The case for more MP’s (no really)
Proposals are currently before Parliament to reduce the number of MP’s from 650 to 600. The significance of this reform extends far beyond the loss of public employment for 50 MP’s. As often occurs, grotesque fake populism masks what is unambiguously an attack on the rights of the public and a reduction in democratic accountability. The undeniable reality of the proposed reform is to effectively reduce the value of an individual voter. It is a mathematical fact that increasing the size of the average constituency (as is proposed) reduces the individual importance of a single voter.
Once it is understood and articulated in this way, it becomes possible not just for the measure to be successfully opposed, but for an increase in the number of MP’s to be proposed. Ideally, such a reform would occur with a significant reduction in the House of Lords, a reduction which would exceed the increase in House of Commons membership and thus lead to a reduction in the total number of parliamentarians. The consequences of Brexit in terms of the transfer of powers from Brussels to Westminster significantly increases the workload of MP’s, further supporting the need for more MP’s.
In 2011, the Coalition government passed legislation that committed to a reduction in the number of parliamentary constituencies (and thus MP’s) in the UK from 650 to 600. The then Prime Minister David Cameron boasted that his noble objective was to ‘cut the cost of politics’. Amidst public sector austerity, and a strong anti-politics mood following the parliamentary expenses scandal, this was an effective slogan. Cameron was always a clever salesman and the combination of austerity and the anti-politics vibe made opposition to his proposal politically difficult.
Cameron’s real objective was probably more political. His stated aim to equalise the size of parliamentary constituencies, although reasonable, was strongly motivated by a desire to remove Labour’s embedded advantages under the previous boundaries. The Labour advantage and Conservative disadvantage was partly related to the bias towards Scotland and Wales, and away from England.
Under the proposed changes, the number of seats in England falls by 6%, compared to 28% in Wales, 10% in Scotland, and 6% in Northern Ireland. Given the fragility of the union, reducing representation in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland is extremely risky no matter how justified the redistribution of seats are between the home nations.
Predictability, Labour has strongly opposed the measure. Cat Smith MP, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs, has noted that in the absence of a change in the size of the executive, parliamentary scrutiny is weakened, especially worrying when parliament’s workload is magnified by Brexit.
However, this fails to sufficiently articulate the damage caused by these proposals, and Labour are missing a huge open goal. The real winning argument against the proposals, which could energize public opposition if it is effectively articulated, relates to voter power.
A reduction in the number of MP’s is logically related to a straightforward reduction in voter power. The proposed change from 650 MP’s to 600 MP’s would increase the average constituency size from 72,000 to 78,000. The implication is that is an individual voter goes from being one in 72,000 constituents to one in 78,000 constituents. This is not exactly a dramatic shift, but the principle is very clear that an individual voter is now less important in determining their parliamentary representation.
Likewise, being one of a greater number of constituents makes MP’s more remote and harder to contact. A comparison could be made here with GP registers, with patients naturally concerned that an increase in the size of a GP’s register will make it more difficult to see him or her when their services are required. Increasing the remoteness of MP’s to their constituents is particularly hard on the most vulnerable constituents who are most likely to seek the help of their MP’s on issues.
The effective deployment these arguments could form a popular case for an increased number of constituencies (and thus MP’s). Properly understood, reducing the size of constituencies and thus increasing the number of MP’s is a genuinely (as opposed to fake) populist argument.
There is however a public image problem with this position which may make Labour initially reluctant. Cameron was clever in linking his reform with the cost of politics. It is also a fundamental truth that ‘more politicians’ is probably the least popular slogan imaginable and could be used against such proposals.
The resistance of the public to ‘more politicians’ can be recognised and accepted whilst arguing for an increase in the number of MP’s. This is by couching such an increase in terms of a broader political reform relating to Brexit and a reform of the House of Lords.
Amongst the many consequences of Brexit are the loss of 73 UK MEP’s. Since the UK is a net contributor to the EU, and MEPs are better paid than MP’s, the loss of these MEP’s can be clearly said to reduce the cost of politics to the UK voter.
A second way of reducing the cost of politics and the number of politicians is from reducing the size of the House of Lords. The Lords currently comprises an incredible 792 members, making it second in size only to China’s National People’s Congress. Many members make little or no contribution, and their place is highly questionable, making this the most obvious location to search for cost-savings. It would have been good advice for David Cameron, who appointed 205 Peers at a cost of £13m.
We should explicitly reverse the Cameron approach of increasing our unelected representatives whilst decreasing our elected representatives. One overdue and popular reform would be abolishing the 26 ‘Lords Spiritual’, the presence of which embarrasses our claim to be a modern democracy and is contrary to the UK’s relatively secular nature. There are large number of other Lords whose role in our legislature has no purpose or rationale and who could be removed. The process for doing so and deciding how the House of Lords should be composed is sadly way beyond the scope of this note.
Given the loss of MEP’s and the scope for huge reductions in the House of Lords, a creative and progressive approach would support an overall reduction in the size of Parliament by reducing the number of Lords by a greater number than an increase in MP’s. Increasing the number of MP’s whilst decreasing the number of Lords could be effectively sold to the electorate on democratic terms. A proposed formula of ‘3 out, 1 in’ could be the strategy (and slogan), offering to increase the number of MP’s by 150, whilst reducing the number of Lords by 450.
This is an ambitious and bold approach, so requires strong justification on the following grounds:
Enhancing voter power and representation
It is very simple and undeniable basic maths; the less voters per parliamentary representative, the greater power of an individual voter in terms of determining their representative. Decreasing the value of an individual’s vote further encourages voter apathy as individuals logically see their individual importance decreasing. Increasing the power, by smaller constituencies, logically does the opposite.
The anti-politics and anti-Westminster mood can be mobilised behind an explicit strategy to increase the number of elected parliamentarians whilst decreasing the number of unelected parliamentarians.
Reducing distance between MP’s and the electorate
MP’s are often viewed (unfairly in most cases) as remote and out of touch. This is partly inevitable when a country of 65 million is governed by 650 individuals. However, reducing the number of MP’s, leading to a greater number of people per MP, will not reduce this problem. You’d expect an averagely intelligent 9-year-old to see this would do the opposite.
Reducing the size of constituencies and increasing the number of MP’s does not by itself resolve the perceived remoteness of MP’s from the public. However, by itself, it is a modest move in the right direction. From a progressive perspective, it is particularly important for vulnerable voters who rely most on public services (and MP’s constituency work comes into that category).
Avoids and resolves intense political challenges related to boundary reform
Increasing the number and thus reducing the size of constituencies enables some of the current idiosyncrasies to be resolved. This includes the problem where the Isle of Wight with 108,000 people and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles) with approximately 22,000 both are represented by only one MP. The Isle of Wight can now have two MP’s, as it should have based on its size.
Many of the most toxic proposed reforms to parliamentary boundaries arise from a (itself perfectly reasonable) desire to equalise the size of parliamentary constituencies. It is this desire which has led to planned sharp reductions in MP’s for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, an outcome so potentially toxic at this time it is stunning that any government didn’t immediately veto the plan.
In Scotland, the SNP are looking for any reason to justify another referendum, which currently polling suggests could be on a knife-edge. Reducing number of constituencies and thus number of Scottish MP’s plays into narrative of Westminster being the enemy whatever the bureaucratic reasons for it.
The biggest loser in terms of the home nations however is Wales. Although Wales does not currently have a separatist threat as large as Scotland’s, it is noteworthy how Scottish separatism has grown dramatically and unexpectedly over the past decade. It is arrogant in the extreme for Westminster to ignore the potential dangers of another separatist threat, especially in these politically turbulent times.
The proposed outcomes in Wales are truly bizarre. The island of Anglesey (population 70,000) is to be combined with an area of North Wales (whereas smaller Scottish islands maintain their own MP). Additionally, there are some new constituencies created across west and mid-Wales which are huge in terms of land size due to their sparse population.
Rural seats (and small islands) do pose a challenge to a desire to equalise constituency populations. However, there are good reasons to make exceptions for these areas from the general rules relating to constituency size. Their large area reduces the ease by which one MP can cover the area, as well as leading to greater diversity of interests etc than can occur for seats covering smaller areas.
Although there must be a redistribution between the home nations, increasing the total number of seats and ensuring England gets a disproportionately high number of new seats should be the approach taken. This would have the same impact in terms of redistributing seats between the home nations without the politically toxic consequences.
Quality of Legislative Scrutiny
A long-standing problem in Westminster has been the relatively low level of legislative scrutiny, with government-led laws not receiving enough critical scrutiny in the lower chamber at least (often active members of the more reflective House of Lords has been better at this).
Increasing the number of MP’s does not by itself resolve this problem but increasing the number of MP’s who are not part of the Executive does mean there is greater potential for more effective scrutiny of legislation. Such a change should be augmented by enhancing the status and authority of select committees, ideally by making the chairmanship (and even membership) of such committees a paid position.
Smaller constituencies will also help MP’s to focus on their legislative function by reducing (at least mildly) constituency concerns, which MP’s understandably feel pressured to prioritise despite their primary function being to hold the government to account.
The complexity of Brexit is partly due to the large range of policy areas which are set at an EU level and thus require unravelling. If Brexit proceeds as planned, the UK government and parliament will resume control of the following areas which are partially or fully under EU control:
· Trade policy
· International Development
· Home Affairs and justice
· Climate change
· Employment legislation
· Health and Safety legislation
· Product regulation
This is a repatriation of powers on a gargantuan scale. It has the potential to overwhelm an unprepared parliament with limited experience of legislating on such issues. This would be a problem even if parliament was not by common consent fairly poor at legislative oversight. Given the significantly increased workload for both government and parliament, increasing the number of lawmakers is justified, just as the government will be taking on more civil servants.
Politics of the change
Ultimately, the final decisive factor relates to the motivations affecting parliamentarians of different parties. Deep down, probably for primarily selfish reasons, parliamentarians are looking for a way out of this. Reducing the number of seats obviously reduces political prospects for individual MP’s. Even Conservative MP’s, who are theoretically in favour of the move, do not really want their constituencies boundaries to be changed and thus go through a potentially arduous reselection process.
Given these political considerations, a revised plan to increase the number of constituencies which is specifically linked to the loss of MEP’s as well as reform to the House of Lords, would be likely to pass, particularly if there is a net saving to the public purse. For the Conservatives, there is still the fact that the current unfair advantages in the system are removed, whilst MP’s from all parties secretly breathe a sigh of relief over a reduction in their total number.
Using the boundary reforms to make constituencies smaller (and increase the number of MP’s) whilst reducing the size of the House of Lords could be a win-win for both the public and its parliamentary representatives.
 See Isabel Hardman’s excellent ‘Why we get the wrong politicians’ to see this in more detail.