Monday, January 09, 2012

Wales under review

Much later to the party than their counterparts across the other bits of the country, the Boundary Commissioners for Wales are gearing up to show off how they've managed to carve up Cymru under the new parliamentary constituency rules.

Reducing the number of MPs to 600 was never going to be without controversy - the English Commission was accused of treating the exercise like men of Empire armed with a ruler, a sharp HB and northern Africa. Their "Mersey Banks" will go down in legend.

Welsh MPs and commentators have been heavily critical of the consequences of the law, as the country will lose ten MPs,  25% in one strike. Arguments for and against have been oft-repeated - the Valleys seats are too small, the Valleys seats have to be that small, Welsh language constituencies must be protected, there should not be any protection for seats in Wales as there has been in the Highlands. Perhaps inevitably, Labour have been most critical, claiming the new legislation disrespects the Welsh people and their parliamentary history. In one waft of a hand, ten constituencies are removed from the map, Wales loses any influence within Parliament for purely partisan reasons.

These claims are so much fluff and bluster. The loss of MPs everywhere as part of this process does not rob anyone of their voice, influence or supply of green ink to write letters to the local gazette on the matter. Britain has always had too many parliamentarians - the reduction to 600 should be a first-step, not the final destination. Wales has its own Assembly and will have forty MPs shouting very loudly for attention - I don't believe the loss of influence argument much at all.

The Welsh Commission have left it this late through all manner of confusion and administrative cock-ups. Their Local Government colleagues dropped enough balls to drown the First XI, which impacted on the national review. We've finally got whispers and hints on what's to come this week, putting into motion the very tight timetable which has to end by October 2013.

North Wales should be the easiest for the Commissioners to fathom. Ynys Mon (Isle of Anglesey to you and me) has to be attached to the mainland somehow, which is handy because the Menai Strait isn't exactly the Amazon (if you allow me to coin a phrase). The towns of the North Welsh coast are compacted together like neat jigsaw pieces, so expect Wrexham, Denbighshire, Flintshire and (Aber)Conwy to be largely touched. Good news for the three parties in contention to mop up the seats here - y Blaid will pick up the Anglesey/Bangor seat, Labour and Conservatives will divvy up the rest. One to watch? Wrexham, a dim and distant Conservative target which might yet one day turn blue.

South Wales has a trickier time of it. There's a fair few mountains and valleys which get in the way, and the small town attitude is not mere awkwardness. The pride and tradition of the industrial and mining past will live on as long as women of ample bosom have enough breath in their lungs to belt out "Land of my Fathers" at fifty paces. This is where the problems start. Cardiff will lose a seat, and this puts the Liberal Democrats under particular strain in holding on to their only bit of the capital city. Swansea will be divided into two - one bit attached to Gower - whilst Newport is likely to be broken up into "doughnut" style into central and outer seats.

What happens to the Labour bankers (if you will) depends on how many mountain passes and mining villages the Commissioners choose to split down the middle.

Mid Wales will see both east and west sides of the country carved up as never before - the statutory minimum constituency size is not kind to sparsely populated rural hinterlands and as a result there will be clumsy rural/urban combinations. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be concerned with how the Carmarthen/Pembroke mathematics work out. Geography may have to mean nothing for the sake of making the numbers work - as the English Commission has so enthusiastically displayed.

For your perusal, a very convincing 30-seat Wales is presented on the Syniadu blog, written by blogger Penddu.

The Boundary Commission will present its initial proposals this week on their website

Ballot papers decide elections though the administrator's pencil is sharp enough to make points in the fabric of democracy. How Wales is governed in the long-term depends on the decisions of the Assembly and of Westminster - the loss of 10 MPs in one go will colour that debate intensely.