Labour party ‘gerrymandering’: recalling the only occasion in a century when a party has interfered with electoral boundaries

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.

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  • So Labour shouldn’t oppose the Tory gerrymandering now, because they did it 40 years ago.


    I can’t see why Labour’s position is causing so much outrage for some Lib Dems. The bill will still get through, the coalition has a decent size majority. However as Labour has come out against the bill, then it follows that the Labour support for AV will be muted – and we know the Tories will campaign against it with vigour – and lots of cash from Belize.

    So one can envisage the night of May 5th ending in a “No” vote, and Lib Dems seriously bombing in local elections – look at the polls now, and remember the AV vote will be after the real cuts have begun.

    Maybe I can see the reason for the outrage, after all.

  • Andrea Gill 4th Aug '10 - 12:12pm

    @Adam – I think “ungerrymandering” is my new favourite word

  • Andrea Gill 4th Aug '10 - 12:14pm

    @Paul B: “I can’t see why Labour’s position is causing so much outrage for some Lib Dems.”

    I suspect it is largely among Lib Dems who had hoped for a Lib/Lab coalition and are now crudely reminded of how Tony Blair shafted the party in 1997.

  • Simon McGrath:

    “Happily even after this gerrymandering they still lost.”

    So you are happy that Labour was beaten by Ted Heath’s Tories?

    That speaks volumes for the way in which sections of our party have been taken over by the Tories since May.

    What you forget is that the Liberal Democrats are to some extent the heir to the Wilson-Callaghan governments, thorugh the medium of the SDP, which merged with the Liberal Party in 1988 and was led by people who had been ministers in those governments.

    That was a shameful comment.

    “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.”

    David Cameron really is turning the key. Instead of addressing the real issues, pro-Cameron Liberal Democrats launch smokescreen attacks on the Labour Party. I couldn’t care less what Labour thinks of these proposals, I am interested in the proposals themselves, and I oppose them because they are wrong.

    How can a Liberal Democrat defend the reduction in the number of MPs, which would inevitably lead to the further transfer of power from Parliament to the Executive?

    How can a Liberal Democrat defend an accelerated boundary review with no right of appeal and an attempted ouster of the jurisdiction of the courts?

    It seems to me that it is David Cameron, not Nick Clegg, who is leading the Liberal Democrats.

  • That was forty years ago! the tories have form when it come to blatant gerrymandering as they did in the late eighties with dame shirley porter
    You are now in government with the tories but are such cuckolds you can’t see the wood for trees,the torie will do all they can not just to harm labour vote but to limit lib dems votes too you are just so excited about having some power that you can’t the words of dennis healy you are a “silly billy”.

  • @sesenco I thought it had been Lib Dem policy for years to reduce the number of MPs.

    The argument why is very simple – the Commons are no longer for devolved issues in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – the devolved bodies are.

    Cost saving is an additional bonus.

    In Birmingham here we have 10 MPs. The world won’t end if this reduces to 9.

  • Coyote:

    (1) The number of seats in Scotland already has been reduced to reflect the existence of the Scottish Parliament. I am not aware of any plans to devolve power in England.

    (2) You obviously don’t think democracy is very important if cost enters into it.

  • Coyote wrote:

    “In Birmingham here we have 10 MPs. The world won’t end if this reduces to 9.”

    But John Hemming might.

  • So the lib dem argument against these charges is ‘you did it 45 years ago, so there’?! Strikes me as being a bit of a school playground argument.

  • The Liberal Democrat position on this is one of expediency. It is possible to use latent bigotry built up over the years that Labour were entirely unprincipled to claim that this is again cynical politicking, so this is what the Liberals are doing, facts and principles are not relevant. The Liberal Democrats are third in the polls, to progress they first need to beat those that are second in the polls. To this end, whoever is second is the first enemy. So when the Conservatives were second, they were the enemy. Now the Labour party are second, they are the enemy. This website is almost entirely dedicated to campaigning against the Labour Party even though they are the opposition. Don’t worry though it’s not in the least bit tribal, it’s all based on sound principles of prevailing contingencies.

  • Truly staggering.

    So…let me get this right…what the Liberals are proposing is gerrymandering; it’s just gerrymandering in favour of the Tories; that means it’s OK; and anyway, Labour have done it before so they deserve it done back to them…

    Oh how I pray for the return of a man of principle like Charlie Kennedy.

    @sesenco said: It seems to me that it is David Cameron, not Nick Clegg, who is leading the Liberal Democrats.

    I disagree. Unfortunately, it’s Nick Clegg who’s still leading the party. The worrying thing is that he so fundamentally believes in this un-democratic Thatcherism.

  • FPTP is unfair, especially in a multi-party democracy, as every Liberal Democrat knows, and AV is only marginally better. Tinkering with an unfair system to help the Tories (who already managed to get 47% of the seats with only 36% of the votes) cannot be the answer. The Liberal Democrats are in this mess because they didn’t hold out for PR as a condition of entering this rancid coalition.

    Conservative council leader Shirley Porter was certainly guilty of gerrymandering, and so was Thatcher. Closing down the GLC and six metropolitan borough councils – because she didn’t like who the voters elected – was described by Ted Heath as “the greatest piece of gerrymandering for the past 150 years”.

    Cutting the number of MPs to save money is a dishonest argument, when dozens of new Lords are being created to ‘gerrymander’ the Upper House in favour of this awful government.

    And while you’re discussing the niceties or otherwise of all this, Cameron is suggesting that council tenants shouldn’t have security of tenure for life – will the Liberal Democrats roll over and allow that next?

  • Alex F:

    The proposals you list presuppose the establishment of regional assemblies, which no-one any longer appears to want and which we are most unlikely to get.

  • Peter Laubach 4th Aug '10 - 1:42pm

    Surely Simon McGrath meant “Happily they did not pfofit from their gerrymandering”?
    Also, why do you assume that many long-standing Libdems, such as myself, should favour Labour over the Conservatives (rather than at least be neutral), especially after thirteen years of a Labour government?

  • Peter Laubach 4th Aug '10 - 1:43pm

    Should be “profit” of course.

  • Peter Venables 4th Aug '10 - 1:48pm

    The more this party bangs on about Labour instead of simply splitting the bill up, the worse things will get for the LibDems.
    I will say it again, The Tories don’t want voting reform, your only chance comes from getting the Labour party on-side.
    The LibDems have lost the plot along with the referendum.

  • Hove Howard 4th Aug '10 - 1:51pm

    There is more than one way to fix an election result than by fiddling the boundaries.

    You could, for example, allow expats who haven’t set foot in the country for twenty years to vote (done by the Tories) or try to gently persuade poor people not to bother registering to vote by linking the registration system to local taxation (poll tax – Tories again).

    You could also nip any demands for a more democratic system in the bud by offering some gullible coalition partners a referendum – with no guarantee of success – to bring in a very flawed system that no-one really wants.

    None of this excuses Callaghan’s behaviour of course, but why isn’t the basic problem – single member constituencies – being addressed? Why are Lib Dem writers following the Tory agenda of pretending that this isn’t a problem?

  • @Peter Venables said:
    The more this party bangs on about Labour instead of simply splitting the bill up, the worse things will get for the LibDems. I will say it again, The Tories don’t want voting reform, your only chance comes from getting the Labour party on-side. The LibDems have lost the plot along with the referendum.

    Never a truer word spoken.

  • Simon McGrath 4th Aug '10 - 2:02pm

    @Sesenco (@Peter L ) has it exactly right, the ‘happily’ was that they did not benefit from their gerrymandering. Which of a series of truly dreadful governments in the 1960’s and 1970s was worse I will leave to historians. Heath at least did not have to call in the IMF. Economically things didnt start to get better until the N Sea oil started flowing and we entered the EC.
    @ Various – I think there is a confusion about the meaning of the word ‘gerrymandering’. The definition used by a number of people here and by the Labour Party seems to be ‘any change in boundaries which might favour the Tory Party’. The consistent pattern is that the Labour Party has opposed any change which might not favour them.
    @Alex F – thanks for reminding us that reducing the number of MPs is longtime LD policy – another one of our policies implemented!
    @Olly – I am not sure what you mean by: “reinstate the right to an independent enquiry on Boundary Commission proposals”, surely the whole point about the Boundary Commission is that it independent?

  • Why is this historical romp even relevent, are you seriously suggesting the current Labour party should be held to account for actions taken in this time? If not why are you choosing to bring this up now.

    I am getting seriously sick of al lthe randomly uneccessery attacks on Labour in LDV recently, and that’s coming from a Lib Dem supporter.

    I think it’s about time you all started practising the kind of politics you claimed to support. Ones which involve being mature, grown up and sensible, arguing your case and letting tohers argue theirs, and not resorting to the “but look at how bad the other guy is” kind of defence.

    Seriously, you’re making the Lib Dems look worse than their rivals. At least they didn’t profess to be better than this.

  • @JRC: Ha, exactly.

    Lib Dem Central Office: “Remember, members, we were always at war with Eurasia. Er, Labour.”

  • @AlexF..posted from lib dem manifesto 2001
    “Cut the size and cost of central government. We will reduce the number of ministers and (as part of voting reform) cut the membership of both the House of Commons and the Upper House” All sounds very laudable.
    So why do you now what 95 new Lib Dem peers (up from current strength of 72), and 74 new Conservative peers (on top of their existing 188) if you wanted to save money?

  • Simon McGrath

    “thanks for reminding us that reducing the number of MPs is longtime LD policy”

    You are being disingenuous. Lib Dem support for the reduction of the number of MPs has always presupposed the establishment of regional assemblies. Is Cameron giving us regional assemblies? Don’t think so somehow.

    Anyway, why are you gloating? Have you really been so starstruck by Cameron that you delight in the transfer of power from Parliament to the Executive?

    “– another one of our policies implemented!”

    A Freudian slip! It isn’t law yet! But let’s not worry about the farce of Parliamentarians arguing their case and persuading colleagues. If Cameron says “jump!”, Clegg’s says “How high?” How many votes do you think such silly boasts are worth?

  • ” Heath at least did not have to call in the IMF.”

    No,after the irresponsible ‘Barber Boom’, Heath cut-and-run in February 1974, leaving Labour to sort the mess, just as Maudling did with the balance of payments ten years earlier. It’s the standard Tory way, create a boom just before an election, if it works the Tories get re-elected, if it doesn’t Labour are left to clear up. Luckily for Labour, they lost the 1992 election, otherwise they’d have been blamed for ‘Black Wednesday’ as well. For once, the Tories had to clean up their own disaster. Anyone who thinks the Tories are good at running the economy needs their head examined.

    For the record, the Tories had to go the IMF in 1956.

  • I suggest you stop attacking labour and turn your fire on the conservatives..this is a poll from conservative home,take a look at what conservative members think of lib dems.Get labour on side and split the bill or your chance at the change you want will disapear.

  • Here the poll from conservative home!!!

  • David Boothroyd 4th Aug '10 - 4:02pm

    Factual errors going on here. First, the boundary review before 1969 was the First Periodical Review in 1954 (implemented from the 1955 general election).

    Second, Labour’s concern about major Parliamentary boundary changes clashing with major local authority changes was entirely genuine and not a response to the outcome of the Boundary Commission. I found this out at the National Archives – Harold Wilson did not know until he read the newspapers one morning in 1965 that the Boundary Commission had started work, and was questioning how a boundary commission review could be stopped (he was told it couldn’t). The concern about local authority changes arose as soon as Crossman persuaded Wilson to start a Royal Commission into local government (the Redcliffe-Maud commission was appointed later but the process started in 1965).

  • Please stop moaning and get on with it!

  • Stuart Mitchell 4th Aug '10 - 5:34pm

    So my objections (as a Labour supporter) to Tory gerrymandering are invalidated by something that happened before I was born??

    Desperate, desperate stuff.

  • Simon McGrath 4th Aug '10 - 5:45pm

    @alex it is relevant because the Labour Party have a consistent record of ignoring attempts to equalise constituency sizes in favour of unequal sizes when it favours them.
    @republica – did I miss the creation of 95 new LD peers and 74 new Tory peers that you are complaining about?(actually if there are going to be 95 new LD peers and you are reading this Nick C, I am available …..)
    @Bert , you have a unique view of economic history. Every Labour Government has ended in economic failure.
    @david boothroyd I wonder if you actually believe that” Labour’s concern about major Parliamentary boundary changes clashing with major local authority changes was entirely genuine”. It is not a view supported even by Callaghan’s official biographer and as a Labour Councillor you may be biased!

    Generally I am astonished by people here (and elsewhere on LDV) who think we should not be attacking Labour. They intend to spend the next 5 years attacking us and lying about us. They have no scruples whatsoever and at the very least we need to be absolutely vigilant in flagging up their lies and hypocrisy.

  • @Simon McGrath, “. Every Labour Government has ended in economic failure”
    You forgot to mention that every liberal government or coalition has ended with a barrow load of brown stuff on the wall or a huge scandal.
    They intend to spend the next 5 years attacking us and lying about us.
    Just as you did about us eh?
    Clegg has been caught out already I.E.forgemasters,advice from mervyn king and wanting to cut now before the election but failing to tell the voters.
    You are the conservatives cuckolds not ours so its the tories who will end your brokeback affair not us,if you want labour to be in favour of lib dem polices you have a weird way of showing it.

  • “Generally I am astonished by people here (and elsewhere on LDV) who think we should not be attacking Labour.”

    You don’t get it. It is not that you are attacking Labour- you are an opposing party, that’s fine. It’s that your party is using it as an excuse for backing harmful governance, they’re using it as an excuse to promote policies that they don’t *have* to support yet can’t defend on merit.

  • Simon McGrath,

    Are you going to acknowledge that your claim that the Liberal Democrats have advocated reducing the number of MPs over several elections, period over and out, is misleading? You have pointed to manifesto commitments without also pointing out that these were accompanied by commitments to establishing regional assemblies. Is this not a rather shoddy sleight of hand on your part?

    1st Question: Why are you spending your time defending the Tories? David Cameron has dozens of highly paid PR men to fight his party’s corner. Why are you doing it?

    2nd Question: Why don’t you use just a little of your energy promoting Liberal Democrat policies and values – rather than Tory ones?

    3rd Question: Don’t you look yourself in the mirror once in a while and wonder why you are doing this?

  • The Lib Dems truly are now just a bunch of deluded Tories. Bend over and take it from Cameron. Cut , cut, cut, all Labours fault, yes sir we support your boundary changes, no we don’t mind the loss of appeal. Please sir, what else can we do to keep the Tory Exec in power with only a 3rd of the votes.

  • Paul Griffiths 4th Aug '10 - 8:24pm


    The pledge to reduce the number of MPs by 150 was in the 2010 Manifesto too, without any mention of elected regional assemblies. Enthusiasm for ERAs has declined noticeably in recent Policy Papers, although never quite disappearing entirely.

  • David Boothroyd 4th Aug '10 - 10:22pm

    Simon – read PREM 13/2610. It was on 18 May 1965 that the Home Secretary (Soskice, not Callaghan) and Prime Minister meet and agree that the Parliamentary boundary changes should come in only after local government changes. When the Home Secretary received the Second Periodical Review on 21 April 1969, he asked to see the Redcliffe-Maud maps (apparently he had to wait).

    Your article is incorrect in stating that only four large constituencies were proposed for division. Misc 253 decided on eight in four pairs (Billericay and South East Essex; Portsmouth Langstone and Gosport and Fareham; Hitchin and South Bedfordshire; Horsham and Arundel and Shoreham) plus six by themselves (Wokingham, Huyton, Harborough, Hornchurch, Hemel Hempstead, Brierley Hill).

  • @Paul Griffiths – thanks for putting @Sesenco right. Its a pity then in his (?) frequent reading of various Lib Dem manifestos he hasn’t taken on board some actual Liberalism.
    @republica,@mike @adey – you don’t like the Coalition. Well Ok, but why waste all our time telling us? Your side lost the election. get over it.
    @David – I havent read the documents you refer to. Odd though that if the decision was made in 1965 it wasn’t mentioned until 1969. I have read Hansard and Callaghan offical biography.

    Various people have talked about splitting the Bill. I completely agree. Labour are desperate to find a way to recommend voting against AV. We should make doing this as difficult as possible for them.

  • @ Simon McGrath

    “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.”

    Your analogical reasoning is flawed and egregious. Lloyd George sold peerages but I don’t blame the present Liberal Democrat party for that! You don’t get it do you? The Tories conflated boundary changes with the proposed referendum on AV in order to MAKE Labour vote AGAINST the bill. I appreciate that this might be news to you but the TORIES don’t actually WANT the Bill! So stop blaming Labour!

    Surely the solution is for all those Lib Dem MPs and others who want a referendum on AV to vote in support of Labour’s amendment to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. Whilst affirming Labour’s belief that there should be a referendum on AV, the amendment would deny the bill a second reading. If the bill was denied a second reading, a new bill could come before the House dedicated to treating the AV as a single, discrete issue that was not adulterated by boundary changes. Thus the Tories’ attempts to stifle the Lib Dems aspirations on AV at birth would have been defeated and Labour MPs could vote in favour of a referendum on AV and introduce amendments to include more radical forms of PR. Why don’t you encourage your MPs to go for that?

  • @Simon McGrath..Said “@republica,@mike @adey – you don’t like the Coalition. Well Ok, but why waste all our time telling us? Your side lost the election. get over it.”
    Maybe you should get over the wimbledon council result too simon Eh?
    Why waste your time you say,well,do you remember writing these words
    Simon Mcgrath Posted 29th January 2010 at 5:27 pm eevryone should be able to express their view even if we disagree with them.
    Practice what you preach Mr McGrath.

  • @republica – we had a great night in Wimbledon. pushed Labour into third place (where they belong) in the Parliamentary election.

    I’m happy for you to express your view, just cant imagine why you waste all our time on a Lid Dem website.

  • @Simon [email protected] – we had a great night in Wimbledon.How about Wimbledon village Simon?

  • Simon McGrath 5th Aug '10 - 9:03pm

    @republica- It was a great result. Glad you noticed it. Increasing our vote from 10% to 18% was pretty good.

  • Shall we just stick to the 2010 election result ?

    Labour vote in Scotland 1,035, 528 – Labour MPs elected 41
    Lib Dem votes South East 1,124, 786 – Lib Dem MPs elected 4

    Labour vote in Wales 531,601 – Labour MPs elected 26
    Lib Dem votes in East England 692,932 – Lib Dem MPs elected 4

    Labour vote in the North East 518,261 – Labour MPs elected 25
    Lib Dem votes in the West Midlands 540,160 – Lib Dem Mps elected 2

    Labour vote in Swansea West 12,335 – Labour MPs elected 1
    Lib Dem Vote in East Midlands 462,988 – Lib Dem MPs elected 0

    Lib Dem votes in South East, East England, East and West Midlands over 2.8 Million – Lib Dem MPs elected 10

  • How sickening that the Lib-Dems got their ridiculous and expensive referendum on AV, but now, after favouring the boundary review (in order to get into government) they now are cynically and childishly opposing it.

    You cannot trust the liberal democrats with democracy. They are utterly corrupt.

    This bill would have made voting fairer and UN-gerrymandered the UK constituency boundaries.

    This is the lib-dems at their most typical. I am so looking forward to the whole lot of them being wiped out at the next election. Liberal Democrats are anti-British, Anti-Democracy and totally corrupt.

  • The Remittance Man 30th Jan '13 - 3:43pm

    And this somehow excuses what the LibDems did yesterday?

  • Mike Isaacs 30th Jan '13 - 4:15pm

    Your headline is incorrect. It should have said that the Labour party gerrymandered the electoral boundaries with the help of the LibDems. I can’t actually see what benefit Clegg thinks he will get from this. Pre the 1997 I recall Blair suggesting that Labour would act together with the LibDems but once he got his majority the LibDems got the elbow.

    As with Callaghan, Clegg should be ashamed.

  • Old Blue Eyes 30th Jan '13 - 9:11pm

    This article of two and a half years ago and what has recently happened shows just what total corrupt hypocrites the Lib Dems are.

  • Yellow Bill 1st Feb '13 - 6:34pm

    Two questions to those who favour reducing the house :-

    *Why is there such a debate happening when the population has expanded and is set to grow even faster.

    *Given this, shouldn’t we have more MPs?

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