Friday, February 01, 2013

Constituency Boundaries - The Last Post

On Tuesday this week, the proposal to redraw Parliamentary constituencies was put on the back burner until 2018. Everyone I've met since is delighted that the Montgomeryshire constituency is to remain. But I have not met anyone who knows the background, and detail of just what has happened. Just in case there is an anorak out there who shares my interest in these things, this post runs through it chronologically.

1) - Following the 'expenses scandal',of 4 yrs ago, David Cameron, then Leader of the Opposition announced he would reduce the number of MPs by 10% (from 650 to 585). This was included in the Conservative manifesto. At the same time, the Lib Dems included in their manifesto a commitment to reduce no of MPs to 500.Following the election, the Coalition agreed to bring forward a Bill to reduce no of MPs to 600.

2) - The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill was intoduced and approved by both Houses of Parliament after a long ferocious battle. As well as reducing the no of MPs to 600, the Bill required the boundary commissions of England and Wales to redraw boundaries to ensure an equal no of constituents in each constituency - with no recognition for sparcity, tradition or geographical considerations. This would inevitably have a disproportionate impact on Wales, partly because of current over-representation, and partly because the sea border and Offa's Dyke injected added inflexibility into what options could be considered. Crucially, the Bill demanded a tolerance of only 5% in constituency numbers, ruling out ability to cope with anomolies. The Bill also stipulated that there would be a vote in October 2013 to confirm the Boundary Commission proposals. At this stage I realised that I could not support the proposals because of the impact on parliamentary democracy in Mid Wales. I must admit that I had decided to vote against my Government in October. Now this was a big deal for me, since I had always supported my Government previously.

The next significant development in this saga was that Nick Clegg announced, because Conservative backbenchers had prevented progress on a Bill to reform the House of Lords, that he was going to instruct all Lib Dem MPs to take 'revenge' on Conservatives by withdrawing support in the October vote confirming the Boundary Commissions proposals. Since the two issues were not linked anywhere except in Nick Clegg's mind, this was breathtaking stuff. It meant that gov't ministers would be voting against a Gov't bill which they had previously supported. I thought a big deal for a backbencher! The Oct vote suddenly became very significant indeed.

But then opposition peers decided to step in. They developed a strategy which anyone who cares about constitutional propriety will have found deeply shocking. I spent 90 minutes in The Lords watching what I thought a disgraceful spectacle as their Lordships tried to justify what they were doing. They approved an amendment to a totally disconnected bill, the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, which deferred any further consideration of new boundaries until 2018. Their Lordships were advised that this strategy was improper, but constitutionally, the Lords is not fettered in any way. It would never have been allowed in the Commons. Personally, I believe that this behaviour was too much for the much respected Leader of the Lords, Lord Strathclyde, who has just resigned. He would have been disgusted. Disgust was written all over the faces of Conservative peers. Anyway their Lordships passed the amendment into the Bill, which was then returned to the Commons for approval. Inevitably the Gov't (less the Lib Dems) had no option but to propose that the amendment be overturned and sent back to the Lords to be reconsidered - not unusual and what we call 'ping-pong'. Last Tuesday's vote was on the Gov'ts proposal to reverse the amendment, and send the Bill back.

Personally, I was in a dilemma - as I think were many other MPs. I had nothing but utter contempt for the way the Lords had behaved, and just could not bring myself to vote in support of their amendment. Neither could I vote against it (which I would dearly like to have done) because it would be helping introduce new boundaries, which I had decided to oppose in Oct. Two unacceptable options before me. I could vote for either of them. I accept that many of my colleagues were disappointed , as was the Chief Whip when I was called to discuss my failure to support the Gov't with him on Thursday. So happens that my vote was did not matter anyway, because there was a majority of 42 to allow the Lords amendment to stand. So where are we now. We have agreed that new constituency boundaries will not be considered until 2018, rather than defeated outright, which is probably what would have happened if the vote had taken place, as it should have been, in Oct.

Not sure whether anyone is still with me - not fallen asleep or moved on to more interesting fare. I've no intention of writing another word on this issue - not until 2018 anyway.


Anonymous said...

I'd like to know the opinion of an MP in a "rural" constituency.

Clegg and Cameron kept going on about having "fair constituencies" i.e having constituencies with the same population sizes.

Do you agree with this?

My fear is that if this was allowed to happen we'd end up with massive amount of MPs from urban areas (particularly as urbanisation continues) and policies will then reflect this.

Furthermore I fear that in Wales and in the North of Scotland you'd end up with MASSIVE constituencies (due to the sparsely populated areas).

So Glyn, do you agree with me that in the future when boundaries are changed. The Government of the day should consider:
a) obviously the population
But also
b) that no constituency should be more than x acres or that no constituency should have a travel time for MPs of over x hrs?

Glyn Davies said...

Anon - You make a fair point, but I do not think there's need for any specific formula. Just instuct boundary commission to take into account sparcity, trafition and geographical realities. Let them do their job, without too much instuction from politicains.