Seven reasons to cancel the cut in the number of MPs

Jessica Garland, Director of Policy and Research

Posted on the 19th February 2018

Six months ago it appeared that controversial changes to electoral boundaries were to be dropped by the government.

There has never been a great appetite for the number of MPs to be cut from 650 to 600 – not least with more pressure on the Commons after Brexit.

Now the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee wants the current proposals to be scrapped in favour of redrawn boundaries, which retain the current seat total while levelling out the number of electors .

Yet the government seems to have u-turned on plans to drop the cut.

The problem, as we see it, is that the review has been undertaken on the basis of registered electors, rather than the actual population.

There are multiple issues associated with this approach and other issues with the plans.

Here are seven reasons why May should think again:

1. Areas with the lowest levels of registration are often those that already have the least voice in politics. Young people, some ethnic minority groups and those in the private rented sector are all less likely to register to vote than others. That makes many of them effectively cut out of the new political map when those areas get less representation than other areas. Everyone deserves representation, not just those on the register.

2. The review is being undertaken on the basis of a register that dates back to February 2016 – excluding masses of voters who signed up ahead of the Brexit referendum in June that year and indeed the 2017 General Election. That means some regions are two seats short of what they are owed. It would be much fairer – and would make more sense – to draw boundaries based on eligible population using census data rather than an incomplete electoral register.

3. Then we come to the carving up of communities themselves. The rigid 5% threshold – the maximum difference in size between constituencies allowed under the current review – means that some communities will be split up, while others will be merged and dragged into others.

We see this with the deeply unpopular ‘Devonwall’ seat that spans Cornwall and Devon – distinct areas with very distinctive identities and needs. Fair political boundaries are crucial to ensuring people are properly represented in Parliament but we shouldn’t tear apart close-knit areas in a rush to ‘equalise’ numbers.

4. On top of that, the strict 5% difference threshold introduces the prospect of huge disruption every five years, potentially sparking a boundary review for every election. Do we really want to spend infinite hours arguing about seat borders in the run up to every Westminster vote?

Of course, this is all happening alongside a reduction in the number of MPs– a policy based on the idea that shrinking the Commons will ‘cut the cost of politics’.

5. We have a growing unelected House of Lords – and a shrinking elected one. The House of Lords is a super-sized chamber – second only in size to China’s National People’s Congress – and shockingly poor value for money. Surely it would be more democratic to address the crisis in the House of Lords than to cut the number of elected MPs? David Cameron appointed 205 Peers at a cost of £13m. If you want to reduce the cost of politics, you could do worse than starting there and cutting down our bloated upper house.

6. Cutting the number of elected Parliamentarians does have one effect though – and sadly it’s not a good one. If you reduce the number of MPs in Parliament without reducing the number of ministers, you increase the power of the executive and make it more difficult to challenge the government. And that in turn will reduce Parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account.

7. Finally, the government talks about the need to ‘make every vote count’ through these changes. Yet the best way to do that is to give us a proportional and fair voting system.

It’s the elephant in the room – and it’s about time it was addressed. If the government really cares about making votes matter, they should concentrate on reforming the voting system.

In the conclusion to its report, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee call for the government to give MPs a chance to stop the reduction in the next few months. As the Times report, it would give the Boundary Commission time to prepare another (up to date) map — this time with 650 seats — in time for the 2022 election.

The whole review is in desperate need of a rethink – to ensure we have representation and boundaries which are made in the interests of voters, not party posturing.

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