Boundaries: Cut in MPs should be scrapped in light of Brexit, say campaigners

Posted on the 10th September 2018

Cut would mean proportion of MPs on government payroll would reach historical record.

  • Statement from the Electoral Reform Society, 11:00, 10th September 2018

Plans to slash the number of MPs as the UK prepares to exit the European Union would amount to a government “power grab” unless changes are made, democracy campaigners warn today.

Revised constituency boundaries for the UK – published today [1] – would reduce the total number of MPs from 650 to 600 if approved by Parliament. However, the government have made no pledge to limit the number of frontbenchers – meaning a cut in MPs could undermine backbench scrutiny.

The cut could not happen at a worse time given the UK’s impending departure from the EU – with more responsibility being handing to MPs, and the abolition of MEP representation placing a heavier caseload burden on members, according to the Electoral Reform Society.

New ERS analysis shows that if the House of Commons reduced in size to 600 MPs and the ‘payroll vote’ remained the same size as now, 23% of MPs and 45% of Conservative MPs would be duty-bound to vote with the government [2]. 

The 23% figure would be the highest figure on record, and the 45% figure ahistorical tie for highest payroll roll percentage of governing MPs with the 2005 figure.

The ERS fears this would shrink the talent pool to draw on for Select Committee positions and other vital scrutiny posts.

Brexit will involve the repatriation of huge swathes of legalisation which will require extensive scrutiny by MPs.

Missing the point

Efforts to equalise constituency sizes are also a ‘red herring’, the Society says, given the dramatic inequality in the number of votes it takes to elect an MP, under Westminster’s ‘outdated and broken’ voting system [3].

UKIP won nearly 600,000 votes but zero MPs last year – while the DUP needed just 27,930 votes per MP elected. The Greens won over 500,000 votes in the 2017 GE but just one MP, while the Lib Dems secured an MP for every 197,336 votes.

Labour in fact needed more votes per MP elected than the Conservatives (49,266 to 42,927 respectively), with millions of ‘surplus’ votes going to waste under First Past the Post.

Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:

“Cutting the number of MPs with Brexit around the corner would be like a company laying off its staff having just secured a major new contract. Backbench scrutiny will be needed more than ever after we leave, making this cut hugely irresponsible.

“If the cut in the size of Parliament is not matched by a cut in the size of the government, these changes would amount to an executive power grab, with the highest ever proportion of MPs duty-bound to vote with the government. Fewer backbench MPs means reduced scrutiny of government decisions.

“While it is right that the current outdated and imbalanced boundaries need bringing up-to-date, this should be done without the cut in MPs

“And claims that the proposed boundaries would ‘equalise’ the voting system are a red herring.

“22 million votes were wasted at last year’s General Election – they made no contribution to the result in each seat. That’s 68% of the total votes cast. That is the effect of Westminster’s First Past The Post voting system – not lines on a map.

“Meanwhile one in five voters felt forced to ‘hold their nose’ and opt for a second or third choice party to keep out someone else. That’s the real inequality in our system – and it needs tackling by giving voters the fair, proportional voting system we need.”



[2] Methodology: ‘Payroll vote’ refers to all ministers, whips and PPSs in the government. Some of these positions (inc. PPSs) are unpaid, but all members are bound by the convention of collective cabinet responsibility to support government legislation and policy.

Historic data on the size of the payroll vote comes from the academic Dr. Andrew Defty of the University of Lincoln, and his Who Runs Britain? site.

Data on the size of the payroll vote in recent years comes from Dods Parliamentary Communications.

Calculations for the relative size of the payroll vote in a putative post-boundaries chamber are based on an assumption of no change in the size of the payroll vote, very plausible given the size of the government isn’t set to change.

Figures are based on notional results on what the British parliament would look like had the 2017 election been run under the revised boundaries (the most recent set released at the time of writing) by Anthony Wells, Research Director of YouGov, and author of the UKPollingReport blog:


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