As we begin the next round of meetings and discussions on this matter, I would like to pay tribute to the Conservative Party's boundary spokesman, Roger Pratt CBE, whose encyclopedic knowledge of every ward and polling district in the UK is only matched by his unending courtesy and good humour (at least in public) as he smooths the ruffled feathers of a thousand agitated activists, often demanding diametrically opposite outcomes.
This is my fourth round a boundary changes and over the years I have learnt some very important lessons, the two most important of which are
(a) Self-interest must be sacrificed for a greater good, and
(b) Disunity undermines our strength and hands parliamentary seats to the opposition
I wasn't around when the Tonbridge & Malling constituency was created in 1974, but I know some people who were. Apparently there was concern and a degree of outrage. According to those who were there, two wholly different communities were to be "forced together" to create a totally unsuitable whole. "Nobody in Malling will have anything in common with the townsfolk on Tonbridge" and "no MP, however talented, could possibly represent the needs of the fruit growers and farmers of Malling with the demands of a growing commuter town like Tonbridge."
Well, that was 42 years ago - and for 40 of those years the remarkable Sir John Stanley did just that. No-one felt unrepresented, the end of the world did not come as rural and townsfolk woke up in the same constituency, and the local Conservative Association thrived to become one of the strongest and most successful in the UK.
Then in 1997 those dastardly Boundary Commissioners did it again, when 20% of the constituency was 'hived off' to create the new Chatham & Aylesford seat, with those lost voters being replaced by an equal number from Sevenoaks. This time I have read the minute books from when the matter was discussed. And guess what? There was "concern and outrage" from the very same people who didn't want the two halves of the seat put together in the first place! According to a letter sent to the Boundary Commissioners, "the loss of so many rural Malling voters to the new Chatham & Aylesford Division will split this wonderful constituency and do irreparable harm to its social balance." Quite a remarkable turnaround when one considers that 14 years earlier people thought forcing Malling and Tonbridge people together would lead to Armageddon.
And guess what? Since 1997 Tonbridge, Edenbridge & Malling as well as neighbouring Chatham & Aylesford have gone from strength to strength. Both Associations continue to punch above their weight, both produce election results far above the Kent, regional and national swings and both send more campaign support to those who ask for it than the rest of Kent combined.
And now the Boundary Commissioners have published their latest proposals and I have little doubt that from some quarters there will be the usual "concern and outrage". But before anyone puts pen to paper of demands that "something must be done" I beg you to ask yourself a few simple questions (and these are equally applicable outside my immediate area of responsibility).
1. Is your objection based on sound legal arguments or is it based on an emotional reluctance to change? No proposed change, however small, is as simple or as isolated as it looks. Whilst such a change might be fabulous for you, it could well lead to objections from the neighbouring constituency, or the council, or the parish, or another political party or any one of a hundred community groups, each of which will have their own reasons and motivations.
2. Do you really want to open Pandora's Box? The proposed new boundaries have come from long serving, experienced and wholly independent Boundary Commissioners, and are stronger for that very reason. As soon as any political party tries to redraw the map without absolutely solid legal or constitutional reasons for doing so, it attracts attention from our opponents who understandable think that we are up to no good. They will then submit counter proposals to "head us off" and the whole debate will go to a public enquiry, with both sides slogging it out. And once this happens, anything could happen. Including the Commissioners accepting our opponent's case was better than ours and we are left licking our wounds and wishing we had kept our mouths closed. I have seen it happen more than once.
3. Does anyone really care? These things matter greatly to us, but I do wonder if people outside the bubble really care. Almost 24 hours after the Commissioners published their proposals I have received two messages. One (from a retired Party Agent) informing me that the people will be "beside themselves" with anger. The other, a call from an angry resident to tell me that "600 MPs is twice as many as we need and we should get rid of another 50%). If the people really are "beside themselves with anger" they might not be angry about the same things as we are, and they might not welcome the sight of politicians fighting like ferrets in a sack over what will appear to them as self interest.
To be brutally frank, unless the proposals to totally ridiculous (and sometimes they are - like the 2005 proposal to include one inner city Liverpool ward in the suburban Cheshire seat of Wallasey, with the River Mersey in between) then I suspect the overwhelming majority of people really don't give two hoots.
By their very nature, boundary changes work in our favour. As voters leave cities and settle in rural and suburban communities, so the number of rural/suburban constituencies increase and the number of urban constituencies decline. This is a right and proper outcome arising from our ever changing demography. But such good outcomes are not guaranteed.
The pre 1995 boundary changes were expected to deliver 20 new Conservative-inclined constituencies, but by then the party was divided, inward and driven by self interest. As a result we had MPs arguing against their own Associations, Conservative councillors arguing against their own councils and even waring factions within Associations hiring their own barristers to fight their case at the appeals. At the end of the process, a united and focussed Labour Party come out ahead.
That is a lesson for us all in the weeks and months ahead!