Artillery Row

Redrawing boundaries

The constituency boundary review is in, and it makes for very long reading

I am indebted to Professor Philip Cowley, for performing the tedious calculations that reveal that the average length of constituency names has risen to a record 15.7 characters in these proposals, and fewer than a third of seats are described with simple one-word titles compared to not far short of half in 1955. Constituency names are getting longer, and although this is less measurable, they are uglier and often less historically resonant.

We north Londoners are not the mythical “anywhere” types — we care about our streets and our traditions

Everyone will have their local gripe. Mine is about the weird renaming of my own constituency, from Holborn & St Pancras to Kentish Town & Bloomsbury. St Pancras has been a constant presence in London’s administrative geography since 1831, when the area was among the first to adopt the system of elected vestry board members. It became a Metropolitan Borough of London in 1900, along with its little brother Holborn to the south and east, and there has been a Holborn & St Pancras seat since 1950. Both boroughs became parts of Camden in 1965, but St Pancras is still there, from Bloomsbury to Highgate, on street signs and the municipal ironmongery of the north London landscape, and Holborn remains a dark corner of central London, distinctive and faintly mysterious. There are associations between Holborn and the Law, and between St Pancras and radical politics — its council members included George Bernard Shaw and Krishna Menon. It is a cruel blow, when at long last a radical lawyer represents the seat in Parliament and leads his party, to see these poetic associations dissolved. It’s erasing our history, as people seem to complain frequently nowadays.

“Kentish Town and Bloomsbury” are two neighbourhoods, both fine places in their own right, but they are small localities. Holborn and St Pancras are not only names that are reminiscent of more than a century of history, and they are more expansive. My neighbourhood is usually called Camden Town, or Mornington Crescent possibly — it’s covered by “St Pancras” thanks to history, but represented nowhere in the new name. But there is a constituency with the name “Camden Town and St John’s Wood” — a monstrosity comprising an arc of territory from Paddington Green to the Vale of Health on Hampstead Heath, which manages to miss out my part of Camden Town. We north Londoners are not the mythical “anywhere” types — we care about our streets and our traditions. We’re as parochial as anyone else.

Many other seats get this sort of tin-eared treatment. Hayes and Harlington, for instance, is a name that has been on the constituency map since 1950. It is a familiar name, and has a pleasing rhythm when spoken — an initial, assertive “Hayes!” and then the softer, rounder “Harlington”, like a Parliamentary speech that makes its point and then acknowledges a bit of nuance and complexity. Harlington is an old parish, split by the M4 since 1965 into a free-standing village and a residential area of Hayes; the village is a dogged survivor, fending off the threat of vanishing under a third runway at Heathrow. The borough council has been called “Hayes and Harlington” since 1930. The constituency is barely changed. But the Boundary Commission proposes to call it “Hayes and West Drayton” instead. This is far from the worst name on offer. Luton South, which has always had a bit of a rural tail to it, is little-changed but gets the cumbersome title of “Luton South and South Bedfordshire”. “West Pennine Moors” is basically Rossendale & Darwen, renamed after a part of the seat where nobody lives. “Washington & Sunderland South West” is an ugly name — it flows a bit better if you put it the other way round, but there’s a principle (sometimes breached) that the bigger element of the constituency goes first. There’s another principle, which has so far been applied pragmatically in the interests of euphony, that county constituencies take the compass point first, borough constituencies last: but hello, East New Forest and West New Forest.

A handful of constituencies have got some quite good new names, and some of them even improve on the old. I think “Seaham and Peterlee” isn’t bad as a new name for Easington, for instance — it combines the name of the seat where Manny Shinwell famously defeated Ramsay MacDonald — recently Prime Minister — in the 1935 election, and the Durham miners’ leader who gave his name to a New Town. While the great South Holland and The Deepings, a Fifties rock and roll band of a constituency name, disappears in favour of the dull “South Lincolnshire”, we get an early Sixties Motown outfit called Beverley and the Wolds popping up in the East Riding. And I’m sorry, although “Mole Valley”, is lovely, its replacement “Dorking and Horley” is just funny. You can probably divide all politicians’ styles into either “Dorking” or “Horley”. Brown government: Dorking. Johnson government: Horley, without a question.

I have particular reasons for disliking the growth of constituency names, quite apart from my local concerns and my sensibilities about the ancient geographies of England. It makes my election results spreadsheets cumbersome. We’ve already got some examples — there are two Scottish constituencies constructed like German sentences: you can’t tell which Paisley and Renfrewshire is being discussed until you get to the terminal “East” or “West” — 25 characters in. It must be annoying for MPs in debate — one has probably lost the thread of one’s argument by the time the pleasantries have finished. I’m in favour of a bit of simple, stripped-down modernism in constituency names. Perhaps we could go the Australian route, and name some seats after local historical personalities — anyone for renaming Epping Forest “Churchill’? As long as Spelthorne gets called “Ballard” after its most famous local author.

I’m in favour of a bit of simple, stripped-down modernism in constituency names

That name offers a clue as to how constituency names have got out of control. MPs and candidates try to pander to every town and village of their seat, and refer to themselves erroneously by these expanded names in their own publicity material. The problem gets worse if, as has been increasingly the trend, precise equality of numbers is given a higher priority than representing an identifiable community. If there is no single readily available feature that unites a constituency, then a list of component parts might do. It is a far cry from how we started, with MPs being the voices of particular boroughs or counties in the national Parliament. With tighter rules, there are also fewer things that Boundary Commissions can do to assuage local discontents by making substantial alterations to the composition of constituencies —one is stuck with second-best. Changing the name is a sop one can give to objectors when their other demands are impossible.

Over time, the constituency map of England will start to resemble verses of Flanders and Swann’s 1963 song The Slow Train — lists of bucolic names for minor villages and out-of-the-way halts, but unfortunately assembled without the lyrical gifts of those gentlemen. Maybe that’s the “reverse Beeching” we keep hearing about. If we extend the principle to London, my constituency can at long last recognise the contribution of Mornington Crescent to its identity, and its member can bring an absurdist word game to a halt just by mentioning it.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover