Wednesday, September 06, 2017

How many MPs does Britain need?

Before the Great Reform Act of the 1830s the boundaries for parliamentary elections were not revised for centuries, with the result that there were constituencies known as "rotten boroughs" which had once been populous but now had virtually no electors - one had disappeared under the sea - while huge new towns and cities had no representation.

To try to ensure this was never allowed to happen again, an independent Boundary Commission was established, which still exists, and a tradition was set up which lasted for decades until Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband broke it in the 2010-2015 parliament that all parties would support that commission's recommendation.

This is an issue, because the present boundaries are based on information which will be 20 years old come the next general election if the current parliament goes it's full term. If a boundary review is not passed in this parliament or in the near future British democracy will be in danger of taking the road back to rotten boroughs.

The longer the boundaries are left with no update the harder it will be to put right because the more sitting MPs will have a vested interest in not correcting it.

There was also a long-standing Conservative manifesto commitment adopted by David Cameron to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and implementing this was enshrined in Boundary review legislation under the Coalition.

Unfortunately, following the row over failure to reform the House of Lords, when an elected second chamber was blocked by an unholy alliance of rebel Tory backwoodsmen and the Labour party (who pretended to be in favour of reform but actually stopped it), Nick Clegg took his revenge by joining with Ed Miliband to vote down the boundary review.

A subsequent boundary review which, had it gone through and the 2015 parliament run its full duration, would have cut the 2020 parliament to 600 MPs, was on its way through the system when the 2017 election was called.

If I were an MP and thought there was a cat in hell's chance of getting a boundary review which implemented the promise to cut the number of MPs through the House of Commons, I would consider myself honour bound to vote for it.

But with no Conservative majority, and the DUP not committed under the Confidence and Supply agreement to back boundary changes, it is unlikely that a boundary review based on 600 MPs will pass the Commons for the same reason that a cut in the number of councillors did not pass Copeland Council last week. Turkeys don't vote for Christmas.

It appears unlikely that Labour, or the Lib/Dems, or the DUP would support a boundary review on the basis of the current law and a cut in the number of MPs. I do not know the SNP position but they do not have a record of being helpful to Conservative-led governments.

This presents the government with a difficult dilemma. On the one hand they were probably tempted - I certainly would be - to try to stick to their guns and make an effort to get the present boundary review through. However, this carries the very real risk of getting nothing through at all and putting Britain on the road back to Rotten Boroughs.

The alternative - which it sounds like they have decided to adopt - is to abandon the attempt to cut the number of MPs and pass a law instructing the Boundary Commission to start again on the basis of the present size of the House of Commons, 650 MPs. This would need primary legislation but it is almost certainly possible to get both that legislation, and a 650 seat boundary review, through the Commons and the Lords.

I don't think this will be a popular move, and regret the need for it, but being pragmatic, better to try to keep the electoral boundaries up to date on the current basis, and at least get that through, than try to get both a cut in the number of MPs and a set of up-to-date boundaries but lose both.


Jim said...

to answer the title question.

Hmm 4

good to keep a speaker, and two that oppose each other of course you need a 3rd one as everything is a stalemate other wise (and you might actually hear what someone is saying rather than the constant roar you get from all the school kids)

I guess one could double up as a cleaner, one could wind the clock up, the and the speaker can be the teller as its not hard to guess how many are in tother lobby if there are 2 in this one.

Chris Whiteside said...

Reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 was a popular policy and I am sorry that the loss of the Conservative majority in the general election has apparently meant that it will have to be dropped.

I think four is a bit on the low side.

Suspect however that your answer might get more support from the general public than 650!