Yet serious plots are afoot. This government – by diktat and the use of its majority (which it has in both houses, despite having failed to win the general election) – has unilaterally decided to reduce the size of the Commons, something we would decry around the world if tried there, but somehow passing unnoticed by our press (While cutting 50 seats from the Commons, of course, they’ve added 50 to the Lords). The figure of 50 is odd; the Tory manifesto wanted a cut of 65, the Lib Dems sought 150. A compromise of 50 makes no sense – until you realise that is the figure that damages Labour most. Ten of those seats will be lost in Wales, a quarter of their parliamentary representation, a complete negation of the long-standing recognition that this nation, with its own language, challenging geography and special history, requires a particular representation.
Worse follows. The government has decided on arithmetically equal constituencies (allowing only plus or minus five per cent of the fixed figure), riding roughshod over county or borough boundaries, history, geography (rivers, islands, mountains will make no difference), even wards or sea, let alone the under-registration of certain groups. Save for two Scottish seats (neither of them Labour) and now, thanks to the Conservative Lord Fowler’s amendment, the Isle of Wight (again not a Labour seat), every other of the 597 seats must be numerically defined.
There will be a colossal redrawing of boundaries for this first adaption to 600 seats (and done without public enquiries as the bill also abolishes those), but then, in a form of permanent revolution, these will subsequently alter every parliament to ensure the mathematical equality is not lost. Rare will it be for an MP to represent the same seat for more than one parliament and, on the first occasion, virtually every MP will have to challenge neighbouring MPs for the newly drawn seats.
There is one other issue in the bill which particularly offends Scottish and Welsh members, which is that the referendum on AV (with, incidentally, no other choices offered, such as PR or STV) will take place on the same day as Welsh assembly and Scottish parliament elections.
Is it a wonder that the Lords has refused to allow this 300-page bill to slip through our house without a single amendment (other than Lord Fowler’s)? The government has a healthy working majority, and wanted to ram it through as it had in the Commons. The only weapon the Lords has is time. Which is why Labour said to the government: of course you can have the bill, but only if you make some changes. Frankly, what is the point of any second chamber (elected, appointed or even hereditary) if it is simply to rubberstamp what the government has put through the Commons, with no ability to improve?
And so we did our duty, by scrutinising the bill and seeking to improve it. While the government benches had bridge parties, talks and entertainment over night, we debated. Sometimes for 24 hours. Once I left at 2.30 am, and finding Westminster devoid of taxis, took the 24 night bus home, musing how my new job had not turned out quite as I’d expected!
Negotiations do continue with the government, which should lead to some oral hearings for boundary reviews, though little else is forthcoming. But at least that’s some reward for our collective loss of beauty sleep.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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