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Reducing the number of MPs is bad for our democracy

September 13, 2018

The ability of our MPs to keep an eye on the actions of government has been dealt a major blow. The reports of the parliamentary boundary commissioners were published this week.  These periodic reviews rearrange the constituency jig saw, altering the size and shape of the pieces that make up our electoral map. All previous reviews were an attempt to alter the map to reflect shifts in population.  This review is different.  It’s the first since the departure of the Irish Free State in 1922 to set out deliberately to reduce the size of the House of Commons by a significant amount. The size of the government will not be changing.  But there will be fifty fewer backbenchers to hold them to account as the Commons shrinks from 650 to 600 MPs.

The origins of this strange “reform” go back to before the 2010 general election.  All three party leaders at the time were falling over themselves with eagerness to give MPs a kicking in response to the abuse of the expenses system by some of their colleagues.  Nick Clegg talked about “reducing the cost of politics” and one of his suggestions was to reduce the House of Commons by an arbitrary number of 50.  It wasn’t clear to his bemused colleagues which of us he expected to volunteer for self-immolation but it’s safe to assume he didn’t have the member for Sheffield Hallam in mind. David Cameron came up with an identical proposal.

When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition was formed in 2010 the reduction made its way into the Coalition Agreement. This time it was dressed up as part of the package of constitutional reforms that included a referendum on the voting system and an elected second chamber.  The PM and DPM trotted out the line that reducing the Commons to 650 MPs was hardly a calamity, after all the US got by with just 535 members of the House of Representatives.  I could not vote against the 2011 Bill that provided for the reduction as it was intertwined with the legislation paving the way for the AV referendum.  But I spoke against the seats reduction during the committee stage.

I pointed out that the charge that Britain was over-endowed with politicians was spurious.  I had recently been on a cross party delegation of the Britain-America Committee designed to increase understanding of US government.  We had spent time in Washington DC, a weekend with a Congressman (in my case a curious match with Republican Robert Aderholt of Alabama, we got on fine) and then a few days in Lansing, the state capital of Michigan.  In my speech I pointed out that a citizen in Michigan would be able to vote for the President and Vice President, two federal Senators, a federal Congressman, the Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Michigan, the state Attorney General and Secretary of State, a state Senator and a state member of the House of Representatives.  There was also the statewide Board of Education and a plethora of local council members and officials.  The citizen had plenty of choice of who to contact about a personal problem or who to lobby about a political issue.

In contrast, Britain’s political system is remarkably thin and flat.  In England people would have an MEP (now with a 6 months sell by date…) and an MP and that was it for national or regional issues.  There would be a local councillor or two and since 2011 there are now some city Mayors and Regional Mayors plus a Police and Crime Commissioner.  Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have national Parliament members.  But Britain is very lightly governed compared not just to the US but also all our fellow European neighbours.

Power in Britain is still concentrated in Westminster.  An over-mighty government is drawn from the ranks of Parliamentarians, another key difference with the US conveniently glossed over by Messrs Cameron and Clegg. There is no separation of power between the executive and legislature. Scrutiny of the executive is done by MPs (and unelected Peers), many of whom are wannabe or ex Ministers. This is an imperfect system but the changes proposed now will make it worse.  There will be a reduced pool of MPs able to question ministers and scrutinise legislation and policy implementation. Theresa May’s government in 2018 has 25 MPs in the cabinet, 58 MP ministers outside the cabinet plus 17 whips – a round total of 100 MPs in the executive.  In a House of Commons of 600 members, a government needs only about 295 MPs to command a majority, once the Speaker and Sinn Fein MPs are taken out of the equation.  A government should be able to operate with fewer whips, their flock of sheep having been reduced.  But the government will be a bigger beast, with a reduced number of challengers both on the government and opposition benches.  There will be fewer MPs for the vital work of legislation Bill Committees and departmental Select Committees.  Causes that are promoted by cross party APPGs will have fewer parliamentary champions.  The House of Commons will be impoverished and the imbalance of numbers with the unelected Lords will be even starker.

In 2011, as in 2018, most of the attention has been focussed on the changes to boundaries, rather than the diminished scrutiny of the government.  The boundaries are being altered for more reasons than usual.  The Coalition enshrined in law a requirement that constituencies should be of equal size, with only a 5% tolerance away from the norm.  Using the electorate at December 2015 this means a target electorate of 74,769 with a minimum size of 71,031 and maximum of 78,507.

I supported this change back in 2011.  First Past the Post is a terrible system to use in a multi-party democracy.  But its distortions are made more extreme if constituencies vary too much in size. This proposed change triggered howls of protest, mainly from Labour MPs representing small constituencies. For instance Tristram Hunt, my fellow member of the Constitutional Reform Select Committee, was a vocal critic of the reform.  His Stoke on Trent Central electorate in the 2010 general election was just 61,003 compared to my Bristol West electorate of 82,728. Even within the same city there were major distortions – my Labour neighbour in Bristol East had 69,448 electors.

Equal sized constituencies means that five of the six demands of the Chartists in the 1840s are now in place.  British democratic reform moves at a glacial pace.  But the constituency map will now change massively.  The Press Association calculates that 272 current constituencies will be either completely abolished or changed radically. Half of Labour’s current seats fall into this category as do just over a third of Conservative seats.  The elections centre at Plymouth University (essentially Professors Thrasher and Rallings, psephologists extraordinaire) have re-run the 2017 general election, with estimates for the new boundaries and a 600 seat House of Commons.  The Conservatives would have won 308 seats. Theresa May would be free of the bowler hatted men of the DUP, if not her own troublesome backbenchers.  Labour would be 76 seats behind and my own party would be on just 7 seats.  Of course people will often vote differently if local circumstances change so the position could be rosier for Labour and the Lib Dems.  But it is clear that it will be harder for Labour to over-haul the Tories at the next election now that they have lost the cushion of small safe seats.

These changes, if approved by MPs, will go ahead in the absence of compensating constitutional reform. Westminster will remain far too powerful, particularly in England where devolution is at very early stages.  English MPs will completely dominate the House of Commons.  There will 501 MPs representing English constituencies compared with just 29 for Wales, the lowest number since before the 1832 Reform Act.  This is particularly hard on Wales, while the National Assembly remains under-powered with just 60 members. Brexit is consuming all the political energy of the government and the Labour “opposition” have shown no interest in meaningful reform either.

In the absence of a fairer voting system, an elected Senate and real devolution within England, I believe these changes worsen our democracy. In 2013, after being stabbed in the back by Ed Miliband over AV and the collapse of House of Lords reform, Liberal Democrat MPs broke ranks with our Tory coalition partners and voted down the boundary changes.  (I wish we’d done this a little more often, most obviously on tuition fees.)  In 2018 it is likely that the DUP will stick with Mrs May and support the changes, which are expected to leave DUP representation unchanged at ten MPs. If Mrs May’s Brexit critics eventually force her out of Number Ten, her successor will have very incentive to call another early election on the more advantageous boundaries.

British politics has had four shocks to its system in the last few years.  The full effect of Brexit on domestic politics is as yet unknown. Corbyn has transformed Labour, probably for the worst.  Labour’s hegemony in Scotland has been shattered by the SNP.  The Coalition broke the Liberal Democrats.  All of these are changes that could be reversed or take a new direction. But the reduction of the House of Commons will impair the effectiveness of our Parliament for years to come.

 

Notes

My blog on a model constitution for Britain and Northern Ireland can be read here – https://stephenwilliamsmp.wordpress.com/2016/08/08/how-a-federal-republic-could-keep-britain-united/

The boundary reviews for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland can be read here –

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-boundary-commissions-boundary-review-2018

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Paul permalink
    September 14, 2018 7:37 am

    Disappointed that Kerry McCarthy isn’t being merged.

    FPTP is the least worst system, we had a referendum on changing it. AV is shockingly undemocratic, in a lot of scenarios it gives my off the cuff 2nd choice more importance than another voters 1st choice, not good.

    • fairp0rT permalink
      September 14, 2018 9:46 am

      Party List of One (which FPtP is) is the worst voting system. The overall result does not reflect the the voters. Minorities get a majorities. Within continuecies voters can often get the MP they least want and that MP is chosen by the Party selectorate. Voters have to try to guess how best to use their vote tactically – often getting it wrong.

      AV would have removed the need for tactical guesswork. It is certainly true that in some very exceptional circumstances it can distort results such that one party gets an unjustifiable majority but in the British context that would not be the case. AV would have likely produced similar results but with a few extra Lib Dem seats (unless there is a hidden a vast number of people who really want the Lib Dem’s but don’t votes for them as “they can’t win”.

      Other systems would at least produce a HoC which reflect broadly the politics of the voters but most still leave a lot of power for the parties to shooed the MPs.

      With STV all the power is in the hands of the voters. They can distinguish, for example, pro and anti Brexit candidates from the same party. They can take into account the gender of candidates or their ethnicity. The results will reflect the multi-dimensional voting. A large majority of voters will have an MP who they have supported. The only drawback is that it takes a long time to count.

      • September 14, 2018 9:55 am

        AV or multi-member STV would be a huge improvement on FPTP. As you say, the only downside is a longer count process. With AV we’d know the results in most seats by Friday afternoon. STV on the Saturday. I don’t think that would upset too many people, apart from nervous candidates.

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