|Volume 50 Number 24, June 27, 2020||ARCHIVE||HOME||JBCENTRE||SUBSCRIBE|
The Parliamentary Constituencies Bill 2019-21, which was introduced into the House of Commons on May 19 and had its Second Reading June 2, is now moving through the Committee Stage. The Public Bill Committee is expected report on its examination of the Bill on July 2, when it will return to Parliament for further debate. Notably, this government Bill abandons long-standing plans to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Furthermore, it proposes that recommendations by the boundary commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should not be voted on by the House of Commons and House of Lords, but that these changes would automatically become law. As such, the Labour Party has accused the Conservative Party of making a "power grab", and using the constituency changes to its own advantage, while the government asserts that it strengthens the independence of the boundary review process.
The proposal to reduce the number of seats to 600 was approved by parliament in 2011 during the Coalition government. As part of the "fairness" agenda, the 2010 Conservative manifesto pledged to review parliamentary constituencies so that "every vote will have equal value". However, since approval, neither of the two boundary reviews made under the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, one in 2013 and another in 2018, have been implemented.
The plan was to introduce a single quota for each of the 600 constituencies (with four island constituencies exempted) based on the average electorate, allowing a margin of 5% above or below that quota. Constituency boundaries would be reviewed every five rather than ten years to ensure this criterion remains satisfied. At the time, Labour accepted only the principle of equal-sized constituencies; however, its opposition only succeeded in winning a concession on the matter of a requirement for Public Hearings to be part of the consultation process, which the government had wished to prevent.
The 2013 boundary review succumbed to parliamentary infighting and was abandoned, parliament opting for a five-year delay. More recently, the 2018 review recommended decreasing the number of seats by 32 in England, six in Scotland, 11 in Wales and one in the North of Ireland, but this has not yet been approved either. The scale of the changes proposed would, if carried out, be the largest rearrangement of parliamentary constituencies in modern history.
The new Bill partially drops the 2011 rules. It keeps the requirement for a standard average quota with an allowed 5% tolerance. It sets the number of constituencies at 650 rather than 600, under the justification that Brexit will require more work, and therefore more MPs, though it is likely that this is also a result of contradictions within the Conservative Party itself, whose own MPs' seats faced removal. Reviews will be held at eight-year rather than five-year intervals. If enacted, the Bill would require the Boundary Commissions to draw up 650 new constituencies by July 1, 2023.
Most significantly, the new Bill proposes that future boundary commission recommendations will automatically become law rather than be voted on in either parliamentary House. The mechanism by which boundary commission reports become law is as Orders in Council. These are a form of executive order, made by the Queen in person on the advice of the Privy Council. Some Orders in Council are made by Royal Prerogative; others, such as the enactment of boundary commission proposals, are via an Act of Parliament. The new Bill removes this requirement for an Act of Parliament, effectively converting boundary changes into an arbitrary power.
Responding, Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Cat Smith, whose brief covers voter engagement, said: "The government's decision to end parliamentary oversight by denying MPs the chance to vote on the boundary review process is yet another attempt to diminish scrutiny and concentrate power in the hands of the executive."
"The new boundaries will be dangerously unrepresentative of the current electorate," she said, commenting on the choice to base the new boundaries on the electoral register of December 1, 2020, a choice she called "politically motivated". "The December 2020 register will be heavily affected by Covid-19 as local councils will struggle to update electoral registers whilst dealing with this crisis."
The assertion of the government is that the plans improve fairness while keeping the boundary review process independent of "interference" from MPs. In her written statement to the Commons, Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution Chloe Smith, who sponsored the government Bill, said: "This change would provide certainty that the recommendations of the independent boundary commissions - developed through a robust and impartial process that is open to extensive consultation - would then be implemented without interference."
On one level, this issue of "interference" is about blocking the opposition. The government has sought to pacify dissent within the Conservative Party through the move to preserve the existing size of the Commons, and open the door to unopposed constituency changes on that basis in future, with the self-serving aim of creating a boundary system in its favour. The choice to use the December 1 register is particularly brazen, given that this year is not an election year and, under the conditions of the coronavirus crisis, is sure to result in the exclusion from the figures of many people who will not have registered, especially amongst younger voters and students.
On another level, "interference" is a reference to the crisis-ridden nature of parliament itself, in which all has become reduced to factional infighting. A vicious circle has arisen whereby the fact that parliament does not represent the people but instead powerful interests have destroyed the party system itself as representing competing political interests, and has given rise a cartel party system with turf wars between factions, which then act as a block on resolving the situation, divorcing parliament even further from the electorate. In this situation, the government is using its absolute majority to roll through police powers and preserve their position as the faction in power. The whole thing, within its own terms, is an unsolvable mess. The Bill and the opposition to it are symptoms of and further reveal the quagmire that the arrangements of governance are now in.
The question that poses itself is what members of parliament and their constituencies actually represent. At all stages, including the original proposals made a decade ago, the notion used as justification has been that numeric equivalence is the basis of fairness, and it is fairness that is required by democracy as such. This is characteristic of a “democracy” that reduces itself to a purely numerical aggregation over the population, with the promotion of “democracy” as merely casting a vote, which is impotent to crystallise the will of the electorate. Considered numerically, the quota system will inevitably produce large rearrangements at each review, people allocated first to this region and this MP, then to that region and that MP. Rather than considered as they are, people engaged in various productive activities of various kinds and with definite interests, and developing their own outlook, the people are considered a uniform herd of cattle to be fenced into equal sized pens to achieve "fairness".
People face the problem of how to ensure their interests are represented in a meaningful form. A modern constituency has to represent that. It is the party system itself that has had its day and is now to be done away with. Neither the fielding of candidates nor the constituting of the government should be done on a party basis. Rather, candidates should be selected, and their agenda should be set, in the workplaces, universities, and other places defined by the productive, social and cultural activities in which people are engaged in a particular location. Such a selection process would fundamentally change the nature of the constituencies; it is only once this quality exists that the question of equality and quantitative representation can be addressed. The aim is a system through which people exercise decision-making directly, without mediation by any gatekeepers to power, be they political parties, warring factions, or any other force.