The Coalition Agreement does not commit Lib Dems to supporting boundary changes

Over the last couple of months, Conservative MPs and commentators have made great play of the fact that the Coalition Agreement does not explicitly commit the Tories to voting for House of Lords reform. Let’s remind ourselves of its words again:

We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010. It is likely that this will advocate single long terms of office. It is also likely that there will be a grandfathering system for current Peers.

Is there wiggle room there? Technically, yes. The words “We promise that all Conservative and Lib Dem MPs will vote for the proposals that are brought forward” are not there. But those words are missing from much of the Coalition Agreement. Including — just to pluck a random example out of the air — the commitment to support boundary changes. As LibDemVoice commenter Malcolm Todd observed here last month:

For those who claim (technically correctly) that the Coalition Agreement only committed the government to setting up a committee on Lords reform and not to supporting an actual reform bill, here’s what the agreement actually says on Commons reform:

We will bring forward a Referendum Bill on electoral reform, which includes provision for the introduction of the Alternative Vote in the event of a positive result in the referendum, as well as for the creation of fewer and more equal sized constituencies. We will whip both Parliamentary parties in both Houses to support a simple majority referendum on the Alternative Vote, without prejudice to the positions parties will take during such a referendum

Well, that’s been done now. The retaliation argument refers to refusing to vote for the parliamentary order that will be promulgated some time next year, implementing the specific proposals on boundaries that the Boundary Commission presents. I don’t see anything in the Coalition Agreement committing Lib Dems to vote for that, do you?

And yes, it’s a silly, picky argument. That’s my point.

So in terms of contract law it’s a score-draw. If the Tories can shoot down Lords reform with sophistry, so can the Lib Dems torpedo boundary changes on the same grounds.

Clegg v Cameron, Boundaries v Lords

Ah, say some Tories, but Nick Clegg has already committed to boundary changes, saying more equal sized seats are vital to a properly functioning democracy. True enough — though David Cameron promised Lords reform, not only in the Conservative manifesto but also in the first leaders’ TV debate, even chiding Gordon Brown for their 13 years’ failure to introduce even an element of democracy into the Lords (which sits a little oddly, even hypocritically, with Mr Cameron’s subsequent statement that Lords reform was a “third term” priority for the Tories).

So far, so check-mate. Up to this point I’ve simply noted the tactics of the boundary changes situation: that the Lib Dems are as able to make the same expedient claim to sink a Coalition Agreement measure we don’t like as the Tories can. Just as right-wing Tories fear the long-term consequences of Lords reform (wrongly from their point of view, as I’ve argued before), so too do Lib Dems fear the short-term consequences of boundary changes (rightly, as pollster Peter Kellner has warned).

Enough of tactics, what about the principles?

There are two wider points of principle, though. First, as Chris Rennard pointed out here, there is a clear link between Lords reform and boundary changes. The practical impact of reducing the size of the House of Commons is to increase the weight of the ‘payroll vote’ of government ministers; to combine that with the continuation of political patronage in the House of Lords is a big swing in favour of the executive (ie, the Prime Minister) and against parliamentary power.

Secondly, the Coalition Agreement can only work if it is honoured in its spirit. To subject every measure to a kind of lawyerly loophole-searching scrutiny — as so many Conservatives have done on Lords reform — is to doom this government to sclerotic failure. For many on the right, who feel betrayed by David Cameron’s failure to win the 2010 election and even more betrayed by his subsequent commitment to coalition government, that appears to be their aim (with honourable exceptions such as Gary Streeter).

My best guess of what will happen next is this: Lords reform will fall and the boundary changes will fall in due course. Neither event is good for democracy. The public should be able to elect those who make the laws we all have to live by; and the public should expect their vote to be worth the same no matter where they live. Political machinations have brought us to where we are, and it’s not pretty to watch… let alone be part of.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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37 Comments

  • You talk as if ‘political machinations’ are some immutable universal constant. They are not. They are the responsibility of the politicians of the day. Given no major policy successes, the economy tanking since the election, the end of electoral reform for a generation and Lib Dem funding and membership dropping to unsustainable levels isn’t it about time you asked the leadership of the Lib Dems to take responsibility?

  • This makes me feel a little better about the prospects of the boundary review being killed. No LimDem MPs are willing to say it outright , and some are making noises that a compromise could be on the table…

    If Clegg capitulates and allows the boundary changes to go through, would we have chance to remove and replace him before the vote?

  • Stephen speaks of “… doom this Government to sclerotic failure”. Stephen, that has already happened, certainly on the economic, redistribution, and environmental fronts, which is where the action should be taking place! I normally agree with those who say that the Govt CAN concentrate on more than one thing at once, and I genuinely feel constitutional reform is necessary. I do wonder about a Tory – Lib Dem coalition bringing in anything worthwhile, however…

  • The party may want this change but do the conservative mps? Many of them will lose seats.
    I think many of them would love to lose both this and the lords reform.

  • In the early 19th Century, people were absolutely right to protest about the voting franchise arrangements, and lives were lost, and people fought hard for some of the changes necessary. In the early 21st Century, the so-called disparities of “what a vote is worth” in different constituencies has only been fought over by anoraks (and Tories who think they have been disadvantaged!) Nothing has yet been seriously proposed to give Lib Dems (or other non-Tory or Labour parties) a fair playing field in GEs. AV was never going to do that, anyway.

    There are other important principles, like natural communities, which our party seems to have abandoned. Why, if numbers per se are so important, are we not fighting to equalise Council sizes?

  • The issue here is a numbers problem! As you say Stephen, both Cameron and Clegg have argued for Lords Reform and equal constituencies respectively. Just as Cameron, the entire Conservative payroll vote (aside from Conor Burns, who did resign first) and two thirds of Conservative backbenchers voted for this. For the government to lose a vote on boundary reforms, by my count, would need every Liberal Democrat not on the payroll vote to vote against it, along with every member of every smaller party – I can’t even work out if that would manage it. It would be an incredibly close vote. And assuming the biggest rebellion of Liberal Democrats by a distance, I don’t think the two thirds of backbench Conservatives who did vote for Lords Reform, many very reluctantly, on the basis that the coalition required it will be particularly pleased.

    If we’re talking about our ministers being publicly against boundary changes, that’s a different story, and is not really possible to my understanding of how ministerial responsibility functions, even in a coalition.

    I still think that our position is best served through negotiation where we have the best level of representation: around the cabinet table and in the Quad. The best chance of blocking boundary changes is for them to be argued away and never to get to the commons at all. If we go down the route of every backbench Lib Dem trying to throw off boundary changes and every LD minister supporting it, not only is the result pretty unpredictable, but we’re stepping into very murky waters in terms of keeping the government going at all.

    If we don’t want to keep the government going, that’s fine. But I’m not really enamoured with the idea of going into a general election in the middle of a recession talking about the generous £8,000 tax threshold we achieved.

  • Mike Bird

    “If we don’t want to keep the government going, that’s fine. But I’m not really enamoured with the idea of going into a general election in the middle of a recession talking about the generous £8,000 tax threshold we achieved.”

    Miracles rarely happen in politics, and the chances of a massive policy success that the voters will applaud is unlikely for both parts of the coalition. It’s now either a case of grimly hanging on in the hope of that miracle (ironically a complaint thrown, unjustifiably at Brown by Tories and Lib Dems) or cutting your losses and accepting a substantial reduction in the number of MPs but gambling that it will be less than if the Coalition stuck together for the full term.

    This calculation applies equally to the Tories, by the way, and they are certainly hard headed enough to accept a few years in the wilderness for another shot at government when they’ve recovered. They also have the advantage of having more funding and more MPs so are better equipped to survive the lean years.

    If they jump first, I doubt the Lib Dems will be around to fight an election in the following decade.

  • Nick Clegg is in charge of steering the boundary reform agenda through the Commons so surely he is in a position to decide to ‘put it on ice’, allow for further representations etc, to ask for the commission to review the effects on how well voters are represented (how do you draw boundaries that will not worsen the effects on smaller parties?). He could decide that the measure needs to be accompanied by greater democratic safeguards (perhaps a limit on the proportion of MPs that are on the government payroll).

    He can also agree that giving priority to issues of employment and the economy means that this is a lower priority. He can even cite the ‘who on the doorsteps is bothered by boundary reform’ argument.

    However for FPTP to work requires a large number of representatives, many more than we have at present. Given that we are to be denied representatives in the Lords, the Liberal Democrats do not wish to leave behind a system that is actually less democratic than before.

  • NorthernLout 5th Aug '12 - 1:26pm

    “Do Lib Dems really want to bring down the government in the cause of protecting unequal and unfair constituencies.”

    Speaking as an outsider, I’m amazed that you’re sanguine about nodding through a change that will mean the loss of 15 LibDem seats and ensuring Tory government in almost perpetuity, having been stabbed by the Tories over both Lords reform and voting reform.

    If you vote it through, you’ll be perceived as weak and clueless. Do one on the Tories and outsiders might begin to think that you’ve got a backbone, because, mark my words, the Tories, having done you over repeatedly, will have no compunction about doing it again and again, safe in the knowledge that you (as a Parliamentary party) won’t say boo to a goose.

  • Stephen W writes “The only alternative is for Clegg to negotiate a whole-government climbdown behind the scenes or for the Lib Dems to all quit their government posts en masse i.e. end the Coalition.” but does this have to mean “end the Coalition”?

    I have asked this question before, but not seen a reply. If the Lib Dems largely withdraw from the government pay roll (2 or 3 could remain), could they not still continue on the government benches, but be more in a position to speak out and in some cases vote against the government motions? Conservative ministers would be forced to make a more persuasive public case for their proposals . It would also be refreshing to hear Tories complain that there are not enough Lib Dems in gonvernment.

  • Stephen W: to some extent I share your position (though I do not know who else I could vote for n England), Equal constituencies is not at issue (except in some geographically defined areas), the issue is a reduced number of MPs. Are you in favour of this and would you be in favour of this irrespective of electoral reform? I definitely am not in favour of reducing the number of MPs under FPTP as this will make the system even less representative.

  • Boundary changes are fine and absolutely have to be a regular feature of any non-proportional system of representation, to avoid votes in one place being worth less than votes elsewhere. So it seems to me we’re committed in principle to this aspect of the Conservatives’ favourite political reform.

    But I don’t see the same argument in favour of reducing the number of constituencies. The arguments in favour seem to consist of some vague notion of saving money on politics. If that’s the real concern, cut the MPs’ salaries, not the effectiveness of parliamentary opposition. Certainly I don’t see us as liberals being ideologically committed to this aspect at all.

    Since Clegg is the minister overseeing constitutional reform, he might consider trying to fob the Conservatives off with constituency resizing but no reduction in total seats. This would involve the Boundary Commission swapping the odd council ward across boundaries, and although Liberal Democrats being involved in such (hopefully mostly independent and benign) gerrymandering does not fill me with enthusiasm, it would at least be consistent with the principles of single-member constituency representation and would not be the death blow to our chances in 2015 that the existing proposals appear to be.

  • Peter Watson 5th Aug '12 - 5:56pm

    From the postings here and on similar topics, it strikes me that:
    1. AV was a huge step towards improving democratic representation that would have benefitted Lib Dems and we let the tories kill it.
    2. Lords reform is a huge step towards improving democratic representation that would benefit Lib Dems and we are going to let the tories kill it.
    3. Fiddling with constituency boundaries is a tiny step towards improving democratic representation that would damage Lib Dems and we might help the tories to benefit from it
    4. Reducing the number of MPs is a step towards worsening democratic representation that would damage Lib Dems and we might help the tories to benefit from it.

    If things pan out the way it appears they might, could somebody please explain to me what is the point of the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party? They would appear to be the most loyal MPs any conservative prime minister has ever had.

  • The Boundary Commission has always had as one of its objectives the equalisation of constituency sizes, but this objective has been sensibly qualified with the need to respect natural boundaries and to preserve wherever possible the coherence of communities. It is these qualifications that have been jettisoned by the current boundary review, for what seems to be partisan advantage to the Conservatives. This is a dangerous road to embark upon and we should not be supporting it. As far as the overall number of MPs is concerned, this has varied between 615 in 1922-45, 640 in 1945, 625 in 1950, and then gradually increased again to 659 from 1997 to 2010 when the number was cut due to Scottish devolution to the present 650. I have not seen any specific justification for a reduction in numbers to 600. This proposal seems to me to be a piece of cynical populism dreamed up in response to the MPs’ expenses scandals of the last parliament.

  • “If the Tories can shoot down Lords reform with sophistry, so can the Lib Dems torpedo boundary changes on the same grounds.”

    Actually, it is questionable whether the parliamentary arithmetic would allow the Lib Dems to torpedo them if the Tories support them solidly, given that the SNP are also rather keen on the changes. Certainly it couldn’t be done without the whole of the Lib Dem “payroll” voting against. It would be ironic if the Lib Dems finally decided they wanted to defeat a Tory measure, and then found they were unable to!

  • Peter Watson 5th Aug '12 - 10:46pm

    @Simon Shaw
    “From a purely selfish point of view we happen to be better off with the status quo.”
    Crikey! Does that mean that the ‘compromise’ proposal of a hereditary / appointed upper chamber that’s fudged to reflect 2010 election results is the worst of all worlds, reducing our influence while sacrificing our democratic principles? Bet that’s the one that Clegg goes for then 😉

    P.S. How do you do the italics and bold thing?

  • Richard Dean 5th Aug '12 - 11:18pm

    It is irrelevant whether Lords reform benefits LibDems or not. Proper reform will benefit the electorate, and all parties are affected and no party is likely to win out in the long term.

    Unfortunately, from what little I saw of how it was presented, it did seem like LibDems were trying to claim all the credit, and that LibDems were trying to sneak in some funny electoral process. It also seemed that no-one had realised previously that electing Lords would give them a legitimacy that few people wanted them to have.

    So from the country’s point of view we might indeed be better off with the status quo. The Lords perform their revising function reasonably well, they don’t have much power, and we have time to make an improved approach. Reform is such a drastic step that all parties need to be able to claim some credit for it.

  • David Allen 5th Aug '12 - 11:45pm

    Jedibeeftrix said:

    “if the Lib-Dem’s, as the self professed party of reason and principle, vote against equalising constituencies then i will laugh my socks off as it announces to the electorate that raison d’etre of the party has just been jettisoned!”

    Not so. Our current system is based on the principle of equal constituencies. The new Tory proposals only change the precise mechanics of how that aim is to be pursued. They put more emphasis on precise equality, but much less emphasis on natural communities and on the stability of the constituency structure. Now you might think that they are changes for the good, or for the bad, but you cannot seriously argue that votign against them betrays any fundamental principles.

    My view is that they go far too far in the direction of mathematical equality, and they are formulated to do that for highly dubious reasons. By insisting on equality to within 5%, the proposed rules ensure that constituencies will become artificial and unstable. Never again will we hear of famous MPs who represented the same constituency for a generation, because never again will any constituency survive a generation.

    Bang go the advantages of personal campaigning to build up a reputation and win and hold a seat – a process which has been of huge benefit to the Lib Dems and also to the electors, who gain a long term MP they can trust. (And in my constituency, that’s Ken Clarke, so I’m not arguing for Lib Dem advantage in my own neck of the woods!) Bang goes our tradition of constituency MPs who really know the place they represent. In comes a degraded democracy with less power to hold Government to account, and less chance of interfering with what our rich ruling class, media, bankers and business want to get up to. This is what Cameron wants, and that’s why he has done it.

    So let’s have no qualms about voting it down. It is NOT the principle of equality that is at stake. It is the quality of our democracy.

  • we must remember that we are in a coalition of THREE parties, two of which call themselves conservative.

  • As I’ve lived for a significant part of my life in the seat of Calder Valley and before that worked in Somerton & Frome I treat the “oh but we have to have seats that are genuine natural communities or the world will end” argument as little more than a convenient fig leaf for political advantage.

  • @ David – “Never again will we hear of famous MPs who represented the same constituency for a generation, because never again will any constituency survive a generation. ”

    Churchill managed.

  • Malcolm Todd 6th Aug '12 - 1:21pm

    As usual, we’re getting muddled between two issues.
    (1) The proposed boundary changes are a fairly bad idea — not because of the equalisation element (“natural communities”, indeed! Please, David — when was “Rushcliffe” ever a natural community? And did it become more or less natural when it lose Bingham before the last election? Are the people of Bingham really gutted about no longer having Our Ken as their MP?), but because reducing the number of constituencies increases the baleful effect of FPTP on representation of minority views and reduces the proportion of governing-party MPs who can vote against the party line without losing their jobs. It should therefore be voted down.

    (2) Voting down the boundary changes because we’ve lost Lords reform will both look and be petty politics, especially when our leadership have been confidently parroting the line that this in itself improves our democracy. Voting it down would therefore be dishonest and discreditable.

    So what should the party do? God knows. Give up, probably — I rather fear I have. Dump Clegg, by all means — as somebody pointed out, he has the most appalling record of implementation of the areas he’s actually responsible for; but for what? I don’t know what our parliamentary party as a whole stands for — if we really are just the party of constitutional reform (and that seems to be the only thing we’re at least 90% agreed on) then we really have got diddly-squat from this coalition and should recognise the fact by quitting. We can look forward to fighting an election (whether now or in 2015) as the Constitutional Reform Party — nobody much cares about the issue outside our little world, so we’d get few votes and no seats, but at least we’d know what we were fighting for and we could pretty sure we were all on the same side. I’m almost serious. Leave it to the megalomaniac dreams of the “big boys” to decide what tune the fiddlers of the Exchequer should play while the whole Roman empire burns…

  • Stephen W – it would be useful, I think if you transferred some of your passion to the real issue of how to ensure that people are engaged and enthused by real politics, and voting, so that we get nearer to 100% registration. Your comment, of course, that everyone ‘should’ care that some votes are “worth more than others”, is the giveaway – in your view, they should, but they don’t. My experience tells me that people are a lot more fired up about somewhere being taken in, or excluded from their own voting area based on whether or not it is felt to be appropriate. Experience also tells me that the main problem in this area is Council boundaries, and how far they coincide (or not) with constituencies. No-one addresses these, except in terms of the Civil Service agenda of imposing Unitaries, mostly unsuccessfully. Exact numbers do not feature in these concerns

  • Peter Watson 6th Aug '12 - 2:43pm

    @Simon Shaw
    Before now I’ve fallen foul of forum software stripping out or rejecting HTML tags in postings, but here goes …
    Back on-topic
    I’ve just read NC’s statement and it looks like we are rejecting the boundary changes as part of the failed overall package of electoral reform, and the Daily Telegraph is already attacking Lib Dem sophistry. It will be interesting to see if any quotes by NC or others about the boundary changes now come back to haunt them, and how the whole thing will play out.
    How fortunate that this is happening on the same day as Louise Mensch’s announcement, and while the MPs and political correspondents are on holiday and everybody is preoccuppied with the Olympics. So much for a new kind of politics.

  • Peter Hayes 6th Aug '12 - 3:58pm

    I was already against the boundary changes because numerical equality is not equal to an area of similar needs and problems. One suggestion could move Gloucester Cathedral into the Forest of Dean and the Isle of Wight solution was even more bizarre. The Tories campaigned against AV and promoted a kick Nick vote and blocked Lords reform (which I wasn’t too happy with because of party lists). so why should we give them 20 extra seats for free and destroy the local association of MPs with a geographical area.

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