Scotsman

"Mah vote is worth mair than yoors, sassenach."

Last night, the House of Commons voted by 328 to 269 to continue the process to pass the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. It will now enter its Committee stage to be scrutinised in detail.

As said yesterday, the Bill hopes to achieve two aims: pave the way for a referendum to change the way we elect MPs and reduce the number of MPs to 600 while equalising the number of people MPs represent. Today we will explore the second aim, which is as  controversial the first aim. Both sides of the debate have accused each other of trying to manipulate the electoral system to their advantage.

There are currently 650 Members of Parliament, the highest number ever. The Commons Chamber has long run out of space to seat everybody—there are only 427 seats available. But it is more than just overcrowding at the Grade 1 listed Palace of Westminster that is a concern. The House of Commons is currently larger than the US House of Representatives and Senate combined, the French Assemblée Naitonale and the German Bundestag. Is having so many MPs efficient, especially in the age of austerity?

But the real controversy lies with the implications of reducing the number of MPs, and not the reduction itself. Cutting the number of MPs means that constituency boundaries across the country will have to be redrawn, which would uproot the power base of certain parties depending on how the boundaries are redrawn. The Bill proposes to redraw them so as to equalise the number of people each MP represents.

According to the four Boundary Commissions, which are in charge of drawing the constituency boundaries, the Isle of Wight constituency in south England has more than 100,000 eligible voters, whereas Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Outer Hebrides in west Scotland) has only about 20,000. In theory, this means that a vote cast in the Outer Hebrides is five times more powerful than a vote cast in the Isle of Wight. On the other hand, the MP for the Outer Hebrides would theoretically have less work than the MP for the Isle of Wight, and can therefore spend more time doing constituency work. That seems unfair, and isn’t it obvious that change is needed?

Well, not really. The Labour party is against this proposal, arguing that a further look into the numbers, for example taking into account voter turnout, shows that there is no bias in the way constituency boundaries are drawn, and any change in the system is but a Tory manipulation of the system. The Tories and Lib Dems retort that Labour’s objections stem from the fact that it will lose its current favourable electoral bias. They sneer that Labour is more concerned about its own electoral advantage rather than the fairness of the system.

Minority parties in the nation are also disapproving, as redrawing the boundaries and redistributing electorate sizes would reduce the number of MPs that their nations return to Parliament, even though currently, a vote from the nations generally have more “power” than a vote from England and the nations have, in addition to Parliament, their devolved assemblies.

It turns out that the Bill is a great revealer each party’s motives in ensuring that the system works “their” way. The Liberal Democrats will probably be the biggest winner if AV is adopted, as it is often the second preference for both Labour and Conservative voters. The Conservatives will gain if constituency boundaries are redrawn and electorate sizes equalised. Labour and the national parties protest because they think their power could be reduced in future elections.

So which system is fairer? Does anyone care? That word is only bandied about when there are benefits and advantages at stake. There are undoubtedly rights and wrongs in politics; it just so happens that they have to be aligned with benefits and disadvantages to be talked about.

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