Tuesday, January 13, 2009

How many Welsh MPs do we need?

Could this post be an example of a turkey voting for Christmas? Let me explain. I'm hoping to be elected as Member of Parliament for Montgomeryshire sometime within the next 17 months. And one of the platforms on which I could have been elected could lead to a change to the boundary of my new constituency. According to today's Financial Times, David Cameron is thinking about reducing the number of MPs by over 60. Don't know how much truth there's in this, but I've always thought it to be sensible. For years I've watched some MPs chasing cameras and spending most of their time poking their noses into the responsibilities of other tiers of government. And No, I'm not naming names. Either they haven't got enough to do, or they're not doing what they are supposed to be doing.

So what about Montgomeryshire? At present English MPs represent on average 69,000 voters, Scottish MPs represent 67,000 voters, while Welsh MPs represent just 55,000 voters. Can't see how we can argue about this looking a bit lop-sided. I don't know the number of voters in Montgomershire, but I dso know that the population is around 60,000 - so the number of voters must be less than the Welsh average. To anyone who can add two plus two (and get four) can see what this means. But there are two considerations to be taken into account. Firstly, the population of Montgomeryshire is increasing quite rapidly - from about 36,000 in the 1960s to almost 60,000 now. That's about 5,000 per decade. And secondly, I reckon there must be a case for a slightly lower ratio of MP to constituent number in a very rural constituency - which Montgomeryshire is.

First time I was really hit with this issue was when my home telephone rung one weekend when I was an Assembly Member, to hear Michael Howard asking me about what I thought of his idea to reduce the number of Welsh MPs. The proposal was that if the National Assembly moved to a law making body, the 40 MPs would be reduced to 26, while if it remained as it was then, the number would reduce to 32 (or was it 33). It was a proposal included in our last General Election manifesto. I don't know yet what precise figures David has in mind for Wales at present, but I can say that I told Michael Howard that I supported the proposal he put to me a few years ago.


Daran said...

One of the problems with discussing this issue is that in the past proponents of a cut in MP numbers have usually coupled that with the case for increasing the number of AMs.

The two arguments should be decoupled and the appropriate level of Westminster representation for the UK and its consitutent parts (whether these vary or not) should be taken as a separate question. It needs separate consideration because it is tied up in boundaries and balance which currently mean an urban voter has a stronger influence on who runs the UK Government than a rural one.

In the original FT article, John Curtice and Rob Hayward are right to suggest that scrapping 60 MPs from urban areas and Wales would improve the chances of Conservative success in a UK election.

That would of course make change an attractive proposition for the Conservatives.

But at the same time changing boundaries to reduce the significant bias to Labour could also be seen as less disproportionate.

Leave Wales aside for the moment, and look at the UK picture.

Take the 1992 General Election where the Conservatives polled 14million votes (41.9% of the electorate who turned out) but secured a majority of around just 20 in the Commons. Yet this was the largest Conservative vote in British history and, even moreso, the largest party vote in British history too based on actual votes not percentage shares. (Before you look it up, Blair won 13.5m in 1997).

In 1992 Labour won 41.6% of the seats with 34.4% of the vote. That was pretty much down to the additional weighting given to urban seats, Scots seats and Welsh seats.

I know that boundaries have in some cases been redrawn since then (wholescale in Scotland) but this significant bias persists.

That's why the Conservatives would need to be several opinion poll points ahead of Labour in any General Election to win a majority of Westminster seats.

Having said all that...

"And secondly, I reckon there must be a case for a slightly lower ratio of MP to constituent number in a very rural constituency - which Montgomeryshire is."

I would take issue with this. If urban over-representation is a problem, then over-balancing is not a solution. Any suggestion for change from the Conservatives which incorporated this notion could and would be rightly accused of a touch of gerrymandering.

Anonymous said...

It would probably mean that Montgomeryshire would get lumped with Radnorshire as one seat and Breaconshire would get parts of a 'Heads of the Valley' seat including something like Abergavenny and Blaenau Gwent.

Oh and make sure you find out how many voters there are in Montgomeryshire before the next election won't you! :-)

Glyn Davies said...

Daran - I too think the issue stands on its own - though it doen't when considering number of AMs. While in theory it should, but I do not think an increase in Number of AMs would be politically acceptable without a cut in number of MPs.

I accept your point about the the perception of 'gerrymandering' if any allowance was made for sparcity - but I was looking for any argument that would support retention of Montgomeryshire as a discrete constituency.

Anon - I think it was about 44,000 at the time of last year's local government election.

Anonymous said...

It's nice to see the Tories stealing another Lib Dem policy.

One day the party might have some ideas of it's own. We await with baited breath...

Unixman said...

Part of the problem is the fact that there is an immutable border present which restricts flexibility. All boundary changes must be made within Wales (or within England) rather than what is actually more sensible which is within economic zones which could straddle the Dyke. For instance, there is patently an economic zone which consists of places like Welshpool, Oswestry, the hinterland behind Oswestry who have far far more in common with each other that say Welshpool and Cardiff. But Oswestry is across the border (even if it has been described as the most Welsh town in England) and so that will never happen ....

Glyn Davies said...

Anon - Sorry but I didn't know it was Lib Dem policy - though I'm sure that I recall hearing Mick Bates once argue that there should only be 5 MPs representing Wales at Westminster.

Unixman - and thats just one of the reasons why it would be a difficult exercise.

Anonymous said...

I am a proud son of Wales, but I am also a unionist. Each constituency from Lands End to Dunnet Head, and from St Davids to Lowestoft should have equal voter representation in Westminster. I personally do not favour devolution, as it layers more government on us, but I do think that IF we are to have devolved assemblies, then Wales, Scotland, N Ireland AND England should all have proper Parliaments, membership of each is mutually exclusive and from a 'senate' in Westminster. Each should have tax raising powers, but get no subsidies from its neighbours. No more Barnet Formula, no more West Lothian question. The UK should be a unitary authority or a federal union (an outside of the EU too). The current lop-sided fudge is morally wrong. So yes, we should reduce the number of Welsh MPs. The only alternative is to increase the number of English MPs. Yuck!

Glyn Davies said...

Roman - We agree on some of this, but personally, I see no reason why English MPs cannot sit as an English Parliament on a Thursday and Friday - as needed. We have to control the cost of politics.

I do not favour abandoning a needs based funding formula (whether Barnett or other) simply because so much of wealth generation is centred on the City of London. I wouldn't have a problem accepting the principle of some control of finance within Wales, (it would greatly strengthen accountability) but cannot see a practical way of acheiving it. The very word 'Federal' is like a red rag to a bull with in the Conservative Party, but what we have now is an imbalanced sort of federalism - and its the imbalance that creates the instability that I feel is so dangerous.

Robin said...

I vaguely see the logic of a rural seat needing a slightly lower ratio of voters to MP. However, the same kind of logic also applies to justify more deprived areas, whether inner city or former heavy industry areas, having a lower ratio.