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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.