Constituency Stitch Up

Peter Hain: The Liberal Democrat Leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, tells everyone his Party is the protector of ‘fairness’ in this coalition government.

Yet this Bill is fair only to the Conservatives. It is grossly unfair to Labour and even a bit unfair to the Liberal Democrats who will lose seats! Some Party Leader, he is! It is especially – and blatantly – unfair to Wales which will lose fully a quarter of its representation, mostly Labour but some Liberal and Nationalist too. It is grossly unfair to local communities by imposing on them new constituencies from Whitehall and depriving them of their traditional rights to be fully involved in a process that is at the very heart of our Parliamentary democracy

Having swallowed a Budget that is unfair to the poor, unfair to pensioners, and, quite astonishingly, most unfair to the poorest parts of Britain, the North East of England and Wales, now the Government is destroying fairness in our parliamentary democracy.

They trumpet the case for ‘equalisation’ like it’s a novel concept. But equalisation has been the all-party principle behind our constituency system for generations. We are all signed up to it. But the Boundary Commission has applied it in a flexible way that it is independent, takes proper account of local views, of community identity, of rurality and of sparsity. In other words the Boundary Commission has operated by consensus: fair, practical and sensible. The Government has abandoned consensus with its unfair, impractical and arrogant proposals.

Even the Government agrees that in practice the equalisation principle must be flexible – hence the protection given to a likely four geographically large seats in Scotland, three of them Liberal held.

We can only assume that, in the case of Ross, Skye and Locherba, this preferential treatment was the price paid to keep its Member, the former Leader of the Liberal Democrats, from defecting to Labour. And if Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey ends up being protected, the Government’s motive will be transparent: having lost one Chief Secretary, the Government are so determined not to lose another they are legislating against it.

Obviously in the Government’s definition of equalisation, some seats are more equal than others.

Wales, because of its own special characteristics, has always had special consideration by this Parliament and by the Boundary Commission, with cross-party support. For these reasons, Parliament first decided in 1947 that, there should be no fewer than 35 Welsh seats. Since then, rises in and shifts in population over the last sixty years have led the Boundary Commission to increase the number of seats by a further five to the current 40.

As a note from the Commons Library on 28th July 2010 confirms (para 3.1)during the passage of the Boundary Commissions Bill in 1992, the then Home Secretary, the R thon member for Rushcliffe, rejected the argument that the over-representation of Wales should be tackled, referring to it as a long standing constitutional arrangement. Yet this Bill will impose on Wales the most savage of all. Wales will lose three times the proportion of MPs as the average for the UK: a reduction of fully a quarter, from 40 to 30 MPs. How can that possibly be justified? Wales is long used to Tories treating it unfairly and punitively, now we have the Liberal Democrats doing the very same.

In Mid and West Wales, vast rural areas, the four constituencies (none Labour held) – Brecon and Radnor, Montgomeryshire, Ceredigion – cover hundreds of square miles. Yet under this Bill these four large seats will become two monster ones, thousands of square miles in size.

Until now every Parliament and every Boundary Commission has understood, and accepted, an elementary verity about the Welsh Valleys. In former coal mining constituencies it is impossible to visit the next Valley by the shortest route because that is over the top of the mountain; the only way to do so is by travelling either to the top or bottom of the Valley and go right around to the next one.

The Bill will produce a monumental list of anomalies. And the Honourable Member for the Isle of Wight is absolutely right to be incandescent about the carve up of his island constituency. Just wait until everyone realises what will happen to their own constituencies.

But what most people will find most offensive is the way the Bill sweeps away local democracy. For generations constituency boundaries have been reviewed and adjusted by local agreement not by central dictat. Local people have had the opportunity to object if community identities were threatened or unsuitable mergers with nearby towns or villages proposed.

Formal hearings would hear representations and a final decision agreed, if not always by total consensus then at least with broad support – a process which last time necessarily took fully seven years in England.

But the Bill has unilaterally dumped this for a rigid two years deadline in a straightforward fix, abolishing the right to trigger public inquiries and destroying a bi-partisan, independent system of drawing boundaries which has been the envy of countries across the world. So much for ‘big society’ localism. The Prime Minister tells us the Big Society is about empowering local communities. This Bill is doing very reverse of that. It rides roughshod over local communities. It’s clear now: the Big Society is just a Big Con.

Where Prime Minister spoke so eloquently in favour the current 650 seat Commons at the 2003 Oxfordshire Boundary Inquiry, the Bill proposes an arbitrary and partisan reduction by 50 to 600 seats because it would hurt Labour the most. A steeper reduction would have abolished too many Tory seats. Indeed, before the election, the Liberal Democrats wanted to abolish 150 MPs, most of them Conservative!

Most outrageous the Government has said they intend to redraw the boundaries based on the December 2010 register when they know the current registeris missing over 3.5 million eligible voters, predominantly the young, poor and black and minority ethnic social groups. The problem of under-registration is greatest in urban areas, student towns and coastal areas of high social deprivation. If all those eligible to vote could do so, London would have fully eight more seats, now it will get five fewer. And the problems in future reviews will be worse when the Government have rushed through individual registration without any safeguards.

The Liberal Democrat Leader has allowed himself to be sandbagged by his Tory senior partners in his otherwise laudable attempt to introduce a fairer electoral system, risking losing a once-in-a-generation opportunity for electoral reform.

Instead of introducing a separate Bill on the Alternative Vote referendum which would have been supported by Labour in a vote through Parliament in line with our manifesto commitment, the Government has spatchcocked it together with the most blatant gerrymander of parliamentary constituency boundaries since the days of the rotten boroughs.

The Government should decouple the proposals into two separate Bills, one on the AV referendum, one on constituencies. And in the latter they should ensure that the original, fairer, more transparent and consensual boundary review system is restored, that new boundaries are not applied in such a dogmatic, rigid and politically discriminatory fashion. They should ensure that Wales is treated fairly and not punitively. And automatic registration from other public data bases must be included.

That way we might get two decent, democratic reform Bills based on consensus. That way we might get the Alternative Vote which I have supported for decades.

So we say to the Government: stop trying to rig democracy. Stop trying to ride roughshod over local community views and withdraw this Bill now.

In the Committee Stage of the Bill I urge the Government bring in amendments which address these seriously undemocratic features of their new Boundary Commission remit:

The power put into the hands of unelected officials – deciding whether or not to listen to what citizens say about their own proposals

The disadvantage placed on any objectors by the need to put forward alternative proposals for much wider areas (for instance the whole of Wales) without any knowledge of what others may be putting forward.

The loss of independent scrutiny with the removal of Assistant Commissioners – independent lawyers who chaired public inquiries and wrote reports on the arguments put and their own conclusions.

If the Government dogmatically refuses to restore public inquiries, they should at least consider a two stage consultation process allowing citizens to comment on each other’s proposals – and restore a role for an independent Assistant Commissioner in producing a published report summarising and drawing conclusions from the representations.

In practice, under the bill as it stands, it will be very difficult to get any alternative proposal accepted – because of knock-on effects across a much wider area and because it will always be said that adopting a radically different set of proposals would be unfair to those who commented on the original proposals.