The government is trying to rig our democratic process in its favour
The Conservatives’ plans to redraw the political map of UK constituencies is yet another example of an undemocratic power grab by this government, writes Cat Smith
This month the government published the Boundary Commissions’ final reports and recommendations for new parliamentary constituency boundaries.
It’s clear these proposals are deeply unpopular with Tory MPs, otherwise Theresa May wouldn’t be shelving plans for a vote in October. Conservative MP Glyn Davies said the loss of his Montgomeryshire seat would “destroy centuries of history” and claimed the review was “the latest example of Westminster trying to diminish Wales’s voice”.
Conservative MP Peter Bone said at least 10 Tories were opposed to slashing the size of the Commons “in principle”, with several more poised to vote against the plans due to fears about their own futures.
What is abundantly clear is that plans to cut the number of MPs as the UK prepares to exit the European Union is yet another example of an undemocratic power grab by this government.
This is clearly not the first time the government has tried to rig our democratic process in its favour. We have the ongoing scandal of the government first refusing to vote and then refusing to act on opposition day motions. They have stuffed the standing committees with a majority of their members even though they are a minority government. And more recently, we witnessed the government’s cynical breaking of MPs’ pairing agreements.
A major concern with the proposals is that the government has made no pledge to limit the number of frontbenchers. This will undermine backbench scrutiny and create unprecedented levels of executive dominance.
In fact, new analysis by the Electoral Reform Society shows that if the House of Commons reduced in size to 600 MPs and the ‘payroll vote’ remained the same, 23% of MPs would be duty-bound to vote with the government. That is the highest figure on record.
What does this mean for parliamentary democracy? It means there are fewer MPs to scrutinise the government and hold their actions to account. There will also be a smaller talent pool of MPs to draw on for select committee positions and other vital scrutiny posts. This is hardly what voters were promised when Theresa May pledged to restore the sovereignty of Britain’s parliament as we leave the European Union.
We cannot ignore the significance of this power grab. Brexit will involve the repatriation of huge swathes of legalisation which will require extensive scrutiny by MPs. The workload of MPs is also set to rise significantly as we take on additional responsibilities currently exercised by MEPs after Brexit.
The civil service is preparing itself for the demanding legislative requirements of Brexit. Figures by the Office for National Statistics show that there are 14,000 more civil servants since the end of 2016. According to the Institute for Government, Brexit is the primary driver behind the rise.
Making sure government departments have the necessary resources to deal with the enormity of the task at hand is clearly a sensible approach. However, it is utterly ludicrous that the government is taking the opposite approach for the House of Commons.
Labour has repeatedly said that a boundary review is needed ahead of the next general election. We stand ready to work with all political parties to agree an accelerated timetable for a new review that benefits our democracy, not just the Conservative party.
Over 2 million people were also added to the electoral roll between 2015 and 2017. Labour’s proposals will ensure their voices are heard by setting the electorate calculations from the 2017 general election.
There were no logical grounds for cutting 50 MPs when this was first introduced. It was an arbitrary figure, plucked out of thin air, with no evidence showing how this would benefit our democracy.
To quote Conservative MP Peter Bone: “Instead of going down this route, the prime minister should think again. The idea of cutting the number of MPs was a PR stunt dreamed up by David Cameron” and “circumstances have changed”.
Cat Smith is Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood, and shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs