No Big Society when it comes to gerrymandering constituencies

ParliamentBy Nicholas Quin

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill recently passed through the Commons and is before the Lords. As well as introducing a referendum on the Alternative Vote, the Bill seeks to cut the number of MPs – a simplistic reaction to the expenses scandal, which has heightened the twin beliefs that MPs cost too much and do too little. That aim is based on comparative figures for other countries which disregard federal structures, and ignores the fact that the growth in the number of MPs (3% since 1950) has not matched the growth in population (c.25% since 1950).

The way the change is being rushed through, though, is of more concern. It states that:

“a Boundary Commission may not cause a public inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act.”

Contrast this with s.6 of the 1986 Representation of the People Act, which the Bill intends to repeal, which gives 100 electors the power to force the Boundary Commission to exercise an inherent discretion to hold a public inquiry.

The redrawing of constituency boundaries happens regularly, to take account of population change and allow MPs to represent communities more accurately. The boundary reviews are often accompanied by public inquiries, which gives the public a significant opportunity to participate in the process. Public inquiries have been particularly influential when the number of seats in an area have changed, and have, in the past, prevented the creation of a seat that crossed the Mersey.

This Bill subordinates all the elements that the Boundary Commission currently considers below the overriding purpose of creating constituencies of equivalent size. The argument underpinning this seems to boil down to the statement that some votes are worth more than others because some MPs are elected with far fewer votes than others. It has also been labelled, more straightforwardly, as gerrymandering.

That second assertion is certainly lent credibility by Clause 12. Public inquiries are painstaking, slow and costly. Rightly so. Preventing recourse to them now means that the changes can be pushed through before the next election. Whether one sees this as gerrymandering or not, serious questions must be asked of plans to revolutionise the way we elect our legislature within a single electoral cycle, without public input.

For a Bill that suggests changes for a substantial proportion of UK seats, this is a remarkable decision, for a government supposedly committed to a ‘new politics’ and a ‘big society’.

When coupled with plans to reduce the number of MPs, the plans also risk undermining what is a significant attribute of our constitution. MPs are there to represent a specific area, often with a clear identity – and though the expenses scandal has tarred the reputation of our system, the direct link with a community is a priceless aspect of it. Moreover, in removing the public’s say, government is only likely to further alienate the populous from parliament, not restore their faith in it.

The single-minded drive towards equal sized constituencies mean that the building blocks of parliament will now much more readily cross administrative, county and historic lines – all of which local communities understand in a way that central government cannot. Amendments put down by various MPs have sought to protect the Isle of Wight and Cornwall – amongst others – to no avail.

Labour have opposed the Bill on the grounds that it will hit inner city, predominantly Labour seats, which suffer from a lack of voter registration, particularly among black and minority ethnic and young voters. Nationally over 3.5m are estimated to be missing from the electoral register.

We need to be clearer on the dangers inherent in pushing through such long-term changes subject to a single political cycle. We need to make the message clear that this Bill will mean less realistic representation and indeed less access to representation for everyone in England and Wales.

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