Four years ago, the LibDems blocked a set of Tory proposals to re-draw parliamentary constituencies. Tomorrow, the latest set of plans are due to be published, and WALTER CRONXITE suggests that they will have far-reaching consequences for four south London MPs
It was presented as a way of re-balancing the House of Commons, of streamlining the number of MPs from 650 to 600. But when, tomorrow, the Boundary Commissioners reveal the result of their latest deliberations five years after their previous effort to re-draw parliamentary constituencies, in this corner of south London it seems likely that the outcome will look like Cameron’s Revenge.
David Cameron may have been Prime Minister for six years, but he was the leader of a Conservative Government for barely 13 months. That’s got to hurt and, however unwittingly, something which he set in train when he was in office could wipe the last trace of parliamentary Liberal Democrats from London.
Nick Clegg’s LibDems held the balance of power for five of Cameron’s six years in No10, frustrating some Tory policies, including the re-drafting of the parliamentary constituency boundaries. Now being done under a Conservative Government, no one is pretending that when the latest Boundary Commission report is published tomorrow morning with just 600 parliamentary seats, the overwhelming beneficiaries nationally will not be the Tories.
Where they impact Croydon, and neighbouring Sutton, it is Tom Brake’s Carshalton and Wallington seat which seems vulnerable to being carved into non-existence, putting the LibDems’ last remaining London MP on the endangered list, alongside the orangutan and the rhino.
This was achieved by super-gluing two Coulsdon wards to the majority of the Carshalton and Wallington constituency to make Brake’s fiefdom vulnerable. Meanwhile, they reduced the size of the now strongly Labour Croydon North constituency and they tucked one Beddington ward from Sutton and the rapidly changing Fairfield ward from what was Croydon Central into a revised Croydon South constituency, all of which if implemented might make Tory new boy Chris Philp’s parliamentary inheritance a little less straightforward.
With the Boundary Commissioners’ local authority colleagues working in splendid isolation on a separate set of plans for Croydon’s borough wards – their proposals on the number of councillors are due to be announced in a fortnight – the new political map of south London seems likely to become a good deal more messy, without the previously coherent single-borough constituencies in Croydon, Sutton and possibly Lambeth.
“It’s the only way they can achieve the objective of reducing the number of parliamentary seats,” a source at the Commission recently admitted. “They’ve got to go across some of the old boundaries.”
And four into three can’t go, as far as MPs Brake, Philp, Gavin Barwell and Steve Reed OBE are concerned.
Barwell has been belly-aching almost from the moment he was re-elected for Croydon Central in May 2015, sounding like a modern-day version of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army: “We’re doomed.”
He wrote his own political obituary in book form. And he has even encouraged the local Tories to launch a campaign for a directly elected Mayor of Croydon, to give himself a job opportunity post-2020, so convinced is he of his own parliamentary demise.
Barwell’s premonitions are based not only on the narrowness of his 165-vote majority in 2015, but also on what had been contained in the previous Boundary Commission report.
Back in 2011, the Commissioners at first seemed to do Barwell a great favour by renaming his seat “Croydon East” and handing him the deep Tory blue ward of Selsdon and Ballards, while moving the less certain voting territory of Fairfield into a revised Croydon South.
But a parliamentary seat running from Croydon town centre all the way to St Helier Hospital did not seem to work, and the Commissioners revised their mapping; Croydon Central was revived and made even more of a Labour-leaning marginal when instead of Selsdon, Barwell was handed deeply red-coloured Selhurst. Doomed, indeed.
Could this be what is in store again in the 2016 Commissioners’ report tomorrow?
If so, and with the changes involving Coulsdon to the south, it might have the effect of turning the existing four seats – one LibDem, one Labour seat and two Tory seats – into a possible one Labour seat, one Conservative and one Lab-Tory marginal. So not for the first time, a Cameron-inspired experiment with the electorate may back-fire for the Tories, in this part of the capital, at least.
Not that it is certain that the Commissioners’ latest recommendations will survive intact.
If the last national review had not been stopped by the Liberal Democrats and Labour in the House of Lords, it is possible that there may have been public objections to the sheering apart of Coulsdon from Purley. The towns have been closely associated electorally for more than a century, since the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council (1915-1965) and the previous Surrey East parliamentary seat. It is entirely possible that such public objections will surface this time round if the proposals remain largely the same as five years ago.
Even the one Croydon MP who at first glance looks likely to be left relatively unscathed by the Commissioners’ latest deliberations could face some uncertainty as a consequence of changes to his constituency boundaries.
Steve Reed OBE, the some time vice-chair of the Progress party-within-a-party, enjoys such a large majority in Croydon North that the possible loss of Selhurst ward and the Labour votes that go with it would make little difference in a newly drawn constituency, beyond reducing the MP’s casework.
For their 2016 report, the Commissioners will have based their mapping and population projections on voter numbers as at December last year (so before the surge in voter registrations for the EU referendum).
They have always been reluctant to draw constituency boundaries in units smaller than borough wards, but the parliamentary Commissioners will not be able to call upon the revised borough boundaries being devised by their local authority colleagues.
And this will have challenged the Commissioners. They were given a tight target for the size of each parliamentary seat. In the future, our MPs are supposed to represent between 71,031 and 78,507 voters, no more and no less. These strict rules are part of the reason for proposals such as the contorted seat from Old Coulsdon to St Helier emerging last time.
In the case of Croydon North, the voter numbers mean that the seat is too large as it is. Yet it is too small if you deduct one Croydon council ward. Part of the reason that the local authority Boundary Commission has been busy with Croydon is that our borough wards are unusually large. All of which means that the parliamentary Commissioners this time seem almost certain to need to pinch a smaller ward from Sutton as a makeweight for Croydon North.
Alternatively, as Inside Croydon has been hinting for some time, the Commissioners could force Reed to face his nemesis, Chuka Umunna, the MP for Streatham, in a newly merged Lambeth South seat. Pitting the two Labour right-wingers in a selection battle could be a political bloodbath, and probably not one which the coldly calculating Reed would relish. He lost out on selection for Streatham to Umunna, and since winning the Croydon North by-election in 2012, Reed has given up his Lambeth apartment to move to a £1 million home in the Shirley Hills, and he has loosened his controlling grip at Brixton Town Hall.
The alternative for Reed might be no more appealling: the Commissioners could leave him with the southern section of his present seat, plus Fairfield and another ward from Croydon Central, with Sutton’s previous LibDem Beddington North tacked on.
Either way, those local party members who have felt so deeply abused by Reed’s contempt for his Constituency Labour Party over the leadership election may soon get their wished-for re-selection process.
It was Neil Sedaka who sang Breaking Up Is Hard To Do. Or was it Braking Up?
The break-up of Brake’s seat, with bits of his Sutton constituency being divided out among one or two Croydon-dominated seats, as seems very possible, could have long-ranging impact on local politics, too.
Brake’s LibDems have been deeply entrenched for decades in Sutton, despite various recent financial scandals and the increasingly unpopular incinerator. Brake’s local party has been well-funded and well-organised. But dissipate and dilute those efforts by dividing his wards across a couple of Croydon-dominated seats, and it is hard to see the former Leader of the House in the Cameron-led coalition being able to retain a seat in the Commons unless he can revive previous Liberal activism in Coulsdon, which has been dormant for two decades.
After its publication tomorrow, there will follow 12 weeks of consultation by the Boundary Commission on their report. The only certainties in what the Boundary Commission will publish are that the Greater London boundary will not be crossed, and that there will be five fewer MPs elected for Greater London in 2020 than there were in 2015, which is only likely to make our elected representatives even less accountable than they are already.
As we said: Cameron’s Revenge.
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