30:30 vision coming into focus?

Image caption "This constituency ain't big enough for the both of us."

Today? England and Northern Ireland.

Tomorrow? No, not the world but Wales.

I'm talking boundary changes to parliamentary constituencies designed to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and for 'tomorrow', read January. It's just a few months away and today's announcement of boundary changes for English parliamentary constituencies has certainly focused Welsh MPs' minds on what's coming their way in the new year.

It's focused ours too, so here's a round-up of what my colleagues in Cardiff Bay and I have been hearing.

Shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain is convinced the new parliamentary map in Wales will leave no constituency unchanged, thanks to "rigid, almost Stalinist" instructions from the UK government to the Boundary Commission for Wales. He accused both the Wales Office and its boss, Cheryl Gillan, of failing to protect Wales, of 'not caring a fig' about democracy in Wales which will find out come January how 40 MPs will go into 30 - a far more dramatic cut than being suffered by their English counterparts.

The story of why the Welsh announcement has been delayed is for another day (and may yet get a few headlines) but for now, let's focus on what 30 might mean for politics in Wales.

The immediate impact will be on the MPs themselves, of course. As Mr Hain spelled out, the suggestion is that in the options being looked at for the new setup in Wales, no constituency escapes intact. Such is the historical over-representation of Wales at Westminster that major changes are pretty much inevitable.

They'll be watching with some foreboding, no doubt, as journalists pick out MPs of the same party in neighbouring constituencies who know that it's one or other of them who'll return after the next election. I can just see the Alas Crabb and Hart nose-to-nose shot now.

One seasoned observer of parliamentary politics gloomily predicts the kind of paralysis that will grip Westminster as the changes work their way through the long process of consultation, vote and implementation. And before anyone rushes to accuse the elected members of navel gazing, imagine the impact on any workplace of this kind of long-drawn-out upheaval.

Many people are already looking further down the track at what the changes will also mean for the National Assembly, however.

In Scotland, they've been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Boundary changes are an accepted fact of life there. For the National Assembly, it will be the first time that the constituencies in the two institutions won't be aligned.

There was an early salvo from Labour - voiced by Peter Hain but with the backing of Welsh Labour leader Carwyn Jones. He suggested a completely new system of elections for the Assembly's 60 seats, with 30 dual member constituencies which would be "coterminous", to use the jargon, with the new Westminster ones.

There followed predictable uproar from the three other main parties, as this system would effectively entrench a Labour majority for the foreseeable future.

In joined Labour's very own AM Mick Antoniw, arguing that just because the number of Welsh MPs are being cut, that doesn't mean there has to be a change to the way Assembly members are elected and that either way, it's up to the people of Wales to decide what should happen, not senior politicians from any party:

"It is almost as though the wishes of the Assembly are considered irrelevant and that Wales is to be treated as little more than a political football ... At the end of the day, the voting system in Wales for the Assembly belongs to the people of Wales and it would seriously undermine the devolution settlement and constitutional relations between Wales and Westminster to attempt to do anything without the consent of the people of Wales".

Some scratched their heads about why Mr Hain would put forward such a patent non-runner. The answer, most suspected, was that there's another means of achieving co-terminosity and that's 30 constituencies and 30 list members.

It was raised by Plaid Cymru MP Jonathan Edwards during Welsh Questions on May 11th:

"The Calman process in Scotland had a wider remit than merely to consider funding arrangements. Given the Labour party's opposition to decoupling Westminster and National Assembly constituency boundaries, would it not make sense to base the make-up of the fifth National Assembly on 30 regional and 30 constituency Assembly Members?"

It was, said Mrs Gillan at the time, "a very interesting thought". She would "look seriously at it" and from what we're hearing, it's gathering a head of steam. It would, of course, also achieve co-terminosity but it would have exactly the opposite effect for Labour to Mr Hain's plan - making it very, very hard, no, make that virtually impossible for them to win a majority. If you're Labour's Owen Smith taking on Cheryl Gillan at the Welsh Affairs Committee you accuse her and her party of "more gerrymandering." If you're Mrs Gillan you accuse him in return of "jumping the gun ... setting a hare running when no hare is even in the field yet."

The tactical problem for Mr Hain and Labour in fighting this is that they've already conceded one vital aspect of the argument - that there should only be one common set of boundaries for both the Assembly and Parliament. Had they gone for the Scottish argument of decoupling one set from the other, they at least could have fought to retain the historical Assembly constituencies and preserve the current geographical balance of power.

As it is, the 30 constituency, 30 list option has quite a few attractions for the non-Labour parties. There is some talk of a linked change of a move to a national list, rather than five regional lists. Others suggest it would be wise to wait and see what the Welsh-style Calman Commission has to say about list versus constituency members before coming to firm conclusions.

In the meantime we'll keep our ears to the shifting ground and keep an eye out for those hares.