Why Croydon’s new ward boundaries look rather close to the Conservative proposal

By - Thursday 23rd March, 2017

The electoral divisions of Croydon are due to change, and the Conservative proposal seems to have played by the rules more than Labour’s

Croydon’s proposed new ward boundaries.
Image by LGBCE, used with permission.

Politicians can talk dismissively of process. They’re not the only ones. Top managers, frustrated by having to obey a set of rules before they get their way can curse being constrained by process. The public can too; how many times have you heard that “it’s a tick-the-box exercise”.

The purpose of process is not to tell you the answer, but to tell you the steps that you’ve got to do to get there. It doesn’t tell you what the decisions are, just how to make them and the constraints that you must obey. I like good process.

Process can be done badly, then it is indeed a tick-the-box exercise, but good process well executed is at the heart of good management, good decision making and good government. It keeps you safe, prevents mistakes and ensures fairness.

Proposals, consultations, revisions and more consultations are all required before a final decision is made

The process for revising ward boundaries for our 2018 council election is an example. Population movements mean that there is a need periodically to modify these boundaries. Rules and guidelines on how this needs to be done (the process) are set out by parliament.

Much is common sense: each councillor should represent a similar number of voters, wards should reflect community identities and be based on easily identifiable boundaries. There’s a requirement for proposals, consultations, revisions and more consultations before a final decision is made.

Overlaid on this is the politics. In Croydon we have pretty much a straight fight between Labour and the Conservatives for control of the council. Across Croydon their vote is evenly split but each has wards where one or other dominates, the Tories in the South and Labour in the North. The central strip is the battleground where control of the council is won and lost. In this situation, details can make the difference.

You can’t move the people, but you can move the boundaries

Croydon Labour must have felt that it could gain some political advantage, perhaps because it is in control of the council, so it requested a local boundary review. Submissions were invited and many came in. Croydon Labour submitted several. The Tories just one.

In our local electoral system the way to gain advantage is to concentrate the opposition’s votes into areas where its support is overwhelming, and to spread your own voters around to areas such that you win comfortably, but not overwhelmingly. Do that in enough wards, and you make it very tough indeed for the opposition to ever get you out.

You can’t move the people, but you can move the boundaries. That’s why this exercise is of fundamental importance for democracy and Croydon’s future. It isn’t over yet, there is still a further consultation, but it should all be over when the final boundaries are published on 11th July.

Labour seems to have assumed that this is an arbitration process

Where Labour appears to have tripped up is that it put in a proposal to the Local Government Boundary Commission on behalf of Croydon Council that ignored the requirement for ward boundaries to respect communities. Its proposal was constructed to maximise electoral advantage. Even a cursory look at the ‘Places of Croydon’ as defined in the Croydon Plan reveals that. As far as I can see, Labour seems to have assumed that this is an arbitration process – put in an extreme proposal and expect the commission to be pulled in that direction to give the appearance of even-handedness.

One can speculate why there were several Labour submissions. One I would guess is designed to be a less extreme position but still one favouring Labour, perhaps in the hope that the commission would adopt this one as a ‘compromise’ between the Tory position and the Labour extreme position. The others may just be a symptom of the general chaos within the Labour Party.

The Tories’ proposal by contrast, stuck to the rules. Although I do not have a model to prove one way or the other, I suspect that it too had some interpretation in their favour. But the rules are designed to ensure fairness, and to prevent an extreme outcome like that which Labour’s proposal would have triggered.

Thornton Heath Labour urged the boundary commission to reject its own party’s submission

The electoral commission’s draft recommendations were published recently and the commission’s proposal leans towards the Tories’ view, with some modifications. Labour’s not-so-cunning plan has spectacularly backfired, and deservedly so.

It is not hard to see why. The separate submission from Labour’s own Thornton Heath branch exposed the issue, labelling the main Labour proposal as either a “careless result of not being able to get other wards to fit their political ambitions elsewhere without collateral damage” or a “malicious alternative agenda which has nothing to do with a boundary review”. Thornton Heath Labour further urged the boundary commission to reject its own party’s submission “for the fraudulent or mischievous proposals that they are”.

It is hard to believe that Labour did not understand the rules, so we must put the flawed proposals down to bad decisions. In a matter of such importance this can only have come from the top, symptomatic perhaps of the generally high-handed approach of this council and especially the council leader.

It may not be written in a rulebook, but this is not the first occasion on which hubris has been the cause of a leader’s downfall. It is also not the first case where good process was how that leader’s bad decisions were exposed.

Robert Ward

Robert Ward

Engineer and project manager specialised in helping businesses make better strategic decisions and improve safety, quality and effectiveness. Conservative Party Councillor representing Selsdon and Addington Village on Croydon Council. He tweets as @moguloilman.

More Posts

  • Michael Swadling

    Robert – whilst the Conservative party only submitted one instance I believe most Tory Councillors and both MPs submitted their own recommendations.

    • Robert Ward

      I did see some from Conservative councillors. Wouldn’t surprise me on the MPs too. Indeed as elected representatives of their communities I would be disappointed if they didn’t.

      I don’t recall any Labour councillors or Steve Reed but maybe I wasn’t looking.