01 August 2010

Does Size Matter?

The New Reform Package - TOC

1. Is There No Alternative?
2. A Swift Kick in the Ballots
3. Does Size Matter?
4. Bringing It Together: Why All This Matters

What do the Tories get in exchange for electoral reform? They get a smaller Parliament, with the Commons reduced to around 600 from 650 (yet it's funny: they object to the SNP's proposal to reduce the number of MP's by 59!), a new boundary review with the focus on near-total electoral parity at the expense of everything else, and, in effect, a 'rolling review' with boundaries constantly subject to change and with less time to reflect on proceedings.

Now the size issue is one thing, and given that Germany, for example, has a larger population but a smaller Bundestag (and seeing as they use AMS, that means constituencies more than twice the size of those in the UK, and the Germans don't seem to mind), while the US House of Representatives is about two-thirds the size of the Commons but the US has a population about five times the size of the UK, one could argue that this isn't the worst idea in the world.

But the boundaries?

The Tories complain that the current boundaries see smaller-than-average electorates (coupled with smaller-than-average turnouts) in Labour seats than in Tory ones, and want to see total parity. But if you want to see where that gets you, look at the initial proposals for the Scottish Parliament: Clydebank being tied with Renfrewshire springs to mind as a particularly crazy proposal from that draft, but also spare a thought for the Lanark, Shotts & Whitburn constituency which never made it off the drawing board. Had it done so, its hapless MSP would have had to deal with three different local Councils, and the initial plans for the regions saw the drive for equality drop Dumbarton in with the Highlands and see the other Dunbartonshire constituencies lumped in 'East Central Scotland'. That's where the obsession with equality gets you.

And the Tories have already accepted that it can only go so far: Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar will be protected (yet the Isle of Wight, will be carved up only to see one part of it lumped in with the mainland - that MP's going to have a hard time for sure) and there are plans for there to be a maximum land area restricting the size of Highland constituencies, with a knock on effect that seats in urban Scotland will have to be even larger.

So already, the idea that size isn't the only thing that matters has crept in, but still the Tories persist.

And the new approach to reviews is equally dotty: effectively the boundaries would be in a state of semi-permanent flux. Now I agree that the current system isn't ideal: the boundaries that only just came in this year for Westminster are based on electorate figures from 2002 if I recall correctly, so by the time they're out of use they'll be based on population patterns that are older than some of the people on the electoral roll.

But at least there's a chance that a community will have a fighting chance of knowing who their MPs is: it allows Parliamentarians, candidates and their parties to develop lasting local links and given the nature of the system, that's surely a good thing, and it can't be achieved if the boundaries are subject to constant change.

And by streamlining the review, you enhance the possibility that seats like North Renfrewshire & Clydebank, or Lanark, Shotts & Whitburn do get off the drawing board: combinations and divisions that no one except Boundary Commissioners would ever think viable would become the norm. Again, one MP represents an entire community, so it really does help if they're representing an actual community.

Maybe things do need to be changed, but in this case, it's the wrong change to make.

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