Saturday, 6 August 2011
Boundary Review: Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire
These two counties are among the hardest to redraw under the new boundary rules. And the review will, unavoidably, be bad news for Labour, because every single one of the seats the party holds - or might aspire to hold - is too small and needs to be expanded into Conservative territory.
And just to make things even more difficult, the Boundary Commission is, for Bedfordshire, using council wards that no longer exist as their building blocks - in the case of North Bedfordshire the old ward boundaries of Bedford Unitary Authority, and in the case of South Bedfordshire the (now abolished) Beds County Council. That's problematic because it means whatever boundaries are drawn there are going to be loads of split wards (on existing ward boundaries), and because the county council wards are of vastly differing sizes.
Between them, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire need to lose one seat. That seat will be Hitchin and Harpenden. But unlike any other paired set of counties, this pairing could see more than one cross-county seat. That's because of the number of large towns that lie close to and right along the boundary: Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable, Luton, Hitchin, Harpenden and Letchworth, for example. Because of these clusters of large blocs of electors that won't easily be split apart, it may well be that two cross-county seats are created.
The biggest problem for Labour is Luton: both the town's seats have significantly less than 70,000 voters apiece and both need to grow.
In the model above, Luton South loses the South West Bedfordshire County Council ward and is now entirely within the town's boundaries. That should make the seat safe enough. But the consequence is that Luton North becomes even smaller and, as was the case prior to 1997, has to stretch far beyond its boundaries.
There are two satellite towns to the north west of Luton: Houghton Regis and Dunstable. Dunstable is a large town of over 22,000 voters - far too large to be amalgamated wholly with Luton. It's also strongly Conservative. Houghton Regis, on the other hand, is more diverse: on the new Central Bedfordshire Unitary Authority it elects 4 Liberal Democrat councillors but with Labour competitive in all divisions (and the Conservatives not even contesting two of the wards, presumably tactically). In other words, including Houghton does not end Labour's prospects in Luton North. But the seat is still not large enough with Houghton included - it needs a bit more territory - which in the model above it gets from Barton ward (which becomes Toddington ward on new boundaries and is completely different from the Toddington ward that used to exist and which the boundary commission is basing its constituencies on, which is now called Heath & Reach ward...do you see the problem with using non-existant wards?). This is much more Conservative and this may have been enough to have made Luton North, on these boundaries, Tory in 2010.
The picture is the same for two of the three most winnable seats in the counties: both Bedford and Stevenage too small, expanded into Conservative-voting surrounds. But that's not so for Watford - only needing minor change; and Hemel Hempstead likewise (but Labour now trails a long way behind here and the boundaries can't get much more favourable). Likewise, Welwyn Hatfield will be a little better but Grant Shapps has turned this into a safe Conservative seat for the time being.
The one interesting seat on the model above is the biproduct of the abolition of Hitchin & Harpenden. Harpenden, a strongly Conservative town, has been put in with South West Bedfordshire (Leighton and Dunstable) but Hitchin at the northern tip of Hertfordshire used to be part of the Stevenage constituency Shirley Williams once represented. Hitchin is part of a larger connurbation that includes Letchworth, Baldock and - slightly further afield - Royston. There are Labour votes aplenty in each of these towns: Hitchin in particular, and the loss of much of rural East Hertfordshire from the constituency would probably have halved the Tory majority in 2010 - still leaving a Conservative seat, but a much more competitive one.