Opinion: Boundary nonsense

Boundary - Some rights reserved by ank0kuOn 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

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  • Geoffrey Payne 4th Feb '13 - 1:37pm

    I normally agree with Neville, but I think that Nick Clegg was absolutely right to lead his colleagues into the No lobby as a response to the Tory’s rebellion over House of Lords reform. The Tories wanted to vote against the Coalition agreement with impunity and short of ending the Coalition, which on this issue would have been an overreaction, this was the ONLY way he could have responded.
    The price we pay for that is that any good policies we have that we want to implement will be blocked regardless by the Tories.
    However I also think that most MPs are overworked as it is and it would be wrong to overload them even more with more constituents. The amount of money saved by having less MPs is trivial.

  • I was impressed by the logic below:
    “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. ”
    Carrying this thesis to its ultimate conclusion, why bother having anybody be represented at all? It’s time to go back to the old system of selecting MPs from rotten boroughs, which the Duke of Wellington, in his unimpeachable wisdom, nominated “a Legislature which answered all the good purposes of legislation, and this to a greater degree than any Legislature ever had answered in any country whatever.” Up with the close corporation! Bring back Old Sarum, Dunwich, and Gatton!

  • a) “The savings are minimal if there are any”. Well, reducing the number of MPs by 50 will save 50/650 or 7.5% of their direct cost, presumably a few tens of millions.

    b) The Coalition agreed to putting forward AV, it wasn’t a unilateral decision by the Tories.

    c) The only actual argument you give for not having roughly equal constituencies is to quote the “geographically awkward” Isle of Wight. Most of the others had no such problems.

    d) If they LibDems had got Lords reform, they’d all have voted for boundary reform without a whisper. That’s why people think they’re “duplicitous”.

  • If you get constituencies spread fairly evenly enough one party can win all of the seats under FPTP. Fairness of a sort I suppose but certainly not democratically representative.

    I did like the line:

    to hear them squeal about the “evil, duplicitious” Lib Dems, you’d think they actually wanted better democracy…

    The bottom line for me and one that justifies Nick Clegg’s response is that a government that includes Lib Dems could not be responsible for bequeathing a government structure less democratically representative than before.

  • John Heyworth 5th Feb '13 - 11:08am

    The arguement that the Lib Dems voted down the boundary changes because it was directly linked to reform of the House of Lords is quite simply wrong. Yes – the two are in the coalition agreement but never were they listed as being quid pro quo. What was linked was the AV referendum and boundary changes, infact the Bill that was passed actually combined the two to ensure its “safe” passage. Thus ensuring that the Lib Dems would back boundary changes and the Tories would back the referendum. It’s only after the referendum was lost that the Lib Dem hierachy decided the the link was for all aspects of constitutional reform. As a Liberal who believes in equal votes and equal representation, I feel we should have been principled and supported the boundary changes regardless of the electoral favour it gives to our opponents.

  • nvelope2003 5th Feb '13 - 1:09pm

    As the population keeps increasing, not falling, perhaps we should have more MPs ?
    Although the AV referendum did take place the press, which is overwhelmingly Conservative, went into overdrive to kill the proposed change to AV, particularly the Daily Mail. The Prime Minister, who had previously indicated he would not take an active part in the campaign did in fact do so. At the start of the campaign opinion polls indicated there would be a yes vote. The almost hysterical campaign organised by the Conservatives and quietly supported by the Labour Party made sure the reform of the electoral system did not take place. No doubt the Labour Party wanted to keep elctoral reform up their sleeve in case they needed Liberal Democrat support after the next election.

    Reform of the House of Lords was also sabotaged by the 2 biggger parties, for the same reason as above in Labour’s case, even though they had indicated support for it before the election and many of their MPs appeared to support it. The Liberal Democrats had every right to feel they had been let down and since the boundary reforms would not have been to their advantage it was not unreasoanble to withdraw their support for them. If they had not done so they would have seemed like door mats for the Conservatives and the latter’s screams of outrage should be dismissed for the hypocrisy that it is – Mrs Mordaunt seemed to be a particularly nauseating example of this.

  • Neville Farmer 6th Feb '13 - 8:41am

    Julian, the Isle of Wight is not the only example I give – hence the “or” in the sentence. And that sentence should be taken as part of the whole article. The point I’m trying to make is that we should stop thinking of things in numbers and boxes but start remembering that MPs represent a community and that, as far as possible, should be a coherent gathering of people that is much more than a fixed number of voters. As it stands, even attempting to even things up (with less than reliable figures) results in boundaries carving up towns that have grown organically over centuries . How is it sensible to split communities this way for the sake of number crunching?

    It is also untrue that getting rid of 50 MPs will save tens of millions. There will have to be increased staffing to handle the extra work dealing with larger constituencies . And the “geographically awkward” constituencies you mock will throw up logistical issues that will also cost money. Yes, removing 50 MPs will save money but as I said, not necessarily improve value for that money.

    The AV referendum was the Tories only concession to the LibDem desire for a PR referendum. It was part of the nature of the coalition negotiation but not the LD ideal.

    Similarly, we’d have let boundary change go through not because we agreed with it but because government has to be able to function and letting the Tories have their way on that gave us bigger advantages elsewhere. Unfortunately, as we discovered with the sorry tale of AV, our triumphalism on securing so many things to our advantage in the agreement was rather premature. Time and again, the Tories have reneged on the deal to appease their noisy right wing. Sadly, as I said above, we came across as chucking our toys out of the pram for resisting the change, instead of the finger being pointed at the Tories for defending a mediaeval upper house appointment system.

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