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Parliamentary boundary changes: Liberal Democrats fight for the moral low ground

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On the face of it, the Liberal Democrats, in seeking to veto boundary changes in revenge for lost House of Lords democratisation, have deserted their preferred moral high ground for low politics. The legislation to equalise voters in each constituency and reduce Commons constituencies from 650 to 600 was duly passed by Parliament and the Boundary Commission is doing the work to produce the new set-up by the next election in 2015. (Note: since publication we have actually had two elections under the old system – and who knows, could have another shortly …)

Liberal Democrat opposition to the outcome will involve standing against the will of Parliament as expressed in that legislation, countering the crucial independence of the Boundary Commission and, paradoxically, Lib Dem ministers undermining what is in effect their own legislation.

Given their illiberal and undemocratic stance in their opposition to equalisation of constituencies and reduction in parliamentary seats, do they have any strong moral argument to justify it?

Actually they do. Having lost their proportional representation referendum and the democratisation of the House of Lords, allowing the constituency changes to go ahead would (with individual registration under the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, still backed by the Lib Dems) tend to consolidate power for the unforeseen future in the hands of the Conservatives – backed by only a minority of the British people. Equalisation of constituencies is only really fair if there is a “fair” electoral system – meaning one producing a proportion of MPs according to the proportion of votes.

More importantly the reduction in the number of constituencies will shift parliamentary power decisively towards the Prime Minister and away from elected (and unelected) parliamentarians.

The objection is that the boundary changes were “rammed through” Parliament  with no prior consultation documents (a “green paper” or “white paper”) and that the review is also being rushed through in little over two years to ensure the changes are ready for the 2015 election without the normal level of consultation and opportunities to comment. (But, of course, it was Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem MPs who originally helped in the rushing through, the sidelining of consultation and the suppressing of debate.)

The real problem with the legislation is that the smaller number of MPs would mean a higher proportion of those MPs being beholden to the prime minister. S/he disburses government posts and certain unpaid parliamentary roles such as whips’ jobs (political managers for each party in Parliament) and private secretaries that are often first steps to jobs in the government. These are the so-called “payroll vote”.

In 2010 a cross-party committee noted: “The reduction [in parliamentary seats] would, on current plans, be made entirely from the backbenches, with no proposals to reduce the number of ministers or of others on the government payroll sitting and voting in the House, thus increasing the extent of executive dominance of Parliament.”

Under the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 there can be up to 95 government ministers in the Commons (including government whips, who ensure MPs’ compliance in votes). Add the less informal posts and the result could be nearly a third of MPs “in government” rather than holding government to account.  In 2010 the Public Administration Committee recommended recommended that the “payroll vote” should be limited to 15% of the membership of the House of Commons (Too Many Ministers? pdf). Recently a report has suggested the Government is now at record size, putting the number of ministers (including in the House of Lords) at 121 with 43 parliamentary private secretaries in the Commons.

As Tony Blair’s chief of staff Jonathan Powell has noted: “If the Prime Minister has his way, he would appoint every single backbencher in his party to a ministerial job to ensure their vote.”

This is a longstanding issue. The reformers after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 grappled with a similar problem. Stuart monarchs also had their payroll vote, placemen in Parliament holding lucrative royal sinecures (known as “plum” jobs) or government posts that meant they would always vote the monarch’s way. The Act of Settlement in 1701 originally included provision to exclude from the Commons anyone holding an office or “place of profit” from the king. His government – the privy council and his appointed ministers, would have to be drawn from the Lords or elsewhere, but not from among MPs in the Commons.

“If the Prime Minister has his way, he would appoint every single backbencher in his party to a ministerial job to ensure their vote.” – Jonathan Powell

This clause was rejected, allowing Britain to develop Cabinet government with members of the government drawn from both Houses. This is not the case in America, with its version of an idealized 17th century constitution. There the president must recruit a government from beyond the two Houses of Congress. The legislature is therefore separate from the executive (a system, incorporating also an independent judiciary, known as “separation of powers”) in a way that is not true in the British system.

The fear about the reduction in MPs with no reduction in prime ministerial appointees is that the legislature and the executive become more closely aligned with a decline in the democratic accountability of the government to elected MPs. The prime minister (who is not directly elected to the post by the British people) would have even greater power to control legislation, in contrast to the US system where the (directly elected) president, head of the executive, cannot propose bills and does not appear in Congress to push through business.

Note on Lib Dem ‘veto’ of constituency equalisation

(Note: This is now of historic interest) The Liberal Democrats cannot veto the changes to boundaries or reduction in MPs. As noted above, the matter is already enshrined in legislation and the work on foot. So how can they stymie it? The Boundary Commission must report before October 2013 on where the boundaries will go to fulfill the new rules (basically that most of the UK constituencies shall be about the same size) and this report is then “laid before Parliament” as a draft Order in Council (with any modifications the the Secretary of State thinks fit) that would put the proposals into operation. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, seems in no mood to halt this procedure, and since it is set out as a requirement of the legislation, he cannot stop it, even if he wanted to.

Orders in Council are part of the secondary legislative powers of Government (powers given to Governments to pass usually administrative legislation without returning to Parliament to go through a full legislative process). They are formally made in the name of the Queen, but Parliament does get a say as explained in Section 4 of the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986.

Subsection (4) notes:
If a motion for the approval of any such draft is rejected by either House of Parliament or withdrawn by leave of the House, the Secretary of State may amend the draft and lay the amended draft before Parliament, and if the draft as so amended is approved by resolution of each House of Parliament, the Secretary of State shall submit it to Her Majesty in Council.”

Parliament itself does not amend such an order though it may make clear what it doesn’t like about it. (This is covered by the Statutory Instruments Act 1946).

So the Government (with the Lib Dem minority dissenting) will present the Boundary Commission report to Parliament – and it can amend the recommendations in it in any way it thinks will be palatable to Parliament. Although the Tories plus Lib Dems have a majority of 83 when voting together and Lib Dem plus Labour outvote the Tories at 311 to 305, there are about 30 members of small parties who could tip the balance. Mostly they oppose the proposed changes but some of their votes could be bought by all manner of means. Such is life when you abandon the high ground and start scrapping in the murky and treacherous moral low ground.

Oh, and who is the “Secretary of State” mentioned in the Act as bringing the draft Order forward? Why, in this case, none other than the Deputy Prime Minister and Lord President of the Council, the Right Hon Nicholas William Peter Clegg, who has special responsibility for constitutional reform in this Government. One suspects he wishes he didn’t.

A parliamentary briefing on this issue is here:
Limitations on the number of Ministers and the size of the Payroll Vote (pdf)
A New Statesman piece on the boundary changes is here
Martin Kettle of the Guardian comments here

Schedule 2 to the 2011 Act: Rules for distribution of seats
Number of constituencies
The number of constituencies in the United Kingdom shall be 600.

Electorate per constituency
(1) The electorate of any constituency shall be—
(a) no less than 95% of the United Kingdom electoral quota, and
(b) no more than 105% of that quota.

(3) In this Schedule the “United Kingdom electoral quota” means—

where U is the electorate of the United Kingdom minus the electorate of the constituencies mentioned in rule 6.

Protected constituencies
6 (1)There shall be two constituencies in the Isle of Wight.
(2) There shall continue to be—
(a) a constituency named Orkney and Shetland, comprising the areas of the Orkney Islands Council and the Shetland Islands Council;
(b)a constituency named Na h-Eileanan an Iar, comprising the area of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar [formerly Western Isles].
(3) Rule 2 does not apply to these constituencies.


About alrich

Journalist and blogger on legal and financial/economics issues

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