After years of delay and indecision, the government has finally abandoned its plans to reduce the number of MPs to 600. A review of parliamentary boundaries is long overdue, with current seats drawn up on data from two decades ago. Labour is keen to support a review to best reflect our country as it is now – but it must be done fairly and not just to advantage the Conservative Party.
Covid-19 has underscored the importance of strong scrutiny over the executive during a time of crisis, yet the Tories have not missed this opportunity to sneak through a few government power-grabs. They are attempting to once again rig democracy in their favour by removing parliament’s ability to have a final vote on boundary proposals. Instead, the approval of the boundary review will be in the hands of the government.
This is the same government that unlawfully prorogued parliament. We cannot assume that they won’t use the lack of parliamentary oversight to push through changes that give the Conservatives unfair advantages. The last review based on 600 seats was stalled because it did not command a majority in parliament. MPs from all sides agreed that the change was dangerous and irresponsible. Under the proposed new bill, the 600-seat review would have passed the Privy Council and become law with ease. This loophole allows for a power-grab, with no parliamentary backstop to limit the dominance of the executive.
We also have concerns about the electoral register chosen as the basis for the boundary review. The Tories have decided upon using the 1st December 2020 electoral register, which will be heavily affected by the Covid-19 crisis. As local councils continue to be financially stretched to deliver their vital services during this difficult time, their priority will not be updating the electoral register.
And elections act as a major driver of registration – but there are no elections scheduled for 2020, with all local elections postponed to May 2021. Without elections to prepare for, the priority focus of any council will not be carrying out the annual canvass to update the register. Councils have so much more to worry about as they provide frontline support for vulnerable and shielding people in our communities. This all adds up to a patchy and unrepresentative electoral register. But the Tories know this. And they know that when lots of people are registered to vote, they are less likely to do well in election.
The result will be constituencies that do not take account of huge swathes of unregistered voters. For constituencies with big student populations, students may not have returned to their universities by December 2020, meaning thousands of students from across the country will not be registered to vote. Labour supports using the most accurate and up-to-date election data collected at the 2019 general election.
We also support increasing the flexibility when it comes to the size of constituencies. Currently, all constituencies have to be within 5% above or below of the national average electorate size. In previous reviews, this quota would have created seats that are hugely oversized or include multi-authority constituencies that do not take account of local ties and communities. Labour has long opposed the restrictive 5% quota. A wider variance will allow for greater flexibility and consideration of local ties and identities.
The process thus far has been beset with dither and delay, with millions of pounds of tax-payers’ money wasted on shelved reviews. Given the current boundaries are 20 years old, the government must not waste this opportunity by choosing an incomplete and potentially unrepresentative register compiled during a global pandemic. And the government cannot use this bill to strengthen its own power at the expense of parliamentary scrutiny. It is an insult to the House of Commons and sets a dangerous precedent for future legislation.