Thu, 18 July 2024

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The House Live All
By Ben Guerin
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Constituency names are getting longer and frankly, more ridiculous

4 min read

If we carry on like this, single-word seat names face extinction. But at least we did away with Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East.

In 1951, a leader article in The Times noted that the recently-created constituency of Merton and Morden sounded like “a pair of comedians on the Light Programme”, while “Rowley Regis and Tipton” might have been named by a novelist “in two minds as to whether to make his Barsetshire plain and straightforward or quaint and old world”.

Neither seat exists any longer. But at this election we will have Dunfermline and Dollar (runners up on Opportunity Knocks in 1976), Hinckley and Bosworth (a chain of Estate Agents), Gorton and Denton (the Building Society your nan used), and Hamilton and Clyde Valley (the famed Country and Western duo).

The Boundary Commissions face a difficult – perhaps impossible – task: to create constituencies of roughly equal size in terms of voters, which at the same time represent genuine communities.

These two aims have always been in tension. In 1954, another Times leader column deplored the dismemberment of historical constituencies in the pursuit of arithmetical equality: “The attempt to make every man’s vote weigh precisely the same as every other man’s vote is both impracticable and undesirable. It runs counter to the local realities upon which British representation has traditionally been based." While there was a need to reject constituencies which had become obviously too large or too small, it objected to “perpetually whittling away at constituencies, so that Parliamentary representation becomes just an affair of scissors and paste”.

It’s not difficult to imagine what that leader writer would have made of the outgoing government, who were very much in favour of the use of scissors. The law now explicitly prioritises the arithmetic over the organic more than ever. It has placed much stricter limits on the extent to which constituencies can vary in terms of number of voters; with a handful of exceptions, seats now must be within 5 per cent of the average.

One consequence of this will become obvious on election night, as presenters and returning officers struggle to read out some increasingly lengthy constituency titles. With a desire for arithmetic equality has come more lumping together of distinct communities, and the creation of far more seats of the X and Y (or even X, Y and Z) variety.

The result is that the constituency titles in place for this election will be the longest and most cumbersome in any British general election held under a system of one-person, one vote.

In 1950, there were just 53 constituencies with the word "and" in the title, linking two places. In the parliament just gone there were 161. In those that will be in use on 4 July there will be 250.

There’s been a related decline in the number of constituencies consisting of a single word (“Gower”, “Westbury”, “Ayr”, for example), from 272 in 1950, to 206 in the parliament just gone, and down to 152 for the coming parliament. The new boundaries are the first time there will be more constituencies with "and" in their title than there are constituency names consisting of a single word. Overall, this has driven up the average length of a constituency name from 12.8 characters in 1950 to an average of 17.1 this time.

Scottish constituency names are especially long (at 22 characters on average), but at least we have lost Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, which holds the post-1950 record for the longest.

It’s not just the fault of the government, though. The other problem is the process of consultation that boundary changes go through – and where it turns out the public (or at least some vocal members of the public) really care about these things. MPs too: in 1984, John Biffen, then Leader of the House of Commons, described the proposed new names as “downright offensive”.

Tinkering with the name of a seat is much easier than having to re-do the boundaries, with an inevitable knock-on effect elsewhere. You can see this happening in real time. In the Commission’s original proposals there were 209 seats with “and” in the title; it rose to 224 by their revised proposals, and hit 250 by the final ones.

It’s an All Must Have Prizes approach to constituency naming. A good example is the creation of Southend West and Leigh, despite the fact that the outgoing seat of Southend West included Leigh. Or Wantage becoming Didcot and Wantage, despite Didcot always having been in the same constituency as Wantage.

Back in 1929 the Mail reported on a Mr H. J. Neill of Putney, a bus driver with a prodigious memory. Among his many claims to fame was knowing the names of every MP and their constituencies. We suspect even he might have struggled with Doncaster East and the Isle of Axholme.

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