We must ensure that fewer MPs means more democracy

by Andy Howell

Much of practical politics is about dealing with paradox and balance. At one end of the political continuum we have creativity (risky) and at the other caution (inaction). Those at the creative end of the spectrum have to be brave enough to cope with the Daily Mail, the Express and, of course, Murdoch. Those who stay cautious may feel safe, but inaction and indecisiveness tends to see events pop up and bite them on the bum.

There is a great deal of indignation among Labour’s ruling elites about the Tory-Lib Dem government’s plans for boundary reform. They argue that this is all a fix to bash Labour; and in many senses they are right. But it is worth reflecting on lost opportunities as well as considering how we deal with the review and subsequently position ourselves on constitutional reform.

There has long been a widespread view, for which I have some sympathy, that we have too many MPs. The Lib Dems, in particular, have been vocal in pointing out that Labour did very little in power to think about representation and constituencies; our electoral law and practice is based on registered voters and not on population. Labour — they say — was simply too comfortable with falling turnout and poor voter registration. There may be some truth in this, but Labour’s real failure was in not reforming Parliament.

Quite simply, the job of a backbench MP does not look that great when viewed from outside. Why do we need so many MPs simply to act as voting fodder for the executive? Labour missed a massive opportunity to act imaginatively and decisively in renewing our system of governance. Select committees should have been given more power, more independence and — critically —more resources with which to carry out their work. Our leadership should have been more comfortable with the relaxation, or reinvention, of the traditional “whip” system.

I remember discussing this with one of our Birmingham’s MPs four or five years ago. It seemed to me then that communities and voters would welcome a greater degree of independence from their MP. Electorates are not stupid. They know that someone elected with a Labour tag is not going to bring down its government or leadership. But they do want to know what their Member of Parliament thinks. They want their local representatives to support them in their local campaigns. They want their politicians to help broker relationships with government agencies and others to support local development. They want practical help in securing new resources for local services and local development. During its record period in power, Labour had a lot of scope to create a more relaxed and independent system of governance without bringing government to a halt, but we blew it.

Both Blair and Brown treated Labour backbenchers in particular, and the Commons in general, with contempt; they simply weren’t important in the big scheme of things. Voters could see how backbench MPs were treated. Why should they think any differently?

But what about the issue of constituency representation? It is true that many Labour MPs represent communities rather than registered voters and that these communities are complex even if they are not active voters. But it is never enough to see MPs as simple advice workers; after all there are other agencies that are better at that. MPs are policy makers and legislators and if they are not doing that effectively then we shouldn’t be surprised that the public seems, at best, to be indifferent to the chopping of their numbers.

But we are where we are. There will be an argument about the boundaries and there will be some opposition to the changes in both the Commons and the Lords, but I expect them to go through in time for the next election. Labour needs to be clear about how it will respond in practical terms.

The last wholesale review was conducted shortly after the 2001 election. Sensibly, the Party then settled on a procedure that obliged each new constituency to conduct an open selection for their candidates. This system was designed, in no small measure, to stop sitting MPs spending all of their time setting up dodgy back street deals or plotting new and ingenious ways of disposing of the opposition. There are already signs that this current review is a catalyst to similar behaviour. Open selections — not just ring fenced to sitting MPs — will be critical in allowing the party to move forward confidently and positively.

We also need to think about the building blocks for the future. Many constituencies will be subject to wholesale change and we should guard against existing constituency executives trying to fix things for favoured candidates. The real building block will be the Ward, not least because this relates most closely to real communities on the ground. The party needs to be committed to allowing the new constituencies to go about their work without being saddled with the baggage of the past. They need to be able to be free to consider their strategies for the development of their new constituency organisation. New constituencies will need time to build up their relationships with the communities that exist within the new boundaries,

It is possible that the boundaries will not be settled for some time. However, the party should move quickly to lay down the methodology by which we will move forward. Everyone — party members, sitting MPs and local communities — should be aware of where they stand, sooner rather than later.

Finally, there is also a long-term view to consider. How do we see the future of Parliament and how do we see the role of the MP evolving? We wasted a great opportunity to modernise our structure of government. Myself and many other grassroots members will be working hard to ensure we secure another comfortable Labour majority in the near future. But the extent to which we can encourage others to join us will be dependent on our ability to articulate the need for a more open, collegiate and independent legislature.

Andy Howell is a former deputy leader of Birmingham city council and is chair of the Labour democratic network.


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10 Responses to “We must ensure that fewer MPs means more democracy”

  1. Nick says:

    Count yourself lucky that they aren’t doing what Labour did and leave an inbuilt bias in the electoral system to their advantage.

  2. swatantra says:

    A good rticle which points out that MPs are primarilily legislators not case workers. Most of the case load is in fact palmed off to the assistants researchers and dogsbodies, or local councillors.
    So the question is correct. We have far too many MPs.
    I didn’t realise that the boundaries were done on voter registration and not actual population numbers as they should be. The number of people here not eligible to vote is negligibe.
    And if Labour have been playing politics and not tackling the real issues on electoral reform then it should be thooughly ashamed of itself.
    I have nothing but contempt for those who say, we won’t do such a thing because it’ll harm us.
    You should do the thing because it is the right thing to do.

  3. Mick Williams says:

    Andy is quite right that the Ward should form the basis to express a choice – after all we have a system of ‘representative’ democracy. Or do we ?

    Last year my own Ward Branch Party expressed a clear preference for a council candidate, only for the party hierarchy to completely ignore this this and send out a postal ballot which only included the names of the two members who had been decisively rejected by the Ward.

    A formal complaint was raised but no response was ever given except that it had been ‘forwarded to the compliance unit’.

    This resulted in wholesale resignations (Chair, Secretary, Treasurer and most activists) from the Branch and several more from the CLP.

    Subsequent events have shown that this state of affairs still persists (if the recent local scandal of an overview and scrutiny committee being ‘whipped’ is anything to go by) but hey, they’ve now got four years to do as they please.

    Hopefully the LDN will have enough of an impact to persuade the consciences of enough members to see through these scams and to insist on proper redress in such cases.

    But I’m not holding my breath …..

    (This comment has been slightly edited)

  4. Unless other alterations are put in place. the reduction in the number of MPs will result in there being fewer back-bench MPs yet the same number of front bench MPs. This will add even further to the powers of the leaderships of the main political parties. Then whilst the new boundaries will be based on a more precise quota of electors, the proceedure continues to ignore the fact that over 3 milliion people are missing from electoral registers. The numbers are growing and tend to be concentrated in heavily populated areas, being a significant percentage of the young, the poor, ethic minorities and the rootless. If serious avenues had been used to register the missing millions, then the maps for the new electoral boundaries would look very different from those which have now been proposed. If the claims for reform are supposed to be based on high principles, then why have the two concerns I raise not been addressed?

  5. AmberStar says:

    @ Harry Barnes

    Unless other alterations are put in place. the reduction in the number of MPs will result in there being fewer back-bench MPs yet the same number of front bench MPs. This will add even further to the powers of the leaderships of the main political parties.
    ————————————————
    How many back-bench revolts ever actually achieve anything? You say this strengthens the power of the executive; I say it’s just a few less MPs to be whipped through the lobby to vote as they’ve been told to… which I think is one of the points made in the article.
    😎

  6. AmberStar says:

    @ Harry Barnes

    If serious avenues had been used to register the missing millions, then the maps for the new electoral boundaries would look very different from those which have now been proposed.
    —————————————
    Some Labour wards did make a concerted attempt to get ‘missing’ voters to register & it did make a difference to these boundaries. They were not given enough time to do the job properly, though… for reasons that seem obvious to me. The Tories wanted a big bonus from this process & so far, it looks like they’ve achieved it.

    Population wasn’t used because the records are not updated often enough. The boundary commission are to review & equalise constituencies every electoral cycle, I believe.

    For anybody who hasn’t seen Anthony Wells’s calculation of the outcome:
    In England, based on 2010 vote, Labour lose 18 seats, Dems 7, Tories 5 & others 1. Labour will lose more seats in the Scotland & Wales reviews.
    😎

  7. AmberStar says:

    Open selections — not just ring fenced to sitting MPs — will be critical in allowing the party to move forward confidently and positively.
    ———————————
    Really? IMO, it’s more likely that open selections will be a huge waste of time & energy. Labour MPs need to get settled in & start building our vote. Better to go with the sitting MP who has the best ‘claim’ based on no. of wards or voters from their previous constituency as the default, with an appeals procedure for MPs who find themselves seatless.
    😎

  8. Dear AmberStar

    Really? IMO, it’s more likely that open selections will be a huge waste of time & energy. Labour MPs need to get settled in & start building our vote.

    ——————–

    From a careerist point-of-view you are right, but as a democratic socialist upholding members’ right to select candidates for elected office and encouraging others to join in are essential to rebuilding Labour as a mass membership party – time well spent to achieve an even bigger vote.

    Peter Kenyon, secretary – Labour Democratic Network
    http://www.labourdemocraticnetwork.org

  9. AmberStar says:

    @ Peter Kenyon

    Yes, yours is a good point & I’ll visit your website… but I want the Tories out at the next election! There really is a huge amount of work to be done before then; & because there is the possibilty (a remote one, sadly) that the Coalition could fall apart, Labour needs to be ready to fight a campaign asap.
    😎

  10. uglyfatbloke says:

    It is not just a matter of candidates, though I sympathise with Mick Williams.
    As long as the party remains steadfastly opposed to democratic reform we can expect that nothing will get any better, but there is a good chance that things will get worse- possibly a lot worse. Example? Blair’s failure to bring in democratic elections helped to keep Labour in power in the past, but it may well backfire now. In Scotland the legacy of FPTP over-representation is very likely going to be inherited by the gnats. If they get 40%+ of the vote at the next GE they won’t just be finally rubbing out the glib-dumbs (it’s an ill wind etc….) but they will take lots of seats from labour too.
    it could be argued of course that the gnats only won a Holyrood majority because of PR, but actually they won because Holyrood does not have PR, it has a form of De Hondt AMS which was designed specifically to ensure that the gnats would never be the largest party, let alone the majority.
    Currently the gnats have sunk back to about 41% in the polls, but who is to say that they won’t recover? If they were to rise to 47%…a mere six points…there might be as few as six or seven Scottish labour MPs after the next GE. Dies anyone want that?

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