The reaction to today’s announcement from David Cameron that an incoming Conservative government would seek to slice off 10% of MPs has been understandably suspicious. After all, the Tories don’t have a great track record with electoral reform: in government the party preserved university seats and business votes and fought against universal suffrage. And the words ‘gerrymandering’ and ‘Dame Shirley Porter’ go together like the words ‘homeless’ and ‘asbestos-ridden tower block’. The Guardian’s article (linked above) is suitably sceptical, while even the Cameron-hugging Evening Standard rather damningly starts its article with the sentence
David Cameron will cut 60 Commons seats and redraw the political map to give the Tories more chance of winning elections [my italics], he revealed today.
And that was my first reaction to the news as well, with a lot of talk about allegedly over-represented Labour heartlands in inner-cities and Wales seeing their seat numbers slashed. Obviously that would be to Labour’s disadvantage, but the reality is a lot more complex than that. If this is gerrymandering, then it’s a remarkably cack-handed attempt at it.
The Animal started off by looking at the 65 seats (the Standard says 60 will go, but that isn’t 10% of seats) with the lowest populations. As Scotland is apparently exempt from the Cameron axe (and following the 2001 post-devolution revisions has very few small seats anyway outside the Highlands and islands), English and Welsh seats are going to have to take the full brunt of the cuts. I’m also assuming that Cameron isn’t going to be suicidal enough to start re-drawing Northern Irish boundaries. And yes, the most recent data – available here – does show that just a handful of Tory-held seats would be affected. So it’s straight-forward gerrymandering, isn’t it? Er, no actually.
The next General Election will be fought on hugely revised boundaries – and part of the reason for these revisions was the Boundary Commission‘s aim of, as far as possible, equalising constituency sizes. The Commission has had a limited level of success in this respect, but it has certainly had significant success in mixing up the list of smallest constituencies. Population estimates for the new constituencies are available in this House of Commons publication, with the excellent UK Polling Report website provides notional 2005 general election results for the new constituencies. Combining these, the nature of the 65 new smallest constituencies are as below:
|Party||Number of ‘small’ seats held in England & Wales||% of ‘small’ seats held||% of all seats in England and Wales held|
Suddenly, slashing 65 seats doesn’t look such a good idea for the Tories: yes, the cuts will fall slightly disproportionately on Labour, and only just under half (32) are in Wales – indeed the 12 smallest new seats are all across Offa’s Dyke. The people who ought to be really worried about this are not Labour, but Plaid Cymru, all three of whose seats are high on the cut list (at positions 3, 5 & 7). Now there’s always been a suspicion that the provision of a couple of safe Plaid seats in Y Fro Gymraeg was a bit of a sop to keep nationalist sentiment in check, although the official justification is of course the low population density. However, a real slash and burn of Welsh seats would probably reduce the party to 1 ‘guaranteed’ seat from the current 3 safe seats and two very tight marginals which could easily fall to them. It’s just a thought that Plaid – who are almost certain to have 5 MPs after the next election – might want to bear in mind if it has to decide where to throw its support in a hung parliament.
However, the real story about the new boundaries is just how many Tory seats now fall withing the lowest decile of population size. Broadly speaking, the Boundary Commission has succeeded in merging under-populated inner-city seats, thus removing them from the Tory firing line: using a pretty generous definition of ‘inner city’, it’s hard to find more than 9 seats in the list that qualify, with just two of these (both Dudley seats) in the big English metropolitan areas. London has just two seats in the list, the Tory-held marginal of leafy Putney and the safe Tory outer London seat of Chingford and Woodford Green. In fact, of the five largest seats in the country, four are pretty safe Labour-held London seats. On this measure, rural English seats are even more prone to over-representation (there are around 11 of these on the list), although this of course fits less neatly into the Tory narrative of a Labour-gerrymandered electoral system.
Basically, the Tories have proportionately as much to lose from this proposal (unless, of course, the party is just going to target Wales and the inner cities, regardless of where the genuinely small seats are). If the Tories do win the next election, a reasonable number of Labour-held seats on the list of 65 are likely to be Conservative gains, such as Wirral South, Brigg & Goole and Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire, probably ensuring the loss across the main parties remains broadly proportional. So unless this policy is going to be politically targeted, it isn’t going to do that much for helping the Tories to win an election. And, as an aside, what’s this seat I see creeping onto the list at position 64? Why, it’s Tatton, abode of our putative Chancellor. Has David told George he’s surplus to requirements yet?
Any attempt to order the Boundary Commission to concentrate solely on slashing Welsh and inner city seats would be constitutionally highly improper, compromising the Commission’s political independence. This is a jealously guarded independence which governments of all colours have generally respected – as demonstrated by the Labour government signing off the most recent Boundary Commission proposals which are estimated to cost the party a net 13 seats.
Have the Conservatives made the hilarious mistake of not looking at revised constituencies before they floated their plan? Oh, I do hope so…
But even if we can provisionally acquit the Conservatives of competent gerrymandering, the question remains as to whether decreasing the number of MPs is a sensible policy. Declaring my interest as a former MP’s assistant, I come firmly down on the side of ‘no’. This partially turns on the question of what our conception of an MP’s role is. Would 10% fewer MPs lead to a poorer quality of scrutiny and debate? Most of the time, probably not. But like it or not, an MP now spends as much of their time being a glorified social worker as they do being a legislator, a development which I mainly (and probably irrationally) blame on Liberal Democrat ‘Focus’ leaflets.
This isn’t going to be changed without a pretty radical reform of our system of government – and I’m thinking the introduction of ultra-powerful local government rather than 65 fewer MPs as my definition of radical here. Anyone who’s ever worked for an MP will tell you that the amount of casework they receive is phenomenal, particularly if their boss represents and inner city seat, which tends to pile on the complex housing and immigration casework. Anyone who hasn’t worked in an MP’s office could do worse that paying a visit to Peckham Town Hall on the days of Harriet Harman’s surgeries to witness the queues of up to a hundred constituent snaking out of the door. So any reduction in the number of MPs is going to have a significant effect on the staffing support required for members, nullifying many of the financial savings from cutting MPs.
If this was just going to be the case of giving each of the remaining 585 MPs 10% more constituents, this would probably be do-able. However, as the seats are geographically concentrated, many seats in Wales and other over-represented areas will have to see increases well in excess of that. Add to this the fact that low population density is the main justification for most over-represented seats and that in many areas seat mergers will produce vast, sprawling rural seats – and you have an exponential increase in MP’s travel costs to contend with as well (alongside the more important deterioration of service to constituents). From a financial point of view the proposals make little sense, from a representative democracy point of view, they are a step backwards.
The simple fact remains that the British people are demanding more and more from their MPs. Many an MP will tell you the tale of the irate constituent complaining that their email has not been responded to within ten minutes. In an economic downturn, the number of people seeking their MP’s assistance with housing, benefits or other issues will increase still faster. To start cutting representation at such a time seems counter-intuitive at best. At the most basic level, surely to ensure sustained levels of representation and constituent service in a situation where Britain’s population is growing should lead us to consider increasing the number of MPs over time, rather than decreasing it?
By all means seek to equalise constituency sizes, within the sensible bounds of geography and socio-economics, but to cut the number of MPs will simply ensure they have less time left to scrutinise and debate after they have dealt with that email about Mrs Jones’ missing cat (constituent’s name has been changed to protect the guilty). Bad for democracy, and bad for the people. Maybe a cack-handed attempt at gerrymandering is the most charitable explanation after all.