Changes to your local party boundaries are coming

Next year all Liberal Democrats in England are going to have to get used to new local parties. The coalition government’s plans to change the boundaries of parliamentary constituencies across the UK, assuming they get passed into law, will have implications for how we organise ourselves at a local level.

Traditionally Liberal Democrat local parties have been organised on a constituency basis. The local party would cover one or more parliamentary constituency. More recently a change was made to allow local parties in London to be based on borough boundaries, but for the rest of England local parties remained tied to constituency boundaries.

The far-reaching changes to the current boundaries that will come about as a result of the review, and the new approach to how those boundaries are determined, makes organising our local parties in that way less sustainable. So the party is preparing to carry out a major reorganisation of local parties to meet the new situation in 2013.

I recently posted a short introduction to the work and responsibilities of the English Council. These responsibilities include the rules governing the organisation of local parties.

At its next meeting on 23 June the English Council will be discussing an amendment to the Constitution of the Liberal Democrats in England that helps to prepare the way for this reorganisation. (It also includes a business motion that amends the model constitution for local parties to achieve the same ends.)

If passed at the meeting next month the area covered by a local party in England in future could be either:

“(a) one or more parliamentary constituencies, or
(b) one or more principal local authority areas, or
(c) a combination of all or part of a parliamentary constituency and all or part of an adjacent or overlapping principal local authority area.”

I’m not sure that wording is as elegant as it could be, but the meaning is clear. Local party organisation no longer needs to be tied to parliamentary constituencies. While this is going to be an administrative challenge as the new arrangements are put in place, it could also be a challenge to assumptions about how the party works at a local level.

In most cases the choice will be between sticking with constituencies or shifting to a local party based on your local authority. Many of the choices are likely to be driven by how far reaching and coherent the boundary review is in your area. However, the potential for doing something more innovative is there. Does anyone fancy trying out a county wide local party?

Whatever new arrangement is chosen it could have significant knock-on effects on how you campaign and organise in your area. This is something that local party chairs and executives need to start thinking about now. What is the ideal local party structure for your area?

* Andy Strange is a member of the Lib Dems' English Council. He blogs at Strange Thoughts.

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18 Comments

  • Steve Middleton 3rd Jun '12 - 11:56am

    These changes can’t come soon enough in Greater Manchester. Local parties like Salford who have a falling membership & were recently wiped off the local council need to join forces with nearby smaller groups (such as Bury) or perhaps even amlgate with Manchester to have any hope of re-gaining council seats.

    I do wonder, however, how fighting elections this way will work in practice. At a local level I have seen far too many disagreements about which seat(s) to target – surely this will only get worse as party members from different areas come together.

    Lib Dem HQ needs better understanding of what is happening at a local level & should have the power to intervene when things start to go wrong, rather than simply sitting back & allowing local parties to wither & die due to ineffective leadership and membership apathy.

  • Stephen Donnelly 3rd Jun '12 - 2:27pm

    Andy, thanks for positing this information.

    I suspect that the comments made Dave Page and Steve Middleton would be echoed by many members in the North of England, and perhaps elsewhere.

    The changes described by Andy seem to be steps in the right direction, but there are still far too many layers to the party structure. This results in the exclusion from policy making of many members who are unable to devote their whole of their lives to attending meetings at every level, while strongly favouring those who are. Too many key decisions are made in nooks and crannies that are not easily accessible to ordinary members, whilst in many parts of the country constituencies are too small to be effective organisational units.

    I have a concern that by themselves these changes will result in a lost year of re-arranging boundaries on the basis of personailty rather than the overall good of the party. We are a party with a good many small fiefdoms.

    It is worth considering whether the regional level should become the main focus for party organisation. At that level we have sufficient critical mass to elect capable people who work in the interests of the party as a whole, and with Euro money, to employ capable people.

  • David Evans 3rd Jun '12 - 2:59pm

    Of course the real question we are still not answering is why are our MPs still almost certain to support the new boundaries and the reduction in the number of constituencies, when originally it was totally tied in with the need for electoral reform to provide a democratic balance.

  • Jonathan Davies 3rd Jun '12 - 3:15pm

    The wholesale reorganisation of local parties of course assumes the Parliamentary boundary changes happen. What are the odds on that especially if House Of Lords reform does not happen?

  • Tony Dawson 3rd Jun '12 - 4:22pm

    This is indeed a strange posting to be placed here on the public face of the site.

    It is about a matter entirely internal to the Lib Dems with clear sensitive edges as represented by some of the responses already received. I would hope for a little more contemplation by the editorial team before some such articles are placed here. There is an obvious proper place for them already.

  • Chris – we have that locally: Kingston is a Borough Party, but Twickenham a constituency one, leaving the Northern two-thirds of Richmond Park as a stand alone party! All very odd, but very localist.

  • Erlend Watson 3rd Jun '12 - 9:41pm

    I am not sure Tim is right re Richmond. I think there is a Twickenham plus Richmond Borough Party. But in historic terms this was one of the awkward ones so his point is valid.

    In the case of Manchester (and Liverppol) I think City wide is probably the way forward. I am less convinced of that in Shire areas. The distances would close down particupation for many. Think even a small county like Hertfordshire and it is bad. North Yorks or (unitary) Cornwall is horrible.

  • All this has to wait for the confirmation of new boundaries, and with so many options there will be wards (or even less coherent units) left in no-man’s land between areas which have made different choices. There may even be wards claimed by more than one nascent local party.

  • Chris Nelson 4th Jun '12 - 5:20pm

    This is a good change, as it goes, as there are plenty of examples in the past of one ward being cut out of an urban Borough to be put in a rural constituency – and then with that one ward feeling the odd one out, or cut off from the rest of their conurbation.

    Incidentally the option to form artificially enlarged local parties already exists – mine is a two-constituency local party, and there are others in my region. If Manchester – or another area – really did want to form a Greater Manchester local party, the powers are already there waiting to be used.

    (I’d pity the poor person given the job of Treasurer, however, in having to account for something that big!)

  • Steve Comer 5th Jun '12 - 12:19am

    There is logic in organising on boundaries which are recognisable to the public and don’t change too often. Back in the 1980s I argued that in a compact city like mine (Bristol) it made sense to organise on the basis of the city as a whole and in individual wards. Parliamentary constituencies in cities are often not based on communities, but merely on the need to draw a line round 70,000 people. Eventually after 30 years, others agreed with me and we now have a Bristol Local party! In an average 5 year cycle in this city we will now have:
    3 elections for the City Council
    1 election for Elected Mayor
    1 election for Police Commissioner
    1 election for MP
    1 election for MEP
    So it makes sense to organise a Bristol-wide, not on the basis of artificial constituencies used for one election every 5 years.

    Outside cities I don’t know what works – Districts might in some areas, but not in places like Cornwall and Wilstshire with unitary councils. In others constituencies may still be relevant. Whatever you do the key area of organisation has to be the ward or the locality (Town, Parish etc.).

  • Lorna Dupre 6th Jun '12 - 9:09am

    Is Jonathan correct? Will there be no local party reorganisation if the parliamentary boundaries don’t change? The English Council proposal didn’t look to me as if it required parliamentary boundary change in order for it to happen.

  • The ‘catch’ in London is that the Borough Party proposal can only work if any other Boroughs that have parts of constituencies also in your Borough agree, at the same time, to also have a Borough Party. So essentially all of the local parties within an area, for which the total extent of all the constituencies precisely matches the extent of local authority areas, must agree. Just one unsupportive constituency from a neighbouring Borough can veto the whole proposal.

    Fortunately in London, both ‘before’ and ‘after’ the proposed boundary changes, in most cases this means two adjacent Boroughs (typically four or five local parties) need to agree, which isn’t impossible to achieve. But outside London, where many LA Districts are small and where the alignment of constituency and local authority boundaries less common than in London, it may be difficult for many parties to identify an area within which such a change could be made, let alone secure all the necessary simultaneous agreements?

  • james spackman 6th Jun '12 - 2:14pm

    this identifies a problem, but it doesn’t provide a solution.

    Ed is right, local party boundaries are a major problem in my part of the world as constituency and council responsibility overlaps, giving activists an excuse to focus on their own back gardens and creating black holes for activism.

  • A few comments:

    1. I’m very pleased that the English Council are thinking about this.
    2. Won’t these proposals require a constitutional change and thus be subject to a vote at conference?
    3. We ought to be taking action on this regardless of whether the new boundaries are voted for in 2013. The Act passed last year will mean the parliamentary boundaries are liable to change every 5 years.
    4. Personally I think that LA boundaries should be the natural choice for local parties. They are far more consistent, the electoral cycle contains far more local than general elections, we typically need to build a strong councillor base in order to win an MP, and we’re the party of localism and community so organising on local rather than national boundaries fits with our principles.

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