Parliamentary Constituencies Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:31 pm on 2 June 2020.

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Photo of Wendy Chamberlain Wendy Chamberlain Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Wales), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 7:31, 2 June 2020

The Government’s general election manifesto made the following commitment:

“making sure that every vote counts the same – a cornerstone of democracy.”

The Government are right. Our votes do not count the same. In December, it took 33 times as many votes to elect a Green MP as to elect an SNP MP—33 to one. That is a staggering inequality right at the heart of our electoral system, so I am very much in favour of making each vote carry the same weight. It seems that Members across the House agree that democratic equality is a matter of importance. To combat that properly, the only response is electoral reform, but I will leave that debate until my time with the Minister next week.

What the Government really mean by making every vote count the same is tightening the boundaries so that each constituency has the same number of potential voters. In principle, that sounds like it makes sense, but the Government’s plans do not achieve that. They propose to base the boundaries on the number of people on the electoral roll. That is not the same as the number of potential electors. Indeed, the Electoral Commission estimates that up to 9 million potential electors are not currently on the electoral roll. As we know, that marginalises groups for whom there are structural difficulties in getting on to the electoral roll. I am hopeful that the Government will consider using the December 2019 electoral roll. We should take advantage of the fact that the upcoming electoral event encouraged people to register and be enfranchised. We should promote that engagement with our process. An obvious solution to all this is automatic voter registration. I do not see why the Government refuse to pursue it. Perhaps they are following their instincts.

The single most important argument for first past the post—I think this is why many Members fail to look at electoral reform in the way that I do—is that Members represent identifiable local communities. I think that Members would agree that if we cannot achieve a sense of local representation, the idea of a one-Member constituency is undermined.

As someone who advocates a proportional voting system, were I to design a flaw in first past the post, it would be this: creating rules so stringent that MPs represent random chunks of the country and so delicately responsive that a tiny change in one part of the country will lead to a ripple effect spreading from constituency to constituency, with completely new boundaries every eight years. I agree that basing the building blocks of seats on wards leads to shotgun constituencies. My own constituency boundary splits the high street in Leven in North East Fife, but at least it is all under Fife Council. During the covid pandemic, I have hugely valued engagement with NHS Fife and Fife Council, as have my constituents.

One of the Government’s manifesto promises is to abolish the 15-year rule on the eligibility of overseas electors, and presumably legislation will be brought forward over the coming Session. They will be able to vote in the next general election, but whether the date of the electoral register used for the boundary review is this year or last, they will not be on it. My colleague, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, has tabled written questions asking the Government to estimate the number of overseas electors, and there is no estimate. We are walking blind into this. We are putting restrictive percentages in place now and then adding in an unknown number of voters at a later point, completely undermining what the Government are trying to achieve. As I touched upon earlier, the incredibly sensitive flexibility conditions will create further upheaval.

I return to where I started: the “Protect our democracy” section of the Conservative manifesto. There are a number of commitments in that section. The Bill represents the first brick in the wall, but clearly, as the issue with overseas voters illustrates, there are foreseeable problems in terms of what comes after. This may be the first brick, but the wall will end up being unstable.