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19 September 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 8:57am

The double standards on boundary changes are clear – just look at the House of Lords

Cutting the number of MPs will also lose independent-minded backbenchers. 

By David Winnick

I was hardly surprised the Prime Minster was reluctant to properly answer my question at PMQs last week on reducing the size of the Commons.

The question was how she could justify trying to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600 when, at the last count, the Lords numbered 820, and by 2020 is very likely to be even larger.

Theresa May made some irrelevant remarks over retirement procedures introduced in the Lords and left it at that. Hardly anything to do with what I actually asked her.

Last week saw the publication of the Boundary Commission’s provisional recommendations for the new parliamentary constituencies, if in fact the Commons was reduced to 600.

The Commission stated that by law it had to base its calculations on the electoral register of 1 December 2015. However, since then, nearly 2m more have registered, in many instances in order to be able to vote in the EU referendum this year.

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David Cameron at the time said it was necessary to reduce the numbers in the Commons in order to make savings. The real reason, of course, as everyone knows, was to give the Tories a clear electoral advantage; any doubt about that would have been removed in the proposed new seats, with, surprise, surprise, Labour being the overall loser.

As for saving public funds, if Cameron was worried about that, he would hardly have given 260 peerages to Tories in the last six years, with all the costs involved in attendance allowance, etc. Or, for that matter, not spent £12m on “golden goodbyes” for those of his close team when he gave up the premiership. Incidentally, that is exactly the same sum as reducing the number of MPs.

Another matter is that with much larger constituencies, MPs will obviously need more secretarial and research staff to cope with increased casework and constant emails.

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But to come back to the essential point, namely: what justification can there be for the elected chamber to be on three quarters or less of the entirely unelected legislative place. As I remarked to May at the time, is this her idea of democracy in the 21st century?

There is however in all this another factor, which has tended to be somewhat overlooked, and what I would describe as a democratic deficit.

This particularly relates much more to whichever party is in government. If one works on the reasonable assumption that fewer MPs will not affect the number of departments – indeed, Brexit has already increased the numbers, as we have seen – the total ministerial team is not likely to be reduced from the current position.

In addition to the ministerial payroll there are unpaid parliamentary private secretaries, bag carriers if you like, who hope that promotion will soon lead to something better. Even as a PPS, they are subject, like their chiefs, to collective responsibility, and are therefore obliged to vote at all times with the government.

Add on those other backbenchers who also hope to be noticed by the whips for promotion at some stage, plus others who are natural loyalists, often described as lobby fodder who are always likely to be found when their party is in office.

This means that those who tend to be more independent-minded, and be openly critical at times of their own government, will be much fewer in a Commons of 600. 

It would, I think, be a loss to parliament if this turned out to be the case. Critical views on their own side can sometimes make ministers think again on policies.

Hopefully such more independent-minded Tory MPs now on the backbenches will ensure that the Order to reduce the Commons will be defeated, as it certainly should be.

David Winnick is the Labour MP for Walsall North.