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.
So 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?