The importance of rivers in the debate on constituency boundaries

It is Day 13 of the Committee Stage of the Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill.

Here is my contribution to a debate on whether constituency boundaries should cross rivers like the Thames, the Mersey or the Tyne:

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, we owe my noble friend Lady Morgan of Huyton a debt of gratitude for introducing this group of amendments which are extremely important in the context of this Bill. First, they raise the issue of geography, and we have already had some debate on that on the amendment that was passed in respect of the Isle of Wight. Secondly, they raise the question of the way in which communities are divided. This group of amendments is about division by rivers. I heard what the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, said about rivers uniting and driving communities, but the reality is that rivers do divide communities, and communities on one side or other of a river feel very differently from those on the other side. My noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top has just articulated it supremely well. If we believe in the principle of representation whereby individuals are elected to the other place on the basis of a community of feeling and are able to represent that community of feeling, that should be taken into account as part of these discussions.

I know that the Government are committed to the concept of fairness. There are other ways of achieving fairness. For example, I fail to understand why it is a given that when Members of the House of Commons go through the Division Lobby and are ticked off in the way that we are familiar with in this House, they each count for one vote. If you really want to have equality of representation, have them have a statistic associated with them so that one gets 1.1 votes and one gets 0.9 votes and, at a stroke, you have solved the problem that the Government claim they are trying to deal with. I am not suggesting that that is a solution that we should follow, but it is a much easier way than the many hours that this House has debated this issue.

Lord Elystan-Morgan: Does the noble Lord recollect the myth that when the Habeas Corpus Act was passed, it did not achieve a majority but fat men were counted as two? Some of us would have served the cause of liberty magnificently. 

Lord Harris of Haringey: I am particularly grateful for that intervention because I can see the value of such an analysis, though I must admit that I was not previously aware of that historical fact.

What is it that creates a community? Do we value community in terms of representation? I should have thought that for the quality of our democracy we want to value the quality of representation and the way in which there is a link between the community that elects a representative and that representative. It is interesting that if you look at constituencies and the history of where there has been division by a river, you see this problem. For example, my noble friend Lady Morgan of Huyton talked about the Mersey. I have a report from a Boundary Commission inquiry into that issue. The Boundary Commission clearly wished to cross the Mersey on that occasion but was overwhelmed by the nature of the representations. It stated that,

“local opposition is a factor to be weighed, but it cannot of itself be decisive”.

It went on to say that,

“the unusual factor in this case, is this: opposition to the proposed cross-Mersey constituency is voiced by all political interests as well as a number of individuals without any party political affiliation. The Commission will know whether such practically universal opposition to an aspect of their Provisional Recommendations is unique. However, if not unique, I suspect it is something which is rarely found”.

Another inquiry report looked at crossing the Clyde. The inspector concluded,

“that strong feeling exists on this issue on both sides of the Clyde and that none of it is supportive of the Boundary Commission’s proposal for a river-spanning constituency … It is I think significant that their opposition does not appear to have a connection with any party political advantage that might be derived from having or not having a cross-river constituency but it is based purely on a conviction from their local understanding that an attempt to span the Clyde is quite simply wrong for the area”.

The report went on to talk about the differences between the communities.

That is why we should recognise those considerations regarding the Bill. I particularly want to speak, but shall not speak at length, about Amendment 75ZB, which deals with constituencies not crossing the Thames. I appreciate that those who are not part of London may not realise that there are such strong feelings between the north and south of the city. I speak as someone who, although an unabashed north Londoner, has had the privilege of representing the whole of the city when I chaired the Association of London Government, now London Councils. I was very well aware of the strong feelings between the north and the south. It goes into every aspect of community life. A study published just a few weeks ago demonstrates—I think this is fascinating—that 54 per cent of Londoners living north of the River Thames never, not occasionally, but never, venture south for work or cultural pursuits. It is interesting that south Londoners are more likely to go north. I make no comments about the quality of life in south London or about whether anyone would wish to travel south. I have travelled south of the river on many occasions for cultural pursuits. However, it is interesting that more than half of north Londoners have never done so. If that does not indicate that there is a difference in terms of community feeling, then nothing does.

The same survey demonstrates some quite interesting findings about the different interests of north Londoners and south Londoners. I am a north Londoner, and 55 per cent of north Londoners rated eating out as one of their top three interests, followed by the visual arts and popular music. While eating out and visual arts also ranked highly for south Londoners, they were more likely to enjoy the capital’s performing arts, heritage, classical music and markets. Again, I make no judgment about that. The indication is that on these issues alone there is a distinction in the approach of north Londoners and south Londoners.

Where does this come from? In the 1850s, London was already the world’s wealthiest city, but that success had come at the expense of many of the people of London. Population growth and overcrowding had created a divided city, with Londoners living in separate worlds of rich and poor. Up to half of those born in the capital’s slums did not survive their first year. However, not only the poor died young; tuberculosis, smallpox, cholera and typhoid also killed the rich. The significant point was that London had failed to provide clean water, basic sanitation and housing for its growing population. In its analysis, the People’s City, the Museum of London stated:

“The deadly River Thames flowed like an open sewer through the heart of the city”.

That open sewer feeling is the reason why the divide is so deep and cultural between the different parts of the city.

Even more modern literature reflects this. Wise Children, the novel by Angela Carter, centres on a particular family and focuses on the distinctions between members of the family as represented by the physical divide of the River Thames. A very deep-seated difference exists between north Londoners and south Londoners.

If we are to have any concern whatever about the importance of geography and community to representation in Parliament, we have to take these issues into account. If the Government say that that would wreck the central purpose of the Bill of fair representation, I would ask two questions: first, will they consider an alternative which changes the value of the votes of Members at the other end of the Corridor; and, secondly, what is the value of fairer representation if you destroy the basis on which it rests in the communities that elect Members of Parliament?”

3 thoughts on “The importance of rivers in the debate on constituency boundaries”

  1. Wasn’t it you King Alfred who had the original idea of using rivers to mark shires? You are right about London’s north/south divide. Do excuse me as I must finish my jellied eels.

  2. How much public money do you lot get paid to talk this twaddle?

    This debate was a disgrace, and those who participated are also a disgrace.

    Hope you had fun.

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