In all the fuss about ‘gerrymandering’ from the Labour Party it is perhaps worth remembering the only occasion in the last 100 years when there has been direct political interference in the work of the Boundary Commission.
In 1969 the Commission finished a review. Since the last review in 1950 there had been huge population moves and it was generally thought that the new boundaries would favour the Tories by between 10-20 seats. The law was very clear; the then Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, had to put the changes to Parliament in the form of a series of Orders.
Labour had a huge majority following their landslide in the 1966 election so Callaghan hatched an utterly cynical plan. The necessary Orders would be placed before the Commons but no further action would be taken. The excuse used was that local government boundaries were under review and it would be better to wait until they had been decided before changing constituency boundaries.
This would have been squalid enough in itself, but in London the local boundaries were not being changed so Callaghan decided to implement the Boundary Commission recommendations there and in four very large constituencies. Readers will not be astonished to hear that in all of these places the changes were expected to favour Labour.
These proposals caused outrage and the Lords blocked the Bill which would have implemented only the recommendations which favoured Labour. Labour’s main aim, however, to block the boundary changes had been achieved.
The election when it came in 1970 was fought on 1950 boundaries with constituencies ranging from Birmingham Ladywood with 18,771 voters to Billericay with 123,297. Happily even after this gerrymandering they still lost.
Callaghan was said to be ashamed of this incident in later life and his official biographer describes it as a ‘simple gerrymandering exercise by the Labour Government’, ‘a cynical partisan manoeuvre’ and ‘pragmatic delay, untrammelled by principle’.
It will be worth bearing this piece of history in mind over the next few months when we will no doubt be hearing many specious arguments from Labour as to why they are opposing the Voting Reform Bill.
* Simon McGrath is a Lib Dem member.