I'm afraid you can't do that, Dave. Photo: Getty Images
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The Prime Minister should rethink his disastrous plan to shrink the Commons

David Cameron's silly solution to an imagined problem will only cause trouble - and many Conservative MPs agree, says Nigel Dodds.

During general election campaigns, long periods in opposition, and even unhappy periods in coalition, parties can say things which in retrospect aren’t always as sensible as they seemed to them at the time. One such example was the supposed innate unfairness of our electoral system and the consequent ‘need’ to reduce the House of Commons to just 600 members. This was always a deeply flawed proposal and the recent election result only goes to show how misplaced the reasoning was, not least as far as my Conservative friends are concerned.

However, if the government’s plans to weaken parliament by reducing the number of MPs while simultaneously providing no concrete assurances that the size of the government will be shrunk go ahead as currently planned, our democracy is going to be damaged. Put simply: a smaller parliament and a proportionately bigger government is bad for British democracy, and I’m confident that a majority of MPs are going to think this way. That’s why I asked the Prime Minister today whether he is committed to this policy, and that’s why I think he’s so wrong to say that he is.

Let’s consider the theoretical, principled problems before going on to the very real practical ones in a smaller parliament but a bigger government. A surprising number of Conservative colleagues for several parliaments now have quite seriously maintained that FPTP was ‘biased’: that somehow the operation of elections in this country was rigged against their party. Many statistics were quoted about how many voters it took to elect different shades of MPs and this was adduced to mean unfairness. We don’t hear those figures being bandied about any more for the simple reason that there never was such systemic ‘bias’. I’ve no doubt a lot of Tories sincerely meant these charges but as the recent general election conclusively shows, they are and always were a nonsense. All FPTP does is reward or punish a party depending on how it mobilises its votes in any particular election.

As the success of Lynton Crosby has, I hope, shown, FPTP is blind, just and even-handed. Do better in your campaigning and you’ll do better in the number of seats you get.

But this then brings me to how many MPs there should be. As part of the decade long complaints about the supposed but actually non-existent bias of FPTP, a boundary review shrinking the House of Commons was proposed as part of the answer to this fictional problem. Well, the problem didn’t really exist and therefore the solution really shouldn’t be applied.

As things stand, the 2011 Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act means that the next House of Commons is supposed to be reduced to only 600 members. As we’ve seen, the principal rationale – ‘FPTP discriminates against the Tory Party’ – is bunk, but the consequences of putting the law as it stands into effect are poorer still. The Act was a pretty shoddy piece of work, badly drafted and the result of a fairly unseemly stitch-up with the Lib Dems.

However its real failure today lies in the fact that the case was never coherently made why a smaller Commons is better for British voters. How are we better represented with fewer representatives? What distinguishes 600 from 650 or 500 or 635 or any other number you care to pluck out of the air as being the optimal figure for how many MPs there should be? And most fundamentally of all, how is the government better held to account when it stays the same but parliament gets smaller? No, the case for 600 wasn’t made and it shouldn’t be put into effect.

What will happen if the legislation in force proceeds as planned and the Commons shrinks down to 600 members? Without an accompanying, unbreakable commitment to reduce the size of the ministerial footprint – and there is nothing whatsoever in the legislation providing for such a reduction – the payroll votes swells dramatically in relation both to the opposition and to the government’s own backbenches. This can’t be good for politics. It can’t be good for the voters who now send fewer non-ministerial MPs to parliament than ever.

For all that some Tories did, perfectly sincerely, come to turn against FPTP, in my experience in the tearoom, plenty of Conservative friends never wavered in their support for our current electoral system. You don’t have to look far to see that the British way of doing elections holds its own quite comfortably against the international competition.

And those Tories who didn’t join in the chorus of abuse against FPTP share, I know, my profound doubts about the wisdom of needlessly reducing the size of the House of Commons. They see that in an organic constitution like ours, which seeks to see actual communities rather than abstract blocs represented in parliament, constituencies shouldn’t be entirely artificial, mathematically precise things. They have to grow out of the communities they’ll represent, not be derived from what a computer model says would deliver ‘equal representation’. And they know – and this include serving ministers – that a swollen, over-mighty government resting on a shrunken House of Commons is not the way of British parliamentary democracy.

All of which is why I want to make it clear: my party, like a significant number of the David Cameron’s colleagues, does not support the current proposal to make parliament a smaller, lesser thing. I’d advise the Prime Minister to think again, and very carefully, on this one.

 

Rt Hon Nigel Dodds is deputy leader of the DUP and leads the party at Westminster

 

Nigel Dodds is MP for North Belfast and leads the DUP at Westminster

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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era