A mandate for deep cuts?

Do I think that these big, big cuts are merited or justified at a time when the economy is struggling to get to its feet? Clearly not.

Not my words – those of  Nick Clegg in a  BBC, interview with Jeremy Paxman, 12 April 2010.

Liberal Democrat VAT posterEven more interesting is the following quote:

I would say this, look, the decision on how we govern this country and how people vote shouldn’t be driven by fear of what the markets might do. Let’s say there was a Conservative government, right? Let’s say a Conservative government announced in that sort of macho way, ‘We’re going slash public spending by a third, we’re going to slash this, we’ll slash this, we’re going to do it tomorrow’, because it has to take early tough action.

Just imagine the reaction of my constituents in South West Sheffield. I, I represent a constituency that has more people working in public services as a proportion of the workforce than any other constituency in the country, lots of people work in the universities, the hospitals and so on. They have no Conservative councillors, they have no Conservative MPs, there are no Conservative MPs or Conservative councillors as far as the eye can see in South Yorkshire. People like that are going to say, ‘Well who are these people telling us that they are going to suddenly take our jobs away, who are these people who are suddenly they’re saying they’re going to threaten my local – what mandate do they have? I didn’t vote for them. No one around here votes for them.’ And I just, you know I think if we want to go the direction of Greece, where you get read social and industrial unrest, that’s the guaranteed way of doing it, thinking that the old tub-thumping way of conducting politics is the way that you bring people along with you.

(Nick Clegg, Yorkshire Post, Question Time event, 19 March 2010)

This is particularly interesting because time after time, in and out of Parliament , Clegg and co have used ‘Greece’ as a reason for supporting speedy deficit reduction, now arguing that if the UK didn’t do this we would be at the mercy of lenders ‘like Greece’.

It can be depressing after a lively debate going into the voting lobbies knowing that ‘they’ have a hefty majority. Usually when a Government has a comfortable majority like this it can argue that it has a ‘mandate’ for using that majority to carry through its own policies. But that isn’t the case here – there is no mandate ! The Tories didn’t win massive support for their policies and most of those voting Lib Dem thought they were voting for the policies Clegg & Co were speaking up for before the election. So how is this a mandate for what they are doing?

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MPs and boundaries

Arguing against a reduction in the number of MPs may not seem to be the most ‘popular’ of causes. Clegg in the debate on Monday 6th repeated the claim that numbers of MPs had been rising a lot. But the facts are rather different – the number of MPs is 3% higher now than in 1970 but the number of electors over the same period has risen by 25%. In 1921 there were 615 MPs but that was before all women had the vote. Before World War 1 there were over 700 MPs – admittedly when all of Ireland was included – but when no women had the vote.  Here in Scotland we already reduced MP numbers to take account of the Scottish Parliament.

The other change proposed is that seat sizes will be equalised on the argument that it is unfair that it takes more votes to elect an MP in some places than in others.  The Tories see the current size differences as benefitting Labour most – although apparently in the past this worked the other way round. However much expert evidence given to my select committee argues that overall size of constituency is only one element resulting in it taking more voters to elect some MPs than others. Turnout is also a factor and we know that is lower in inner city and less well off areas (look at differential turnouts historically for council seats in Edinburgh).  The Labour vote is better ‘spread’ nowadays than the Tory vote – large concentrations of votes for one party can ‘pile up’ in some constituencies – that used to be the case in some ‘traditional Labour’ areas also, although less so nowadays.

House of CommonsSo does all of this matter?  The underlying reason Clegg and the Coalition give for most of these changes is to restore public confidence in politicians and increase engagement. So it is reasonable to measure these changes against that aim.   Larger constituencies could increase the ‘distance’ and lack of knowledge about who is the MP. Boundaries drawn with number of electors as the overriding issue with little flexibility will reduce the degree to which an MP represents a community people can identify with.  As a counterargument some have pointed to the USA where boundaries are very numerical  – but turnout in the US is particularly low – this isn’t the only factor in that of course but it may suggest this isn’t a good role model.

Clegg promised ‘the greatest constitutional reforms since the 1832 Reform Act’. Leaving aside the lack of history in that comment  – devolution anyone? – the current offerings certainly aren’t that. And the real criticism is that these piecemeal small scale changes aren’t happening in the context of asking the bigger questions – what kind of Parliament (two chambers?) do we want? How can we stem the rise of the power of the executive? How should we elect the two chambers? What is a second chamber for?

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