Parliamentary Constituencies Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:34 pm on 27th July 2020.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 7:34 pm, 27th July 2020

My Lords, I reiterate what we from these Benches have said about this Bill: we welcome a number of its proposals; we have reservations about specific aspects, on which we will put down amendments; but we disagree fundamentally with its assumptions about the nature of fairness, equal votes and democracy, about which the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, made a powerful speech.

I remind the House of the historical justification for the United Kingdom’s single-member first past the post electoral system—a system now retained by only a small remnant of democratic countries, most notably the United States. It was that each Member of Parliament represented a recognisable community—a borough or part of a shire: a coherent community with its own sense of history and continuity, as Edmund Burke wanted.

The Conservative proposal to squeeze variation in constituency sizes down to 5% was based on the belief that differences in size between constituencies systematically favoured the Labour Party. Arguably it may have done, 20 years ago. But, as my noble friend Lord Tyler demonstrated, there is no evidence that it does so today. The Conservative Party does not need to distort constituency boundaries like this to protect its partisan interests, weakening further the link between historic communities and parliamentary seats. Lose the link with communities and you destroy the rationale for first past the post.

The Government recognised that the sense of community with regard to boundaries matters enough to make exceptions for the Isle of Wight and now Anglesey—but why not Cornwall? Why not Devon and Somerset? Common sense would suggest that we should, and the Minister will recall that the Prime Minister loves appealing to common sense, against expert advice or against prejudice. Common sense would also suggest that, if the Government were really concerned with fairness and equal votes, they would propose a different voting system.

The Government’s justification for maintaining 650 MPs—the loss of MEPs increasing their workload—is very weak. The workload of English MPs has increased in large part because the importance of local government and of local councillors has decreased. If we wish to restore public trust in democracy, we should start by rebuilding local democracy and devolving more powers from Westminster. The strongest argument against reducing the number of MPs was that it would increase the Government’s influence over the Commons, as several speakers have said, but perhaps the expanding role of special advisers that the Government are now pushing through means that we now need fewer junior Ministers in any event.

Unless the Government retreat from their manifesto pledge on extending voting rights to long-term overseas citizens—as they have just retreated on the promise of a constitutional commission, as the Telegraph reports—we may expect another million or more names to be added to the register soon after the new boundaries have been drawn up. If they are distributed evenly across the UK, it would add some 1,500 voters or more per seat—but of course the overseas voters are much more likely to be concentrated in urban seats, perhaps up to 5,000 or 6,000 more in our major cities. That is a strong further argument for relaxing the 5% limit that the Government want to introduce, which we will want to discuss further in Committee.

The Bill is about the rules of democratic engagement in the UK. As with all discussions on constitutional rules, Governments should be careful to carry cross-party opinion with them and avoid too narrow and obvious a concern with partisan advantage. Ministers should always ask themselves: would I be happy if a Government of a different persuasion wanted to use executive powers in the way that we are doing? We will discuss that, for example, on the question of parliamentary approval for Boundary Commission proposals.

The Government’s withdrawal of their promise of a commission on the constitution in favour of “expert panels” to look at curbing the powers of the judiciary, the functioning of prerogative powers and the relationship between government and Parliament raises wider issues about our constitutional democracy. I assume the experts for these panels will be chosen by Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings—not a basis for broader public consent and certainly not the manifesto’s promise of a

“look at the broader aspects of our constitution”.

After all, many speeches in this debate have argued that we now need to look at our constitutional arrangements as they interact, including with the devolved nations, not tackle different aspects of our constitution piecemeal as this Bill does.

I recommend to the Minister for his holiday reading the excellent new book by Anne Applebaum, Twilight of Democracy. She traces the way in which friends she and her husband used to regard as democratic conservatives in Britain, the United States, Poland and elsewhere have slid towards an acceptance of authoritarian populism, claiming that their party is “the real people’s party”—as the noble Lord, Lord True, said recently—and that it alone stands for the people, while dividing their countries and undermining their institutions and the rule of law.

There are those within the current Government who are clearly tempted by this betrayal of the Conservative constitutional tradition. I hope that in the consideration of this Bill and in wider discussions of judicial, parliamentary and executive reform, the Minister and his colleagues will stay true to the Burkean tradition and carefully resist efforts to weaken the conventions and rules that underpin our constitutional democracy.