The House of Commons currently contains 650 MPs. At the last general election the Conservative manifesto said that they wanted to reduce this number to 600 in order to make government cheaper. This was easy to sell to the electorate because everybody dislikes politicians and successive scandals like Cash for Access and the Expenses Scandal have increased the hostility towards politicians. But what the Tories are doing is redrawing the electoral map to make it harder for Labour to win at a general election. This has to be challenged.
Leaving aside the political angle for a moment, reducing the number of MPs in and of itself is a bad idea. The job is an MP is not to represent the wishes of those who voted from them or those who actually did vote, their job is to represent all their constituents. The concerns of a political junkie like me are treated with equal weight as those from someone who doesn’t know who the Prime Minister is. Current estimates put the current UK population at around 64.1 million people. The current 650 MPs, therefore, have to try and represent the wishes of over 98,000 people each.
In my view, one person representing the concerns of 98,000 people is wrong because no matter how diligent that MP is there is no way that they can speak to every person in their constituency, let alone fight for them in Parliament. If the government’s plans go through, and the Commons is reduced to only 600 MPs, this would mean that each constituency would have to contain around 107,000 people. Such a task, in my view, is even more impossible.
So what about the desire to make politics cheaper? There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to make government administration less costly, but reducing the number of MPs won’t do that. Since the Tories gained power in 2010 the House of Lords has swelled to 807 Peers. Considering the Lords is largely undemocratic and is drenched in expensive traditions, halving the number of Peers would save much more money and wouldn’t diminish the ability of MPs to represent their constituents.
The real reason that the Tories wanted to reduce the number of MPs is because it would force the Boundaries Commission to redraw the electoral map. Boundary reviews are usually not too big a deal because they are only concerned with adjusting the electoral map to account for population changes. As a result in the past increases and decreases in seat numbers were to account for these changes. For example in 1992 the number of seats was increased from 650 to 651 because Milton Keynes had grown so the the seat was split into Milton Keynes North and Milton Keynes South. The only other time recent history when the number of MPs was reduced by this much was in 1922 after the Republic of Ireland became independent.
The Tories not doing this. They are reducing the number of MPs for, what we have already established is, an arbitrary reason. One flaw in the system, which isn’t really a party political issue, is that the boundary reviews are always conducted on the last general election turnout. This is wrong because it implies that MPs’ constituencies should be based on who historically votes, rather than including people disillusioned with politics or those who aren’t yet allowed to vote. For instance under the current system MPs don’t need to worry about the concerns of people below the voting age because they cannot yet cast their ballot. When I was under 18 I still had political views and ideas about how to change the country for the better, but because I was under 18 I was ignored. This is profoundly wrong.
Another glaring flaw with this system is that it discounts other political events, like referenda. The turnout in the 2015 general election was 66.1%, but in the 2016 EU referendum turnout was 72.2%. This may not seem like that much of a difference but the difference between these figures in real terms is approximately 2.9 million people. These people are not being recognised as politically active because they didn’t vote in a general election, but how do we know that these people were not politicized by the vote? If we as a society are going to value all people equally, we should have MPs represent the concerns of all people and not just those who actually vote.
The press is framing the discussion around the boundary review as a study of individuals whose seats may be threatened. As I look in the paper now there’s a picture of former Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and former Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna with captions saying how their seats may be heavily redrawn. I think this is counter-productive because the issue of the boundary review becomes about individuals rather than a normative discussion about what should be the case.
I have no love for Umunna or Cooper, and if they were deselected and replaced more radical MPs I wouldn’t mourn their loss, but discussion shouldn’t be which MPs may lose their seats, but how can they practically do their job if they have to represent over 107,000 people each. Again the figure I’m using is based on the whole population not just the voting population, but the fact remains there is no need to drastically reduce the number of MPs. The only caveat to this would be if the government was proposing to devolve massive amounts of power to local councils, thus making the number of MPs in Westminster redundant, but this isn’t happening. The justification for reduce the number of MPs is wrong, and the real reason for doing is to grind Labour into the dust by stacking the deck against them.