Blocking unfair boundary changes may be Lords reform’s saving grace
Author: Georgia Arlott
Published on Aug 30, 2012
Democracy campaigners around the country were dismayed by Nick Clegg’s admission that plans for an elected House of Lords had been suspended. However, several left wing commentators have claimed that Clegg’s defeat on this issue may afford him a more resounding victory on it in the near future. It is the Liberal Democrat threat to block Conservative boundary reforms that is exciting such optimism.
Cameron vows that he will not give up on boundary reform, and will be encouraging MPs to vote for it, regardless of coalition tussles. This tenacity is unsurprising. The Conservative party have become convinced that this reform is - to quote the Prime Minister - “crucial” to delivering a Tory majority in 2015. Some forecasters have predicted that with the boundary changes in place at the next election, a House of Commons comprising only eleven Liberal Democrat MPs is not merely conceivable, but optimistic. Meanwhile the Conservatives stand to gain seats.
In addition, the system that the government is proposing to use to work out constituency size has the potential to be highly inaccurate in some places. In areas where there are high numbers of students, people from lower socio-economic groups or members of ethnic minorities, a large portion of the local population may not even be on the register to vote. This already overstretched system may encounter further problems when changes to the way in which voter registration works come into effect. Taking into account true population size would certainly produce a more accurate reading of constituency size than merely referring to the register.
Further political disenchantment beckons with the looming prospect of boundary changes since many people vote for their local MP, rather than along strict party lines. It is a well known fact that incumbent MPs face a far higher chance of being re-elected than the national average. The unpopular Liberal Democrats in particular face a bleak future indeed if party politics are allowed to entirely outweigh personal loyalties and preferences in local areas.
In addition, a drastically reduced House of Commons would hand even more control to an executive that still does not have an elected House of Lords to place effective limitations over its legislative power. After Lord Falconer’s amendment to limit the number of government ministers in line with the reduction in MPs was rejected, there will be a greater proportion of MPs holding governmental posts. For these reasons, it is in the interests of democracy to oppose the proposed boundary changes.
Crudely, an act of such defiance from the Deputy Prime Minister means that his long-cherished dreams of finally reforming the House of Lords could become a reality after the next election for the simple reason that it is more likely to lead to a Labour government or another hung parliament. Miliband has clearly stated his support for Lords Reform, and it is likely that a Labour dominated government would address the issue after 2015.
It is certainly unfair that the current first past the post system gives Labour such an inbuilt advantage, but the problem is the electoral system itself; no amount of tweaking the boundaries will change that - but is likely to lead to unfairness in other ways as we have seen from the current government’s proposals.
Unlock Democracy’s staff and activists are, naturally, deeply disappointed by the suspension of reform of the Lords after 101 years of broken promises but after a century of waiting, three or four more years is bearable. If Clegg can succeed in holding back Cameron’s boundary changes for two more years, we can be optimistic about the prospects of House of Lords reform in the not-so-distant future.