MPs in Wales

This clip from yesterday's Politics Show Wales serves as a reminder that the issue of the number of MPs in Wales, together with the redrawing of constituency boundaries, will be debated and probably decided this week.


I commented on the subject in a previous post here long before the current ConDem proposals were tabled, and have been disappointed with the responses of both Labour and some in Plaid Cymru who seem to have lost sight of the principles that should be applied, just for the sake of Wales having a few more seats. So now seems to be a very good time to set out again what I think these principles should be.

The Historical Context

For several decades, both Wales and Scotland were over-represented in the House of Commons. It would probably do more harm than good to go into detail about the reasons for this, except to make the general point that it was to give Wales and Scotland, as nations, a slightly louder voice in Parliament than could be justified by the size of our respective populations alone.

Scotland had 72 MPs, but after the establishment of the Scottish Parliament it was decided that Scotland's quota of MPs should be reduced, so that constituency sizes roughly averaged those in England. This change was implemented in time for the 2005 Westminster election, and meant that only 59 MPs were elected for Scotland. However a similar change was not introduced in Wales. This was not a case of inconsistency; the rationale was that Scotland was now able to make its own laws on all matters except those reserved to Westminster, but the Welsh Assembly was not set up with the power to pass primary legislation.

My view has always been that the number of Welsh MPs should be reduced to the same level as in England and Scotland, but that this should only happen when the Assembly gained primary lawmaking powers. However the ConDem government is determined to equalize the size of constituencies irrespective of whether the Assembly gets primary lawmaking powers or not, and irrespective of the fact that even when we get the powers currently proposed, we will have them in fewer subject areas than either Scotland or Northern Ireland. This determination means that principle is simply going to be steamrollered by the ConDem government in Westminster. To put it bluntly, even when over-represented with 40 MPs, the rest of the UK has far more MPs and can therefore pass whatever legislation they like, no matter what we in Wales say about it. Until we are independent, that will always be a hard fact of political life.

The only comfort is that things will probably work out right in the end, simply because all the polls consistently point to us getting a Yes vote in the referendum in March next year. In winning a Yes vote, we remove the rationale behind having so many MPs compared with Scotland and England. It will be quite indefensible for us in Wales to try to hold on to our over-representation when we have an Assembly with lawmaking powers. And if the devolution of more powers to Scotland and Northern Ireland than to Wales is an issue—which of course it is—then the answer is to press for the devolution of those same powers to Wales as well, not to squabble about a handful of seats that won't make any difference in a House of Commons that will always be dominated by English MPs because England has 85% of the UK population.

Variation of Constituency Size

Leaving to one side the situation in Wales, there is a considerable variation in constituency sizes in the remainder of the UK. Generally speaking, if strict equality were applied, more sparsely populated areas would end up with such geographically large constituencies that they would become unwieldy, with the communities at one end perhaps having very little in common with those at the other and therefore not seeing themselves as an entity. This would particularly be true where physical features such as estuaries, straits, rivers or mountains form natural divisions which have shaped the historical identities of the communities on each side.

The Boundaries Commission has always been aware of this, and goes to extraordinary lengths to strike the difficult balance between changing demographics and community identity. But it can only make the compromises it does because it is allowed sufficient leeway over sizes. At one stage the ConDem coalition was proposing that constituencies could vary in size by no more than 2.5%. The proposed figure is now 5%. But in my opinion this is still insufficient, and for this reason I have every sympathy with those who object to the unnatural constituency boundaries that would result from the rigid application of so small a variation.

One thing that particularly struck me recently was the attitude of Keep Cornwall Whole, where Philip Hosking said in the fourth comment of this post, that all parties in Cornwall were prepared to end up with Cornwall having one fewer MP, rather than end up with a constituency that did not respect the border defined by the River Tamar, not just as a physical boundary but more importantly as one that exists in historical and cultural terms.

It is therefore right that we should fight for an amendment to the proposed legislation that allows for the views of people in any region to be taken into account when deciding the size of constituencies. If people want to have fewer MPs than a strict mathematical exercise on a sheet of paper would produce, they surely must be given a mechanism by which that choice can be respected. But I have to say that the main impediment to achieving this is that MPs, particularly in Wales, seem fixated only on Wales losing seats and pleading some sort of special interest that applies to us but not to everyone else.

I repeat, if we in Wales can ditch the idea that Wales should continue to have more seats in the Commons than we deserve, we then open the way to a more constructive dialogue on getting more flexibility on the sizes of those constituencies within Wales. For this is not a Wales-only issue, but one that applies just as much to the more sparsely populated areas of Scotland and England too. We need to join together and fight on common ground, rather than hold ourselves up as a special case. One particular iniquity in the proposed legislation is that the ConDems have recognized Orkney and Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (the Western Isles) as special cases, but have not extended that recognition to more sparsely populated and geographically distinct areas of Wales or England. So we would be completely justified in fighting for this.

However, if we can't get this on a UK basis, we should accept a fair overall figure for the number of MPs in Wales, but then fight for the right for the Boundary Commission to have flexibility to vary constituency sizes within Wales beyond the 5% limit currently proposed. In fact this is what was recently proposed by the Welsh Affairs Select Committee:

The Boundary Commission, which will draw up the new constituencies, should be given a new remit to take into account Wales’ particular geography, which makes unifying existing seats in the South Wales valleys particularly challenging, say the MPs.

Western Mail, 25 October 2010

Voter Registration

Here I simply want to repeat a point made by many others, namely that we need to base constituency sizes on the overall number of people who live in a constituency, not those registered to vote.

The principle behind this is simple: MPs represent all those who live in a constituency, not just those who vote and certainly not just those who vote for them. An MP's workload is always determined primarily by the number of people s/he serves. In practice we know that not everyone who is eligible to vote registers to do so. Those that tend not to register are young adults and migrants, particularly those who move to towns and cities to find work and who think they are only going to be in their accommodation for a short time. This tends to mean that urban areas have lower levels of registration than suburban or rural areas.

The answer is to base constituency sizes on census information rather than electoral registration, though perhaps this should be cross referenced with other information such as registration with GPs. One of the few good points made by Alun Michael in the interview is that a 5% threshold will lead to frequent changes of boundaries; linking it to census information would mean that things are only revised on a ten-yearly cycle, which will provide a greater element of stability.

Linkage between Westminster and Senedd Constituencies

Labour in particular have made a lot of fuss about the linkage between Westminster and Senedd constituencies, and even presented this as a reason not to change the number of MPs in Wales. In my opinion they've blown this out of proportion as a pretext for keeping the over-representation Wales currently has.

There are a number of ways this can be solved. The first option is to redraw Westminster constituencies, but retain the Senedd constituencies as they are. This is what happened in Scotland. The main drawback to this is voter confusion, and for this reason I think it is a bad idea. It is also going to make it very difficult for political parties, though I'm sure that will matter rather less to most people. I'm sorry to say that I can't find the reference (any help much appreciated) but I recall a letter between Dafydd Elis Thomas and Cheryl Gillan which suggested that is what the Wales Office intended.

The second option is to have the same new constituencies for both, resulting in fewer first-past-the-post AMs but more regional members. I think this will not only be less confusing for the voters, but will also help to reduce the first-past-the-post bias to give a more proportional result for Assembly elections. If, as looks likely, we have 30 MPs, it would mean a balance of 30 constituency AMs and 30 regional AMs.

There are two reasons for being hopeful about this outcome. The first is what Jonathan Evans said in the interview:

... but if in due course it were the case that the National Assembly felt that they wanted to follow this change and have an alignment, then that's something that clearly could be looked at at that time

The second is something Nick Bourne said recently, as reported here:

When the Welsh Parliamentary constituencies are redrawn and cut to 30 that will have an immediate impact on the number of first-past-the-post members in the Assembly. They will also fall from 40 to 30. Unless nothing is done that will bring the number of Assembly members down to 50 ...

So it was revealing that at his weekly Press briefing this week Nick Bourne, the Conservative leader in the Assembly, confided that he had had a conversation with the Secretary of State for Wales, Cheryl Gillan, about this and won an assurance that the present number of AMs would not be allowed to fall.

... The obvious way would be to follow Scotland and retain the present 40 constituency boundaries for Assembly elections, thereby making separate constituencies for AMs and MPs. However, Nick Bourne said he was very much against this. It would create confusion in the minds of the electorate and be a nightmare for party workers who would have to create separate organisations in the same area to fight the various elections. No, he was committed – indeed, adamant – to have the same first-past-the-post constituencies for both Westminster and Assembly elections. It follows from this that the only way to retain the 60 members will be to have an extra ten elected on the List, two more for each of the five regional lists.

Click on Wales, 8 July 2010

Yet I fear this is another instance where raw power will sweep principle aside. The first-past-the-post system benefits Labour disproportionately, and for that reason they will fight tooth and nail to retain the 40 constituencies for Assembly elections. So Jonathan Evans is being rather naïve to suggest that an Assembly in which Labour have more seats than their share of the vote warrants will ever "feel that they want to" change the arrangement.

For me, the answer is simple. The current legislation that determines the way AMs are elected will have to be amended at Westminster. Therefore the new arrangements have to be decided and included as part of the new legislation that Westminster is going to enact. They have to specify something for now. I would much prefer that Westminster devolves responsibility for all electoral arrangements in Wales (at both Assembly and local level) to the Assembly. So does Nick Bourne, as he said in the same article:

It was interesting on this front that, at his Press conference Nick Bourne let slip that he was in favour of devolving responsibility for elections and the electoral system from the Home Office to the National Assembly.

But this is where he has to act rather more cleverly than he talks. It is pointless devolving such decision making power to an Assembly that does not have a fair voting system, and whose membership does not therefore represent Wales. Labour currently has 43.3% of the seats, but only obtained 32.1% of the constituency vote and 29.7% of the regional vote. Therefore it will only make sense to transfer the power after the Assembly has been elected on a fairer basis than it is now.

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Anonymous said...

It's only right that the number of MPs from Wales goes down to 30.

It's only right that the votes at the Assembly election should better represent the actual votes and not replicate Westminster where Labour could get a thumping majority with about 36% of the vote. For the Assembly and Welsh democracy to work and for people in different parts of Wales to feel they have a stake in the Assembly, then there has to be a fairer system of voting.

Labour will probably disagree and fight against both above points but the Coalition government have an opportunity to do be principled and right on this issue. I hope Plaid Cymru don't try and be Janus-like on this and fight to keep Welsh Westminster constituencies.

However, they must also recognise the right of Cornwall as a distinct entity to keep that distinctiveness. As a conservative party which understands the importance of tradition and sense of place then that is only right too.


Cai Larsen said...

Most Welsh MPs are a waste of space.

A reduction in their number can only be a good thing.

Unknown said...

I can't for the life of me understand why a change to the the voting system for general elections is deemed to be a matter for a referendum, but the matter of how constituencies are configured isn't! And even if here is some obscure constitutional nicety that makes this so ( which, in an unwritten constitution, is bound to appear from somewhere!), Why does the referendum on the voting system come before we know hat constituencies we will be in?

Tactically, as you point out, we don't have a significant influence in Westminster in any case (unless there is a Labour government with a very small majority!), so Plaid have little to lose on this one. Labour will be the most likely losers in Wales, and we can hope to gain from the feeling of disenfranchisement that this move is likely to foster.

Anonymous said...

excellent article.....i cant for the life of me understand why some people in plaid cymru argue for the retention of 40 seats for wales..the simple fact is that with the advent of devolution for wales there is no sustainable case for wales having 40 seats at westminster....we cannot have it both ways!!!

While clearly any moves to reduce the number of welsh MPs makes the case for a lawmaking welsh assembly....and a yes vote next march.....even stronger.

Leigh Richards

Radical Wales said...

If the Assembly follow suit on constituency size, will the top up list have to increase to 30 AMs?

Could provide an entry to smaller parties into the assembly.

Hendre said...

I've been hoping to see a good blog on this subject.

"For several decades, both Wales and Scotland were over-represented in the House of Commons.It would probably do more harm than good to go into detail about the reasons for this,..."

Now that is intriguing! You say 'several decades'. Since the mid 1970s I take it?

The suggestion to allow more than a 5% variation in Wales seems sensible.

Re Alun Michael's point about redrawing the boundaries in line with population changes, the Coalition definitely needs to be challenged on that. Otherwise we will have a situation a little like the Council tax - a tax based on property evaluations which are never re-evaluated (not in Wales obviously!)- but more injurious to democracy.

Owen said...

As long as "EnglandandWales" is one legal juristiction, I think it's perfectly justifyable that Wales is over-represented in Westminster. The thought of new criminal laws and changes to police and prison administration in Wales being pushed through by a further increased English majority, as we are seeing with Police helicopter services currently, without a strong Welsh voice (even if on a practical level it means diddly-squat) isn't palatable.

Wales could very well be hit with a democratic-deficit triple whammy:

1. A no vote to Part 4 (though that's looking increasingly unlikely)

2. A reduction in MPs which will likely happen regardless, making Wales's voice in "EnglandandWales" matters, namely Criminal Justice, Policing and Prisons, weaker than it already is. Also it'll have an additional impact on the LCO process (in the event of a no-vote).

3. The subsequent changes to constituency boundaries, with it's impact on Assembly electoral arrangements as highlighted.

Anonymous said...

Owen makes a a really good observation there....we must use the reduction in the number of welsh mps to point out to people in wales that if they don't vote yes next march exactly the scenario owen paints could well happen

Leigh Richards

MH said...

Thanks for the comments, I'll just comment on a couple.


Radical, There wouldn't be one top up list of 30AMs. At present we have 5 lists, and in order to get 30, each would now have 6 regional AMs as opposed to 4. If we wanted to, there would be no reason why we shouldn't change the regions so we had, for example, 6 of them each with 5 regional AMs.

But the result of either of these changes will be to make it a little easier for smaller parties to get elected. There are lots of variables, but it might well mean that a party could get elected with about 8% of the vote. I don't have any problem with this ... even though it might mean that both the Green Party (which I admire) and the BNP (which I detest) might get in. Democracy should be equal for all.

Of course I'd much rather replace the Additional Member system with STV, but that's a different question.


Hendre, The over-representation is older than the 70s. In its current form, it dates back to the Redistribution Acts of 1944 and 1958, though it could be argued that it goes back further to the time when Ireland was partitioned. For background reading, try this. It's interesting to note from that page that the toleration limit (which the ConDems now want to set at 5%) was then set at 25% ... but even that proved impossible to implement. It should serve to show just how arbitrary and restrictive a 5% limit would be. If only the Tories read some history!

On a similar subject, the principle that operates in the European Parliament is that smaller countries get more seats relative to their size
than larger ones. So a very small country like Malta gets 6 seats (1 seat for 69,000) a middle sized country like Portugal gets 26 seats (1 seat for 514,000) and Germany gets 96 (one seat for 851,000). I think the principle is good. But the problem in the UK is that the differential has now disappeared in Scotland and NI ... and it is only Wales in an anomalous position.

MH said...

It's not that I disagree with the other comments. Quite the contrary. Good points that speak for themselves.

glynbeddau said...

Is the reduction of MPs totally tied to the referendum on AV, if there is a no vote will it be dropped? I think not. It will be simply recreated as a new bill.
The constituencies will not change for the Assembly this did not happen in Scotland when the the number of MPs were cut and the Westminster constituencies are not all the same as those of the Scottish Parliament.
However I've just argued on Peter Blacks blog that if Wales,Scotland,Northern Ireland and England were equal members of the Union then surely a "Federal Party" like the Lib-Dems would be arguing for a grater number of MPs from the devolved regions and this would be in line with the allocation of MEPs in the European Parliament.
For if as the Unionist argue that we are equal members of the Union then we should have more influence on non-dissolved issues.

Anonymous said...

Plaid especially can't campaign against a reduction in the number of MPs - it looks like opportunism of the worst kind, suggest Plaid and Welsh nationalists want their cake and eat it and more damaging that Welsh nationalism is just based on being a poor relation with a begging bowl. Plaid need to show some dignity and strength and agree with the reduction in MPs.


Unknown said...

Wales losing MPs, so long as the constituencies are decoupled, means that the Assembly will for the first time become the principle democratic forum for Welsh politics. That is a good thing. Most people in Wales would accept a cut in Welsh MPs and in MPs generally.

Then again, I sympathise with the argument that Wales will be losing its voice. I personally can only support the MP reductions on the basis of believing in Welsh sovereignty and national liberation.

Hendre said...

Thanks for the link. Considering we've only had universal suffrage in this country since 1928 perhaps we should regard these matters as 'teething problems'!

MH said...

Glyn is right, the reduction in MPs will happen irrespective of whether we elect them by AV or continue to use FPTP. And I do accept the point that a more federal structure for the UK would demand that the smaller constituent parts of that state were (at least at some level) over-represented so as to give each part a more equal voice. The ConDem government's plans show us clearly that they aren't interested in that sort of UK. They want a more unitary state ... and that is what the equalization of constituencies is designed to achieve. So where does that leave an avowed Tory federalist like David Melding? He is left swimming against the tide of his very own party.


I was going to comment on the subject of Wales losing its political voice (as raised by Ramblings and others) but the comment turned out to be something more ... so I've turned it into a new post called AMs in Wales.

Anonymous said...

A great post and I fully agree with the conclusion. Moreover, I would add in support of the Keep Cornwall Whole Argument that I can't see how cross-border constituencies would work. Suppose my current constituency (Forest of Dean) were merged with Monmouth, to make one super-safe Conservative seat - Mark Harper or David Davies would have two classes of constituent, one for whom they handled everything political, and one for whom they only directly impacted on about 50-60% of political matters. It would be ridiculous.

Just a couple of quibbles. The problem with basing constituency size on census data is that after 2011 the census is to be discontinued. So data will be gathered by different means on a rolling basis, and ergo so would constituency size. Which brings us back to the electoral roll...

'Generally speaking, if strict equality were applied, more sparsely populated areas would end up with such geographically large constituencies that they would become unwieldy, with the communities at one end perhaps having very little in common with those at the other and therefore not seeing themselves as an entity.'

Do constituencies really represent homogenous communities now? To take my own example, when I lived in Aberystwyth I was in the Ceredigion constituency. The next largest towns were Lampeter and Cardigan. I visited Cardigan just once in the 7 years I lived there, Lampeter only a half a dozen times. I appreciate in the more densely-inhabited areas of S. Wales it is a bit different! So I feel that's a bit of a red herring.

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