Constituency boundary changes are dead.* Unlike the House of Lords.*

House of Lords. Photo: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of ParliamentThe House of Lords has today voted to block a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 as part of the review of constituencies that might have seen the Conservatives gain up to 20 seats. The BBC reports:

The House of Lords voted by 300 to 231 to delay until 2018 a boundary review necessary to make the change. … Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that his party would withdraw his support for the boundary review, after the coalition abandoned reform of the House of Lords.

Over at the Lib Dem Lords blog, Lord (Chris) Rennard has put forward his reasons for voting for the amendment, including the number of peers worried “that the electoral register on which the current boundary review is taking place is not really fit for that purpose and that the current review of boundaries should be postponed.”

He goes on to link the Tory U-turn over Lords reform with the Lib Dems’ reasons for turning on the Tories’ hoped-for boundary changes:

The Liberal Democrats have always considered the need to reduce the number of MPs in the context of issues such as greater devolution and decentralisation and the reform the House of Lords. We all want to see an effective second chamber able to hold a Government of any party to account. The failure to achieve any measure of reform here means that the hoped for increased ability to hold the executive to account will not happen – and it may even decline as the Prime Minister prepares to make many more nominations to this House.

With the so-called payroll vote approaching half the membership of the Government side of the House of Commons, the power of Government to control Parliament is effectively increased – when the opposite should be the case. This is therefore not the right time to reduce the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account.

There are no signs that the size of the payroll vote will be reduced and coalition government probably makes it less likely. Many in my party take the view that the reduction in the number of MPs proposed in the current boundary review should not take place without reform that would strengthen the legitimacy of this House.

It’s an argument not without validity. But let’s also all be honest enough, at least within the privacy of this blog, to accept that the Lib Dems’ own self-interest was the over-riding reason for this vote.

Wholesale boundary review threatened one of the major factors which may see Lib Dem MPs successfully defend their seats at the next election: incumbency based on existing constituency boundaries. While Lords reform was a reality that was a trade-off the party was — with real reluctance — prepared to concede. No longer.

As a result, constituency sizes (and therefore individual votes) will become increasingly unequal. That’s bad for democracy. But so too is the perpetuation of an unreformed House of Lords against the promise of all three parties at the last election, and the two governing parties in our Coalition Agreement. I don’t think either the Lib Dems or Tories comes out of this particularly well, and even if they did start it that’s rarely a pretty or successful argument with the public.

* for now.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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26 Comments

  • “This is therefore not the right time to reduce the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account.”

    Yet Rennard would have been quite happy to do that if Lords reform had gone ahead, apparently. Why?

  • Phil Culmer 14th Jan '13 - 8:22pm

    Never mind abolishing the Lords: they have some measure of immunity from the party machines. What needs to be done is get rid of the Whip – it’s against parliamentary principles for anyone to order an MP to vote in a particular way, let alone the “little black books” that whips keep for blackmail purposes. They are the biggest imposition on the authority of Parliament in the last century. If the party’s position is a valid one, then they should use no force but argument. The use of three line whips and arm twisting shows the illegitimacy of the legislation being foisted on us, such as that slipped through in the “wash up”, despite massive public opposition and expert advice.

  • Julian Critchley 14th Jan '13 - 8:58pm

    This is good politics in my view. A bit more robustness, such as this, on issues like the NHS Bill, and the Tories may not have got into the habit of treating the LibDems with such contempt.

    I personally think the worst thing the LibDem leadership can do on this issue would be to try and justify killing boundary reform in principled terms. It sounds false, it is false, and people will see right through it. By far the better, more grown-up ,way of dealing with this is to simply say this :

    “The Coalition agreement contained a raft of constitutional reforms. One of those was to make the House of Lords more democratic, and another was to make boundary changes to Commons constitutencies. When the Conservatives chose to break the coalition agreement and reject House of Lords reform, they essentially killed off the whole package. As with the UK in Europe, one party to any agreement cannot arbitrarily decide which bits of the agreement it will stick to, and which it will break, without consequences.”

    It’s clear, it’s sane, and right-wing tabloids will scream and rant, but they do that anyway. It’s the sort of statement which a fair few ex-LibDem supporters will see as a sign of backbone. Far better than any weasel words trying to find a philosophical justification for what is a very realpolitik measure.

  • Lets be Honest Boundary changes are made not for benefit of the people or fairness but for the benefit of political parties and no other reason.

  • Jeremy Cliffe ‏@JeremyCliffe Boundary changes rejected: if Tories lose 2015 election by 20 seats or fewer, let’s hope an unreformed House of Lords provides solace

    Hee-hee!

  • In reality a reduction in the number of members of the Commons only made sense if proportional representation was introduced. With AV it was at least and arguable move as was the drive to achieve constituencies of equal sizes.

    Under FPTP,none of this applies, the link between numbers voting for the winning candidate is already broken. The link was not admitted for naïve political reasons. Labour always knew the link which provided them with further incentive to back pedal on electoral reform and make sure that AV failed.

    Under FPTP, representative democracy can only be improved by increasing the number of MPs; reducing the number will only make FPTP worse. If there is a move to equalise the size of constituencies then it should be towards the size of the smaller constituencies.

    I do not see anything wrong with Lib Dems refusing to support any change that will make the electoral system less representative.

    MBoy: careful what you wish for; if the Tories lose by 20 seats or fewer, then it is likely that Lib Dems will again have to choose whether to form a coalition or not. I really doubt if we will have the moral authority to participate in another coalition (with either party) if we suffer a large loss of votes and several seats. Supply and demand would be all we should offer (I think).

  • Noone has explained to me how reducing the number of MPs saves the country money. If we instead increased the number of MPs to 1000, maybe it would be possible to select a competent chancellor from amongst their number.

  • Well, at least the Tories know now that there is a price for resiling from agreements.
    Where now though for Fair Votes?

  • @Martin
    “Supply and demand would be all we should offer (I think).”

    I feel that would be disastrous, it would give substance to the myth that the Lib Dems would only deal with the Tories and drive away more voters from the centre left. It’s not been the formation of the coalition that has been the problem but how it has been managed. In fact often he problem has simply been one of appearing to support Tory policies rather than shout out loud that supporting them is the price of coalition.

    The Lib Dems need to stand ready to work with the largest party once more, but they need to learn from this coalition how better to operate in the next. If it appears they will only jump into bed with one of the other two they will have lost my vote. All options must be open, and be clear to be open, on polling day with the public deciding which are feasible. Clegg called that correctly last time.

  • Steve Way: the circumstances suggested by MBoy would indicate something similar to the last election, but very likely with fewer Lib Dem MPs. Do you really think another coalition with the Conservatives would be feasible?

    If the outcome for Lib Dems turned out to be a thumbs down from the public, it would be very difficult to justify let alone negotiate a substantive coalition with either party. I rather doubt that Labour would be that amenable to offer much in such circumstances, In fact I am not too sure what we should be looking for from Labour.

    The greater likelihood is however that one side or the other will get the necessary seats and that Lib Dems need to be thinking ahead towards how to rebuild.

  • “With the so-called payroll vote approaching half the membership of the Government side of the House of Commons, the power of Government to control Parliament is effectively increased – when the opposite should be the case. This is therefore not the right time to reduce the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account.”

    Can anyone explain why it would have been right to “reduce the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account” if the Lords reforms had gone ahead?

  • Peter Watson 15th Jan '13 - 12:21am

    @Steve Way “they need to learn from this coalition how better to operate in the next.”
    I think that the Lib Dem behaviour in this coalition has left a tricky legacy, especially if it finds itself in similar circumstances to 2010 but with only a Labour-LD coalition feasible. If the party learns that it needs to be less compliant, then it will reinforce the impression that Lib Dems are closer to the tories. If it does not learn that lesson then Lib Dems will appear fickle, unprincipled, and only interested in ministerial cars. I believe that the party needs toreconstruct the template for future coalitions before the end of this one, e.g. by being much more open about where Lib Dems differ from their coalition partners and admitting where they have had to compromise rather than act as cheerleaders for every coalition policy.
    I agree with your last point, Lib Dems should be open to the possibility of any coalition. But even that will not be straightforward. Coalition is no longer a hypothetical scenario so Clegg (or whoever is leader) will have to answer more questions in more detail about what might happen after the election than ever before. Having signed up so enthusiastically to this government’s policies, he would have to acknowledge the likelihood of reversing them with just as much enthusiasm as part of the next government. That is another reason I think that differentiation from the tories is important over the next two years, so that the party can campaign on its record in government but with a distinctive Lib Dem voice.

  • Peter Watson 15th Jan '13 - 12:33am

    @Martin
    Lib Dems, like every party, can only campaign in the next election with the intention of winning seats and then decide what to do when the results are in.
    There are still plenty of interesting scenarios. For example, if neither Labour nor Conservatives secure a majority then a much smaller Lib Dem party could hold the balance of power and more influence than now, very ironic under an electoral system we did not want to keep. And a much smaller Lib Dem parliamentary party might be comprised largely of the architects of the current coalition in their safe seats, with a significant effect on coalition negotiations or rebuilding.

  • Cameron will offer Clegg a renewed coalition in 2015, whether he wins an overall majority or falls short of that. Cameron needs the Cleggites on his side as a counterweight to the “b*stards” Eurosceptics in his party. Cameron knows that leaving Europe would be a disaster, that his Eurosceptics intend to force him to do so, and that the Lib Dems can help him resist.

    Cameron will offer Clegg an informal coalition in the event that they both go into opposition. Both parties will slag off Labour relentlessly and will swap each others’ lines.

    Miliband will not need to offer Clegg a coalition if Labour win an outright majority.

    If Labour are the largest single party but need a partner to gain an overall majority, Miliband will find it very difficult to make an offer to Clegg, or even to a social liberal successor of Clegg. The Lib Dems will have only some 20-30 seats at most. There are at least 20-30 Labour MPs like Prescott and Reid who will never accept a partnership with the Lib Dems. They do have a logical point of view. The Lib Dems have for a long time declared an aim to replace Labour. Prescott and Reid would not want to do anything that might give them that chance. Because of the Prescott-Reid faction, Miliband might well decide that a partnership with the Lib Dems could not work. He might prefer Plaid Cymru, or even the DUP and/or the SNP. He would most likely plump for a minority government and a hand-to-mouth existence.

    Whatever we want – and I would much prefer to see Lib Dems in a centre-left government – we have to accept the realities.

    Clegg knows that these bleak facts act in his favour, and encourage him to aim for what he has always wanted. To establish the Lib Dems as the equivalent of the German FDP, and share power on the Right for a generation.

  • Alex Macfie 15th Jan '13 - 7:37am

    If the Lib Dems accept a coalition with any party that has a majority (however small) on its own, then I’m out. However, it won’t happen, because even if Clegg wanted it, the party is unlikely to accept it. The same is true of any “opposition coalition” deal to do joint attacks on the governing party. This sort of co-operation with the Tories after 2015 would not make us into a British FDP, it would make us into a sub-brand of the Tories, as a prelude to formal merger after about 15-20 years. Whatever you may think of the FDP’s ideology, it operates as an independent party and does not campaign jointly with anyone else.

  • Chris re:

    Can anyone explain why it would have been right to “reduce the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account” if the Lords reforms had gone ahead?

    No it does not make it right, it would just have made the situation less bad.

    The key point is that it would have been utterly dreadful to leave the electoral system in a worse state than it was before 2010. Not something Liberal Democrats could accept. Self-interest is a cheap jibe in the defence of fairness and equality. That the suffragettes could be held to be self interested for example is an idiotic irrelevance.

    My support for the Lib Dems is because of the party’s commitment to representative democracy, civil rights and constructive involvement in Europe. Not the other way round.

  • David Allen; Peter Watson: I agree with your points; although I might welcome a Lib-Lab coalition, practically, it would be very difficult to make it hold together. Clearly it would be fiercely opposed by a sizeable number on Labour benches and Labour would demand heads on the block of most of the senior Lib Dem politicians. I really doubt that Labour could accept the precedent of a leading balanced quartet in government.

    Actually in times of austerity, I think a looser accommodation with Labour could work well enough. With Labour having to decide on where to cut back, the position of Lib Dems would be (ironically) similar to that of Labour now but hopefully a lot more constructive.

  • I was against the boundary changes with or without the changes to the Lords: my Bradford constituency would have been shoved into a Leeds one, and it’s highly unlikely Bradford would have benefited from the reduction in discrete representation. If its collapse fouls the Tory plans as well, so much the better.

  • “No it does not make it right, it would just have made the situation less bad.”

    What I’m questioning is why Rennard and Co supported the reduction of seats in the first place if they thought it would reduce the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account.

    Presumably simply because they thought it was a price worth paying in return for a referendum on AV – in other words, in return for a chance of increasing their own party’s representation in this less effective House of Commons.

  • I have always argued that with an ever increasing population it makes no sense whatsoever to reduce the number of accountable representatives yet increase the number of unaccountable ones. At last the Lib Dem Lords have done something they can be proud; let’s hope that the Lib Dems Commons representatives will have the guts to follow suite.
    Can I look forward to more and more occasions when the whole of the Lib Dem MPs and Lords will join Labour in voting down unreasonable and unjust Tory led legislation?

  • Not sure why the Tories are ploughing on regardless. Take one of the most controversial boundary changes, the ‘Devonwall’ constituency crossing the Tamar. Lots of local unhappiness about breaching the historic boundaries, and plenty of marginal Con:LD constituencies affected. So the Lib Dems are now being identified as responsible for saving the current boundaries against the Tories who are committed to fighting a hopeless battle to change them.

    I’m sure there’s a Tory strategy in there somewhere …

  • Peter Watson 15th Jan '13 - 1:37pm

    @tpfkar “I’m sure there’s a Tory strategy in there somewhere …”
    Since boundary changes are so heavily in tory interests I’m sure they’ll want to push as far as they can, but it would be interesting to know what sort of exit strategy they might have. Could they withdraw gracefully? Would it suit them to stoke tory backbench ire against the Lib Dems? Is there any anti-LD ammunition in benefiting from an unreformed Lords or quotes about reducing the size of the commons? Might there be some master stroke that nobody has anticipated? Or maybe there is just a bit of desperation mixed with a lack of political nouse at the heart of those supposed master strategists?

  • The Tory strategy is simple: without the boundary changes they won’t pass the winning post at the next general election. That is the real reason they went into coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Nothing to do with the National Interest but to secure the boundary changes to give them sufficient seats to form a government in 2015.Now that the Lib Dems won’t play ball the Tories have no need for the coalition. Hence all these high profile resignations from the Lords. The Tory Lords know that the coalition back is broken. I have the sense of an ending.

  • I notice the Telegraph has restarted its slagging off campaign against Nick Clegg again. This has really yanked the Tories’ chain. Serves them right.

  • Tony Greaves 15th Jan '13 - 9:24pm

    Why does the picture that accompanies this piece show the arcane prorogation ceremony that takes place once a session? Instead of an ordinary pic showing the Lords at work as they usually are?

    Tony Greaves

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