Alec Shelbrooke: We’re levelling up this country – and that’s got to include equal constituencies

13 Jul

Alec Shelbrooke is MP for Elmet & Rothwell.

When my colleagues and I walked back into the House of Commons after the General Election last year, it was after being entrusted by the British public to level this country up and get things done.

And, despite challenges faced by Covid-19, we are delivering on those promises. This Government is approaching the current short-term challenges with a long-term view in mind – just as the Chancellor did last week with one of the largest and most comprehensive plans in the world, not just to protect current jobs but to create new jobs for the future as we begin to rebuild.

Now we must now take that same approach to our Parliamentary boundaries, and this week MPs will have their final vote on the long-awaited Parliamentary Constituencies Bill. Our constituencies are in desperate need of levelling up – and voters deserve more equal representation. In fact, they voted for it; we pledged to deliver updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries in our 2019 manifesto.

It can’t be right that Bristol West with 99,253 voters and Arfon with only 42,215 voters have the same amount of representation on the green benches after the 2019 election. Although perfect equality between constituencies cannot be achieved – which is why this Bill retains a leeway of +/- five per cent to make geographical allowances and community ties – a difference of over double is undeniably too big.

It also can’t be right that our youngest voters were born after our last constituency refresh. The country has certainly changed since the early 2000s and our Parliament needs to reflect that change. This delay is particularly stark when you realise that the boundaries are meant to be refreshed every five years – although this Bill will relax it to a more feasible eight years.

As with our plan for jobs, we need to vote for the short-term and the long-term. This Bill has been a decade in the making and rightly goes further than ever before to address the root of the problem. Namely: why has this Bill been a decade in the making?

Well, if you asked me what part of my constituency I’d like to stop representing, I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Nor would my colleagues – even those who are only in their first year of representing their communities.

Any MP will agree that the idea of losing some of their constituency and sometimes entire communities that they represent is heartbreaking. I’ve spent over ten years knocking on every door getting to know constituents across Elmet and Rothwell and every street is important to me. Asking MPs to vote for major losses can be a big ask.

So, to ensure that this delay is prevented in the future, we have to include a long-term plan.

Which is why this Bill ensures that when the recommendations of the impartial, independent Boundaries Commission are made, they will be automatically implemented to save years of delay occurring again in the future – something Keir Starmer’s Labour Party wants to block from happening.

In many ways it’s hardly surprising – Labour has a long history of opposing boundary updates to try and gerrymander elections. It was the Labour Government of 1969 ahead of the 1970 general election which intentionally blocked the independent Boundary Commissions’ changes by refusing to implement their proposals; resulting in the 1970 election being fought on 1953 boundary data.

It took a Conservative Government then to implement those delayed boundaries later in 1970. In 1982, the Labour Party attempted to obstruct the Boundary Commission’s new boundaries through the courts ahead of the 1984 General Election – afraid it would hurt their chances – though ultimately unsuccessfully.

Both incidents illustrate why there needs to be greater certainty that the independent recommendations of the Boundary Commission are actually implemented, without being susceptible to political delay tactics.

The Boundary Commission will always be acting at the behest of Parliament to ensure accountability, but it is right that we delegate this responsibility to them to politically neutralise constituency changes, allowing MPs to instead engage with the consultation process so that local voices are heard.

Additionally, the question of boundary changes is not just political, it is personal. Which part of Holborn and St Pancras would Sir Keir Starmer vote to keep, or to lose? For MPs the consequences of the boundary review will be personal to each one of us, and voters must not be given another twenty-year delay before the next refresh or, indeed, before this one.

Last year, we pledged to deliver updated and equal Parliamentary boundaries, strengthening our democracy and making sure that every vote counts the same. Now we need to get it done.