Lewis Baston: What do the parliamentary boundary review proposals mean for London?

Lewis Baston: What do the parliamentary boundary review proposals mean for London?

The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) has published its proposals for new parliamentary constituencies. If adopted, the new seats will come into existence at the next general election, provided it takes place after autumn 2023. This is the third attempt to produce new boundaries since 2010 but, unlike the previous two, it will go ahead – political opposition has been diluted by the abandonment of the plan to reduce the number of MPs to 600, and the new method now does not require a parliamentary approval vote.

The new constituencies are drawn with a view to reflecting the movement of population since the base date for the current seats which in England is February 2000. The English Commission is also, this time, unable to recommend constituencies (other than on the Isle of Wight) that differ from the average electorate by more than five per cent either way, a tighter threshold than before. London’s population growth entitles the capital to two extra seats, meaning there will 75 London MPs rather than the 73 we have at present. It would be even more if electoral registration in London were more complete. I wrote a preview of this back in January, but now we have the first official draft.

The two wholly new seats will, as I anticipated, both be safely Labour – Stratford & Bow, which accommodates the population growth in inner east London, and a seat which straddles the boundary between Lambeth and Croydon and puts a boundary around Norwood, one of London’s more diffuse neighbourhoods. Brixton & Clapham is another new concept (unless one’s memory goes back to the 1974-83 Lambeth Central seat) and it is a logical creation. There are some pretty odd-looking seats in north central London, but we’ll come back to them.

Every current London seat, with the exception of Dulwich & West Norwood, has a successor that looks rather like it, even if the name has changed and it is a different – usually more jagged and irregular – shape and sometimes a different political flavour. The most radical alterations are made to two seats in north London – Labour Westminster North and Conservative Finchley & Golders Green, so it’s a matter of debate as to whether these seats are “abolished” or just transformed. There are no obvious conflict areas where MPs of the same party face off against each other for the same seat – musical chairs is a much easier game when you add seats rather than taking them away.

Looking purely at the new creations, Labour is up two on what went before, but it is not quite that simple. There are a number of seats where the successor seat is different enough from the predecessor to flip them from one side to the other. The “notional” results for what would have happened in the 2019 election had these boundaries been in place are educated guesswork and there is no single way of calculating them – using demographic variables and local election results both have their advantages and disadvantages. So one should be careful of being too definitive about gains and losses for the parties when looking at altered seats. It may be wiser to think in terms of places being shifted towards or away from a party by the changes.

There are two constituencies where the changes are sufficiently clear-cut to be able to say the seat is flipped from one side to the other in the changes.

  • The very narrowly Conservative Kensington seat becomes Kensington & Westbourne, losing some of south Kensington and gaining several wards in north west Westminster. This is rather like the basis of the safely Labour Regent’s Park & Kensington North seat that existed in 1997-2010 and therefore familiar territory to Westminster North’s Labour MP Karen Buck, who will surely have this seat if she wants it.
  • It looks to me as if the new version of Eltham, Eltham & Chislehurst, has been switched from Labour to the Conservatives. It loses reasonably Labour-friendly territory at Shooter’s Hill and picks up Tory Chislehurst and ex-Labour (now pretty Tory) Mottingham. Labour’s Clive Efford has done well to hold Eltham over the years – it’s a seat that lacks the numbers of BAME and professional voters that make other halfway out areas like Streatham and Tooting safe, almost a little London bit of “Red Wall”. It is even shakier now.
  • Croydon Central loses some Labour areas in Woodside, near Norwood Junction, and in Fairfield in the town centre (necessitating a name change to Croydon East), and picks up neon-blue Selsdon. Sarah Jones’s Labour majority here in 2019 was larger than Efford’s in Eltham, but it’s possible that the changes are enough to flip the seat. The changes would also remove places where the Labour vote is trending up, and make the white working-class township of New Addington, which has swung Tory and may continue to do so, more important in the seat.

There are some others where a shift looks likely or possible but it will require a bit more analysis to make sure.

  • The Conservative-held marginal of Hendon is reconfigured, losing safe Tory Edgware and the Labour-voting Burnt Oak estate, in exchange for the Golders Green area and two wards from Brent. It becomes Hendon & Golders Green. The shift southward helps Labour, but it might not be worth the entire 4,230 votes required to overhaul it on 2019 numbers. It moves up to the very top of Labour’s target list though.
  • The less marginal Conservative seat of Finchley & Golders Green changes its orientation, losing Golders Green and gaining several high-turnout middle-class liberal wards from the west of Haringey, becoming Finchley & Muswell Hill. This seat is an example of the limits of what calculating notional results can tell us. The contest in 2019 was highly unusual – former Labour MP Luciana Berger stood there for the Liberal Democrats and achieved an impressive result despite the lack of a Lib Dem base in Finchley (as opposed to in Muswell Hill), although Mike Freer held on for the Tories. But this seat would certainly have voted Labour in 2017 and did so in this year’s London Mayor and Assembly elections despite Labour’s London-wide advantage being less than it was in 2019. The only Tory hope would be a divided vote between Labour and Lib Dems, but chalk this one up as a Labour gain waiting to happen, however it might have voted in 2019 had it existed then.
  • The Lib Dems came close in Wimbledon in 2019, and the boundary changes move a couple of wards from their leader Ed Davey’s Kingston & Surbiton seat into the constituency. They aren’t the best Lib Dem wards in Kingston, but any change is risky when you are sitting on a majority of 628 votes.
  • Labour squeaked home in Dagenham & Rainham with a majority of 293. The wards swapped in (Valence) and out (Chadwell Heath) vote fairly similarly at the moment, but we’re definitely in margin of error territory.

So, the net change resulting from the new boundaries in London, assuming voting patterns are the same as 2019, is probably Lab +1, Con or Lib Dem +1 – but with a fuzzy margin of error on either side of that.

There are some changes that will affect the parties’ target lists for the next election but would not have changed the seat’s allegiance in 2019. A few get safer for their sitting tenants:

  • Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge & South Ruislip seat is a bit of a long-shot Labour target, and the shot gets even more difficult with the addition of the highly Conservative Ickenham area – it’s big enough and Tory enough to reclassify the seat into “safe-ish”.
  • Theresa Villiers will be relieved that her besieged marginal seat of Chipping Barnet is reinforced – the successor High Barnet & Mill Hill is reasonably safe.
  • Labour’s majority in Erith & Thamesmead has worn thin lately, but will be bulked out a bit by the changes.
  • Similarly, Cities of London & Westminster has seen the Tories’ position weaken, but replacing the City (which can vote Labour in a decent Labour year) with marginal Bayswater and two extremely Conservative wards from Chelsea to make it Westminster & Chelsea East will shore up the Tory position.

Some seats, correspondingly, become more marginal:

  • Westminster Tories’ gain is Chelsea & Fulham Tories’ loss. Losing Royal Hospital and Hans Town in exchange for some more debatable lands where Fulham meets Hammersmith is a bad trade, and makes Fulham & Chelsea East slip down both the alphabet and the order of safety.
  • Hammersmith loses some marginal areas to the south, and some safe Labour areas in the north, in exchange for Chiswick. The replacement seat – Hammersmith & Chiswick – looks considerably more marginal than the current moderately safe Labour seat.
  • Labour marginal Enfield Southgate probably gets a little bit more Tory as it becomes Southgate & Barnet East, but the territory coming in is not dramatically different from what is already there.
  • The safe Conservative seat of Beckenham loses its plush outer suburbs and picks up Labour’s Bromley enclave around Penge, bringing it within range for Labour.
  • I’m choosing to regard Camden Town & St John’s Wood as a successor to Westminster North, but the match is far from close. This frankly horrible-looking seat, stretching from Paddington Green to Hampstead Heath, would be Labour but not completely out of reach for the Conservatives – closer than the current Westminster North or Hampstead & Kilburn, that is for certain.

The Commission has done a good job in some parts of London – their decision to leave Wandsworth minimally altered at the cost of splitting one ward is brave, in a good way. But by the nature of the rules they work under, there are some very messy bits. My own borough of Camden is sliced up so that it has three seats, but they are all shared with parts of neighbouring boroughs – Islington, Westminster and Brent. The articulate and vocal community of Hampstead will be firing up the email objections as I write. Barnet has one seat of its own, ringed by four that straddle boundaries with Enfield, Haringey, Brent and Harrow, a brutal piece of boundary butchery.

There is a period of eight weeks, which started on 8 June, to make representations to support or object to the proposals. It is not uncommon for the Commission to come back with revised proposals when persuasive evidence is brought to its attention, so it is worth sending in a note – whether it is just a single line to say that the proposal for your constituency is OK with you, or a detailed counter-proposal for the whole of London like the ones the main parties will offer. The consultation site is here.

This article was updated on 10 June 2021 following some reassessment of the putative Finchley & Muswell Hill.

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Categories: Analysis

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