If we’ve learned one vital from the Brexit debate, it’s that the people of the UK are profoundly underwhelmed by our democracy – the prevailing feeling from the doorstep was that not only did people have little confidence in Europe, but, but they didn’t have a great deal of confidence in Westminster either. People felt excluded, betrayed and ignored by their politicians. Whether there is any substance in that complaint is not for here, but, to simply dismiss that growing feeling of disillusionment and disenfranchisement is dangerous in the extreme.
The Boundary Commission’s report suggests a reduction in the number of constituencies and has attempted to draw up new boundaries based upon a magic figure of 74,000 voters in each new constituency. That, they say, will ensure that every vote is equal and every MP will have a hypothetically similar burden.
Clearly, the aims of the commission and the way in which they have carried out their task is to be commended, but their conclusions are deeply flawed: the creation of a thriving and vigorous democracy cannot be achieved through an arithmetical equation or the placing of arbitrary lines on a map – democracy is about people, and that means their history, their culture, their economies. It means ensuring that people have a confidence and trust in the institutions that pass their laws and public policies, and this confidence starts with the drawing up of constituency boundaries, the geo-political areas that they know and that they trust.
In my early 20s I worked for a couple of MPs: one represented an inner-city London constituency, the other a rural Welsh one. The contrast between the two areas and the different challenges it posed for both MPs couldn’t have been more stark. But, to me, it demonstrated the fact that we are a wonderfully diverse nation. The Welsh seat was geographically huge, traversing almost the whole of rural mid-wales, but in terms of population, it was small. The London constituency, was small, but dense in terms of population. The Boundary Commission propose to demolish the Welsh constituency, shoring off parts of it into three different neighbouring constituencies. It’s an act of democratic mutilation; I haven’t been there for a while but I’d bet my mortgage that the people don’t want to see the end of their constituency – you see there is keen sense of community and history amongst them; an understanding of the shared responsibility of electing the best person to represent them and their family, friends and neighbours. Just like the people of the London constituency, the rural Welsh people instinctively know where the constituency starts and where it ends, they have a shared history and culture and they understand and empathise with the particular needs of different (often very different) parts of their region – it all helps to deliver a healthy democracy which you destroy at your peril.
My fear is that the debate about constituency boundaries will degenerate into a squabble between Labour and the Tories about who will be most advantaged or disadvantaged electorally; or worse, a demonstration of the lengths that some MPs will go to keep their jobs. We can’t let that happen. Our democracy is too precious and, worryingly, too precarious at the moment – it is far more important than the desires of any individual party or the ambitions of individual politicians.
If the boundaries have to be changed, then it should be seen as an opportunity to refresh and re-invigorate our democracy not undermine it still further. The Boundary Commission should be asked to look again and take into consideration not just numbers but people, history and culture. Parliamentary constituencies should be drawn up that reflect not the desires of Whitehall to save money, or the simplistic and frankly condescending view that voters will just have to put up and make do, but instead should ensure that every individual voter in our country understands, values and cherishes the role they play in the election of the people who will represent their communities in Parliament.