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.

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.