September saw the publication of the biggest plan to reduce the number of MPs in Parliament since Guy Fawkes placed several suspicious-looking kegs underneath the Palace of Westminster. In these bleak economic times, the Prime Minister is eager to “cut the price of politics,” so plans to save £12 million per year by axing 50 MPs from the House of Commons at the next general election. The reduction is unprecedented – and with a growing and increasingly diverse population, it appears that the main effect of the changes will be to increase the exclusivity of what is already a thoroughly unrepresentative Parliament.
The current plans for changes to constituency boundaries open up the government to accusations of gerrymandering. Of the 31 English MPs facing the chop, a third will disappear from traditional Labour strongholds including Manchester, Newcastle and Sunderland – whilst only one MP will be cut from the Tory heartland of the South East.
However, the current electoral system favours the Labour Party, so it seems unfair to suggest cynical electioneering – any electoral benefit afforded to the Conservative Party will simply redress the balance. At the 2010 general election, the Tories won 36% of the popular vote to win just 40% of the seats; in 2005, Labour won 55% of the seats with the same share of the vote. Though it is argued that the primary benefit of our current electoral system is its’ propensity produce stable governments, first-past-the-post appears to be producing strong Labour majorities and weak Conservative governments, if the results of elections from 1992 onwards are anything to go by. But with 53% of votes at the last election ‘wasted’ on candidates who failed to win, a cut in the number MPs will only increase this worrying trend of making the House of Commons less representative.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of this plan lies in its’ attempt to further perpetuate the Tory myth that “we’re all in this together.” With unemployment rising to 2.5 million in August, the government wants the public to believe that by losing 50 MPs Parliament, too, is feeling the pinch. Many of the MPs who lose their constituencies in 2015 will be found a new, well-paid job within their party, with lobby groups or consultancy firms. It’s a shame that the same can’t be said for the one million young people who currently find themselves without work.
If the government were really serious about reducing the cost of politics, David Cameron would cut the burgeoning ranks of ministers and special advisors that clog the corridors of power. According to a Parliamentary Select Committee, the high number of ministers is “bad for the quality of government… and the independence of the legislature.”
A ministerial cull would be a brave move by a coalition government with some tough votes ahead in the coming months; more MPs with their snouts in the ministerial trough guarantees more warm bodies sidling through the government voting lobby. It is for that very reason that this seemingly more sensible alternative is unlikely.
The importance that the government has heaped on this policy is symptomatic of a group of insulated politicians unable to look beyond the Westminster bubble. We need our government to be contemplating new and innovative ways to encourage growth in the British economy and get people back to work, rather than arguing about who has the biggest constituency or where we should draw the lines on our political map.
The awe-inspiring Arab Spring, a movement of genuine importance, proves that democracy is not measured in pounds and pence, but in freedom and liberty – so, when Cameron argues that we need to cut the price of politics, we have to wonder where it will it end.