Boundary changes weaken parliamentary democracy

Cat Smith calls on Theresa May to think again

This September the Boundary Commissions submitted their final reports and recommendations for new Parliamentary constituency boundaries to the Government. The proposals cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. England will lose 32 seats, Scotland 6, Wales 11 and Northern Ireland 1.

The decision to reduce the number of seats was initially approved by Parliament in 2011. It was the brainchild of David Cameron. No real explanation was given as to why the figure of 600 MPs was chosen – no evidence put forward relating to the workload of MPs or how a smaller House of Commons would impact on the scrutiny of Government. 600 it seems was chosen simply because it was a neat figure. Prior to the 2010 General Election Cameron had wanted the figure to be 585, but again this seems to be because it would represent a cut of 10% and 10 is a nice round number.

“Brexit represents one of the greatest constitutional challenges our country has ever faced. The proposed reduction in the size of the House of Commons would weaken the role of Parliament exactly at a time when Parliament is meant to be taking back control”
The initial justification for cutting the number of MPs was that it would cut the cost of politics. The fact that David Cameron awarded 242 life peerages during his time as Prime Minister, more per year than any other Prime Minister, and that his Government had the highest number of special advisors on record, would suggest this might not have been his true motivation.

In drawing up the new electoral boundaries the Boundary Commissions were instructed to use data from December 2015. This was the month the Government made the transition to full individual electoral registration, against the advice of the Electoral Commission who had advocated a much greater transition period from household registration. The result was a fall of 1.7 million people on the electoral register from those who were eligible to vote in the 2015 election on the December 2015 register. This December 2015 register also ignores the increase in registrations thanks to the EU referendum and 2017 General Election – there are currently 1.4m more names on the register than there were in December 2015.

Even those on the Conservative benches who previously supported the changes in 2011 cannot deny that the political context has changed significantly. The Brexit process represents one of the greatest constitutional challenges our country has ever faced. The proposed reduction in the size of the House of Commons would weaken the role of Parliament exactly at a time when Parliament is meant to be taking back control.

MPs are likely to take on additional responsibilities currently exercised by MEPs. It is vital that Parliament is equipped to deal with the enormity of thousands of pieces of important legislation expected to come before it should Brexit go ahead. The size of the Civil Service is increasing in preparation for Brexit. Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that there are 14,000 more civil servants since the end of 2016, with Brexit the primary driver behind this rise according to the Institute for Government. With many legislative challenges lying ahead, it is vital that Parliament is properly resourced.

Perhaps most tellingly, there are no plans to reduce the number of ministers which means that the proportion of MPs holding Government posts will increase should the number of MPs fall. This would strengthen the power of the executive, making it more difficult for backbenchers to challenge the Government. We should be under no illusion. Parliament’s ability to hold the Government to account would be reduced.

In a modern democracy it is of course right that we keep our constituency boundaries up to date and Labour accepts that a boundary review is needed ahead of the next General Election. We stand ready to work with all political parties to agree a timetable for a new review that benefits our democracy. Sadly however, a politically motivated review based on an arbitrary cut in the number of MPs, outdated and unsuitable electoral data and a weakening of Parliament only benefits the Conservative Party. If Theresa May is serious about protecting our democracy and strengthening Parliament she must think again.

Cat Smith

Cat Smith is MP for Lancaster & Fleetwood and Shadow Minister for Voter Engagement and Youth Affairs