It's quite ironic to see David Cameron’s sudden change of heart about the size of the House of Commons?
Somebody might take the view that at 659 there are already too many Members of Parliament at Westminster. They may take the view, depending on what happens in the European constitution, that Westminster has less to do, with less MPs - I certainly hope that is not the case. This is all someway off. David Cameron MP, Oxfordshire Boundary Inquiry, 2003When it came to protecting his own constituency boundaries, David Cameron opposed a change in the number of seats. But now that he sees political advantage in cutting seats, he favours a reduction.
What’s in the Bill?
The Bill provides for a referendum on the Alternative Vote to be held on 5 May 2011.
The question will be: "Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the 'alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?"
The Bill will fix the House of Commons at 600 seats.
Every UK seat must be no more than 5% more or less of the new quota (approx 75,000 electors – which gives a range of approx 71,250-78,750)
The first constituency shall be allocated to the part of the UK with the greatest electorate (England – possible the Isle of Wight).
It states that two seats (Western Isles, and Orkney & Shetland Islands) are exempt from the mathematical rule.
It states that seats above 12,000 sq km may also be exempted from the rule – and that no seat can be bigger than 13,000 sq km (which ostensibly exempts Charles Kennedy’s Ross, Skye and Lochaber seat).
It abolishes public inquiries into Boundary Commission decisions.
The review of boundaries will be based on the December 2010 electoral register and will be completed by 2013.
Labour is in favour of a referendum on the Alternative Vote.
We sought to legislate for that objective earlier this year but were defeated by unelected Conservative peers; our manifesto contained a further commitment to legislate for such a referendum.
However, we cannot support a Bill that combines that objective with proposals for a top-down, partisan and undemocratic redrawing of constituency boundaries that would amount to gerrymandering.
The Bill will conduct a mathematical review of constituency boundaries on the basis of the December 2010 electoral register – despite acknowledging that over 3.5m eligible voters will be missing from that register and therefore from the calculations.
Those voters need to be put on the register before the boundary calculations are made.
The mathematical rules are to be applied uniformly across Britain, with the exception of the Scottish Highlands and Islands.
These exemptions are designed to protect a number of Lib Dem seats – including Charles Kennedy’s – which contain few electors but cover a large area.
The rigid mathematical rules are likely to give rise to bizarre constituency shapes across the country which will disregard history, geography and local identity.
Ordinarily these are the sort of considerations that would be properly scrutinised by public inquiries into Boundary Commission decisions – but the Bill proposes to abolish the right to trigger public inquiries, thereby sweeping away a transparent process which is widely regarded as legitimate and useful, in favour of an opaque and unaccountable top-down method for deciding reviews.
The Bill proposes an arbitrary and partisan reduction in the size of the House of Commons. The case for a 650 seat Commons has not changed since David Cameron spoke eloquently in its favour at the 2003 Oxfordshire Boundary Inquiry. The government has picked a target of 600 seats because they believe it would hurt Labour the most. They pulled back from a steeper reduction because it would have abolished too many Lib Dem and Tory seats.
Nick Clegg has said they intend to redraw the boundaries based on the December 2010 register which is missing over 3.5 million eligible voters. These missing voters are, according to the Electoral Commission, predominantly younger voters, poorer voters, and voters from black and minority ethnic social groups. The problem of under-registration is greatest in urban areas, student towns and coastal areas of high social deprivation. Redrawing boundaries on the basis of such a flawed register will distort the electoral map.
The Bill proposes to abolish public inquiries into Boundary Commission decisions. This is as an outrage that goes entirely against the professed belief in localism and the Big Society. It will remove from individual citizens and local communities the ability to have a meaningful say over boundary changes in their area. Extending the period for people to send in written submissions is a fig-leaf that in no way makes up for this fatal undermining of the traditional boundary review process.
Without recourse to transparent inquiries, and forced to apply rigid mathematical rules that override all other considerations such as history, identity and geography, the Boundary Commissions will be forced to tear up the entire electoral map and create new seats all over the country that will destroy traditional identities.
The Bill contains indefensible carve outs to save Lib Dem seats in the Scottish Highlands and Islands that amount to naked gerrymandering. In addition to specific exemptions for the Western Isles (SNP) and the Orkney & Shetland Islands (Lib Dem), the Bill also contains artificial geographical exemptions that will allow seats of over 12,000 sq km in size to exist even without the required quota of electors. At present only one seat is in that category – Charles Kennedy’s seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber. But the shake-up of boundaries is likely to push John Thurso’s Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross into that category, and other Lib Dem MPs including the Member for Argyll and Bute could be saved from extinction by this gerrymander.
The Electoral Commission estimates that 3.5 million eligible people are currently missing from the electoral roll. Most of these people are from younger and lower income social groups.
The main administrative factor is that some people who are qualified to vote are easy to find, and some are not. If a person lives in a whole house (rather than a flat), has lived there several years, and has English as their first language, they are likely to be very easy to get on the register.
If someone is young, has moved recently, lives in a rented subdivided house, or is vulnerable by means of language or learning difficulties, they are going to be difficult to get onto the register.
Electoral Commission studies have repeatedly found large scale under-registration, concentrated in the cities. If under-registration is a problem in the cities, Labour seats are disproportionately affected.
If electoral registration is 90 per cent complete in Labour seats, and 94 per cent in Conservative seats – as is quite possible given the urban concentration of Labour seats - the average English Labour MP in fact has more people qualified to be electors than the average English Conservative MP.
However, a sudden move to individual registration could increase the problem of under-registration. In Northern Ireland the sudden switch from household to individual voter registration in 2002 led to an immediate 10% (119,000 names) fall in the numbers on the electoral roll. The poor, the young and those with disabilities and learning difficulties were disproportionately affected.
Nick Clegg and David Cameron expressed their outrage when hundreds of voters were prevented from casting their ballots on Election Day May 2010:
“Clearly in some parts of our country that has not been the case, and an early task for a new government should be to get to the bottom of what has happened and to make sure that never, ever happens again.” David Cameron, Witney, 7 May 2010
“I share the bitter dismay of many people – my constituents – who were not able to exercise their democratic right to vote in this election...that should never, ever, happen again in our democracy”. Nick Clegg, Sheffield Hallam, 7 May 2010
Yet they now propose a programme of political reform that will disenfranchise millions of citizens who, the Electoral Commission say, are missing from the electoral roll.
“But, even at 91 per cent, this means that at least three and a half million people aren’t on the register. And that’s not good enough for us. It shouldn’t be good enough for anybody.” Jenny Watson, Electoral Commission Chair, Speech to the University of Liverpool, 18 March 2010
To make matters worse, Cameron and Clegg propose to speed up the implementation of individual registration. But an Electoral Commission report on the sudden switch to IVR in Northern Ireland warned:
“Individual registration tended to have an adverse impact on disadvantaged, marginalised and hard to reach groups. Young people and students, people with learning disabilities and other forms of disability and those living in areas of high social deprivation were less likely to be registered and encountered specific problems with the new registration process. While these findings relate directly to Northern Ireland, they are not unique and reflect the wider picture across the UK. They present a major challenge to all those concerned with widening participation in electoral and democratic processes.” Electoral Commission, The Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act, Research report 2003
We must not repeat that outcome by prematurely implementing IVR in Great Britain. This is especially important in view of an Electoral Commission report in March 2010, on the completeness and accuracy of the register, which found that:
“...under-registration is concentrated among specific social groups, with registration rates being especially low among young people, private renters and those who have recently moved home. The highest concentrations of under-registration are most likely to be found in metropolitan areas, smaller towns and cities with large student populations, and coastal areas with significant population turnover and high levels of social deprivation. The case study research indicated that some of those missing from the registers are unaware that they are not registered.” Electoral Commission, The Completeness and Accuracy of Electoral Registers in GB, 2010
“...to move straight to individual registration risks moving straight to mass disenfranchisement of the young, the urban, the mobile and ethnic minority voters. The rot dates back to Margaret Thatcher's disastrous decision to make the electoral register a source of the poll tax register. It is also a source of jury lists. In the late 1980s, millions of people looked at the costs and benefits of being on the register, and rationally decided to disappear. They are not yet back, nor are their sons and daughters ... At worst, a move to immediate individual registration could make Britain in 2011 like Florida in 2000: the missing people will be those least likely to vote for the ruling party.” Professor Iain McLean, Oxford University, Guardian 2 May 2010
The Government’s plan to speed up individual registration in spite of these warnings suggests that the ‘New Politics’ agenda is cover for a partisan and undemocratic attack on the Labour party.
What else can explain David Cameron’s sudden change of heart about the size of the House of Commons?
“Somebody might take the view that at 659 there are already too many Members of Parliament at Westminster. They may take the view, depending on what happens in the European constitution, that Westminster has less to do, with less MPs - I certainly hope that is not the case. This is all someway off.” David Cameron MP, Oxfordshire Boundary Inquiry, 2003
"I think the House of Commons could do the job that it does with 10 per cent fewer MPs without any trouble at all." David Cameron MP, Financial Times, 13 January 2009
When it came to protecting his own constituency boundaries, David Cameron opposed a change in the number of seats. But now that he sees political advantage in cutting seats, he favours a reduction.