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John Leonard: Don't reduce our representation at Westminster

John Leonard, an IT Consultant, sets out why he believes there should be no reduction in the number of MPs at Westminster.

Last week David Cameron made proposals to reduce the number of MPs by 10% by 2020. In a supporting article, Tim Montgomerie, I believe, prematurely, justified this proposal in three ways, whilst Philip Johnston added his support in the Daily Telegraph.

I believe these views are for the most part mistaken.

Firstly, to address Tim’s justification; Tim argues that the change will ensure ‘fairness’ (whatever that term means – fair to who?) by making all constituencies roughly the same size. However, there is no need to reduce the number of constituencies to achieve this. If one keeps the same number of constituencies and simply changes the boundaries so that each constituency is roughly 68,000 (based on the 2005 General Election figures)  then that would make it ‘fair’ in terms of electorate size. So Tim’s first argument is not applicable.

In reality, changing boundary sizes is considerably more complex as I will, to some extent, explore later but this simplification is sufficient to counter Tim’s first argument.

However, the proposal David Cameron has put forward would increase that average constituency size to 75,000. As I have demonstrated above, there is no need to reduce the number of Parliamentary constituencies to make them ‘fair’. That being the case, what purpose does such a proposal support?

Tim argues that it would be good economics. In reality such a change would probably save around £35 million per annum. This seems a large amount but when put in the context of the Government’s current £600 billion budget, it is hardly a drop in the ocean. At best this is a minimal saving and rather than reduce the number of representatives would it not be better if all members of Parliament shared the burden by having their remuneration and perks such as the John Lewis List reduced?

After all, David Cameron proposes to make similar cutbacks to certain high ranking Local Government officials and surely it is the reprehensible nature of some of these Parliamentary perks that angers the public and not the number of MPs. Why should Parliament, as a whole, be immune to such savings?

Thirdly, Tim argues that by making the changes proposed it would reduce the disparity between Labour and Conservative seats. As this is predicated on his first argument, it is not only equally inapplicable but furthermore, it is simply impossible to be confident of the validity of such an argument and potentially it is feasible that such a change could damage the Conservative party’s future prospects.

To understand this, firstly, we must recognise that rather than the 200 seats approx that the Conservative Party currently have, they will need to have in excess of 326 seats to ensure that such a proposal was implemented. Furthermore, we have no idea what the electoral make up or what the population distribution will be in some eight to ten years time when such a change might be implemented. Consequently, how on earth can anyone know what impact such changes will have?

Furthermore, if one models David Cameron’s proposal on what might have happened if this had been implemented for the 2005 General Election using the average figure of 75,000 voters per constituency, potentially in excess of 500 seats out of 646 would have had their electorate increased. Does anyone have any idea how the boundaries would in reality have been altered to achieve this in such circumstances?

Furthermore, with an average of 9,300 voters per seat extra for those constituencies below the average seat size and the net movement of 5 million plus voters between all constituencies, how many majorities would remain safe?

Such a change would potentially be the most significant restructuring of electoral boundaries ever contemplated.

Now, such a risk may have been acceptable with the pre-2005 figure of only 165 Conservative MPs but as I have stated there would certainly be 326 Conservative MPs if the Conservatives are to form a government and possibly be considerably more by the end of the next decade. How sure could Conservative MPs be that their constituency would not be altered in a way that made it far more difficult for them to be returned to Westminster?

Of course, as Tim hints, it could be done in such a way as to ‘even’ the playing field so that Labour loses their perceived advantages (which are mainly predicated on low turnout NOT total electorate size). Wouldn’t that be exactly the sort of behaviour about which Conservatives have made complaints of Labour over many years and in any case, wouldn’t that just tar the Conservative Party with the same disreputable brush that Labour have been tarred with by the electorate?

If the reputation of our politicians is to be restored then surely such dubious actions must be ceased?

Clearly such a proposal would prove highly contentious and would likely occupy the minds of our highest elected representatives for the whole of the preceding Government term if not longer. Given the amount of political in-fighting it would likely generate, would it not further damage the reputation of our Parliament? Is such a course of action wise?

If one views David Cameron’s proposal from this perspective, Tim provides scant justification for its implementation.

Philip Johnston, in his article, on the other hand, does exactly what Labour and the EU do. By merging the issues of bureaucracy with the question of the size of our Parliament, he obscures and confuses two very different issues; the waste within our unelected bureaucracy and the electorate’s fundamental democratic need for real representation. By doing so he undermines his argument and further diminishes our democracy.

Now let me be clear that I am fully in favour of removing the vast swathes of seemingly non-existent or utterly pointless jobs held by bureaucrats and unelected political appointees that are paid for by the taxpayer at the behest of Government, but to diminish our democratic representation? That is something quite different.

It is this diminishing of our democracy that is my main objection against any such proposals. Such proposals are anti-democratic.

What David Cameron and Nick Clegg, more extremely before him, have proposed is the reduction of the nation’s national democratically elected representation whilst retaining the same amount, if not more power in the Conservatives' case (with the speculative repatriation of powers from Europe), of power at the highest level. Such a distillation of power by nature encourages Parliamentary elitism, encourages further distancing of the representatives from the electorate and dilutes the voters’ democratic influence. In short, it is political centralism and furthermore can be perceived as serving only the major political parties and not the electorate.

Is not the Conservative Party opposed to centralism? Is it not one of the Conservative Party’s primary tenets to defend our democracy? It does suggest that in the Conservative Way Forward Principles - which are not only endorsed by Margaret Thatcher but also by David Cameron - that democracy is a key consideration.

Furthermore, given the perpetual increase in our population is it not arguably the case that we should have more elected representation as the population grows, not less? By reducing the number of elected representatives in such circumstances the key achievement is to diminish democracy in this country at a more rapid pace than by not changing the number at all.

Whilst such a view may seem somewhat counter-intuitive to the current general view, is it not the quality and integrity of our politicians requiring improvement, rather than the reduction of MPs numbers that is the main issue?

All this said, I do have a suggestion for Mr. Cameron, if he wants to improve our democracy and really feels he must reduce the number of elected representatives that the British electorate has to call on. There are 60 plus elected representatives undertaking unwarranted roles in the faux democratic set-up of the European Parliament, who I am sure few voters would miss. By no longer requiring their positions, not only would he save a costly election every four years, but, by implication, save significantly more taxpayers' money, as well as strengthening both the nation’s sovereignty and our Parliament.

So, in conclusion, perhaps David Cameron should forget about meddling with the Parliament of the British People without their direct consent (yes in my view any such proposal as this is a separate referendum issue) and instead, to plagiarise David Cameron’s own words:

“So Mr. Cameron, call that EU referendum. Let the people pass judgment on 30 years of broken promises, let people decide who’s really making the arguments about the future of our country. Let people decide who can make the changes that we really need in our country. Call that EU referendum. We will fight. Britain will win."


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