17 days to go – boundary problems

The election count in North Norfolk will be demanding. It is a constituency of villages with a few small towns; there are no fewer than 123 separate polling stations. All will have ballot boxes for Parliamentary, District and, in some cases, Parish, elections. Simply getting the boxes to the count will be a logistical nightmare. However the situation is made more complicated due to an anomaly in the boundaries. There are six wards that form part of the North Norfolk Council District but not the North Norfolk Parliamentary Constituency. They fall into the neighbouring Broadland Constituency.

Had the boundary commission proposals been accepted these wards would have come into our constituency creating contiguous Parliamentary and Local authority boundaries. However the overdue reform of boundaries was abandoned due to an internal spat between the coalition partners of Conservatives and LibDems. A revision of boundaries generally works to the advantage of the Conservatives and the LibDems were having a sulk.

Revising the boundaries should be a routine administrative process; however the political consequences of the changes make them a contentious issue. I first encountered the problem in my early political days when I was the Labour Parliamentary candidate for Leominster.

Leominster was a hopeless seat for Labour. It was massive agricultural area covering the whole of the north of the county of Herefordshire. It was one of six seats in UK where Labour did not even field a candidate in the 1945 general election that produced a massive victory for the party.

Just before I arrived as candidate there had been a public inquiry into proposed boundary changes affecting the two parliamentary constituencies in the county of Herefordshire: Leominster and Hereford. While Leominster was a safe Conservative seat, under quite exceptional circumstances Hereford could just about be categorised as a marginal Conservative seat vulnerable to Labour. Accordingly the Conservative Agent proposed the transfer of two small solid Conservative voting villages just north of the City of Hereford out of the Leominster constituency and into the Hereford constituency. Their initial argument was that these two districts were south of the River Lugg, which formed a natural boundary. However evidence from the county surveyors proved this not to be the case.

A second argument was advanced. This was that the natural sphere of influence for these two villages was Hereford not Leominster. The Conservative Agent invited elderly village residents to testify whom, having been coached, were at pains to emphasise the inadequacy of public transport from their village to Leominster (‘only two buses a day so if you go shopping you have to spend the whole morning there with nothing to do’). However an excellent case was destroyed with a simple question to one of the villagers from the Labour agent: ‘how easy is it for you to get to Hereford? The following answer came back: ‘It’s terribly difficult because you have to go to Leominster first’. The existing boundary map was upheld.

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