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