By John Lloyd for the Financial Times
The word “gerrymander” derives from an electoral redistricting scheme devised by Governor Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts in 1812 for his own party’s advantage. He came up with one area which was so convoluted it looked like a salamander. Even now in the US, corruption in drawing political boundaries is, in most states, simply part of the game. So there are such charming but disgraceful confections as the 34th state senate district of New York (“the dangling lobster tail”) and the 17th congressional district of Illinois (“the rabbit on a skateboard”).
Britain got rid of rotten boroughs such as Dunwich, which had fallen into the North Sea, in 1832. After that the process of altering constituency boundaries to keep up with population changes, though inevitably contentious, became largely fair and sensible. At least until now.
The other day I saw a map of the constituency in which I am supposed to vote at the next election. It is called Ludlow and Leominster. It looks to me like a moose’s head. It will stretch from Ewyas Harold, in south-west Herefordshire, to Rowley in Shropshire, a journey – according to Google Earth - of 65.5 miles, taking an hour and 47 minutes. But I drive these country lanes more often than Google Earth and I reckon that’s optimistic. The new MP will presumably be based in Ludlow, which is an hour’s drive from my house when roads are quiet. By public transport – allow for an overnight stay. These places have totally different councils and totally different issues.
This is one extreme consequence of the latest changes but there are other examples across the country: county boundaries have been routinely forgotten so that Cornwall, a discrete political entity for 1100 years, will share an MP with Devon. Middlesbrough, which has had its own MPs throughout modern history, will now be split between three different constituencies, and Stockton-on-Tees, which is not a large place, between four.
This is not the fault of the Boundary Commissioners who have made these proposals. They are operating under absurd criteria cooked up by David Cameron in opposition. He thought it would be popular to demand fewer MPs (600 not 650), claiming it would save money. He also sought political advantage by insisting constituencies should have equal electorates. Under the rules he has pushed through, only a five per cent tolerance will be allowed on the quota for each seat (now 76,641 electors per MP) with very minor exceptions for highlands and islands. This is much too deterministic to allow sane boundaries.