Constituency boundary changes are dead.* Unlike the House of Lords.*

by Stephen Tall on January 14, 2013

House of Lords. Photo: Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of ParliamentThe House of Lords has today voted to block a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 as part of the review of constituencies that might have seen the Conservatives gain up to 20 seats. The BBC reports:

The House of Lords voted by 300 to 231 to delay until 2018 a boundary review necessary to make the change. … Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg announced that his party would withdraw his support for the boundary review, after the coalition abandoned reform of the House of Lords.

Over at the Lib Dem Lords blog, Lord (Chris) Rennard has put forward his reasons for voting for the amendment, including the number of peers worried “that the electoral register on which the current boundary review is taking place is not really fit for that purpose and that the current review of boundaries should be postponed.”

He goes on to link the Tory U-turn over Lords reform with the Lib Dems’ reasons for turning on the Tories’ hoped-for boundary changes:

The Liberal Democrats have always considered the need to reduce the number of MPs in the context of issues such as greater devolution and decentralisation and the reform the House of Lords. We all want to see an effective second chamber able to hold a Government of any party to account. The failure to achieve any measure of reform here means that the hoped for increased ability to hold the executive to account will not happen – and it may even decline as the Prime Minister prepares to make many more nominations to this House.

With the so-called payroll vote approaching half the membership of the Government side of the House of Commons, the power of Government to control Parliament is effectively increased – when the opposite should be the case. This is therefore not the right time to reduce the ability of the House of Commons to hold the executive to account.

There are no signs that the size of the payroll vote will be reduced and coalition government probably makes it less likely. Many in my party take the view that the reduction in the number of MPs proposed in the current boundary review should not take place without reform that would strengthen the legitimacy of this House.

It’s an argument not without validity. But let’s also all be honest enough, at least within the privacy of this blog, to accept that the Lib Dems’ own self-interest was the over-riding reason for this vote.

Wholesale boundary review threatened one of the major factors which may see Lib Dem MPs successfully defend their seats at the next election: incumbency based on existing constituency boundaries. While Lords reform was a reality that was a trade-off the party was — with real reluctance — prepared to concede. No longer.

As a result, constituency sizes (and therefore individual votes) will become increasingly unequal. That’s bad for democracy. But so too is the perpetuation of an unreformed House of Lords against the promise of all three parties at the last election, and the two governing parties in our Coalition Agreement. I don’t think either the Lib Dems or Tories comes out of this particularly well, and even if they did start it that’s rarely a pretty or successful argument with the public.

* for now.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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