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