for some, with some MPs forced to apply for new jobs for after 2015 election year if the Boundary Commissioners abolish their seats from beneath them.
The plans, in the first instance limited to dividing England into 500 constituencies, are to be briefed to MPs today, ahead of publication tomorrow. In Croydon, it may suggest the most substantial changes to the borough’s representation at Westminster in 40 years.
The change emerges from the Government’s desire to cut 50 MPs from the present 650 for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. At the same time, an effort seems to have been made to alter the current electoral landscape which can give Labour large majorities in the Commons on pretty wafer thin leads in the national polls.
Labour resents possible changes that they perceive as being partisan. The Government says that a high number of seats with relatively small electorates favour Labour. The opposition points out that the changes will not take account of population, but be based just on a measure of registered electors. Labour heartland seats can have a lot of socially marginalised people who are not registered to vote.
Whatever the detail of the recommendations, the changes will likely only make a marginal difference. Low turnouts in safe Labour seats and huge Conservative majorities in county seats that don’t gain them extra political representation combine to simply underline the already distortive nature of the UK’s first-past-the-post constituency system.
The political analyst Lewis Bastin predicted for The Guardian that the losses of seats for each party would be Conservative 15, Labour 18, Others 3 and, especially damaging, LibDems 14. This is proportionally a much higher loss for the LibDems, as their remaining seats will often be expanded into constituencies with a very strong tradition for one of the other two main parties.
Weekend reports are suggesting that the proposals could undermine party discipline, especially among the notoriously independent-minded LibDems, if they learn that they have no parliamentary future. How might that affect the Coalition?
BUT WHAT MIGHT happen in Croydon?
Until 1992, Croydon’s Parliamentary representation was dominated by the Conservatives and boundary changes would not matter much. Yes, David Winnick won what is now the Croydon Central seat for Labour in 1966 and, yes, Bill Pitt made a brief Parliamentary appearance for the SDP-Liberal Alliance after a 1981 by-election in Croydon North-West.
But the Conservatives held all council seats in the north of the borough in 1982, and in 1983, with Jack Weatherill (only notionally a Tory by that time, as he was serving as the Speaker) holding Croydon North-East, there were no Labour MPs in Croydon. Even in 1992, the departing MP Humfrey Malins scored 43.5 per cent of the vote for the Conservatives in Croydon North-West when Malcolm Wicks was first returned.
Now things are different. Croydon North’s eight wards have no Conservative councillors. Based on the strong performance and incumbency of Malcolm Wicks, and on demographic change over the last 20 years, Croydon North is one of the safest Labour seats in the country.
Will that seat get broken up? Will we return to the old Croydon North-West and Croydon North-East structure (to Labour’s benefit) even if shorn of the Norbury and Norwood wards into a new, super-sized inner London seat?
Croydon Central has provided a lot of entertainment with its close results over the past 37 years, but it might now get subsumed into an enlarged Croydon South seat to become rather predictably Conservative.
The Boundary Commission is using the 2011 electorate figures for its review. They are supposed to achieve constituencies with between 73,000 and 80,000 voters. With 243,641 electors for Croydon, that’s a “quota” of 3.38 seats. We are just too big to have three Parliamentary seats co-terminus with the Borough boundaries of Croydon.
We are going to be bound in with some other Borough with rather different political traditions. Maybe a Liberal Democrat foray could come out of Sutton politics in to Croydon?
There are some interesting parameters set by the Commission that will have a long-term impact on the shape of Croydon, and wider London, politics. In creating cross-borough boundaries, the Commission will not cross the Greater London border, so no seat that would bind Coulsdon to Hooley or Purley to Caterham is possible.
Also, the Commission says they’ll do all they can to use local government wards as unbreakable units to create Parliamentary constituencies. This is a particular challenge in Croydon where wards are very large, normally over 10,000 electors in size, and when the strict rule is that a seat can be no bigger than 80,473 electors and no smaller than 72,810 electors. Thus, a “draft” seat that is just too small becomes too large when only one Croydon ward is added.
This is going to prompt the Commission to look outside Croydon to use smaller wards from other boroughs as make-weights to secure the right numerical figure. The legislation put far more emphasis on numerical equality than on respect for community identity and so we may see some real transformations in boundaries in and around Croydon.
The possible different combinations are extensive, though Croydon’s large wards do make some combinations less likely.
A change in a boundary to accommodate a numerical target in, say, Bermondsey, up by the Thames, will impact right across the map of south London, with adjustments necessary all the way down to Purley.
One cannot be exhaustive of all the combinations but here are some likely possibilities. A merger across the Sutton boundary is a prospect with Croydon and Sutton being in the same London Assembly constituency. The Sutton Parliamentary seats are too small and would benefit from a transfer of Croydon voters into their Parliamentary calculations.
Coulsdon has always hated its Croydon link and they have much in common with communities in Clockhouse and Woodcote. So one option would be to transfer the Coulsdon wards into a Wallington and Woodcote Parliamentary seat. This might relight the embers of a nascent Liberal vote in Coulsdon East that has since 1964 acted a bit like Croydon’s equivalent of a Liberal-voting Celtic fringe, protesting against the absorption of the Coulsdon and Purley District Council into Croydon and which has returned Liberal councillors occasionally.
Richard Ottaway has already stated that he would stand down at the next election. Whoever the local Conservatives choose to replace him – might Steve O’Connell reconsider the pledge he made when selected for the GLA nomination that he would not fight a Westminster seat? Will the ultra-ambitious Clare Hilley put herself forward? Or might it offer sanctuary for Gavin Barwell if displaced from a re-aligned Croydon Central seat? – might face a long-term Tory v LibDem marginal, with consequences for Croydon Council politics.
In this option, Waddon (at present in Croydon South) and Broad Green (Croydon North) would return to Croydon Central whence they came in 1983. But Central would be shorn of its triangle of wards mostly on the other side of the Shirley Hills: Heathfield and the two New Addington wards.
It is a restriction on the Commission that the only realistic redrawing of Parliamentary boundaries in this part of London is to recognise that the only main road link out of those two New Addington wards is through Heathfield, so this is 23,963 voters that have to be transferred en bloc together in any re-drawing of boundaries.
Croydon North would only lose Broad Green in this scenario. Some local Labour party members suggest that if Malcolm Wicks retires (he is 64), this will be announced at the last moment and that the party will select only from black and ethnic minority candidates under direction from the national party.
Using 2010 General and local election data, a new Croydon South-East seat of Kenley, Purley, Sanderstead, Croham, Seldon & Ballards, Heathfield and the two New Addington wards would provide for large Conservative majorities, with Labour usually in second place.
The new Croydon Central seat would be made up of Addiscombe, Ashburton, Broad Green, Fairfield, Shirley, Waddon and Woodside. In 2010, after washing out the distortion of my standing, as the incumbent MP but as an independent candidate, this would have been a very marginal Conservative win but would have been Labour from 1997 to 2010.
Of course this is not the only option.
Beddington South might join Coulsdon within the main structure of the current Croydon South seat, with just Selsdon & Ballards going into a Croydon Central seat. Liberal preferences in Beddington South would be overwhelmed in a strong Conservative seat. Woodside would be displaced into an even stronger Croydon North seat with Norbury and Upper Norwood being subsumed into a strongly Labour Lambeth seat.
The new Croydon Central would have been super safe in 2010 for the Conservatives. Labour would need to be 13 per cent ahead in the national opinion polls to hope to win that configuration.
Another option for the Commission might be built around the re-creation of the long lost Croydon East seat, a safe Conservative constituency of Croham , Heathfield, the New Addington wards, Shirley, Ashburton, Selsdon & Ballards and Sanderstead.
This would provide for a strongly Conservative Beddington & Croydon West seat which would include Kenley, the Coulsdon wards, Purley, Waddon, Broad Green and the two Beddington wards. It would leave a Croydon North Labour seat of Woodside, Addiscombe, Fairfield, Selhurst, Thornton Heath, Bensham Manor and West Thornton.
Not much electoral fun in that option, with the resulting seats seemingly all cut and dried and no risk of MPs being seriously punished for expenses problems.
THE FINAL APPARENT OPTION would be built around the old Croydon North-West and Croydon North-East seats, with the Coulsdon wards again going out to Wallington and Woodcote. The new southern seat would be Conservative, while the North-West seat of Norbury, Bensham Manor, West Thornton, Selhurst, Broad Green, Waddon and Fairfield would be Labour, and the North-East seat of Upper Norwood, South Norwood, Thornton Heath, Woodside, Addiscombe, Ashburton and Shirley would be Labour.
When it comes to sharing out Croydon’s spoils after the boundary changes, it’s either two seats for the Tories and one for Labour, or two for Labour and one for the Tories, but with the bonus for the Tories in some cases of inconveniencing the neighbouring LibDems.
So at least as far as Croydon is concerned, Cameron’s wheeze to gain extra seats through the Boundary changes isn’t really working out. A bit like the Government really.
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