Parliamentary boundary changes: good idea, could be better

People grow attached to the status quo.  There used to be a large packing crate in our garden when I was a boy.  When my elder brother problem objected that it was unsightly and we should get rid of it, my mother countered that: “But the cat likes to sit on it!”.  This was too much for my brother who took an axe to the crate shortly afterwards.  An unsightly item was removed, and the cat had no difficulty in adapting.

So it is with the British parliamentary boundary reviews.  There’s a lot of fuss, with many saying that fundamental democratic principles are being undermined.  But the arguments offered against them are little better than that offered by my mother (who did come to see the humour of it) of our packing crate.

The idea behind the reforms is that all constituencies should have roughly the same number of electors, so that everybody’s vote carries the same weight in the political process.  That is a solid democratic principle.  The problem is that equal constituency size implies arbitrary boundaries.  Under the current arrangements quite a lot of weight is put on natural geographical or administrative boundaries.  That can lead to some quite big variations in size.  In my local borough of Wandsworth we get three seats, but two of them are 15% bigger than the third.  Across the country the variations can be much bigger, even excluding the peripheral highlands and islands (Western Isles is very small; Isle of Wight very big).  A further principle is to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600, which is still large by international standards.

The main argument offered against the new boundaries is that they are too arbitrary, and, to listen to the rhetoric, you would think they would tear communities apart, with half a village represented by one MP and half by another, say.  I really struggle to understand this.  MPs may be moderately important community figures, but they hardly define communities.  If they did we would already be in deep trouble.  In Wandsworth the local parliamentary seats are all very well for the residents of Battersea, Putney and Tooting – but the communities that lie between these (Wandsworth Town and Balham) are carved up between three different constituencies each.  Life goes on.

A related issue is that the new seats will cross local authority boundaries much more often.  In Wandsworth none of the three current seats crosses a boundary.  Under the new proposals the borough will be split between four seats, all shared with neighbouring boroughs.  No doubt this will make constituency casework a bit harder.  But frankly I’m not sure it is entirely healthy for parliamentarians to get too closely associated with their local governments – they are meant to sit above that layer of government and judge in the common interest.  They may even gain from comparing the way different authorities handle things.

Another issue is that boundaries will change more frequently and by larger amounts, to reflect population changes.  Locally we have a major development that will be smack in the middle of one of the new seats; when all these new people move in this will cause the boundaries to be changed – knocking on into neighbouring seats.  But there’s too much job security with MPs as it is – it’s good for them to have to sell themselves in new areas every so often.  There are too many safe seats as it is.

A more subtle argument is that new areas represent equal electorates but not equal populations.  Quite a few people aren’t on the register, or don’t count because they aren’t allowed to vote in parliamentary elections (through not being UK citizens).  Surely the interests of these people should be represented too?  But it is hard to overcome the principle of equal rights for all those entitled to vote.  And frankly, those who deliberately avoid being registered (which is in fact illegal) shouldn’t be given weight.  The running of a democratic society requires a degree of active engagement by citizens; people have a perfect right to say they aren’t interested and not vote – but if they can’t even be bothered to register, how hard are we to fight for their democratic entitlement? And why should their neighbours be empowered in their place?  There is an issue for MPs with a lot of non-voting constituents generating a bigger case load – but if that really is a problem, they should simply be paid more.

Mind you, the Boundary Commission’s current proposals could be less arbitrary.  They have created some rather silly looking constituencies.  But the consultation and appeal process should help a lot here.  It’s not too hard to come up with some better looking alternatives.  One idea I have seen in our area does an even better job than the existing boundaries, though this may knock on badly further afield, managing to reunite the currently split communities of Wandsworth Town, Balham and Clapham, while keeping Putney, Tooting and Battersea together.

Better still would be to have a system of proportional presentation, where party representations would be based directly on votes cast.  You could have less arbitrary constituencies then.  But the British political class has set its face against such radical ideas; they should accept the consequences.



Battersea riots: what can we learn?

Wandsworth Council commissioned an independent review of the disorder in the borough in early August, which is mainly about the riots at Clapham Junction on Monday 8th August.  Clapham Junction, of course, is located in Battersea, and not Clapham, which is a couple of miles away and in a another borough.  This report, by Neil Kinghan, was published this week.  What can we learn?

The most valuable part of the report is its clear description of how events unfolded.  It is amazing how quickly garbled stories gain currency, especially since our media aren’t particularly fastidious about factual accuracy.  The trouble (at Clapham Junction) started at 8pm, after some earlier incidents in the nearby estates.  After about half and hour the local police team was withdrawn, and they did not return until after 10.30pm.  The police heavy mob, in their armoured cars, did not arrive until after midnight, when the trouble was pretty much over.  The fire at the Party Shop, which was the most spectacular and dangerous part of the episode, happened after an explosion shortly after midnight, and was not part of the main “rioting”.

Who were the looters (a better description than rioters, I think)?  The only hard facts come from the 150 or so that have been arrested.  The total number of looters was estimated to have reached a maximum of 450, though more people than this must have been involved as people came and went.  Of those arrested, half lived in Wandsworth (nearly half of those in Battersea), 24% were under 18, 66% were black, 29% white – and 88% were already known to the police (i.e. they’d filed their DNA).  How representative are these?  It’s difficult to know.  Most of the arrests were not made at the scene, but through follow up, using things such as CCTV footage and car numberplate reports.  These may well be biased towards the more organised elements.

The looting itself seems to have been motivated by the idea of grabbing something for nothing.  The sequence of events across London may have started with anger over the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, but by Monday any political angle was at most vague.  It seems to have been led by organised gangs, using social media to focus on one area and overwhelm the local forces there.  A lot of opportunists joined in, probably including people who just turned up to see what was going on.  There was little actual violence directed towards people.

There’s not much much more I want to say about this aspect.  Our society has a criminal fringe; given the opportunity many others will indulge in looting and theft.  There’s nothing new in this.  Serious though the issue may be, the moral panic is overdone.

The most important public policy issue to arise is the performance of the police.  This was a quite straightforward public order issue, and they let us down.  At borough level it is easy to overdo the criticism.  The social media had forewarned them that there might be trouble through the afternoon – to such an extent that the police convened a meeting with the council at 5pm.  Although Clapham Junction figured in this chatter as a likely trouble spot, it was far from the only place, and the meeting decided that the information was not firm enough to do anything with.  The obvious solution, to create a mobile reserve of officers to react quickly to events, was surely not within the Borough’s resources.  And the issue applied right across London and within the ken of the higher echelons of the force.  The decision to abandon the scene at about 8.30pm was surely correct, with only 8 properly equipped and trained men on the spot, as the looters were building up in hundreds.

The failure occurred higher up, and outside the remit of Mr Kinghan’s report.  Senior officers at the Metropolitan Police knew that trouble was probable.  They could have mobilised enough mobile reserves to respond much more quickly than they did (local police called for help almost as soon as the trouble started).  There has been some bleating that there were not officers properly trained.  This has been rejected by Lib Dem Mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, a former senior officer at the Met – and indeed sufficient numbers did turn up in sufficient numbers – eventually.  And they could have asked for reinforcements earlier in the day from neighbouring forces – as indeed they did on the following day.

The report makes a number of recommendations, mostly worthy enough, but many along the tired old bureaucratic lines of “we should improve our planning and coordination”.  But the real issue is leadership.  No amount planning and procedure can compensate for that.  The Met’s leaders were busy enough wining and dining journalists and and attending to their PR.  But we employ them to fight crime and they have repeatedly been found wanting.  Not showing decisive leadership themselves, and not allowing their juniors to use their own common sense initiative.

The Met has a new Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe.  He has his work cut out, but he’s made a promising start.  Here’s hoping.


Reflections on the Isle of Wight

I’m just back from a few days break in the Isle of Wight.  It so happens that the Economist’s Bagehot has just blogged on the subject of the island, which was the lasting point of his print column last week.

The island has a bit of a charming, time-warp feel about it.  But Bagehot points out that its people are ahead of the game in one aspect – realising the implications of the coming parliamentary boundary changes.  Interesting to reflect that it has half the population of the borough of Wandsworth – and yet the latter can’t even support a decent local newspaper.