The Commons is right to halt this partisan tinkering with our constitution

January 29, 2013 4:38 pm

Today’s vote in the House of Commons sees David Cameron’s self-serving and partisan plans for our parliamentary constituencies stopped in their tracks. Opposition to the Prime Minister’s proposals came from MPs and peers on all sides of the Commons and the Lords. Today’s vote has ended the uncertainty that risked clouding the next twelve months, with millions being spent on a review which had little chance of being implemented. We can now focus on the far more important task of maximising the registration of all those eligible to vote – the missing millions who do not currently take part in our democracy.

But there are also some more fundamental issues at stake today. Labour opposed the original legislation that sought to reduce the number of MPs by fifty, and reduce the Boundary Commission’s flexibility to take into consideration local geographical and historical factors when constructing constituencies, at the same time as ending Public Inquiries which have historically allowed communities to get their views across during the process. At the time, we saw no justification for the reduction, and raised serious concerns about the seemingly arbitrary nature of the fifty figure. We also voiced concern that long-standing communities with a clear sense of place would be torn apart by the blanket approach imposed by the Tories.

Drawing parliamentary constituencies uses the electoral register and, therefore, the legitimacy of the boundaries is always dependent on the completeness and accuracy of the electoral roll. It was widely known that 3 million eligible voters were missing from the register – but over the past 18 months the Electoral Commission have sharply revised up that figure to 6 million. This is enough for nearly 90 parliamentary constituencies.

But every constituency doesn’t have their fair share of missing voters. If they did, the impact on the construction of constituencies would also be evenly spread. Instead, those eligible but absent from the register are more likely to be from BAME communities, young people and students, and those living in rental accommodation, all concentrated in urban areas.

So, not only would re-drawing all our parliamentary boundaries be done on incomplete data, it would be done on the basis of an electoral register whose incompleteness is skewed towards urban areas. The new make-up of seats would under-represent urban areas and over-represent rural areas. The obvious political implications of this can’t have gone unnoticed by the Tories. But it’s more fundamental than that. A constituency MP with a registered voter population of say 69,000 but an eligible voting population of over 100,000 still represents the 31,000 unregistered voters, acting on their behalf and doing their casework, and rightly so.

What risks raising further questions over the legitimacy of new boundaries is the Government’s desire to speed up the move to individual electoral register (IER). They themselves refer to the introduction of IER as “the biggest change to our system of electoral registration for almost a century and it is essential we get it right”. But they have chosen to move forward on a quicker timetable than laid out by Labour in 2009, and to strip away the safeguards to protect against any sharp fall in the numbers registered. And, moreover, experiences from Northern Ireland – which has already moved to IER – show the scale of decline in the completeness of the register as a result of the transition. Today’s vote allows breathing space to focus our energies on repairing the electoral register, and guarding against any Northern Ireland style drops in the numbers of eligible voters, rather than re-drawing our boundaries on the basis of worsening data.

I don’t think it is right that the biggest party of the day should dictate the size of the House of Commons. In addition, the Tory arguments for reducing MPs by 50 also don’t stack up. They said we are over-represented, but we actually compare favourably with many countries, and have fewer parliamentarians per head of the population than Ireland, Sweden and Poland. They said that the number of MPs has steadily crept upward, but the truth is we have only 35 more MPs than in 1918, despite the electorate having more than doubled. They said we need to reduce the cost of politics, but 117 new unelected peers have been created since May 2010 costing £18million a year, with the prospect of another 100. This outstrips the £13.6million saving from fifty fewer MPs.

Labour acknowledges big questions need answering on how we maximise the registration of all those eligible to vote. In turn, we need to re-think how our parliamentary constituencies are drawn. Perhaps the time has come to look at whether we should take into consideration other reliable data sources, such as the census, to support the electoral register. This would provide a better indication of all those eligible to vote, rather than those registered to vote. Either way, we need to think afresh about our representative democracy if we are to avoid the exclusion of millions of eligible voters, many of whom are already amongst the most marginalised in our society.

Sadiq Khan MP is Shadow Secretary of State with responsibility for political and constitutional reform

  • uglyfatbloke

    The biggest party should definitely not be allowed to dictate the size of the Commons, and the two biggest parties should not be allowed to prevent democratic reform either. FPTP has served them well for a decades, but it has nor served the people.
    The UK is the only country in the EU without a democratic electoral system and the only country in the world apart from Iran to have guaranteed representation for a religious group – though at least in Iran it is the majority religious group.
    Incidentally Sadiq, Labour and the Lib-Dems chose and adapted a system for Holyrood specifically designed to marginalise the gnats and stop them becoming he largest party….how democratic was that? And how well did it work out?
    Of course they do say that what goes around comes around….if the gnats get 40% of the Scottish vote in 2015 they could get 80% of the seats – as Labour has for many years. If so, will Labour MPs still support FPTP as being ‘fair’?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=715486331 Alex Otley

      You can argue about the fairness of FPTP but at least Labour are being consistent in trying to apply the system properly. The Tories are upset that Labour’s vote concentration across the country is efficient, so they want to rig the system in their favour by giving themselves smaller constituencies.

      The real problem is the House of Lords, not the House of Commons.

    • Amber_Star

      Incidentally Sadiq, Labour and the Lib-Dems chose and adapted a system for Holyrood specifically designed to marginalise the gnats
      —————–
      No Labour didn’t do any such thing. Labour set up a system which made it almost impossible for Labour to win a majority at Holyrood because we didn’t want to be accused of locking up Scotland for Labour. We were surprised & disappointed when Scotland elected a majority SNP government but there was never any reason to think that the electoral system wouldn’t allow it to happen!

  • uglyfatbloke

    Alex, I thoroughly agree, though with the proviso that Labour does n’t mind having very questionable constituency arrangements in the west of Scotland.
    As for the Lords..of course it should be scrapped, but not until we have a democratic system for the commons.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=715486331 Alex Otley

      If the HoL was abolished and we had a unicameral legislature then I would agree we would absolutely need electoral reform for the HoC. If, however, we keep a bicameral parliament (I think it provides good oversight of legislation) then I don’t necessarily see the need to reform the HoC, provided that the reformed upper house has a proper proportional system and more power than the current HoL has due to its democratic legitimacy.

  • uglyfatbloke

    Do we need democratic reform for the Commons ..well…looking at Scottish representation, I think getting 80% of the seats for 40% of the vote is pretty ugly.

  • uglyfatbloke

    Alex – reasonable point of view, but the two main parties would never allow a democratically elected Lords since it would undermine their own credibility. Also, how would hey reward their buddies?

  • uglyfatbloke

    Amber – sorry I clearly have n’t quite got the hang of the ‘replies’ mechanism….

    ‘Labour did n’t to any such thing’…Yes, Labour did exactly that thing. At the press conference to announce the system, Brian Taylor said the the system chosen seemed to be designed to prevent the gnats from winning and Jack McConnell relied ‘correct’, which is pretty clear. It was done in collusion with the Glib-Dumbs. The majority of MSPs were to be elected by FPTP which would greatly aid Labour and the minority by PR, which would help the Glib-Dumbs – as would the distribution of the PR regions – and of course the PR section would ensure a proportion of Tories which would also help to keep the gnats at bay. The De Hondt system was chosen because it would bring ‘an element of proportionality without producing full-blown proportional representation.

    Since Labour had won the preceding General Election (massively) and had produced the devolution bill, the party had every right to formulate the rules, but not a right to complain about the system when the other side wins on the terms that Labour set.

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