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
Show Hide image

Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.