[First Published on Monday 8th November 2010]
This archive item is a window onto issues as they appeared at the time. It contains facts and opinions which may have been superseded by subsequent events.
The Coalition Agreement (the Government’s manifesto by another name) therefore groups a series of proposals for change in the paragraph entitled “political reform“, which Nick Clegg later identified as together forming “the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832”.
So what is the common thread?
Clegg cites the common goal of a “more transparent and accountable” political system.
From the perspective of proposals to “reduce and equalise” parliamentary constituencies (oft overlooked but radical in their implications), we examine this supposition and apply the mantra of “joined-up” reform.
To recap, what is the current programme for our Constitution?
- 1. 5-year fixed-term Parliaments
Bill – debate by the whole House at Committee stage 16th Nov.
2. Referendum Bill on electoral reform
- Reduction in the number of MPs to 600 and equalisation in the size of constituencies
- Introduction of AV in the event of a positive referendum result
Bill – passage through Commons completed. House of Lords second reading 15th Nov.
3. House of Lords reform
- Commitment to introduce proposals for a “wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”
Draft Bill to be published December 2010.
4. Reform to procedures
- Legislation to allow voters to force by-elections
- Implementation of the Wright Committee recommendations in full
- Introduce means for the public to create legislation, participate in legislative scrutiny and instigate local referendums
- Establish a commission to consider the West Lothian question
- Fund 200 all-postal primaries
- Hold a referendum on further Welsh dissolution
Why consider constituency boundaries?
The proposals affecting constituency boundaries appear to have passed largely under the public and media radar.
Reflecting the structure of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, media coverage tends to headline AV and include constituency boundaries only as a supporting act.
Electoral reform may be more salient but the proposals to “reduce and equalise” are by no means inconsequential.
Indeed their implementation would radically alter the modus operandi of the Commons, making their interaction with other reform all-encompassing.
What is the current system?
- There are 650 MPs.
- Boundary reviews happen every 8-12 years. Independent Boundary Commissions allocate constituencies based on a set of rules. These include no finite limit to the number of MPs. They prioritise following local authority and natural geographical boundaries above electoral equality.
- Objection to proposed changes by a local authority or any 100 electors in the affected area triggers a public inquiry.
What are the perceived problems?
- The current rules are contradictory. They state that there should not be substantial variation in the number of MPs from 613 but that the electoral quota can be disregarded in certain circumstances.
- The structure of the rules means that the number of MPs grows with every boundary review.
- The rules allow for variation in the size of constituencies, therefore the weight of votes varies.
- The procedure for review is very time-consuming.
- The electoral data used for reviews is usually 10 years out of date.
What does the Bill do?
- Boundary reviews will take place every 5 years. The first will be reported in 2013.
- The number of MPs will be reduced to 600.
- The size of the electorate in each constituency must be within 5% the national average (“ the electoral quota”). There are only two exceptions to this rule: the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland.
- The size of the electorate will be the prime consideration. After this, the Boundary Commission will also be able to consider local authority boundaries and geographical considerations
- Reviews will be based on the number of voters on the electoral register
- The changes to constituency boundaries will be implemented regardless of the result of the referendum. AV will be implemented only after a positive referendum outcome and the implementation of boundary changes.
What are the implications of change?
- MPs will each be elected by a more equal number of voters.
- The cost of the House of Commons to the taxpayer will be reduced.
- The data used to allocate constituencies will be more up-to-date.
- With the size of the electorate the priority, constituencies may have to cross local authority boundaries. This could cause administrative problems at elections and confusion for the electorate.
- Reviews every 5 years, coupled with a strict electoral quota, are likely to mean frequent changes to constituency boundaries. This could cause uncertainty for MPs, local party activists and the electorate.
- Northern Ireland and Wales are likely to have more difficulty than England in sticking to the 5% allowance. The number of seats they are allocated (out of the national share of 600) may be rounded down by as much as 0.49 seats (or 37,000 voters). This means that their average electorate is likely to eat into the 5% margin before distribution even begins
- The average constituency size will increase from around 68,000 to 76,000 voters. Electorates may also be less homogeneous as the rules prioritise size over natural boundaries. This could make constituency representation more difficult for MPs.
- The number of ministers in proportion to the number of MPs will increase. This could weaken Parliament’s ability to hold the executive to account.
How do these proposals interact with other pledges for reform?
Fixed terms of 5 years are intended to coincide with the proposed cycle of boundary reviews. The report of the first review is programmed for 1st October 2013, in time for the general election on 7th May 2015.
Given that boundary reviews under the new rules are very likely to recommend change, this link with general elections means that voters may find themselves in a different parliamentary constituency every time they turn out to vote.Such ambiguity for voters, MPs and party activists is ironic given that fixed-terms are being introduced on the notion that uncertainty in the lead up to an election is damaging and unfair.
The association between elections and reviews also risks being thrown off kilter by an early dissolution. If this were to happen before October 2013 then a general election would be forced using the current 650 constituencies – and a subsequent (necessarily 5 years later) would be based on constituency data 5 years out of date.
House of Lords reform
It has been promised that proposals for reform will include measures to directly elect the House but the details (the role of the new House, the size of constituencies, the number of representatives, the electoral system, the length of term etc.) are not clear. It is as yet impossible to assess the relationship between the reform of the First and Second Chambers of Parliament, only logic dictates that the nature of one should not be decided without knowledge of the other.
Reform of procedure
Proposals focus on empowering Parliament over the executive, following the recommendations of the Wright Committee. There are a number of potential inconsistencies here:
- A higher proportion of ministers in the Commons gives the Government more control.
- A higher constituency workload for MPs could lessen their ability to effectively scrutinise legislation.
- The haste to rush the Constituencies Bill through Parliament shows little regard for the procedures of the House.
The proposals prioritise equalising the size of constituencies in order to better represent peoples’ votes in the Commons. Yet malapportionment (the technical term for varying constituency sizes) only partly contributes to differences between votes and seats. If this is really a major concern then why stop here? As Professor Robert Hazel puts it, “if the Conservatives wanted to eliminate the bias they would need to support PR.”
Tax savings on MPs’ salaries and resources has been argued to be a major advantage of the proposals. Yet to be calculated, however, are the increased costs associated with the heavier workloads of the remaining 600 MPs and 4 Boundary Commissions. Further still, the increased administrative cost of split wards and local authorities will remain unclear until at least 2013.
Any merit in joined-up reform?
It is difficult to identify a single process weaving together these necessarily inter-related proposals for constitutional reform, which are instead presented as isolated battles in the Houses. A loose association in the paragraphs of the Coalition’s agreement or in the rhetoric of the Deputy PM is not enough to dissuade the creeping concern of common sense. When refurbishing a home, wouldn’t it be better to determine the function of the room before knocking down the walls?
This publication presents the personal views of the author and not those of The Constitution Society, which publishes it as a contribution to debate on this important subject.