History tells us that drawing boundaries on maps does not necessarily lead to community cohesion. Just think “India; Partition” or “Balfour Declaration”. While millions in the UK wait with ennui or impatience for a General Election which is expected to afford some relief from the corruption, incompetence and wilful neglect of the incumbent government, thousands of us in East Sussex and elsewhere are looking toward the ballot boxes in a state of even greater ignorance than usual about how to vote. Whilst we may ponder over the best party for our personal or political objectives, constituencies which political parties have canvassed and fostered for years are to disappear or be radically changed.
On 15th November last, boundary changes were mandated with so little fanfare as to leave the electorate in ignorance of something affecting their democratic status. There were apparently several rounds of consultation leading to this, intended to equalise constituency populations across the nation. Response nationally to consultation was elicited from fewer than 0.1% of the population. It is perhaps not surprising that excitement has been low to such a project but on the ground there must be concerns.
I live in what has been known as “Wealden”. This name will disappear from parliament before the General Election, though retained for local government. How confusing. Who knew? Suddenly we live somewhere else, with no history, no identity.
The emergence of “Sussex Weald”
Parts of this constituency will now be stripped away into other constituencies, one of which includes part of a different county, whilst other areas will be added from previous neighbours. Our new “home” constituency, to be named “Sussex Weald”, will be a collection of rural communities with little in common beyond geography, lacking any focal point. Our largest town, Hailsham (pop. in 2021: 22,551), teeters on the southern rim of this amorphous if pleasant countryside, a maze of mostly minor roads with barely any public transport. Communication of this change of identity has yet to penetrate the consciousness of the electorate affected.
My village, East Hoathly, has, as far as I know, little truck with, for example, Groombridge or, pace the odd use of the station, Wadhurst, with which we are now to be bonded politically in the new “Sussex Weald”. These could all be in another county for all we may associate with them. I am sure they feel the same about East Hoathly, assuming they have even heard of it. Such unfamiliarity is surely compounded if the demographic characteristics, political allegiances and social needs of the new whole are significantly different from those we had become used to.
Residents of rural areas tend to use one or more larger towns as their focal point for practical matters, like shopping or education. The resources mostly used by my neighbours will in future lie in a different constituency. Our shopping is mostly done in Uckfield, soon to be in a new “East Grinstead and Uckfield” constituency; or Lewes (“Lewes”). Few children from around us will attend secondary schools in Sussex Weald. Does it matter if schooling is in the next constituency? Perhaps not, but how can our parliamentary representative address education or public transport issues meaningfully in this circumstance?
Local knowledge and sense of locality
And then there is the political impact. It is not yet clear how the boundary changes will affect the party mix of the new compared with the old, though some have suggested that one motive behind the boundary changes from the outset was to boost safe Tory seat numbers. Our current MP has already complacently shown herself more interested in the shipping industry than in the issues affecting constituents. She would be even more unfamiliar with those of the towns and villages which previously belonged to Rother or Tunbridge Wells, should she stand and win Sussex Weald.
Constituency design needs to respect local infrastructure and elector behaviour. There are complex networks related to public transport infrastructure, public services locations (hospitals, schools, libraries) and residents’ shopping, work, and leisure habits. Without some quite subtle understanding of these, it is difficult to see how a new cohesive constituency can be made to work or be represented meaningfully in Whitehall. Perhaps this number-driven over-riding of people’s established patterns may provide the opportunity to vote for someone who actually knows and has the area at heart? This would make all the extra canvassing, rebuilding of campaign teams and allocation of unfamiliar territory and establishing of the new name feel much more worthwhile.
We voters may be stuck with the change but do not yet have MPs. Let us make candidates’ local knowledge central to choosing how we vote in the upcoming General Election.