3 January 2016

Electoral reform means change for our local associations

Boundary reforms don’t normally make for gripping political news: they’re the stuff of the Conservative Association stalwart or eagle-eyed agent, and definitely not for people with healthy social lives. But whether we like it or not, the Boundary Commission’s regular redrawing of the electoral landscape from 2018 onwards will revolutionise the culture of our local associations.

Many constituencies have retained the same basic shape for decades. Tooting – my patch – has been essentially been the same since it replaced Wandsworth Central in 1974. Yet the reforms likely to be in place for 2020 will require the number of electors in constituencies to adhere to a much tighter variation from the national average, and for this to be reviewed every five years. The difference in the two proposals for Tooting during the 2013 Sixth Periodic Review shows the level of change that is likely to be in store for constituencies across the country under the new rules.

First proposal for the Tooting area
in the Sixth Periodic Review (2013)
Second proposal for the Tooting area
in the Sixth Periodic Review (2013)
Throw in the renaissance of our cities, and you can see how the electoral map will need to be drawn from scratch with each review. London’s expected growth of 100,000 people a year up to 2030 is the equivalent of seven new constituencies between each general election. Manchester will expand by an extra 100,000 people by 2025 – considerably faster than projections for the surrounding urban area, which are also expected to grow. On the other hand, Birmingham’s forecast growth of 12.2 per cent by 2032 is forecast to be below the national average of 13.5 per cent.

Our electoral boundaries will behave like an electoral isobar map, with areas of high population growth seeing constituencies created at the expense of places where the population increase is slower, or in decline – and Individual Electoral Registration will finally give the Boundary Commissions accurate data, cleansed of ghost voters who have moved elsewhere years previously.

The post-2018 landscape will see constituency associations with five year lifespans, thrown together across municipal boundaries, with the aim of winning the next general election. And after the returning officer’s declaration the focus will be on preparing the ground for the following election – although no-one will have any idea what cards the Boundary Commission for England will deal!

As a result, our traditional constituency identities will be much more fluid. Indeed, referring to constituency associations as ‘Tooting’ and so on will soon be archaic. Geographic identities are less easily accommodated by the new reforms (remember the outcry over the proposed Devonwall constituency when the Prime Minister pointed out that “It’s the Tamar, not the Amazon, for Heaven’s sake,”?), and our local leadership will be shaken up between every election, with association officers, star volunteers and local party bores suddenly finding themselves in different patches, with new relationships to forge.

Stable geographic identities are important for building teams of activists. The need to organise campaigns for county, borough and PCC elections on well-established boundaries will remain, and bringing associations together is sensible, since constituencies will change radically with every boundary review. Andrew Kennedy is a tireless advocate for groupings such as West Kent, which has demonstrated many of the benefits of campaigning as a larger unit.

We in Wandsworth have operated as a group for many years, and consequently the Wandsworth Conservatives brand is very strong in our community. Our office supports local associations in five constituencies across Wandsworth and Merton, and it is perhaps time for us to bring neighbouring Lambeth into the fold, since ‘Tooting’ is highly likely to include parts of Lambeth in the coming years.

Some association officers will take the view that forming groupings is a long term objective. I believe that this is misguided. The Boundary Commission’s consultation timelines will see the 2020 electoral map finalised in late 2018, leaving a year and a half to select candidates for all 600 seats and build campaign momentum – a sprint compared to the two-and-a-half years that many of our 40/40 candidates enjoyed (or suffered). This shorter campaign period will also help reduce the costs of standing for parliament – an unintentional positive – but the creation of new boundaries from scratch will make reselection of sitting MPs more competitive, as many of Labour’s Blairite wing are all too aware.

The combination of major changes to a constituency and relatively little time to execute a campaign will put a huge emphasis on best practice in both modern campaign techniques and old-fashioned organisation. Working together as a larger group of Conservatives means having the resources to deploy up-to-date campaign tools: professionally designed literature for council campaigns, digital campaigning (such as the Crossrail 2 campaign we’ve run in Tooting this autumn) and modern membership engagement. And active ward teams will be even more important, as a safe ward in a safe seat might become a safe ward in a battleground seat within the space of five years.

We are about to enter a dynamic electoral landscape where incumbency counts for less, and finally rid of the bias towards Labour and the Liberal Democrats that made majority government seem impossible before May 7th. Our party has pushed for these reforms – now we need to make sure we’re ready for the challenge in 2020, and beyond.

First published by Conservative Home on January 3rd, 2016