No doubt over the coming days and weeks more analyses will appear declaring the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ of the Westminster boundary review. And no doubt, this will centre on party politics – which parties stand to gain seats under the proposed new divisions, and which parties’ seats become unstable, or simply un-winnable. Indications (of course) confirm suspicions that Labour will lose out and the Tories will gain – despite the fact that it is meant to be an independent review.
But the real ‘losers’ under the proposed changes are us: the electorate.
We are being sold the changes under the guise of cutting costs – it’s simply too expensive to have the current number of representatives. It is being justified under ‘equal representation’ – improving democracy by balancing an unbalanced system where constituencies have different numbers of people in them. To lend legitimacy to this, the boundaries are decided upon by keeping the number of people registered to vote in each of the new constituencies very consistent – to a tolerance of 5%. This has been put front and centre of the new constituencies, above and beyond all other considerations.
Let us put aside for a moment the fact that it is our Government in Westminster that is bankrupting us, not the number of elected representatives – our Government that refuses to tax those best off in our society for the benefit of us all. Even then, are the proposed changes really value for money? And what does ‘equal representation’ actually mean?
In Wales, 44% of our country will be represented by 3 MPs under the proposed changes. The constituency that is currently the largest in England and Wales is set to be enlarged, meaning the travel time from one end to the other would be roughly two hours by car; four by public transport. Costs saved by cutting the number of MPs could easily be spent in getting them around their new constituencies to be able to do their jobs properly. Will MPs expenses be increased in line with the new demands on their posts (and by expenses I mean the ones that actually facilitate their work, rather than those that pay for duck houses)? No word on this yet. And whilst allowances for travel and admin can be increased, travelling vast distances also takes time – something no government has control over and has very real limits: there are only so many hours in the day.
It will, particularly for those in rural areas – of which there are a larger proportion in Wales than in England – mean less available MPs, less contact time, less connection with our representatives. It will make a connection, that I would argue is already far too limited, far poorer. Rural areas, despite having unique issues and requiring vastly different approaches, will also have fewer voices in the House of Commons – fewer people in a system where majority-rule rules naturally lead to less legislation benefiting those communities. There is a danger of urban areas dominating political discourse.
In Wales as a whole, the number of representatives will be cut by more than a quarter – from 40 seats to 29. That’s a little over 25% fewer people to argue on our behalf. Regardless of the population of Wales, we have a distinct culture, language, governing body and demographic – none of which are taken into account when we dole out seats based on numbers. Wales’ voice will be heard less under these changes, and particularly in contrast to other devolved nations, despite the fact that more of our powers remain in Westminster.
And what about our sense of community, culture, sense of place? Under the proposed changes, rivers, mountains and transport routes cut across constituencies: very real features that impact our sense of community identity. For example, Llanidloes – a central Wales market town currently in Montgomeryshire – is lumped into the proposed new Ceredigion and North Pembrokeshire constituency, largely a coastal area. These places have little historical tie or shared sense of identity. The only justification I can think of doing this is to bump up the numbers to fit the rules. How does one MP adequately represent such a diverse range of interests? With the majority of the population of the proposed constituency living along the coast, won’t the needs and interests of inland settlements like Llanidloes be drowned out? How will we ensure these constituents are properly represented?
And while we’re on representation, the same UK Government that set in motion the boundary review also enacted a law that disenfranchised large swathes of the UK population – over 800,000 people dropped off the electoral register last year due to changes in the registration process. Most of these people were young – a group already marginalised and under-represented in politics. Socially deprived areas (of which again, there are more in Wales) also tend to have fewer people registered to vote – these do not count under the boundary review, not even as ‘potential’ constituents. The new constituencies only take into account those currently registered to vote – not those who have the potential to vote, which suggests to me that the Westminster Government has no intention of encouraging engagement with the political system through increasing registration to vote.
Add to this the fact that in Wales, engagement with our political systems will become more complex: the National Assembly for Wales cannot change its representation to be in line with the proposed Westminster boundaries. It would be ridiculous to expect our governing body to work with even fewer members, particularly as more and more powers are devolved. So, having already added Police and Crime Commissioners to the list of representatives that don’t sit neatly in an established system, now we will be faced with town and parish councillors, county councillors, constituency-shape-A Assembly Members, regional Assembly Members, and constituency-shape-B MPs that represent us based on different, overlapping areas of the map. Rather than a set of concentric circles around where we live representing different tiers of government from local to UK-wide, it’ll look more like a Venn diagram, with us all trying to remember all the different circles in which we are represented by different elected members. Confusing to say the least, and more dangerously – very likely to decrease peoples’ engagement with the multitude of systems that represent them.
The Government in Westminster wants to ensure that constituencies are equal in terms of size so that we have equal representation, but we are more than just numbers, and changes ignore the need for equality in representation with regards to differing backgrounds, sex, ethnicity, and culture.
In short: ‘equal representation’ is not the same as ‘fair representation’. Those in our society that are already marginalised and under-represented in politics will simply be more so. These changes do not make our system more democratic: they make it less so.
To me, the aim of our Westminster Government is clear and consistent: to reduce democratic accountability and disenfranchise more and more of the electorate for their own political gain – by knocking them off the electoral register; disregarding anyone not currently registered when remodelling the boundaries of representation; disadvantaging rural communities in terms of contact time with their representatives; increasing the likelihood of ignoring minority communities in constituencies with no coherent identity; decreasing the number of people able to lobby and speak on behalf of Wales compared to other devolved nations, despite more of our decisions still being made in Westminster; increasing disengagement with the political system in the devolved nations by increasing the complexity of our representation; disregarding representation in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, background and culture in favour of a numbers game; and finally, by simply decreasing the ability of our MPs to hold the UK Government to account because there will be fewer of them to do the job.
All in the name of cutting costs (unproven, unnecessary), and making our democracy better (untrue).
Oh, and regardless of the changes to the boundaries, we’ll still have a first-past-the-post system in Westminster that allowed this UK Government to be elected – and to make all these changes – with the backing of less than a quarter of our population.
If the Government in Westminster truly wanted everyone in the UK to have an equal representation, they would back a change to proportional representation.