By Robin Jackson
The Democratic Unionist Party, currently sustaining in office the minority Tory government, is playing a key role in proposals to alter Britain’s parliamentary electoral boundaries to hamper the advance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.
The Tories and the DUP, assisted by a revised boundary commission review, are hoping parliament will agree to redrawn parliamentary constituencies in advance of the next UK general election, which will take place in 2022, or earlier should the Tory government collapse.
In 2016 the Tory government initiated a boundary review with the aim of reducing the number of parliamentary seats from 650 to 600. The boundary commission’s proposals which came forward significantly benefited the Tories, but were not agreed by parliament before the 2017 general election.
When the Tories lost their parliamentary majority in June 2017, and became dependent on the DUP’s confidence-and-supply agreement, the latter party insisted the boundary review be revisited. The DUP rejected the review’s proposed boundaries for the north of Ireland. The review had satisfied the remit it had been given – to reduce the number of constituencies from 18 to 17 and redistribute the electorate in a fair and equitable way across the new constituencies. However, for the DUP this was not acceptable – as it stood to lose out electorally.
So the boundary commission was sent away to revise its proposals and it dutifully made radical changes to its original proposed constituency map for the north of Ireland. Its new proposals will distort the electoral map, along lines virtually indistinguishable from the DUP’s proposals and includes splitting the small town of Dungiven across three constituencies.
The boundary commission, which claims it is politically impartial, changed its method of determining the boundaries, and invoked the controversial ‘rule seven’. This rule is a provision only available in the north of Ireland and gives the commission scope to go beyond the usual electorate quotas in any given constituency. It allows for constituencies in the north of Ireland to be smaller or larger than those permitted in Britain. The commission had ruled out the need to invoke this rule in its original proposals, but in its second attempt it conceded to the DUP’s argument.
The resulting gerrymander will deny representation to thousands of nationalist voters and leave several constituencies without any nationalist representative whatsoever at an Assembly level. It disproportionately advantages the DUP in seats in the Westminster parliament.
The revised proposal has placated the DUP, so it will support parliament adopting the UK wide boundary proposals. It is estimated the new boundaries overall could boost the Tories by a dozen seats and cut Labour by 30 at the 2022 election.
Corbyn’s Labour could still form a government, but this is another obstacle that is being thrown in its path.
The DUP is a protestant supremacist sectarian organisation, whose electoral support in the north of Ireland is declining relative to Sinn Féin. Despite this its influence over policy is expanding in the north of Ireland, due to Theresa May’s dependence on its votes at Westminster.
The Tory government is not pressing the DUP on the issue of restoration of the Stormont assembly and is allowing the DUP to block progress in implementing the Good Friday Agreement. There is no advance being made on marriage equality for lesbians and gay men, as has been legislated for in the Irish Republic and Britain. Also the DUP continue to oppose the introduction of any abortion rights in the north.
An indication of how obligated the Tories are to the DUP was Theresa May’s nomination to the House of Lords last month of former DUP MP the Rev William McCrea. McCrea has longstanding ties to loyalist paramilitaries and in the 1980’s argued that British forces should bomb republican areas in the north of Ireland.
Capital’s determination to block the advance of Corbyn and prop up the Tories is empowering one of Western Europe’s most reactionary parties.