The Boundary Commission for England have proposed breaking up the current Walthamstow parliamentary constituency, to merge the north of the area with Chingford and the south with Leyton. So what?
What are these changes all about?
The Boundary Commission for England reviews the parliamentary constituency map of England every five years. This year, under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, they have been tasked with reducing the number of constituencies in England from 533 to 502, and making sure that each constituency has roughly the same number of people who can vote (‘registered electors’) in it. The electoral quota (the number of registered electors in England divided by the number of constituencies) is 76,641, and each constituency should have no more than 5% more or fewer electors than this, i.e. between 72,810 and 80,473 electors. At the 2010 General Election, Walthamstow had 64,625 registered electors, so it was always going to come under the gaze of the Boundary Commission.
The Boundary Commission report for London, which is worth a read if you’re interested in how London’s geographical space can be logically divided electorally, proposes vanishing the Walthamstow constituency, to create a larger Chingford constituency in the north and a larger Leyton constituency in the south. Below is a map of what the new constituencies would look like. Area 15 is Chingford and area 49 is Leyton. The line in red between them is the proposed boundary, running (roughly from left to right) along Forest Road, right at the Lord Palmerston pub, left down Elmsdale Road and Hatherly Road to Hoe Street, back up to Forest Road, then right down Shernhall Street, right again through the Village, to finish up running along Lea Bridge Road. These are existing council ward boundaries, so High Street, Hoe Street and Wood Street wards (and everything south) would be in Leyton, and Higham Hill, William Morris, Chapel End and Hale End & Highams Park wards (and everything north) would be in Chingford.
Would Walthamstow still exist as an area?
There are a lot of people in Walthamstow to whom this matters not a jot. Turnout in UK general elections is around 65%. In the 2010 General Election, turnout in the Walthamstow constituency was 63.34%, which of course means that just under 37% of people eligible to vote did not vote. In 2011, Hansard’s Audit of Political Engagement showed that only 38% of people in the UK could correctly name their MP, down from 44% historically.
To be generous, let’s assume that the Walthamstow electorate is more politically engaged than the average (and I’ve not seen any evidence for this). Even if everyone who voted in the 2010 General Election could actually name their MP, that still leaves around 40% of people on the electoral register who cannot name their MP and/or who did not vote. It’s likely that these people probably also don’t know where the parliamentary constituency boundaries are. If nearly half the people living in Walthamstow don’t know where the boundaries are, their perception of Walthamstow as an area probably isn’t based on those boundaries. (If you’re not sure who your MP is, this might help).
There are plenty of examples in London of areas existing without a corresponding parliamentary constituency. In North West London, Brent is currently divided into two constituencies – Brent Central and Brent North – yet Willesden, Harlesden, Neasden, Wembley and others still exist as areas, they still have tube stations, football teams, they’re marked on maps and so on. Similarly in Islington, the two constituencies of Islington South & Finsbury and Islington North don’t stop Holloway, Angel, Kings Cross and all the other places in Islington existing.
How long has Walthamstow existed?
Walthamstow constituency was originally established with the election of the Liberal MP Edward North Buxton in the 1885 General Election. The population of Walthamstow was 22,531 in 1881, increasing to 47,454 by 1891, and the constituency remained until 1918. Between 1918 and 1974, the constituencies of Walthamstow East and Walthamstow West both had a parliamentary member. The existing Walthamstow constituency has existed since 1974.
The lovely photograph on the left is of what was then Hoe Street station in around 1870, 15 years before the Walthamstow constituency was created (and 142 years before they started building a Travelodge next to it). The photograph is from the excellent Walthamstow Then and Now website.
I’ve always like the fact that the identity of Walthamstow incorporates the postcode of the area. There are many uses of E17 in businesses and cultural events, and indeed one of the most significant events in the cultural calendar of the area is the E17 Art Trail (not the Walthamstow Art Trail).
I, like perhaps many people of my age and interest, heard of the postcode before I heard of the area, thanks to Tony Mortimer, Brian Harvey, John Hendy and Terry Coldwell. East 17 and Walthamstow existed in my consciousness as an area that a pop band was from. This was reinforced by the image of a greyhound used on the cover of ‘Parklife’ by Blur in 1994. As I grew up, I became aware of Walthamstow Stadium (which is of course in the Chingford parliamentary constituency, although I’m guessing most people associate it with Walthamstow), and that Walthamstow was at the end of the Victoria line. The point is that cultural artifacts have at least as much to do with the identity of an area as parliamentary constituency boundaries do.
Back to the Boundary Commission
Despite all this, I think that the Boundary Commission have got it wrong. Walthamstow is an area with a coherent geography. The North Circular, Epping Forest, Lea Bridge Road and the Lee Valley provide natural boundaries. The four stations in Walthamstow serve people from across the area, and a glance at the E17 Art Trail map shows that a lot of people happily wander around Walthamstow to enjoy what the area has to offer. Such elements of life add up to a common experience, and it is that common experience and interest that needs representation in Parliament.
The Boundary Commission state that the North Circular Road doesn’t “form[s] a significant barrier” (AC79, p.24) between wards, but surely it is a more significant barrier than Elmsdale Road and Hatherly Road, their proposed boundary. They recommend the names Leyton and Chingford for the constituencies as they “describe[s] the main population centre adequately” (AC77 and AC79, p.24), ignoring the fact that Walthamstow is an equal population centre. There were 64,831 electors in Chingford & Woodford Green in 2010 and 63,541 in Leyton & Wanstead. Walthamstow’s 64,625 hardly positions it as a tiny hamlet waiting to be electorally plundered by the metropolises of the surrounding areas.
The Boundary Commission are currently consulting on their proposals, and details of how to respond are below. Once they submit their final proposals, the proposals will have to be voted on in Parliament. The indications are that whatever the proposals are, they will be defeated in Parliament, or at the very least, not enacted until after the 2015 General Election.
Ultimately, a geographical area means something different to each person. As the Situationist Guy Debord stated in his 1961 film ‘Critique of Separation’, “the sectors of a city…are decipherable, but the personal meaning they have for us is incommunicable”. The boundaries may or may not change, but Walthamstow will remain.
For details of how to respond to the Boundary Commission proposals, head over to their website. The consultation closes on 10 December 2012.