The House of Lords is right to challenge the Coalition on where we vote

A new Labour Peer attacks the spirit and methods of the Coalition's attempt to re-draw the UK's constituencies and rush a referendum on the voting system even though he favours the principles of reform
Michael Wills
31 January 2011

It’s a measure of the intellectual impoverishment of our media that their main interest in the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill through the House of Lords has been the all-night sittings. They’ve paid scant attention to the contents of the Bill which represent a cynical subversion of constitutional proprieties, unprecedented in recent history. Far from this Government bringing in the new politics they promised, this is the worst sort of old politics, placing the pursuit of partisan self-interest above any nobler motivation.

And I write this as a new member of the House of Lords who is something of a curiosity in the chamber in that, unusually for either side of the House, I support the objectives of both Parts of the Bill.

I support a move to the Alternative Vote system, not as a compromise or halfway house but as a desirable end in itself and who could oppose any attempt to make the process of boundary revisions fairer and more efficient?
But there are profound flaws in how this Bill proposes to achieve these objectives.

The referendum on AV, provided for in Part One of the Bill, is post-legislation, mandating the Government to implement the result. The Labour Government’s proposal  left the final decision to Parliament, consistent with our belief in the primacy of representative democracy and leaving MPs to reach a final judgement on the basis of the outcome of the vote. Of course, it’s unlikely that any Parliament would resist the result of a referendum. But holding the popular vote before implementing legislation at least allows Parliament to reflect on the implications of possible inconclusive outcomes arising from low turnout or narrow margin of victory - or differential results in the four nations of the United Kingdom.

But the worst problems reside in Part Two of the Bill. This provides for a wholesale revision of constituency boundaries. Complex and technical it may be but it goes to the heart of our democratic arrangements.

It’s long been accepted, for example, that the boundaries of a constituency should be shaped not only by numbers but also by the specific character of the constituency, local identities and natural boundaries, such as mountains and rivers, which have throughout history helped define communities.

No longer. This Bill elevates the equalisation of constituency size above all other considerations. But then it doesn’t even uphold this dubious principle consistently. Wales is to lose 25% of its parliamentary representation in one swing of the axe while Northern Ireland is allowed to depart from the electoral quota rule.

It’s hard to find anywhere in this Bill anything that could pass as a consistently-applied, informing principle. Where, for example, is any examination of the optimum size for a constituency ? This is a crucial consideration in creating a principled approach to the equalisation of constituencies. What is the appropriate relationship between an MP and their constituents and what size of constituency best sustains it ? The Government have given us no clue. But surely, before embarking on such radical reform, we need to seek agreement on what principles should determine the size of a constituency and hence the size of the House of Commons ?

And surely such significant reforms should take account of other impending changes in our constitutional arrangements: the increasing decentralisation of power to local authorities and reform of the composition of the House of Lords, both of which will have implications for the nature and extent of the role of Members of Parliament.

How exactly did the Government alight on the figure of six hundred as the proper size for the House of Commons ? Both the Coalition partners were committed before the Election to reducing the House of Commons to below six hundred seats. What exactly changed their minds ?

Was any modelling was done by the Government or by the Liberal Democrat Party or the Conservative Party on the effects on their own parties of reducing the number of MPs below six hundred? If so, what did such modelling show ? We don’t know because Ministers have repeatedly refused invitations to say. As long as they fail to produce any coherent explanation of how this figure was arrived at, and why they have gone back on what they promised, the suspicion must remain that this decision was motivated by the pursuit of partisan advantage.

And what about the principle, hitherto followed by all Parties that believe in maintaining the Union, of differential protections for the minority nations of the United Kingdom ? The nature of the Union has changed considerably since the Labour Government introduced devolution and it is continuing to evolve. But there is no evidence in this Bill that the Government has appreciated this or recognised its significance. The treatment of Wales suggests, at the very least, a carelessness about the health of the Union.

Then the Bill abolishes the ability of local people to have any significant say in the shape of the constituency in which they live, even though local representations have significantly influenced boundary revisions in the past.  The Deputy Prime Minister has justified this with these words: "The review process is lengthy and time-consuming". But the same might be said for democracy itself. Administrative convenience for the executive is never a good argument for dismissing the foundations of accountable democracy.

The Government justify the measures in Part Two on the grounds that every vote should count the same and it is true that it takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative one. But there are several reasons for this apart from different constituency sizes, including relative rates of registration and differences in turnout. And, as Liberal Democrats, of all people, should know, if each vote is to weigh equally then the share of each vote should translates directly into an equal proportion of seats held. Only one electoral system delivers this:  proportional representation, and that’s not on offer in this Bill.

And if the Government was really so concerned about equality among voters, they wouldn’t be seeking to redraw the electoral map on the basis of a register which fails to include over three million voters who would be otherwise eligible to vote. Does the Government seriously believe that any credible equalisation of boundaries can take place when some constituencies achieve nearly 100% registration rates while others achieve barely half that ?

Then there’s the way in which this Bill has been introduced, in a display of contempt for Parliament by the executive. The Labour Government introduced a raft of constitutional reforms and always did so seeking consensus wherever possible, on the grounds that whatever changes are made they should be made in the interests of the legitimacy of our constitutional system as a whole and not be subject to claims that partisan advantage is being pursued. We didn’t always get it right but we tried.

But this Bill is characterised by breathless speed and absence of consultation: speed in rushing it through Parliament, speed in holding a referendum less than six months from the presumed passage of the Bill onto the statute book, and unprecedented speed in completing the wholesale revision of constituency boundaries.

Why the rush? Surely such important constitutional measures deserve appropriate pre-legislative and legislative scrutiny? Surely people should have the time and opportunity to have their say on the shape of the constituencies in which they live.

Clearly the Government want to get the new system in place by the next election. But why? Important as I believe these issues to be, there’s nonetheless no popular clamour for these measures nor any other compelling reason to rush these measures through.

And why rush to draw up new boundaries on the basis of an inaccurate and incomplete register when the Political Parties and Election Act gave the Electoral Commission the task of making the register comprehensive and accurate by 2015 and gave them new powers to achieve this.

Why couldn’t the Government wait just a few months longer to be sure that boundary revisions will take place on the basis of a comprehensive and accurate electoral register, the only fair basis on which such revisions can be conducted ? The only reason can be that the new boundaries would not be in place for the next General Election.

Constitutional changes of this significance should be drafted to endure, whether they’re in place for this coming General Election or the next one really should not weigh in the balance.

So why might the Government be so anxious to get these measures in place by the time of the next election ?

It’s widely accepted that revising the boundaries when millions of eligible voters are missing from the register is likely to damage the Labour Party most. And one prominent Conservative, Mark Field, the MP for the Cities of London and Westminster admits on his website,

the current proposals for AV and the reduction in number of parliamentary constituencies are being promoted by Party managers as an expedient way to prevent our principal political opponents from recapturing office.

As well as the putative electoral advantage, there’s also the tactical requirement that this Bill is critical in keeping the Coalition locked together. It yokes together two different political agendas, with Part One of the Bill representing the Liberal Democrat part of the Bill and Part Two the Conservative part. It is this that makes it difficult for the Government to adopt obvious solutions such as splitting the Bill into two and adopting different timetables for the two parts. 

There’s clearly deep unease among backbenchers in both Parties in the Coalition that their interests are being sacrificed to those of the other Party. It’s inevitable when there’s no history of cooperation between the two parties and there has been no opportunity to build up any sort of trust. This is only to be expected when a coalition has to be put together so quickly and unexpectedly. Governments that are the product of a deal find it difficult to do deals.

But this is a shoddy reason to abuse proper process in pushing through such important constitutional changes. Pure political expediency for the Government parties is an unacceptable basis for constitutional change. When our electoral arrangements become the subject of partisan dispute, it corrodes public trust and undermines the foundations of our democracy. For many years our political parties sought consensus on such issues and, for the most part, succeeded in finding it. This Bill is an exception to this good practice and a shameful one.

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