“A Thurrock constituency would be easier” says Baroness
Date posted: 16-07-2012
BARONESS SMITH of Basildon rose on the floor of the House of Lords to discuss the merits of the proposed constituency boundary changes.
“My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Foulkes, and I will make sure that I do not get his name wrong or mix him up with the noble Lord, Lord Faulks.
“This has been a really interesting debate, and I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours. He has done the House a service by his contribution and by bringing this issue before it. Particularly given recent constitutional debates in the other place, and in the political media-although not, I suspect, in the pubs, the clubs and the school gates around the country-the Government’s legislation on constituency borders and electoral registration leads us into a wider debate about what we mean by democracy and political representation. What are the implications of those changes that have been, and are being, legislated for? There seems to be a lack of clarity about whether we will see all those changes, but it is right that we look fully at the implications.
It has been quite clear in the first debates in your Lordships’ House and the other place, that whatever the textbook definition of democracy, there are many different interpretations. I do not think we can see democracy as something we can pick and choose, or pick and mix, which was the phrase the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, used. We cannot choose the parts we like best. There are certain core elements that we have to sign up to. The first and most basic is accountability. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and others pointed out that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 was unprecedented legislation with regard to the changes of MPs and boundaries, which may or may not take place. At its core was the Government’s promise to reduce the size and cost of Parliament, and allow for a referendum on the voting system, to get rid of our current first past the post system and replace it with a system which would count the proportion of votes for each party. To the horror and surprise of some, and the delight of others, the public rejected the change in the voting system. I am sure that the reasons why could fill a debate in your Lordships’ House on their own, but I offer one thought: most significant constitutional change comes from the grass roots up. If we think of women’s suffrage and universal suffrage, we think of the campaigns that took place, the marches, and the demonstrations. Politicians of those times wrote and spoke about the lobbying that took place on those issues.
In knocking on doors during my 21 years as an elected representative-13 in Westminster and eight on a county council-I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of times the issue of PR or an alternative voting system was mentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, hit the nail on the head as to why that is. The first past the post system is understood, it is straightforward, and it clearly gives a relationship of accountability between the elected representative and the elector. That can also apply to another debate that is taking place at the moment.
There is a real danger that the electorate feel enormous frustration and disengagement at the drive for such constitutional change coming from above, from the Westminster elite, rather than by public demand. Part of accountability is understanding and knowing those issues and the concerns that most affect our constituencies. I do not want to imply that there was some kind of golden age, when boundary changes were always easy, when no one was ever upset by them, and there were never any difficulties caused, because we know that that is not the case. However, the Government’s legislation creates a very different situation, and very substantial changes of a kind we have not seen before.
The most substantive point about the Bill and accountability is that for the first time ever Parliament decided how many constituencies there should be, what the approximate size should be, and imposed on the Boundary Commission-again, for the very first time-strict rules on the variation in size of seat: just 5%. All the other factors that were taken into account before-geography, history, natural boundaries and communities, and that sense of place that we have heard so much about today, of local wards and parishes-came second to playing the numbers game.
My noble friend Lord Wills spoke of the high constitutional principle that was at stake, as mentioned by the Deputy Prime Minister, in the necessity of boundary changes. However, we now know that those boundary changes are subject, not to high constitutional principle, but whether the Liberal Democrats get their Bill through to change or abolish the House of Lords and create a new body.
I recall the debate during the Second Reading and passage of the Bill. I am not wedded to a particular number or size of constituency. However, we have to have a justification for change. I recall asking the Minister, as did other noble Lords, what their reason was for the choice of 600 constituencies. What was the significance of the number? I was told, as were other noble Lords, that it was a nice round figure. That is not good enough for such a significant constitutional change.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, quoted the Chartists and the size of constituencies being similar. In the same way that he spoke about pick and mix earlier, perhaps we should not pick and mix when we talk about the Chartists. I notice that although the proposals for the elected House of Lords were for 15-year terms, and fixed terms of five years for the House of Commons, the Chartists argued for annual elections. There is greater credibility for annual elections than 15-year elections.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, was the first today to talk about the relationship between MPs and constituencies. That is well rehearsed, and it is genuine, as my noble friend Lady Corston says. I represented a seat from 1997-2010; Members of Parliament identify very strongly with their constituencies and feel a great affinity with them.
We have also heard a considerable amount about the impact these changes have on the work of a Member of Parliament, and how towns feel about changes. I would like to say something about the impact on voters and constituents when constituencies change. My home town in Basildon is known as Pitsea. I represented Pitsea on the county council, although in 1997 when I was elected to Parliament it was taken out of the constituency of Basildon which I represented, and into another constituency, Billericay.
Until 1997 Pitsea was in Basildon. It was in the Basildon council area, the main shopping area was there, and Basildon was the focus for services. There was a distinct community of which it felt part, and it knew who its MP was. From 1997-2010 it went into Billericay. It did not feel as if there was much of a common link with Billericay, and there were difficulties, but it was part of the district of Basildon, and there was some logic to it. However, Basildon took in the East Thurrock area. The constituency name remained Basildon, which was totally unfair on the people of East Thurrock, who had no named identity and no connection for their constituency.
In 2010, Pitsea was back in Basildon. In 2015, Pitsea, under the proposed boundary changes, will go to Rayleigh. It has no common links with Rayleigh, no shared services, and no common councils, and it is really hard to understand what links these areas, other than the numbers game. In 2020 who knows what will happen, because under the new legislation the boundaries will be reviewed for every general election? This means that every time there has been or will be a boundary change, the voters of Pitsea have had, and will have, no opportunity to hold their Member of Parliament to account, because they are at the margins of the constituency and are the ones most likely to be moved for every single election. They did not have the opportunity in 2010 to hold their MP to account, and they will not have it in 2011.
The noble Lord, Lord Clark, made a comment about disengaging people. I have already spoken to a number of people in that area who tell me, “Why should we bother to vote? We don’t know anything about Rayleigh. We are not connected with Rayleigh”. Instead of engaging people in the political system, we are disengaging them from the political process completely. The Government say that the changes are at the margins, but it is those margins that move from constituency to constituency each time. Rather than being more democratic, it reduces the accountability of MPs to their constituents.
I have great admiration for most MPs, and I believe that the majority of MPs will faithfully represent all of their constituents whenever there is an opportunity to do so. However, for some MPs, such as the lazy and the overworked-and they will be overworked because of the larger area they will represent-or those in the most marginal of seats, there will be an opportunity to prioritise the areas they know will be in their constituency at the next election, and whose votes they will need.
Accountability is also about the individuals’ and communities’ abilities to participate in the political process. I want to say something about wider participation, but part of that participation means being able to vote. We all know-politicians have been saying it for many years-that turnouts at both general and local elections are too low. Governments constantly say that they want to increase turnout, but I fail to understand how the accelerated process for individual voter registration does that.
We support individual electoral registration. We argued for it and legislated for it in 2009. However, I can do no better than refer the noble Lord to the speech of my noble friend Lord Wills, who spoke of the very different approach now being taken by the Government compared with the approach that we took when we were in government. It was a measured and cross-party approach and it allowed time for the changes to come in properly to ensure accuracy and fairness. I urge the Government to take note of the comments that have been made today. If they fail to act properly in this regard, not only will they deny thousands of their right to vote but they will be accused of blatant political manipulation, because there is no good reason for the process to be speeded up in this way.
I also want to say something about access to elected representatives. A mistake that politicians sometimes make is to believe that everybody is interested in politics and that they know who their MP is. I can tell the Minister that people in my area would regularly go to the local council or the local library saying that they lived in Basildon, and they were told that I was their MP, regardless of where they lived, because that was the sense of place that they had and understood.
I take on board the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, who said that it would be easier for MPs if constituencies were of the same size. I say to her that it would not be easier for MPs in the slightest. Better representation, both for the elected and the elector, comes from people knowing who their MP is, being able to contact them easily and sharing a sense of place and community. That is what makes the difference.
Baroness O’Cathain (Conservative)
Can the noble Baroness tell me that it is easier for somebody to have a constituency of 80,000 or 90,000 compared with having a constituency of 55,000?
Baroness Smith of Basildon (Labour)
In my case, it would have been much easier. If I had had the whole of Basildon as my constituency, rather than part of Basildon and part of Thurrock, the constituency would have been bigger but I would have dealt with two local authorities and one police force. It is dealing with different agencies that complicates matters. I was very lucky in that I enjoyed both parts of my constituency, but to say that it was easier because it was smaller in terms of numbers would be completely incorrect, and I would be doing a disservice to my former constituents if I did not confess that it was harder dealing with two sets of agencies.
I think that I have a couple of seconds of injury time in which to finish. A democracy is more than just a cross in a box or a type of voting system, and it is more than ensuring that constituencies are the same size. Democracy has to be about political engagement, representation and accountability. That is how we get to the sense of place that we have heard about today. Unfortunately, the Government have ignored the latter-the political engagement, representation and accountability-in favour of the former.