Tuesday 29 January 2013

In Which I Agree with the @Conservatives...

Well, kind of... The Government's plans for the reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 were defeated today when Liberal Democrats voted against the Tories in favour of a motion to delay Boundary Reform to at least 2018. And when I say that the Liberal Democrats voted against - I mean every last one of them - all 57, according to the BBC. (if you want to check Hansard yourself, feel free...) - and I am very happy with this state of affairs.

But why am I so opposed when I agree with the equalisation of constituencies and the reduction of the overall number of MPs? Well, it's not just about the Tory failure to deliver on Lords Reform - although that comes into it...

For context let's revisit the manifestos. The Conservative's 2010 election manifesto promised this:

"[to] reduce the number of MPs by 10 per cent"
and, in a section entitled "A new agenda for a new politics" it said:
"The Conservative Party has led the way in sorting out the mess of MPs’ expenses. In government we will go further, by cutting the size of Parliament, cutting the scope of Whitehall, and cutting the cost of politics. We will make politics more local, more transparent and more accountable. We intend to build a new political system that serves people rather than politicians. Together, we can change our politics for the better."
Many (most? all?) of my readers will probably agree with me that the claim that the Tories led the way in reform of expenses is, ehm, dubious, at best. A further section takes the theme further:
"We will also cut Ministers’ pay and reduce the number of MPs in Parliament. Then we will go further, far further, since the expenses scandal was just the trigger for a deeper sense of frustration. We promise a total overhaul of our system of government, so that power is passed from the politicians at Westminster back to the people of Britain. But this is the very least that is needed to fix our broken political system."

What of the Lib Dems? Didn't we propose a cut in the number of MPs - an even bigger reduction in fact? Well, yes we did:
"Liberal Democrats will [c]hange politics and abolish safe seats by introducing a fair, more proportional voting system for MPs. Our preferred Single Transferable Vote system gives people the choice between candidates as well as parties. Under the new system, we will be able to reduce the number of MPs by 150."
And what is more, it was proposed as part of a package of measures which included this one:
"Replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected second chamber with considerably fewer members than the current House."
You can find the Tory Manifesto here and the Liberal Democrat one, complete with a full range of proposed constitutional reforms to support House of Commons reduction, here.*

Equalisation of constituencies whilst retaining First Past the Post would, of course, broadly favour the Tories - and this is the unspoken purpose of its inclusion in their manifesto. But the Liberal Democrats exist to promote fairness, so we cannot oppose them on this basis alone - although it would have been easier, politically, to have made the stand against the boundary reforms if the reduction in number of MPs hadn't be part of the same "bullet point" in the coalition agreement.
It is spurious to argue for constitutional changes on the basis of cost to the public purse. When it comes to public representation, I'm a bit of a Chartist: democracy costs, and we should not be ashamed of that. Yes, we should be against excess and profligacy but MPs should be properly rewarded for a (pretty much) 24/7 job and recognised for the employment they provide (an MP's office doesn't run itself).

It's also odd to argue that you will make politics "more local, more transparent, more accountable" when the net effect of the reduction of MPs (notwithstanding that some constituencies will shrink whilst others grow) is to increase the number of electors per representative and, therefore, reduce how local each MP would be. (Indeed, some of the odd constituencies proposed as a result of the various boundary reviews, Clackmannanshire and Dunfermline West & Bideford, Bude and Launceston ("Devonwall"), for example, illustrate this point).
This point about accountability becomes odder when you consider that a smaller Commons will lead to a stronger executive. Without other reforms: PR and an elected Lords, a smaller Commons weakens our parliamentary democracy - and does the opposite of  "passing power back to the people of Britain".
To truly pass power back to the people we need wholesale reform of the Commons and Lords. As things stand, the Lords is not only unchanged, but is ever-increasing in size (another batch of en-noblements is expected to be announced this week). Every new Peer reduces the democratic accountability of Parliament. Every new Peer concentrates more power with politicians at Westminster. Meanwhile, the Commons is unrepresentative of the electoral will of the people.

If we had an elected second chamber, the additional representation that this provided would allow for the number of MPs to be reduced to compensate for reduced workloads. The weakening of the Commons which would be a problem with no other changes is rectified by presence of additional representation. A weaker Commons could be balanced by a democratic Lords.
So I whole-heartedly agree with the Conservatives that we should reduce the size of the House of Commons. I even agree with some of their (stated) reasons. But not without changes elsewhere in our parliamentary democracy. I want to see a House of Commons which is smaller - but not for reasons of cost. I want to see equal constituencies but not for (Conservative) Party Political gain. I want these things for reasons of fairness - and as part of a proper programme of reform not as a standalone measure that further skews the system in favour of the Government - any Government.
Boundary reform is now off the agenda until 2018. I've said before that I don't think that at the next election (and in any coalition negotiation that may follow), we should bang on about constitution reform. In the absence of any further moves in that direction, the most we should do is support equalisation without reduction.
The Tories broke the coalition agreement over Lords reform - not in the Lobby, granted, given that Cameron couldn't drag his MPs anywhere close. Clegg was right to lead his troops to, and through, the Lobby in opposition to a Tory manifesto policy. Tonight, I am proud of every single one of them. 


* Just a gripe: it bugs me that this isn't more prominent on the "What do we stand for?" page of our website rather than the Coalition Agreement. We may (broadly) support the coalition agreement, but it isn't what we stand for. I've just visited the aforementioned page of the website and note it has had a revamp.

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Anonymous said...

What a strange article.

It puts the case against reducing the number of MPs quite cogently, and doesn't (as far as I can see) mention any arguments in favour of doing that, except the one of cost, which is dismissed as spurious. Then it carries blithely on with "So I whole-heartedly agree with the Conservatives that we should reduce the size of the House of Commons."


oneexwidow said...

@ Anonymous

I've edited and amended the post slightly to make my position clearer - but I wasn't really setting to argue specifically for a reduction in the size - more that this could be achieved but without other reforms it would be counter-productive.

For example: I argue that reducing the number of MPs increases the number of electors per MP - the opposite of increasing Local Accountability. But, if those electors also elect members of a Second Chamber, then this is nullified as an issue.

Anonymous said...

I just don't understand why you think a reduction in the number of MPs would be a good thing - either with or without other reforms.