The coalition's boundary changes threaten electoral reform

The boundary changes and the AV referendum should be split into two separate bills.

Almost everyone can find something to dislike about the coalition's proposed boundary changes. The plan to equalise constituency sizes will disrupt traditional boundaries and historic communities without correcting the electoral bias towards Labour (which is not due to unequal constituencies). In addition, the redrawn boundaries will take no account of the 3.5 million people not on the electoral register, producing a skewed electoral map that ignores millions of eligible voters.

Meanwhile, the accompanying 10 per cent reduction in the number of MPs will not be matched by a commensurate reduction in the number of ministers, further reducing parliamentary accountability and swelling the payroll vote. Aware of all these objections, the coalition is still planning to abolish public inquiries into boundary changes -- an extraordinary act of non-consultation.

There remains one last outpost of resistance -- the House of Lords. Today, peers will vote on a Labour motion to refer the bill to a parliamentary select committee local appeals process, something that could delay the legislation for months and halt the planned referendum on the Alternative Vote. Charles Falconer, who is tabling the motion, argues that the bill can be declared "hybird" because it singles out two constituencies -- Shetland and the Western Isles -- for special treatment.

There is no such exemption for the Isle of Wight, which with 110,000 voters is too big to fit the prescribed 76,000 limit, but too small for two MPs. The extra 34,000 constituents will be bolted onto a constituency in Hampshire -- an absurd solution that will require the MP to travel back and forth between the mainland and the island. Like an old colonial bureaucrat, Cameron is planning to draw lines on the map that take no account of geography, history and identity.

The solution is clear: to split the legislation into two separate bills by decoupling the boundary changes from the referendum. This would allow pro-AV Labour MPs to unambiguously support the bill while maintaining their opposition to the rest of the reforms. Conversely, Conservative MPs could vote against electoral reform without fear of jeopardising the coalition's boundary changes. It may not make much political sense to David Cameron (the referendum was a quid pro quo for the boundary changes) but it would make a lot of parliamentary sense.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR