The Electoral Commission's recent proposals for new constituency boundaries are, with a few exceptions, a politician's rather than a people's issue. In my 24 years as a councillor I've never had anyone beating a track to my door to raise the issue of ward or parliamentary boundaries, even when changes are proposed. When my ward boundaries were last changed, I wrote to every constituent to tell them about the proposals and asked for comments. All I got back was a passing conversation from a constituent at the local methodist fair that she was disappointed that I would no longer be her councillor as her part of my ward was being moved to a different one. So, people generally (though I accept not in all circumstances) are not overly concerned about where ward and constituency boundaries go. Alas, if only we could say the same about us politicians!
Currently, Gateshead has two full constituencies - Blaydon and Gateshead - and a bit of Jarrow within the borough's boundaries. This was an improvement on 2005 when we had one full constituency and the bits of 3 others. Under the new proposals from the Commission, there will be a new Gateshead West constituency which will be the only one wholly within Gateshead. And in a back-to-the-future move, we go back to having bits of three other constituencies within the borough as well. Overall, the North East drops from 29 to 26 constituences, and to make the figures balance, it seems that Gateshead has been dismantled so that the spare bits can be grafted on to neighbouring areas.
For Labour in Gateshead, the Commission's proposals are a disaster. I hear on the grapevine of rumblings of Labour discontent for, if they are implemented, it will mean their two MPs, David Anderson and Ian Mearns, going head to head for the selection for Gateshead West. The loser will have to attempt to get selected for the Jarrow and Gsteshead East constituency, more of which is in South Tyneside and therefore, outside the current influence of Gateshead Labour. The talk in Labour is that Ian Mearns would win the Gateshead West nomination leaving DA to do a chicken run tour of Jarrow and anywhere else in North East Labour ready to give a hearing to his anti-capitalist rants. Personally, I think Ian would do a far better job of representing the area than David Anderson but such an endorsement from me may be the kiss of death for anyone in Labour so I therefore apologise to Ian!
Yesterday, a council advisory group was held to consider the Commission's proposals and various alternatives. Advisory groups are sometimes not well attended but this one was. I saw a whole string of councillors who work for MPs (especially David Anderson) as well as a number of councillors who are rather chummy with Mr Anderson. One office assistant for Mr Anderson turned up with laptop and maps.
The Council's favoured option was discussed. Officers put forward a proposal in which Gateshead consisted wholly of 2 constituencies. This would mean no Anderson-Mearns wrestling match as the two would be slotted in to the appropriate constituencies. But, as I pointed out, it is all very well for the Council to come up with a solution that solves all of Gateshead's boundary issues but the Electoral Commission has to look at the bigger picture. If all that happens is that Gateshead puts forward a proposal that simply exports the fragmentation elsewhere, the Commission will reject it.
Well, blow me dead! The advisory group appreciated the argument and accepted a back up. Whilst members accepted the Council's two-constituency solution as the favoured option, they also took a pragmatic view that a back up was needed. The one agreed still saw Gateshead with one whole and 3 part constituencies but saw a more sensible arrangement for the periphery. One of the part constituencies would be mainly in Gateshead though what South Tyneside will think of this is likely to be easy to judge. Jarrow Labour are likely to have something to say in opposition to such a move that would see their constituency as the junior partner of Gateshead East.
Gateshead Council's views will be reported to the Electoral Commission. And if they are rejected, start booking your places now at the local Labour club, fight-to-the-finish wrestling matches. (If you are squeamish and don't like blood, stay at home!)