The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 2019-21 is currently making its way through Parliament, and it deserves some proper attention.
The Bill’s stated aim is to ‘equalise’ the size of constituencies, so that they vary in size by a maximum of +/-5% compared to the national average.
The Bill responds to some criticism that democracy campaigners. But it leaves other serious problems unsolved.
The ERS successfully campaigned against the proposed cut in MPs, arguing that without a corresponding cut in the number of ministers, it would have marked an executive power grab. The Bill scraps the previously-planned cut in the number of MPs, keeping it at 650.
It also ensures that boundaries are redrawn every eight years, rather than five years to take account of constituencies changing populations. The next redrawing will be in time for the planned General Election in 2024. But there’s more to it than that.
Last week the ERS were invited to give evidence to Parliament on the Bill, directly addressing Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith, Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Cat Smith and other MPs (including at least one ERS member among them!).
ERS Chief Executive Darren Hughes told the committee that the way our constituencies are drawn up is flawed. ‘Redrawing’ is based on the number of registered voters – yet there are still an estimated 9.4m people missing from the electoral roll.
The fact that seat boundaries are carved up on the basis of the electoral roll means areas with lower registration rates will have less Parliamentary representation. This is a real problem given that those less likely to be on the register are typically younger, from lower-income groups, renters, and people of colour.
To ensure all citizens are counted, we recommend basing constituencies on population figures, not just the electoral roll. Until we move towards automatic voter registration in the UK – which is vital – we will simply end up with rows over ‘out of date’ electoral registers forming the basis of our Parliamentary representation. Let’s not forget: MPs have to represent everyone in the area – not just registered voters.
The government is also removing Parliament’s vote on new boundaries. At face value this is a sensible democratic proposition – MPs shouldn’t carve up their own seats. “Very few industry players get the opportunity to sit around and come up with the rules for their own industry in quite the way that parliamentarians do,” Darren Hughes said.
But removing Parliament’s say means we need extra safeguards on the appointment of Boundary Commissioners, to prevent political interference down the line. While they are currently highly respected and independent, we have to make sure that no government can simply pack the commissions with political appointees in future.
As Darren told the committee: “It is so important that these things are done in a clear, straight, technically correct, robust and honest way. If you lose control of these sort of things, you will live to regret it for a very long time indeed.” Why not give a cross-party Speaker’s Committee in the House of Commons the power of appointment, with single non-renewable terms?
And while we’re at it, why not give local citizens a proper say on where their communities and representation should lie? “This might be an area for some of the more innovative techniques for consulting publics, such as citizens’ juries and deliberative democracy mechanisms, where you could take randomly selected citizens for a particular region and use them as a way of consulting,” Darren noted.
Fundamentally though, this Bill is moving the deckchairs. Trust in politics isn’t at rock bottom because of differences in constituency size.
The government talks about the need to ‘make every vote count’ through this Bill. Yet the best way to do that is to give us a proportional and fair voting system. This is the elephant in the room – and it’s about time it was addressed.
Scotland has had the single transferable vote system of proportional representation for local government for quite some time, and that has better reflected the political views of Scotland, in terms both of parties and of communities of interest. With multi-member STV, communities would have a number of representatives they could approach – not just one person expected to deal with absolutely everything. More importantly, everyone’s vote would count equally – rather than millions in ‘safe seats’ going entirely ignored, sometimes for decades.
If the government really cares about making votes matter, they should concentrate on reforming Westminster’s warped and unjust voting system.