Number lines

Dianne Hayter on ensuring the new Parliamentary Constituencies Bill prioritises public interest over round figures

February 2011, and the Coalition government passed a Bill to reduce the number of elected MPs by 50 down to 600 – ignoring UK population growth and just when, despite claims this was to “reduce the cost of politics”, the Lords was being pumped up by a comparable figure of unelected Peers. 

No rationale was ever given for the 600 figure – other than the then Leader of the Lords saying it was “a nice, round number”.  But the implications for the work of MPs (with larger seats to represent), the upheaval (allied to a smaller “tolerance level” for the Boundary Commission to work around), and an increased frequency of reviews, all meant the law was never brought into force. Conservative MPs were as unhappy as Labour, and they stayed the government’s hand on the starting pistol ensuring it was never fired.

Fast forward a near decade, and the 2020 Parliamentary Constituencies Bill – arriving in the Lords on Monday from the Commons – reminds us of this this mad-cap idea while restoring a welcome commitment to the present 650 constituencies. With 73 fewer elected politicians (the number of UK MEPs no longer attending the European Parliament), any further reduction in those able to represent constituents’ interests seemed particularly inappropriate. And with no planned reduction in ministers, the power of the Executive vis-à-vis the Commons would have been larger.

The Bill does retain one shortcoming from the existing Act – permitting only a plus-or-minus 5% figure on the number of electors permitted in each seat, in an apparent attempt to ensure numerical equality of representation in every constituency.  This, however, does not work well in geographically large areas or where mountains or a river dissect a region. In parts of Wales, for example, two valleys – with a mountain between them and no transport across – could find themselves in a single parliamentary seat.

The obsession with statistical numbers also overlooks the nine million potential electors missing from the electoral roll (per seat far larger than the 5% margin), as well as the fact that MPs represent communities, not just individuals.  The more an MP knows the schools and universities, villages and neighbourhoods, businesses, charities, and churches in a seat, the better they can understand and speak up for the people. Those tasked with defining constituency boundaries should do so in a way that best reflects local communities as well as numbers, and with the leeway to respond accordingly.

One new, worrying, feature has suddenly been dropped into this Bill: the removal of the final oversight by Parliament of the map drawn up by the Boundary Commission. It was this backstop that prevented the 600 seats being imposed but it will vanish in this Bill, to be replaced by a simple Order in Council without proper scrutiny. Just one more example of this government’s apparent keenness not to involve MPs and Peers. Hopefully, however, the Lords will remove this unwanted device and restore parliamentary oversight.

There are many other challenges facing our democracy – not least the need for protection against interference in UK democratic process by Russia or any other malign interference. We also need to add 16- and 17-year olds to the electoral roll and take real action to ensure everyone entitled to vote is actually registered. No one should take our democracy for granted but at least the continuation of 650 MPs will ensure there are more pairs of eyes watching closely what the government is up to.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is a Shadow Cabinet Office Minister and Deputy Leader of the Labour Peers Group. She tweets @HayteratLords 

Published 23rd July 2020


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