By Jonathan Isaby
There was a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday discussing parliamentary representation and many of the issues which have been brought up by the recent legislation which will reduce the size of the Commons to 600 virtually equal-sized constituencies, save for two Scottish island constituencies.
Martin Vickers, the Tory MP for Cleethorpes, made a contribution calling for the Boundary Commission to be given more flexibility in setting constituency boundaries, and in particular for the "extremely foolish" arbitrary number of 600 MPs to be scrapped.
"Those of us who have been involved in politics for many years will have had opportunities to redraw boundaries at various stages and to make submissions to the Boundary Commission. Whether we are dealing with constituency or ward boundaries, the fact is that the jigsaw never fits together. It is a big mistake to put the commission in a straitjacket and to limit it to 600.
"It is important that constituents identify to some extent with the unit of administration in which they live. That applies nationally, and I am a great believer in the idea that the nation state is the ideal unit of government. It also applies at local level. My constituency had the misfortune to be moved into the county of Humberside in the 1970s, and the legacy of that lives on. People deeply resent being moved around in that way.
"I served as a constituency agent for 15 years before my move to the House. I served in the Gainsborough constituency, a large rural Lincolnshire constituency neighbouring mine, and it made me appreciate that identities vary considerably over geographically relatively short distances of 30 or 40 miles. To be perfectly honest, people in Gainsborough had no interest in what happened 30 miles down the road. Incidentally, that constituency, with the exception of one ward, had the benefit of being within one district council area.
"Continually changing boundaries will impact on the vitality and sustainability of local political parties. The democratic process needs viable local parties and associations, but constant boundary changes inevitably impact on their viability. Taking one ward out of a constituency can render the local party virtually bankrupt if the ward’s financial make-up means that it contributes greatly to the party. We need to think seriously about that.
"My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Alan Reid, LD) spoke about the step-by-step increase in the number of Members over the years. Although it is true that there has been an increase, the population itself has grown significantly. I sat in the upper House during its debate yesterday, and I was reminded that there were 33 million electors in 1945. The number of eligible voters has now risen to 45 million. So, although I have no instinctive intrinsic objection to rounding off a reduction in the number, I think that it is extremely foolish to limit it to 600.
"As to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson, Con) made about reform of the House of Lords, I favour a predominantly elected upper House, and there is an opportunity, as he suggested in his intervention, to consider framing that House so that it clearly identifies with communities, particularly if we go along with what I regard as the misguided course of having 600 seats in the House of Commons."
As he referred to in that speech, the relevant legislation is currently going through the House of Lords and since the Commons has already approved the Bill, I think his calls will be falling upon stony ground.