What does the constituency boundary review mean for Luton?

As part of the negotiations that led to the formation of the current coalition government it was agreed, on the insistence of the Conservatives, that the new government would legislate to reduce the number of members of Parliament from 650 to 600. This was to be accompanied by a review of the boundaries of each parliamentary constituency across the UK with the intention for, as far as possible, each constituency to have the same size electorate. The motive behind this was widely seen as an attempt by the Conservatives to correct the disadvantages they face from the imbalances in the current system.

This was written into the Coalition Agreement and has since become law in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011. So the process of reviewing the boundaries of every constituency in the country is beginning and is supposed to be completed in 2013. Mark Pack has a good explanation of the process;

“Across the UK, the number of constituencies is being reduced from 650 to 600, with similar reductions in each part of the UK: England 502 in place of the current 533; Wales 30 in place of the current 40; and Northern Ireland 16 in place of the current 18.

These numbers come from allocating constituencies in proportion to the electorate of each of the four parts of the United Kingdom, using the Sainte-Laguë method. The two Scottish island constituencies and the two Isle of Wight constituencies are not included in the constituency allocation process.

The electoral quota for the review, which is the average electorate per constituency across the UK, is 76,641, with the electorate of each constituency having therefore to be within the range 72,810 to 80,473″

The quid pro quo for agreeing to this review for the Liberal Democrats was that they would get a referendum on the question of changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote. That hasn’t worked out very well for the Lib Dems. It remains to be seen whether the redrawing of the constituency boundaries does in the end benefit the Tories.

However, it does mean that the next general election will be held on different constituency boundaries from the last one and changes will be made to almost every seat, including the two in Luton.

While it has not yet developed any proposals the Boundary Commission for England has published some of the rules it will use when drawing up the boundaries and this has enabled some people to start to speculate on what the changes could be. One of the most thought through attempts at such guess work is the model devised by Lewis Baston on behalf of Democratic Audit. One of the things that models like this clearly show is that the calculation of the new boundaries is complex, has to be looked at in the context of the changes being made to a region as a whole, and that they are best understood by looking at the impact on each county.

Bedfordshire currently has 6 seats but under the new arrangements is entitled to 5.64. This means that at least one constituency in Bedfordshire will need to cross a county boundary. Baston’s prediction is that this will be in the north of the county with a new seat that crosses into Cambridgeshire and encompasses St Neots. Across the rest of the county, in simple terms, the rest of the constituencies shift northwards.

In Luton he suggests that Luton South will expand to take over the rest of the South East Bedfordshire ward of Central Bedfordshire Council, a part of which it currently contains, and the Saints ward from within Luton Borough.

Luton North will lose the Saints ward to the south but will expand to the west, essentially taking in Houghton Regis.

However, this is just one model. Baston himself points out that an alternative would be a shift to the south into Hertfordshire;

“The Hertfordshire crossing would allow a perhaps tidier arrangement of counties over the eastern region as a whole, but the potential crossing points are not easily identified – perhaps Harpenden with Dunstable or south Luton (which would produce a seat with very little in common), or Hitchin with an east Bedfordshire area.”

I have to say the potential for amusement at the reaction to a Harpenden and South Luton seat from the residents of both places is rather large!

My expectation is that the Luton constituencies will shift either northwards or eastwards. For the sake of coherence I would hope that they stay within the urban area. So my preference would be for a Luton South seat that expands northwards and takes in more of Luton’ wards, and a Luton West seat that takes in Houghton Regis and possibly parts of Dunstable.

What impact will these changes have on the parties in Luton?

Well my guess would be not as much as you might think. It is likely that the changes will make one or both of the Luton seats more marginal. But whether the actual configuration we end up with could be seen as benefiting one party or another is doubtful. It is unlikely that it will be that clear cut.

Until we get firm proposals from the Boundary Commission it will be difficult to tell. However, that won’t be for a little while yet. So there is still plenty of time for anoraks to have fun speculating on the outcome.

A negative view of Prevent 2 from Issan Ghazni

When the Government launched its revised version of the Prevent counter-extremism strategy a few weeks ago my take on it was that it was essentially a fudge.

There is a very real division within Government about how to approach these issues. There is the liberal approach most clearly articulated by the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg when he made his Luton speech. Then there is the populist Tory approach that Prime Minister David Cameron was playing to when he declared “multiculturalism has failed”.So in developing its policy the Home Office was working within an environment where it had to square the circle between these two contradictory strands of thinking. Yet they are so starkly different that it is unlikely that a satisfactory compromise can be found.

Maybe the best we can hope for is a fudge that lets the Tories hang on to elements of their nasty right wing rhetorical populism but that allows sensible and realistic work to be carried out on the ground. Not a particularly satisfactory outcome but one made palatable by the existence of a liberal voice in government as a result of the coalition.

This was what I was hoping we had ended up with when Theresa May launched the new prevent strategy at the beginning of June.

On Liberal Democrat Voice the former National Diversity Adviser to the Liberal Democrats and current Chair of Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, Issan Ghazni, has written with a much more negative view. In his article ‘The Government’s new Prevent strategy – a missed opportunity‘ he suggests that the new strategy represents a firm victory for the Tory populist approach;

“The new framework runs counter to the liberal and sensible arguments proposed and hard fought for within Government by Nick Clegg and Andrew Stunell for a more tolerant attitude to Muslim groups, to maintain a distinction between violent and non-violent extremism, to engage rather than alienate and better understand risks of withholding support to groups engaged in community cohesion programmes working under difficult conditions……This policy shift creates a challenge for liberals of every hue – it has the potential to undermine individualism, freedom of speech and expression of thought.”

Meet the Bedford Labour Councillor the Luton Labour Party want to throw off the Police Authority

Meet Councillor Colleen Atkins MBE. She is a Bedford councillor, a member of the Labour Party, and is currently Portfolio Holder for Performance and External Relations in the administration of Bedford’s Liberal Democrat elected Mayor Dave Hodgson. She is also one of the two Bedford Council representatives on the Bedfordshire Police Authority.

I’ve covered here before how the insistence by the Luton Labour Party that all three of Luton Council’s places on the Police Authority should be held by Labour members has ended in a row that has meant that Luton has currently no representation on the Authority. Something which, as far as I know, they are still insisting on.

The things is, as the Labour Party is only entitled to three places in total because of the balance of parties across Bedfordshire, if they get their way on this then Cllr Atkins would have to be thrown off. This doesn’t strike me as being very comradely behaviour on behalf of Luton Labour towards their brothers and sisters in Bedford.

I hope that before the next Luton council meeting on the 19th July Luton Labour comes to its senses and that they propose a compromise to that meeting. If not Luton risks a further few months of not being represented on this important body.

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The shocking level of homophobia in Luton’s schools

There have been very few occasions since the election when I have honestly felt that I wished I was still a councillor but one of them was when I read in the local press about the shocking level of homophobia in Luton’s schools.

The report was of an NUT survey that found that in Luton’s secondary schools;

“a staggering 94.5 per cent of teachers had seen or heard a homophobic incident at least on a termly basis…..A further 56 per cent had seen or overheard homophobic abuse in the classroom either every day or at least once a week”

This is deeply troubling. If I was still on the Council I would be making a point of raising this with the administration and asking what the LEA was doing about it. However, I can do the next best thing which is to email some Liberal Democrat colleagues on the Council and ask if they can make some enquiries.

Random Thoughts 6: Reagan, wisdom and commas

Its been ages since I did a Random Thoughts post and I think this one may be a bit more random than most.

They unveiled a statue to US President Ronald Reagan in London on Monday. Reagan’s legacy, like Thatcher’s, is an uncomfortable one for liberals but there is no doubt that, often underestimated in Europe as he was, ‘The Gipper’ was a master of the political arts. I had a look for this clip of him at his best:

Talking of the political arts I wanted to highlight an important truth posted a while ago on Mark Valladares’ blog

“Someone of immense wisdom suggested to me the other day that the Liberal Democrats are at their best when the three drivers of Party activity – organising, campaigning and thinking – are all heading in the same direction at the same pace. In order to do that, you need people in each of the three strands who understand the value of the other two, and who are influential enough to make it happen.”

This, a thousand times this! So true and so often lacking, and this doesn’t just apply at the national level but to local parties and council groups across the country.

Sadly, I am rather excited by the newly released version of WordPress. The new interface has a touch of class that makes it rather appropriate that they have named it ‘Gershwin’.

Luton is to get a new Wetherspoons and it is to named after the man who brought hat making to opened the first hat factory in the town.

I learnt from Stephen Tall what an Oxford Comma is – turns out I’ve been using them all the time (although not you’ll note in this posts title).

Finally, my friend Laura’s lovely tribute to Liz Rorison who passed away recently. I only really knew Liz in her role as the Glee Club pianist. I have to say the musical quality did decline sharply after she stopped doing it a few years ago.

“Labour Party spokesman” wrong on Police Authority formula

I’m returning to the issue of Luton’s current lack of representation on Bedfordshire Police Authority in order to correct a misleading statement by the Luton Labour Party.

Last week I was welcoming Luton on Sunday’s belated reporting of how the insistence by the Labour group on Luton Borough Council that the three people who should represent the town on the Police Authority should be Labour councillors, in the face of the understanding by the other two councils in Bedfordshire that they should be 2 Labour and 1 Lib Dem, has left Luton without any representation at all. What I didn’t comment on was the statement included in that news report by an unnamed “Labour party spokesman” that;

“The formula says all three members from Luton should be Labour.”

If this was true what I had written on this blog would have been incorrect and I would have done the Luton Labour Party an injustice, so I wanted to check the facts.

I have managed to get hold of the report that went to the council meeting on the 17 May that started this nonsense which I have made available online.

This report clearly states that the party allocation of the seats on the Authority should be 4 Conservative, 3 Labour and 2 Liberal Democrat. It also clearly shows that the proposal supported by Bedford and Central Beds Councils at the time of the meeting was that this was to be divided up into 2 Lab and 1 Lib Dem from Luton and one each from Bedford.

The report provides no rationale for the alternative arrangement suggested by Luton Labour. It certainly does not include a formula that calculates that three Luton places should be given to that party. It is clear from this that Labour in Luton went ahead with proposing their three Labour councillors with no justification other than their desire to take all the places and in defiance of the understanding of the other councils. A really stupid thing to do.

So the statement in the Luton on Sunday news story by the “Labour party spokesperson” is clearly incorrect. There is no formula that says all three members from Luton should be Labour. Whoever that person is, they are either ignorant of the facts or deliberately setting out to mislead the public. While this person hides behind a cloak of anonymity it is difficult to make a judgement which of those it is.

From July 2008: The Liberal Democrats are not Microsoft

This is a blog post from Friday, 25 July 2008 that I published on my old Process Guy blog. In it I write about how attempting to change the direction of an organisation like the Liberal Democrats is not and easy or speedy task. A point that, on more than one issue, is very relevant again today.

On the 26th May 1995 Bill Gates issued a memo to Microsoft executives. This memo, which has become famous as the “Internet Tidal Wave” memo, set out how this hugely successful company had made a major mistake. This mistake was the failure to recognise how important the Internet was. The memo went on to identified Netscape, with their Netscape Navigator web browser, as a major competitor to Microsoft. With this memo Gates ordered Microsoft to make a fundamental change in its strategic direction. From then on Microsoft was to assign the Internet the “highest level of importance”.

As a result of this memo huge changes swept across the company. New teams were set up. New projects were launched. Million dollar budgets were realigned. New people were hired and existing jobs redefined. Within months new online services were launched and the scene was set for one of the biggest corporate battles of recent history as Microsoft set out to dominate the Internet as it had the OS market.

In summary, Gates had recognised that Microsoft’s existing strategy, because of changing circumstances, was no longer the right one. A new strategy was needed. Using the huge resources at his disposal he developed and enacted that new strategy in a remarkably short time.

The Liberal Democrats face changing circumstances as the Labour Government collapses and the Conservatives gain momentum. Our previous strategy of targeting mainly Conservative seats is no longer the right one. A new strategy is needed. The Liberal Democrat equivalent of Bill Gates (is that Nick Clegg or Chris Rennard?) needs to issue a memo.

That is the argument that many people within the Lib Dems have been making, on blogs and elsewhere, and in essence I believe that they are right. This post has been inspired by PoliticalBetting.com’s discussion of a post by the Norfolk Blogger, Nich Starling, making just such a case. We do need to change our strategy. In fact it appears to me, although it may not to others, that we are changing our strategy. But I want to caution those who are making the case for a change in strategic direction to remember a simple and rather obvious truth. The Liberal Democrats are not Microsoft!

In these sorts of discussions people often tend to forget to take into consideration the nature of the Liberal Democrats. In comparison to the tasks we have and our importance within the life of the nation we are a very poorly resourced organisation. We are a largely voluntary organisation. We are a multi layered and multifaceted organisation. And, as I have blogged about before, we are an organisation with considerable structural weaknesses.

The process of developing and implementing a change of strategic direction within the Liberal Democrats is not going to be particularly easy or speedy one. If someone does issue a ‘memo’ there is no guarantee that it will be read by the right people, or by anyone at all. Even if the need for change is recognised at the top, or indeed at other levels throughout the Party, which I think it is, implementing it will take time. If you excuse me while I crowbar together two famous phrases; it is a bit like turning a supertanker powered by herds of cats. We do not have the culture or the resources of Microsoft. We cannot turn on a dime.

However, while the inability of the Party to respond and change direction quickly may be frustrating, it does have an important benefit. While Microsoft may have been able to switch to putting the Internet at the heart of its business at considerable speed there are some serious questions about how successful the implementation of that strategy has been. Forced as the Liberal Democrats are to make changes in strategic direction at a more measured pace we at least have more of an opportunity to make sure we get it right.

Note: I have today discovered that the full Internet Tidal Wave memo is available online.

Signing up to Liberal Democrats for Lords Reform

I seem to have a huge and growing blogging back log building up. This includes various things that need writing up from the Social Liberal Forum conference which was exactly a fortnight ago. Hopefully it won’t take me another fortnight to get through them.

One of them was to write about the “grassroots Liberal Democrat campaign, backing Nick Clegg’s plans for elections to the House of Lords”.

Thank you Andy! Leafleting #slfconf for elected Lords campaignThis is partly because, at the request of Mark Pack, I ended up helping to leaflet the conference on the campaigns behalf. So it only seems fair that I sign up!

But it is mainly because the campaign is one that should be supported by anyone who wants to call themselves a liberal and a democrat with any credibility.

A survey carried out by The Times reported that 80% of current peers oppose moving to an elected second chamber. It is frustrating, but not that surprising, that the conservative establishment in the Tory and Labour parties want to keep things as they are. Turkeys and Christmas and all that.

But the truly shocking thing was that the survey found that 46% of Liberal Democrat members of the House of Lords opposed an elected second chamber. That’s not just irritating – it makes me bloody furious.

OK I could live with a few mavericks on our benches. Indeed you’d expect that amongst a group of Liberal Democrat Lords and Baronesses! But a figure of just under half is appalling. Let us remember that these are people who sit in the legislature of the United Kingdom purely out of the patronage of the political party to which they and I belong. A political party whose leader is they key figure behind the current reform proposals. A political party whose manifestos have included a commitment to reform of the second chamber since it was founded. A political party that…well you get the point. If they act to frustrate reform they will be acting in defiance of the party through which they got to sit in the House of Lords in the first place. I hope that most of them will come to their senses when the voting on the legislation starts.

But because of the level of resistance to this long overdue reform (although ‘long overdue’ seems to be something of an understatement) it is really important that the party as a whole demonstrates that it is 100% behind the plans proposed by Nick Clegg. Which is why you too should sign up to the Liberal Democrats for Lords Reform campaign.


Tutorials available for the Lib Dem Aqua WordPress theme

I spent yesterday working on some help pages for my WordPress theme for Liberal Democrat websites; Lib Dem Aqua. I have made the theme very flexible and customisable but, for those not experts on WordPress, it can be a bit confusing working out how to make the best of all its features. So I hope these new pages will provide some guidance for those who are using my theme.

The pages available are: