Why we need fewer MPs

Cameron is right to call for a 10 per cent cut.

It takes some chutzpah for David Cameron to attack Gordon Brown as a "shameless defender of the old elite". It is Cameron who is attempting to scupper the government's plan to remove the remaining hereditary peers from the House of Lords. It is Cameron who defends Lord Ashcroft's refusal to say whether he is resident in the UK for tax purposes. And it is Cameron who continues to support the old, outmoded, first-past-the-post voting system.

But on one point the Tory leader is right -- we need fewer MPs. Tomorrow the Conservatives will table an amendment to Jack Straw's Constitutional Reform Bill to reduce the size of the Commons by 10 per cent.

The case for reform is clear; India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has 543 MPs, while Britain, with a population of 61 million, has 646. Only China has more MPs, and China's population is 20 times the size of Britain's. As the expenses scandal demonstrated, we need fewer but better MPs. At present, far too many are mere lobby fodder who contribute little to parliamentary debate.

Labour has rejected the Tory proposal out of hand, accusing Cameron of "blatant gerrymandering". The Tory leader hopes to eliminate the anti-Conservative bias in the electoral system by reducing the differences in constituency size.

Tory MPs tend to represent larger constituencies and Labour MPs smaller ones. As a result, in the 2005 election, it took just 26,906 votes on average to elect a Labour candidate, but 44,373 to elect a Conservative one.

Yet research suggests that Cameron's proposal will in fact do little to benefit the Tories. As Professor Michael Thrasher points out:

Labour continues to benefit from electoral size but its real advantage currently stems largely from a better-distributed vote -- it acquires fewer surplus and wasted votes than its rivals. It is also benefiting more than other parties from the general decline in electoral turnout, requiring fewer votes for its victories.

While Tory supporters are likely to turn out to vote wherever they are, Labour supporters are more likely to stay at home if the seat is either safe Labour or safe Tory and, therefore, one in which their vote will be wasted.

The only sure-fire way to eliminate anti-Tory bias in the electoral system is to introduce proportional representation, but the Conservatives' enduring hunger for the sort of majorities delivered by Margaret Thatcher leaves them blind to this point.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.