Smaller Commons ‘would hit Lib Dems’

The Lib Dems would have been proportionally the biggest losers if proposed changes to equalise constituency size had been implemented at the last election, according to research carried out by independent organisation Democratic Audit for BBC Newsnight.

The report estimates that the party would have lost 12% of its seats – or 7 out of 57. Labour would have lost 25 of 258 (10%), and the Conservatives just 13 of 307 (4%). The research did not make any assessment of the effect of a change in the voting system to AV, but instead assumed the use of FPTP.

The coalition government is seeking to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and to create constituencies of equal size, with electorates within 5% of a target quota of voters. While Labour opposes the proposals, arguing that the constituency changes would penalise them and inner city residents, the Conservatives have complained that the current boundaries are unfair, as they are currently required to win more votes than Labour to gain the same number of MPs, as Conservative-held constituencies usually have a greater number of registered voters.

The report also claims that Wales would lose 25% of its current constituencies, Northern Ireland 17%, Scotland 12% and England 6%.

You can read the report in more detail on the BBC’s web siteor watch the film on tonight’s Newsnight at 10.30pm on BBC Two.

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33 Comments

  • Paul McKeown 12th Aug '10 - 7:04pm

    Yes, the whole idea is bonkers. Drop it like a stone.

  • Mark Wilson 12th Aug '10 - 7:14pm

    i thought I heard a comment that Simon Hghes is in favour of this idea. What is the Lib Dems Policy position on this ?

  • Paul McKeown 12th Aug '10 - 7:15pm

    Equalise the constituencies, but don’t reduce their numbers.

  • Duncan Stott wrote:

    “The only vaguely logical argument I can think of is to save money.”

    There is another: to weaken Parliament.

    “An argument Clegg has used is that we have a comparatively large lower chamber compared to other countries.”

    A lot of those countries are much less centralised. They have regional assemblies with real powers (states, provinces, lander, whatever).

    Mark Wilson wrote:

    “i thought I heard a comment that Simon Hghes is in favour of this idea.”

    Simon is likely to be one of the victims. Does he stand in Southwark East or Southwark West?

    Incidentally, George Galloway is on record as favouring the reduction in the number of MPs. I can’t imagine why.

  • The Liberal Democrats would do worst out of reducing the number of MPs because we hold many constituencies that are surrounded by unfavourable territory. Increasing the size of the constituency will inevitably hurt us.

    Berwick-upon-Tweed
    Birmingham Yardley
    Bradford East
    Brent Central
    Burnley
    Cardiff Central
    Chippenham
    Colchester
    Eastbourne
    Leeds North-West
    Manchester Withington
    Mid Dorset and Poole North
    Norwich South
    Portsmouth South
    Solihiull
    Southport
    Southwark North and Bermondsey

    All the above are at exceptional risk, and I haven’t even looked at Scotland.

  • @John Ruddy

    Yes, but the wards in the neighbouring seats that border Sheffield Hallam are largely Lib Dem wards, two of them have historically been in Hallam and three of them voted Lib Dem in this year’s General Election despite being in a constituency we failed to win. Of the other neighbouring wards, they all vote Lib Dem in council elections and could well do the same in a General Election if they thought the party could win (something we won’t know until there is another election).

  • The other issue with reducing the number of MPs is that (assuming the number of Ministers stays the same) you will be cutting the number of backbench MPs, and thus reducing the power of the legislature compared to the executive. That is completely contradictory to claims made by the coalition that they wish to increase the power of Parliament.

    So far as I can see, this is just a piece of crude populism to try to tap into public hostility towards politicians.

  • To cut 650 seats down to 600 means each grows by about 7% or roughly 1/13th. My local seat contains seven wards, so it’s like an extra half a ward per seat. Is asking an MP and his/her local party to campaign in an extra half a ward really too much to ask? Will that really put these seats beyond our grasp?

  • @Duncan – it was in both coalition parties’ manifestos to reduce the amount of MPs, partly because we currently have a hugely disproportionate amount of them compared to other similar systems.

  • Lib Dems would have reduced the amount of MPs to 550 or so, alongside a change in the voting system. Don’t know how they arrived at 600 because I think the Conservatives wanted to reduce it even further, but reduction in number of MPs and boundary changes were in both manifestoes so this is one area where there is very much a mandate.

  • @sesenco: france is in several ways more centralized than the uk.
    the regions have some power but it’s very dependent on central government, and locally, there’s less.
    And the députés (MPs) have less power than here.

  • Andrea Gill:

    “but reduction in number of MPs and boundary changes were in both manifestoes so this is one area where there is very much a mandate.”

    Have you ever read what Lord Denning had to say about the doctrine of the electoral mandate (its in Bromley v GLC, at the Court of Appeal stage)? Basically, he said that elected bodies are not irrevocably bound by every single undertaking that finds its way into their manifestos. In government, politicians have to look at things in more detail, more expert advice is available, and circumstances change. This is especially true of space filling policies that were never properly discussed by party members, and were not actually the subject of scrutiny during the election campaign.

    Stephen W:

    “Reducing the number of MP’s will strengthen backbencher”

    On the contrary, I believe it will have the very opposite effect. If MPs are to scrutinise government effectively, there needs to be enough of them to do it. MPs’ workloads are already huge. Cameron is proposing to make them bigger. Would Norman Baker have had the time to investigate the murder of Dr David Kelly if he had had a constituency that stretched up to Ashdown Forest?

    Andy White:

    “You ought also to factor in incumbency, which tends to favour Lib Dem MPs more than those from the two bigger parties.”

    Incumbency only helps sitting MPs in respect of areas that they are already representing. Dr Evan Harris lost, partly because of boundary changes that brought in wards where he was not the incumbent. Similarly, Annette Brooke very nearly lost for the same reason. The boundary “review” gives Cameron the opportunity to pull an “Oxford West” on nearly every Lib Dem MP.

    If Cameron is pursuing this “review” in good faith, as pro-Coalition Lib Dems seem to be assuming is the case, why is he proposing to remove the right of appeal and oust the jurisdiction of the courts? Doesn’t this stink to high heavens?

  • Terry Keeley 13th Aug '10 - 9:54am

    “It should be done for the right reasons, not because of speculative party political advantage.”

    And nor should it be dismissed because of a perceived partly political disadvantage.

    You are either in favour of this sort of reform or you’re not. You can’t pick and choose because it may not suit your immediate goals. As stated – there is a clear mandate for this – a damn sight more than there is for AV.

  • Andy White – it looks as if your argument, by suggesting that, actually when the chips are down, Lib Dems won’t lose out, is acknowledging that it is (as Labour has maintained) a “gerrymander” to reduce their seats in order to increase Conservative seats (or reduce them by considerable numbers comparatively, when looking at a 600 seat Commons). Like other posters, I cannot really see a good argument for a smaller House apart from money saving populism (and I suppose, putting off the day when the Commons has to be moved / enlarged because there are not enough seats!) Has anyone actually seen the amount of work handled by an MP decreasing??

    It is very easy to fall for the argument “But we would all like to see equalised seats”. I think the problem falls into four general categories:

    1 Sparsely populated areas – this has been acknowledged and there is an exclusion at the very top. But we have the same phenomenon in other seats in Scotland, and in Wales, and such seats as Berwick, Penrith and Torridge West Devon in England.

    2 Depopulating cities and growing suburbs – this is dealt with on a regular basis by the Boundary Committee. I suppose the argument is made that it should be done more frequently. But I can tell you – it always leaves local people frustrated and angry, and increasing the frequency would incense people even more, and make additional work and cost for the Electoral Commission.

    3 “Natural communities” – Is it more desirable to have more equal constituencies than to have an MP represent as far as possible, a natural community. This reaches its zenith in the much quoted Isle of Wight. As a former Islander, I was not surprised, and comforted, by the strength of the Island’s resistance (rather like the situation in Afghanistan – this one runs and runs, since the 19th Century – and I have no doubt they will again win the right to be independently represented). It is clearly not right, however, for the figures to get so out of kilter that the whole democratic framework is put at risk, and we already run a compromise solution. We are a long way from that!

    4 Wales – there has been a settlement for Wales which has been agreed in years past. I am sure with devolution, Wales should go down the same road as Scotland did. But surely this should happen along with greater devolved powers to the Assembly?

    But all these are separate issues and problems (along with non-registration), and need their own solutions. To throw all this in the pot together and suddenly make “unequal constituency size” a major problem rather than the storm in a teacup that it really is, was unwise. As Lib Dems, it also compromises some of the principles, eg local determination, and natural communities, that we have fought over the years to preserve, eg in our arguments at the time of the Tory Local Government Review in 1995 – 6. We should not be falling for this.

  • Terry Keeley 13th Aug '10 - 10:01am

    “Basically, he said that elected bodies are not irrevocably bound by every single undertaking that finds its way into their manifestos.”

    No, but they clearly have support from the electorate to carry out these changes.

    “especially true of space filling policies that were never properly discussed by party members, and were not actually the subject of scrutiny during the election campaign.”

    So manifestos aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. Thanks for that.

  • Just a brief extra point. If the Tories (or the Coalition) were concerned about political balance and the same number of people electing an MP for different parties, surely they would be looking at proper PR rather than AV, which doesn’t really address the major imbalances, ie the huge disadvantage the Lib Dems are under when compared with both Tories and Labour, and to a lesser extent, UKIP, the Greens etc. Multi member STV would also address the natural community issue. You could make different counties, cities etc have different numbers of MPs (similar to Regions in the Euro elections).

  • Stephen W:

    “The right of local appeal is be removed because it is one of the things that most slows the process down.”

    Precisely. It makes it more difficult for Cameron and his kind too get what they want. Due process exists to protect the public, to guarantee transparency and to ensure that every relevant factor is taken into account. Doing things properly does take time. So do criminal trials. So what? When governments take away due process it is always to enable them to do things that they would not be able to do if due process was in place. It is the kind of thing that dictators do. If Cameron is acting in good faith, what does he have to fear from public inquiries and judicial review? I cannot believe that a Liberal Democrat is making this argument.

  • George Kendall:

    “I’d rather this weren’t going through”

    So why support it?

    “but it’s in the coalition agreement”

    Ah, right. It’s the wrong thing to do, but you’re supporting it because it’s in the Coalition Agreement. Doesn’t horse-trading of this kind give politics a bad name?

    “and was part of the negotiation to get us an referendum on AV.”

    I thought STV in multi-member constituencies was our policy, not AV?

    “So I think we may lose a few MPs from this, but I think we need to take it on the chin.”

    Why? You appear to be labouring under the misapprehension that David Cameron is an honourable man who can be trusted. Cameron double-crossed Nick Clegg over Equity and Excellence, free schools and the long-term balance between the public and private sectors. Can we trust him on any other issue?

    “And, unfortunately, reducing the number of MPs was our policy.”

    We are not irrevocably bound by existing polcies, as Lord Denning pointed out in Bromley v GLC. If policies are plain wrong, we change them.

    “There are other more important issues we should be pressing the Conservatives to change. Such as being a bit more generous to those on welfare, and especially changing the 10% cut in housing benefit for the long-term unemployed.”

    Do you really think Cameron is going to give way on any of these? The man is an unreconstructed radical Thatcherite and doesn’t care who knows it. Cameron reneged on the Coalition Agreement while the ink was barely dry, and is little short of bragging about it. Yet you say that we should adhere to every last letter?

    “I agree that this will increase the power of the government, and reduce the power of the legislature.”

    So why are we supporting it?

    “But the answer to that is to reduce the number of ministers.”

    Is Cameron proposing to do that? The number of ministers drawn from the legislature is limited by statute to 94 (?). How many ministers would have to be cut to make up for the loss of 50 MPs? Of course, we could always go down the route of a complete separation of powers, but that would mean a directly elected executive, and I don’t fancy that one bit.

    Cameron entered into the Coalition because he needed temporary Lib Dem support to keep his government in power while he stitched up the electoral system to ensure that his party could get an overall majority on 36% of the vote. His collateral objective is to eliminate the Liberal Democrats. He will do this by (1) fixing the electoral system and (2) offering lifelines to Nick Clegg and a few favoured Orange Bookers. The party will split and its support base will collapse. At least that’s what Cameron hopes. That’s one arm of the pincer movement against our party. The other comes from the mainly North American owned media who are attempting to pick off Lib Dem MPs one by one. It’s a pity that Nick Clegg and his group of close advisers is unable to see any of this. Perhaps Messrs Cable, Huhne and Webb can, and they will do the walk some time before Christmas. Let’s be there to welcome them home.

  • Things could be a lot worse than even Sesenco has suggested. if you abandon natural communities, and you start building up constituencies by carving out precisely equal-sized chunks of population, then you are usually going to end up with constituencies which cut their predecessors in half, or in something quite close to half. Then in five more years, you cut your new constituencies in half, all over again. You never have any MPs who serve the same area for more than one parliament at a time.

    First let’s look at the great principle that an MP should be a uniquely valued local representative of his/her locality, that he/she gets to know, love and champion. We will lose all that. We might as well have a national party list system, because we won’t preserve the local connection properly anyway.

    Then let’s look at the impact on the Lib Dems. If the boundaries shift between Tory and Labour areas, it’s swings and roundabouts. Tories gain a few, Labour gain a few. But what if Southwark is cut in half, or Eastleigh, or all the other Lib Dem constituencies where we have built up the advantages of long-term incumbency? We will lose them.

    Newsnight got it wrong. The harm to us is a lot worse than they think it will be.

    AV might, just about, peg things back for us. Except that we’ll probably lose the referendum on that. But the “unnatural communities” part of the bill will just get voted through. By us.

    Turkeys. Christmas!

  • David Allen 14th Aug '10 - 5:52pm

    George Kendall,

    “Boundary reviews always hurt our sitting MPs, because incumbency is so important to their keeping their seat, and the tighter requirements for more equal constituencies will mean the boundary changes will be less inclined to keep constituencies to same. So I think we may lose a few MPs from this”

    Thanks for acknowledging the problem, but, if you think a bit harder about the maths of this, I believe you will see that you are underestimating it.

    When you decide to make all constituencies mathematically equal in size, there is no way you can then be “inclined to keep constituencies to same”. You simply have to work out the number of electors per constituency – let’s say it comes out at 80,000 – and then work your way across the map of Britain, taking bite-sized chunks of 80,000s as you go. When you get wildly out of kilter with the previous constituency boundaries – as inevitably you will – there is no way you can get back to them. Almost all constituencies will be totally reshaped. And five years later, they will be reshaped again.

    We will lose a heck of a lot of MPs from this.

  • David Allen 14th Aug '10 - 6:11pm

    For those who don’t like partisan arguments: We shall also lose the historic link between a long-serving MP and the area he/she has represented.

    Let me choose as an example my own MP, the redoubtable Ken Clarke, who has been MP for Rushcliffe for some 30 years and claims to be in mid-career. Well, he won’t continue that career as MP for Rushcliffe.

    Come 2015, he will no doubt have to choose between something like “Rushcliffe South-East and Melton” or “Rushcliffe North-West and Nottingham South-East”, because there will be a new arbitrary boundary line. Let’s suppose he goes for the Melton one. Come 2020, the boundaries will all be revised at random once again, and he may well have to choose between “Melton North and the Vale of Belvoir”, “Melton South and Rutland”, or “Rushcliffe South-West and Loughborough North”. Whatever he does, he will regularly lose touch with most of the people he has represented.

    At the moment, our Ken has a reputation as a good constituency MP. By the end of his career (in 2030?) nobody will really know him locally, because he will have wandered all over the East Midlands in pursuit of the ever changing un-natural boundaries that this wonderful new system will have given us.

    Ken will, however, probably survive politically until 2030, always assuming he survives biologically, because wherever he goes in the rural East Midlands he will find plenty of Tories. By contrast, Simon Hughes won’t find Lib Dems everywhere he goes around South London. He will soon be shunted into a black hole where he will lose.

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