A bill that would reduce the number of MPs and change constituency boundaries deserves a good going-over in the Lords
The government really only has itself to blame for the problems its parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill has been encountering in the House of Lords. As its name suggests, the bill combines two separate enterprises and provides both for a referendum on changing the voting system to the alternative vote and measures to “reduce and equalise” the number of MPs. The problem is that the AV referendum is legislatively pretty straightforward and – once the Conservatives had signed up to it in the coalition agreement – not very controversial. But the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and rewriting the rules by which parliamentary constituencies are drawn up is legislatively complicated and deeply controversial. Yoking together a simple, time-sensitive measure like the referendum and a complicated proposal like the boundary changes was asking for trouble.
The “reduce and equalise” policy deserves intense scrutiny. The all-party political and constitutional reform select committee expressed its “regret that it is being pushed through parliament in a manner that limits both legislative and external scrutiny of its impact”:
“While we agree there may be a case for reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, the government has singularly failed to make it. We recommend the government assesses and, if possible, mitigate through amendments, the likely impact of the wholesale redrawing of constituency boundaries on grassroots politics.”
In terms of reducing numbers of MPs, the government has plucked a number from the air rather than starting with an assessment of what MPs do and how many of them are needed to do it. The workload of MPs within Westminster has gone up considerably over the years, particularly since the select committee system was created in 1979. There are now 467 places on the committees that run the business of the house and scrutinise the executive. Particularly if the number of ministers and PPS posts remains the same, there will be fewer people to hold the government to account.MPs also work harder than ever in their constituencies. In the 1960s MPs received about 15 letters a week; now it is 300, plus huge numbers of emails. By September, newly elected MPs were saying they had already received 20,000 emails to their parliamentary address.
The standard of constituency service that electors expect has gone up steadily, and the evidence shows that MPs who have good reputations for constituency work do well electorally (such as Grant Shapps, Tim Farron and Gisela Stuart). The number of people they represent has gone up steadily – from 55,000 electors in 1950 to 70,000 now and 76,000 under the new rules.
Nor are the British over-represented. The Commons is a bit larger than some other legislative chambers, but then it does different things. Unlike the US House, or the French national assembly, it staffs the executive. In many other countries, like the US, Australia and Germany, there is a tier of state legislatures below the federal level, and in most other countries there are more councillors with more powers than in the United Kingdom. The chamber that is very large by international standards is the House of Lords, which the government is busy making even bigger by packing it with supporters.
The new boundary rules, as I have written at length elsewhere, are likely to produce a complicated and flawed new political map of Britain. The government’s insistence on constituencies being a maximum of 5% away from the average size of 76,000 electors means that county boundaries will be crossed, local government wards split between parliamentary constituencies, and seats drawn up in defiance of community identity and sometimes of common sense.
There is no alternative, if the government bill is unamended, to a seat straddling between part of the Isle of Wight and part of Hampshire – “Southsea and Ryde” most likely. Cornwall is up in arms about a seat crossing the border with Devon. The bill has an indifferent, un-conservative attitude to local identity and community in the interests of centralised arithmetic rationalism.
It is also, in its effect, the most extreme uniformity imposed on any national legislature’s seats. Even in the United States and Australia, two countries with strong “equalisation” systems, only around 90% of seats fit into the 5% band that the government intends to cram 99.5% of parliamentary seats. The Boundary Commission for England already manages better overall equalisation than is achieved in Australia.
The government could allow a few more special cases (like the Isle of Wight, Cornwall, Argyll and northwest Wales), and tolerate 10% variation around the average size, which would prevent most of the silly consequences of the 5% limit such as split wards and cross county seats. Some account could also be taken of seats where the population (all of whom are entitled to the MP’s representative service) is hugely larger than the registered electorate, as it is in much of inner London. We would still have parliamentary constituencies that are pretty much as equal in size to those of the US House of Representatives, which should satisfy the government’s demand for equalising seats.
The government has failed to take any account of the reasoned comments of several parliamentary select committees (so much for improving the balance of power between legislature and executive) and has insisted blindly on its own extreme proposals. It is notable that the government backbenchers in the Lords have been nearly completely silent. This may be because they know the government has lost the argument, or less charitably because they are not prepared to scrutinise their own government’s measure. Debating and amending bills in these circumstances is precisely what the House of Lords is for, and by giving this bill a thorough going-over the Labour Lords are acting in the best traditions of their house.