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Monday, July 05, 2010 

For every action there is a reaction.

One thing that's already become clear about this government is that for every half-decent Liberal Democrat inspired policy which was in the coalition agreement, there's a massive Tory counterpoint to it which makes it all but pointless. Hence there was the rise in the income tax threshold, not necessarily a fabulous thing in the first place, made all but worthless by the rise in VAT and cuts in benefits which look set to make the poor even worse off.

It's the same on constitutional reform. The Liberal Democrats get a referendum on the alternative vote, which is a start on the road to a more proportional electoral system, while the Conservatives get the near equalisation of the numbers of voters in constituencies, to a figure of around 76,000, and the reduction in the total number of MPs to 600. Admittedly, the Liberal Democrats wanted a reduction to around 500, for some unfathomable reason; probably because they thought that would make the current system more favourable to themselves, which is what all the parties base their proposals on. The reduction to 600 will then almost certainly favour the Conservatives. There have long been murmurings about the bias in the electoral system towards Labour, thanks mainly to the number of additional seats in cities, not to mention the all but stranglehold the party has over both Scotland and Wales. The key difference is not in whether it does make the system fairer towards the Conservatives, but in whether it becomes directly biased towards them. As the last election showed, it's the Liberal Democrats that get the roughest deal under first past the post, losing seats despite increasing their vote.

50 less seats in one fall swoop is however a huge change, not least because the boundaries were only changed and new constituencies created back in the elections in May. It's also questionable, not least on the grounds of representation. Decent constituency MPs are already busy enough as it is; increasing the number of people they will in effect be working for is only going to make it even more difficult for them to cope with the level of work. It's true that they will still have the same number of local representatives, and they might well have to pick up some of the slack, but they certainly don't have anywhere near the influence that an actual MP can wield, although Scottish, Welsh and NI electors are clearly better off in this regard than those of us in England. The cut in MPs is being justified partially on it meaning a saving of £12m in the cost of pay, pensions and allowances, which is a drop in the ocean, although not when you consider how the scandal of last year was reacted to. Whether the anti-politics mood extends to getting rid of politicians when it means potentially losing your local one remains to be seen.

Assuming that the referendum on AV itself is passed, and it's a fairly hefty one, the boundary commission is also going to have work overtime, finishing its work by the end of 2013 in order to be ready for the 2015 election, despite the fact that this itself will have to be based on the electoral register as it looks in December. This will be at the expense of political parties being able to appeal, something else likely to count against Labour. Less objectionable is that the referendum itself will be held on the same day as local elections and elections to Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly next year; it has to be held on some date, and it makes sense to hold it on the same day as other elections for the fact that it will increase the likely turnout, not least also that holding it on a separate date will increase the cost, something the Sun already seems to be latching onto. True, it would be best to hold it on the actual date of a general election, as to get the best turnout possible and most representative showing, yet putting it off for another 4 years and holding another election under what ought to be a discredited electoral system when you can get it out of the way now and know for certain next May is wasting time. 9 months of explaining and campaigning ought to be more than enough for anyone.

You can though understand why some Conservatives and Labour MPs are worried about the referendum being held on the same date as the Scottish and Welsh elections; both already use the proportional additional member system, so why would voters there reject the even less radical system of AV unless exactly because of its timidity? There were problems last time round with the number of spoilt ballots due to confusion over the system worked, but hopefully the lessons should have been learned from that debacle. There might be a disconnect between the turnout in Wales and Scotland and England as a result, yet as argued above unless held on the date of a general election or on a completely separate date, at additional cost, there's always going to be a difference due to there always being some local elections held every year. It could even work to the advantage of the Tories in England, as those turning out for local elections might not otherwise bother to vote on a different date, leaving just those squarely for or against to attempt to cancel each other out, and with AV being such a minor change, the former would probably triumph.

Whether the changes do amount to gerrymandering remains to be seen, and the added bonus for the Conservatives is that we won't be able to tell, especially if the AV vote is won, until it's too late. They must however be delighted that the "miserable little compromise" which Clegg ruled out accepting if offered by Labour was grabbed so eagerly and without further demands when put on the table. Once again, they've turned out the real victors while the Liberal Democrats have sold themselves short.

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The case for fewer MPs - personally I'd go down to about 200 - is that with so many as we have at the moment, they are essentially powerless, and down the line this leads to the overpowerful executive we suffer from.

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