Monday, January 31, 2011

Labour peers win a battle but will lose the war

Nicholas Watt reports on the Guardian website this evening (and in tomorrow's paper:
A two-week standoff in the House of Lords between Labour and the coalition over a constitutional reform bill was partially resolved today when ministers agreed to a key opposition demand on shrinking the House of Commons.

Labour agreed to abandon a filibustering campaign, which had forced peers to sleep on camp beds in committee rooms during overnight sessions, after the government announced that it would allow limited public inquiries when parliamentary constituencies are redrawn.
Labour still want further concessions. Notably:
Vary the size of the new parlimentary constituencies by 10% above or below the electoral quota size of around 76,000 voters. This would mean that constituencies could vary in size from 83,600 voters to 68,400 voters. Under the government's plans, constituencies can only be varied in size by 5% either way of the 76,000 quota.
This latter concession would be more important and more reasonable in that it would make it possible to make constituency sizes more uniform without giving rise to the local anomalies - part of the Isle of Wight being included in a mainland constituency, the prospect of a constituency crossing the Devon and Cornwall border -  that are so exercising people.

The Conservatives want to do away with public inquiries because in the 1990s they confirmed their reputation as the stupid party by allowing Labour to run rings around them when they were held. As a result the constituency boundaries on which the 1997 election was fought were substantially favourable to Labour and this is one of the reasons that they won such a landslide.

Liberal Democrats tend to be fond of public inquiries, but it has to be admitted that there is something spurious about them when it comes to constituency boundaries. Because, when a new set of boundaries are proposed within a county are proposed the parties scrutinise them to see if they are more of less favourable to them than the status quo.

If a party likes the look of the new boundaries then it tends to keep quiet. If it does not like the new boundaries it will look for pretexts upon which it can argue that they sunder historic or cultural ties.

So a short-term victory for Labour peers. But the tactics they employed to win it have strengthened the case for reforming the Lords. By behaving just like the MPs many of them were until recently, they have destroyed the argument that the upper house is qualitatively different from the Commons. And if they insist on behaving like MPs, why should they not be elected like MPs?

Some say the first dinosaurs were destroyed by a meteorite. This new crop will be destroyed by their own misguided tactics.


Unknown said...

I don't think a 10% variation would solve either problem.

With the Isle of White it is clear that 10% is not enough to allow the whole Island to form one constituency. The Lords have already amended the bill to make it an exception and I see no reason why this cannot stand given that it is counterbalanced by exceptions for Orkney and Shetland (which itself is contained in far older electoral law) and the Western Isles. If a constituencies voters really do want to be under-represented, and there is little doubt that the residents of the Isle of White sincerely wish to be so, why on earth should parliament say that this cannot happen.

The Cornish case is more difficult. As I understand it allowing a 10% variation in constituency size could potentially solve the Cornish problem, but only if all of the constituencies are either within a few hundred votes of the maximum or the minimum limits, allowing for 5 or 6 constituencies respectively. Whilst I can see exceptions being made for a single constituency that needed to be either larger or smaller the decision to place the entire population of a county in constituencies that where either almost too big or almost too small is too much of an anomaly. Furthermore setting all of the constituencies close to either boundary would make trouble as differential population change is invariably going to push them above or below it before the next boundary review. Again for a single constituency it is not a problem, but creating a situation in which this could happen for such a large population all at the same time is far less acceptable.

I can see there are some advantages for a +/- 10% variation allowance, but I doubt if solving the Cornish / Whitian question once and for all is amongst them. I would also suggest that the narrower the demographic confines a constituency is forced into the less opportunity political parties have to bias their construction through public inquiries so that the two reforms you talk about should be taken together as much as they should be taken separately.

pip said...

The two distinct elements of this would ordinarily have remained separate both in the commons and the Lords.They have been strung together for political expediency and rushed through the lower house on the back of a false majority:nobody voted for both these elements at the last election least of all as one package.An impasse in the upper house is the correct constitutional result of the conditions resulting from a hung parliament which the nation did vote for,rather than sweeping and long lasting constitutional change for politcal advantage.Labour is right to oppose and query the changes at any turn possible.At least AV will be put to a public vote.By the time the public vote at the next election the landscape will be skewed in favour of southern middle England and we will be more likely to have another set of hollow broken promises masquerading as the new politics.For whom one may ask.?Can 600 mps paid less probably from similar backgrounds do the job more effectively than 650?I am currently trying to get simple advice from a well known local tory mp on how to get a constituent on a 90 mile round trip for radiotherapy{no money no transport} and answer comes there none.Access-bah.No damage to frontline services-humbug.Accountability-bullshit.

Andrew Hickey said...

"the landscape will be skewed in favour of southern middle England"

Or, to put it a better, more accurate way, "the landscape will *not* be skewed in favour of southern middle England"

The whole point of equalising constituency sizes is that they're, y'know, equal. As in the same size. As in no skewing in *anyone's* favour.

Either way, I hope this means we will get a *PROPERLY* reformed Lords now, not some half-hearted compromise...