Life Under the Tories 3: Downsizing Politics and Democracy

What will the Conservatives’ commitment to downsize the House of Commons by 10 per cent mean for Wales? Yesterday the IWA’s conference Life Under the Tories heard that it could mean the number of Welsh MPs dropping by far more than 10 per cent, in fact by nearly half, to 22. Devolution expert Professor Robert Hazel, Director of the Constitution Unit at University College, London, is undertaking a study of the Conservative’s emerging policies on the constitution and believes this is a serious possibility. He told the conference that the cut would be calculated on the basis of a “devolution discount”.

Because the workload of MPs in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland is now so much reduced, and because the devolved nations are over-represented in Westminster anyway, serious consideration is being given to reducing their numbers by a greater amount than 10 per cent.

Reducing MPs at Westminster by 10 per cent would cut their overall number from the current 650 to 585. If Wales’s 40 MPs were reduced in proportion it would mean they would drop from today’s 40 to 36, back to where we were in 1979 (due to boundary changes the number of Welsh MPs increased to 38 in the 1983 election and 40 in 1997).

However, Professor Hazel believes the Conservatives are thinking in terms of the devolved nations having their representation cut by considerably more to reflect the fact that they have their own Assemblies and Parliament. For Scotland he suggested there could be a cut from 57 to 40, for Northern Ireland from 18 to 12, and Wales from 40 to 22.

This would leave a reduction of only 25 MPs in England to reach the overall cut of 65. But Professor Hazel believes the Conservatives would justify this by saying that England did not enjoy devolved administration and, as a result, the workload of English MPs is higher than those in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. “This is no criticism of MPs from the devolved nations, but the fact is that the heaviest constituency workload comes as a result of issues like health and education, and these are now the responsibility of AMs in Wales, MSPs in Scotland, and MLAs in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Also speaking at the conference were Shadow Welsh Secretary Cheryl Gillan and the Leader of the Conservatives in the National Assembly Nick Bourne but they made no mention of any plans to reduce numbers of MPs at Westminster.

“For obvious reasons we cannot expect the Conservatives to disclose their detailed intentions on this policy ahead of next year’s general election,” said Professor Hazell. However, there was no doubt that they were committed to cutting the size of the House of Commons by 10 per cent. “They believe this will be enormously popular with the public at a time when spending cuts are needed and there is so much sentiment against politicians anyway as a result of the expenses scandal”.

Professor Hazell added that he was dismayed that so little work had been undertaken by political scientists on the relative size of democratic institutions and the optimum number of elected representatives to ensure effective democracy. He said he could envisage the day coming quite soon when he and other political experts would be called into the television studios, asked for their view on reducing the size of the House of Commons and would have no objective basis for assessing how harmful cutting the numbers of MPs would be.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA.

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