Fewer MPs for Wales

Although both Green Dragon and National Left have already commented on the planned reduction in the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 29, I think some more things are worth saying in response to what Plaid Cymru and Labour politicians said yesterday.

The reduction in seats is completely justified, and it is disingenuous to suggest that Wales is in some way being singled out by the Tories.

A little historical perspective might help. Before devolution to Scotland and Wales, both Scotland and Wales were allocated additional MPs in the Commons (relative to size of population) to reflect two factors: first, that we are nations; and second, that we did not have any degree of self rule. The Six Counties of Ireland did not receive this additional allocation precisely because it had a degree of devolved self rule through Stormont. After devolution in 1999, the number of Scottish MPs was reduced from 72 to 59 to reflect the fact that Scotland now had a lawmaking parliament and brought Scottish representation into line with that of the Six Counties and England, leaving Wales as the only over-represented nation at Westminster. Our representation was not reduced because our National Assembly did not have primary lawmaking powers. That particular defect was remedied after the referendum of 2011, and since then we have always been in line for a similar reduction. On its own, this would bring us down from 40 to about 32 MPs.

Then, in addition to this, the Tories and LibDems passed an Act in 2013 to reduce the overall number of MPs in the Commons from 650 to 600, but delayed the boundary changes until after the 2015 election. This accounts for the additional cut of 3 MPs to 29 MPs. We need to be careful not to conflate these two factors.


There are criticisms that can be made of the new arrangements. The main one of these is the change to individual voter registration, which has resulted in a large numbers (maybe 800,000) falling off the electoral roll. This particularly hits younger, more mobile people in urban areas, and therefore has the effect of favouring areas with older, more settled and rural populations. Put more bluntly, it favours the right at the expense of left. In my opinion, the size of a constituency should not be based on the number of voters on the electoral roll, but on population. After all, an MP represents all the people who live in their constituency, including children and immigrants, not just those who are registered to vote.


I am particularly disappointed at Jonathan Edward's statement:

"The proposal by the Boundary Commission to reduce the number of MPs representing Welsh constituencies in the House of Commons from 40 down to 29 is a sad day for democracy.

"This is the latest stage in the Conservative Westminster Government's decision to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Wales will have a cut of 11 MPs. Despite having only 5% of the UK population, we are being made to bear the brunt of over 20% of that total overall UK cut."

Wales Online, 24 February 2016

As an MP, he really should know better than to sprout such twaddle. He is trying to make an opportunistic anti-Tory point, not realizing that you should never play party politics with democracy itself. Wales is not entitled to any special treatment by having more than its fair share of MPs compared with everywhere else in the UK. It is a historic anomaly that should now come to an end. Beside that, it is politically self-defeating. By making such blatantly partisan statements now, how can he expect to be taken seriously if he ever chooses to make justified statements about reforming the electoral system in future? He has let himself and his party down.

What Nia Griffith said is slightly less disappointing:

"This substantial cut in the number of Welsh MPs will lessen Wales' voice in Westminster at exactly the same time that Government policies are hitting the communities we represent. Any reduction in the number of Welsh MPs will have an adverse effect on the range of support and advice services that MPs' offices provide to constituents.

"If the Conservatives were serious about cutting the cost of politics they would cut the number of unelected peers in the House of Lords, which has ballooned in size with 236 new peers appointed since David Cameron became Prime Minister."

Wales Online, 24 February 2016

It is less disappointing because it is certainly true that a reduction in the number of Welsh MPs will "lessen Wales' voice". However she skirts round the question of why Wales should have the disproportionately loud voice it has in the Commons at present. Her point about the Lords is well made, though. Changes do need to be made there as well, but inaction over Lords reform is no reason for inaction over Commons reform.

I'm not so sure about the reduction having an adverse affect on the range of support and advice services. That is more a question of how we fund the support staff that every MP relies on. Any reduction in the number of MPs could be relatively easily offset by better support funding.

On that point, it is probably worth noting that MPs in Wales have considerably less work to do than those in England, due to the number of areas that are devolved to Wales. If someone in Wales has a problem with health or education, for example, it would be pointless to bring it up with their MP. That's what our AMs are for.


In short, both Plaid and Labour are wrong to whine about this reduction in the number of Welsh MPs. It would be more politically astute of both parties to positively welcome the ending of this anomaly, but at the same time point out that the savings to be made by a reduction in MPs should be used to fund the increase in AMs that Wales needs.

Again it is worth remembering that the original devolution settlement for a Welsh Assembly without lawmaking powers meant that Wales needed fewer AMs relative to population size than Scotland. It explains why Scotland got a Parliament of 129 members for 5.3m people (~41,000 per seat) but our National Assembly was only given 60 members for 3.1m people (~51,500 per seat). However because our National Assembly now has primary lawmaking powers, it should, just on a simple pro-rata basis, have about 76 AMs rather than 60.

In conclusion, the reduction in Welsh MPs is completely justified, but so is an increase in the number of AMs. The two go hand in hand.

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Anonymous said...

"... Scotland and Wales were allocated additional MPs in the Commons (relative to size of population) to reflect two factors: first, that we are nations; and second, that we did not have a any degree of self rule.'

Only a Welshman could confuse the status of Scotland and England on the one hand and Wales on the other.

I suggest you re-write this paragraph to reflect the actualité.

Democritus said...

IF ... we are going to maintain any tie between Commons and Assembly constituencies after the BC recommendations come in, then I suggest scrapping the constituency/list hybrid and electing 3 AMs from each of the 29 constituencies by STV. This would give us 87 AMs and most of the time would probably be more proportional than the current system and provide the extra AMs urgently needed for proper backbench scrutiny work - particularly on the govt side!

MH said...

I like the idea of retaining a link between Assembly and Westminster constituencies, Democritus. It is very messy to have different constituency boundaries for different elections, as Scotland does ... particularly for parties and the way they organize themselves.

Also agree with you about STV. I think it is by far the best electoral system, because it combines proportionality with local accountability to constituencies. But I do think that only 3 seats per constituency is too small for a country where 5 or 6 parties are in with a shout. So I would prefer pairing-up the constituencies and electing 6 AMs per double constituency, making 90. The Six Counties have 18 6-member constituencies for their Assembly elections, and I think that is just about as fair as things can get.

If there are 29 seats, that does leave an odd one; but in fact there is no reason why there have to be exactly 29. The rule (according to the WOL article) is that each Westminster constituency has to have between 71,031 and 78,507 electors. Wales has 2,181,800 registered electors, which would allow anywhere between 28 and 30 seats. 29 is just the mid-point. Certainly no-one in Wales would complain if we had 30, and it would be a nice round number. It would allow for 15 6-member STV constituencies in an Assembly of 90, which I think would be perfect.

However if we wanted to stick with the current additional member system it would also allow for either 5 or 6 equal regions (our 5 regions aren't equal at present) each electing as many members as are required to get up to the total we want. The only problem with this is that if you get regions of, say, 15 AMs in total (5 constituency and 10 list) it might allow some very marginal parties to get in. Plenty of other countries set a threshold of, say, 4 or 5% for this reason.

Anonymous said...

What do MPs do that was not better done in the Senedd? Sack the lot of them.

Democritus said...

Thanks MH. Agree that different geographical constituencies for different elective institutions is confusing for voters (esp where the names of the constituencies themselves bear little relation to what people think of by the name or share a name (but not identical boundaries) with a local authority. It is also a bit of a pain for parties in terms of their local organisation and compliance functions such as income reporting.

But if we break the link with Westminster boundaries for Sennedd elections altogether then we go back to Electoral Reform Society type fantasy debates over the implied merits vis a vis perceived drawbacks of an infinite number of electoral systems.

Having considered the BC mandate and Lewis Baston's number crunching I think it's highly unlikely they will come up with anything other than a plan for 29. Even so that doesn't rule out clustering westminster constituencies, particularly in larger urban conurbations, to form 6 (Swansea) or 9 (Cardiff) member STV constituencies. My hesitation over going that much further would be over the size of the resulting clusters, particularly if the transport links are poor. I also see no practical alternative to having a monster Powys westminster constituency covering almost all of mid Wales and I don't think such a beast could be easily clustered with anywhere else (Dyfed/Powys perhaps), without losing any sense of local identity whatsoever.

Like MH i'm watching the Irish counts with some interest today. It's a curious business this importance of party machines in being ruthless about the number of candidates they choose to field in the interests of maximising their electoral efficiency which I suspect it would take a few cycles for the Welsh parties to get used to. Also the counting does become mind boggling especially as many voters run out of preferences. But what's very clear is that the system is good for electing independents and certainly does not break the constituency link.

MH said...

We largely agree, Democritus. I definitely think that urban areas need larger STV constituencies more than rural ones.

It would be helpful if you could give a link to Lewis Baston's number crunching and, just to be sure, does BC mean Boundary Commission?

Democritus said...

Lewis did a fringe meeting in Llandudno last weekend. I think this Times link is free http://www.thetimes.co.uk/redbox/topic/tory-policies/which-seats-go-up-in-smoke-in-the-bonfire-of-the-boundaries
Can't find a specific link to his Welsh calculation.
Yes BC is a shorthand for her britannic majesty's boundary commissioners for wales ...

Democritus said...

I guess the default, kick the can down the road, option would be to just stick with the current constituencies and regions for 2021.

Practically, with a 30 per cent increase in AMs and the same broadly proportional overall result I can see AMs across all parties being willing to consider a change without worrying that they are turkeys voting for xmas. This is a very important practical consideration because if any party but most particularly Labour or the Tories feel clearly disadvantaged by any proposal then it is dead in the water. It is clearly preferable that the Assembly determine the detail of its electoral administration (and I'm given to understand the draft Wales Bill makes some provision in this direction), but fundamental changes should really be subject to some sort of supermajority or referenda hurdle.

MH said...

That's a good point. If those in safe seats were in danger of losing out under any change to the electoral system, the change would be fiercely resisted. An increase in members should ensure that this isn't a factor, but it does mean that the increase and the change probably need to come in together.

Another place for STV would be in local elections. This change happened in Scotland under a Labour/LibDem administration (2004 for the 2007 elections). Again, the upcoming local authority reorganization in Wales might be a perfect opportunity to make the switch.

On the subject of Scotland, the fact that Scottish Labour only won one FPTP seat last May, and are likely to win much the same number this May, might well be enough to persuade the wider Labour party of the benefits of changing to STV.

Democritus said...

Best not to discount the attachment to FPTP in both the traditional party bases mind.

A lesson of the AV referenda vote to me was just how many ordinary people who understood the question and arguments perfectly well reckoned in practice that "most votes wins" was an entirely reasonable basis for electing MPs and saw transferable voting as explicitly designed to favour the Lib Dems.

Worth recalling that the current Assembly electoral system was agreed in a trilateral by Ron Davies, Dafydd Wigley and Richard Livsey and presented as a fait accompli to the rest of their parties. If memory serves a still even younger Lee Walters would have been carrying Ron's bags and fetching the coffee ...

Since you raise local govt reform ... I wouldn't on principle want to tie the two things together formally, but if it's on the cards at all in the next 5 years there will have to be major boundary changes in local govt even under FPTP and politically I can't see PC or the LDs not demanding something on the electoral systems front - although ironically the biggest beneficiary might prove to be UKIP!

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