9 March 2011

We need more, not less MPs

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010-11 received Royal Assent on 16 February. It provides for the next General Election to be held under the Alternative Vote system, provided it is endorsed in a referendum on 5 May 2011.

We'll be hearing a lot about that, as Cameron and Clegg have a Baldrickian cunning plan to go through the charade of a plebiscite on AV for the House of Commons, knowing it will be rejected, to prepare the ground for an already agreed "compromise" on a new House of Lords to be elected by proportional representation.

However, the bill also mandates boundary changes - not subject to plebiscite - to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600, with the seats distributed according to the principle of numerical equality. The Parliamentary Boundary Commission is to complete the redistricting by the end of September 2013.

This is what the Americans call "bait and switch". Behind the smokescreen of the AV referendum, the real purpose of the bill has slipped through barely commented. Some shrewd questions were asked in the House of Lords, but they achieved zero popular traction because the MSM reported it as a partisan issue.

The reduction of MPs by nearly ten percent serves no other purpose than to increase the power of the Executive. Let me explain:
  • The "payroll vote" of salaried Ministers, Under Secretaries and Whips is 108. Currently 11 are peers, suggesting that the pool of safe and minimally competent MPs Cameron-Clegg could draw on was very shallow.
  • In addition there are 3 unpaid office holders and 46 Parliamentary Private Secretaries, all MPs, who can be classified as "so close they can taste it" to remunerated office.
  • So the total of rewards for MPs in the gift of the Executive is 157. That is 24 percent of 650 MPs, or 26 percent of 600 MPs. 
  • If, however, we recalculate according to what constitutes a working majority, Executive patronage covers 48 percent of 326 MPs, but 52 percent of 301 MPs. 
Since a large proportion of any party's MPs are simply "lobby fodder", easily kept in line by the government Whips (15 of them), the advantage to the Executive of a reduced number of MPs is evident. Plus the additional demands of larger constituencies will leave MPs little time to devote to the process of scrutinizing and amending legislation. 

If Clegg and Cameron really wished to revitalize the Commons, they would push for more MPs, with smaller constituencies. Clearly, therefore, their protestations are further evidence of how clever they think they are.

Of course they are clever, by the low standards of the House of Commons. If the expenses scandal illustrated nothing else, it was that a large number of MPs are simply too stupidly venal to be lifted above the pack and exposed to press and public scrutiny.

Which is, of course, yet another argument in favour of increasing the size of the pool of talent that the chief executive could draw upon - if s/he were self-confident enough to wish for genuinely talented ministers.  

We are now in the fifteenth year of government by prime ministers who have openly regarded Parliament as an inconvenience to be bullied and manipulated into rubber-stamping laws devised in Brussels or in Whitehall. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010-11 is simply a further step towards making the House of Commons irrelevant.

Ironically, if a democratically elected House of Lords also emerges from the smokescreen of the AV referendum, it will create a new problem of control for the Executive just as it completes the emasculation of the House of Commons.

But no doubt Messrs Cameron and Clegg have another cunning plan to limit the powers of the new House of Lords and/or to increase Executive patronage, which already encompasses a third of LibDem and a quarter of Tory MPs.

P.S. 10 March 2011:  Seems the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee is trying to subvert the Cleggeron cunning plan from another direction - by slashing the payroll vote.

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