On the face of it, the boundary change proposals were about cutting costs by having less MPs and strengthening democracy by having each MP represent roughly identical numbers of voters. Neither of these claims bear close scrutiny.
Our democracy is not a simple thing – it struggles its way through the conflicting needs of the nation and the individual. It is unrealistic to base our representation on population statistics alone. It’s true that there are a few Parliamentary seats with fairly sparsely populated constituencies but democratic representation is not just about an equal-sized electoral bloc having a vote in Parliamentary debates. After all, no-one who supports the wrong party in a “safe” seat gets their say in Parliamentary votes, do they? To argue that population is all that matters is to support concentrating power with the executive – the government. It means less outspoken MPs and more sheep, as if we don’t have enough already.
The Tory cries that fairer sized constituencies means stronger democracy is a sham. If they really wanted fairness based on national opinion, they would support proportional representation. But to do that would cost them dozens of seats, so, not surprisingly, they want none of it. The AV referendum showed quite clearly how little the Tories care about fairness. They flatly refused a referendum on Proportional Representation because there might be a positive result. AV was a compromise system that they only agreed to because they were confident the electorate would reject it. As soon as polls suggested the “Yes” Vote might win, David Cameron broke his pledge to remain neutral and stepped in to drive the campaign against AV. If you’re looking for duplicity in the coalition, it started there.
Yet to hear them squeal about the “evil, duplicitious” Lib Dems, you’d think they actually wanted better democracy… erm such as an elected Lords? No, what really lay behind the boundary changes was classic Tory gerrymandering. By cutting the boundary cake to suit themselves, the Conservatives would have guaranteed themselves more safe seats compared to Labour. It would also make it much harder for smaller parties to win seats.
As for saving money – that doesn’t stack up either. The savings are minimal if there are any, at all. What should matter is value for money. An MP in a revised constituency that is geographically awkward (such as The Isle Of Wight) or with unnatural community splits will be less able to represent the needs of those on the margins. A seat that has no coherence is very difficult to represent fairly.
It is a shame that Nick Clegg couched his determination to vote against boundary changes in a sulky, tit-for-tat way because it threw a bone to the baying dogs of the right-wing press. Instead of seeing this as Lib Dems resisting the bullying “divine right to rule” Tories, it was portrayed as Lib Dem petulance. It was the Tories who broke the agreement but the LibDems have been blamed again. Even the BBC Today show gave far too much airtime to stroppy Tory back-benchers crying “foul”. What didn’t come across was that the real sore losers in this debate were the spoilt little Tories, who got caught trying to cheat democracy again and were slapped down for it.
* Neville Farmer is an Executive Member of the Parliamentary Candidates Association