Whilst the big political debate yesterday, and certainly most of the news coverage, focused on the announcement of the date of the AV referendum, the other significant can of worms that was opened up was the proposed reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 - a proposal that the Conservatives have insisted on tying to the AV reform.
The first interesting point was the figure. The Conservatives argued in their manifesto for a 10% cut (ie to 585). So how come the figure of 600 has now been picked and how firm is the commitment of the coalition to it?
The second point is that only the two small Scottish constituencies (Western Isles and Orkney & Shetland) have been preserved. The other two notable island seats - Ynys Mon and the Isle of Wight - will find themselves being amalgamated (at least in part) with a section of the mainland.
The Government has suggested that the average size of the new constituencies will be 75,000 and that a margin of 5% will be allowed - giving approximate minimums and maximums of 71,250 and 78,750. UK Polling Report has had a go at trying to predict approximate boundaries for such a change.
But if equality of voter numbers is all, why should the two Scottish seats be treated as an exception?
Of course, there are some other tricky hurdles to overcome. The major one being the situation of the National Assembly for Wales. The seats there are tied by law to the Westminster constituencies and a reduction in Wales from the current 40 seats to the probable 30 might well cause viability problems for the Assembly. If the Government has to sort this out before the overall seat reduction can go ahead then it may lead to significant delays.
Labour's major argument yesterday was to ask about the significant number of people who are not registered to vote but are entitled to do so (estimated as 3.5 million). Labour claim that the most significant under-representation issues tend to be in Labour seats. They believe that the number of likely Labour seats will be unfairly cut. This is a major concern, but is a red herring as far as the proposal to reduce seat numbers is concerned. I believe that under-registration is a significant issue in most parts of the country and the Government needs to take action. The move to individual registration of electors could and should be the spur to significant effort in this regard.
Here in Cornwall, we currently have approximately 419,000 registered electors. If we hold on to six seats then that would mean an average seat size of 69,833 - outside the threshold range. If we reverted to the five constituencies that existed prior to the recent general election, then the average size would be 83,800 - again, outside the threshold range.
So there seems little option on the face of it except to have a cross-border Devon and Cornwall seat. Whether this is a North Cornwall and West Devon seat or a Plymouth West, Saltash and Torpoint seat, such a move would be hugely contentious and not at all popular with people in Cornwall - including myself.
What options might there be to avoid this?
- First up, a joint campaign by all of Cornwall's six MPs, together with Cornwall Council and the people of Cornwall to persuade the Government that they are simply wrong to consider abolishing the historic and cultural border of Cornwall. The demographic arguments are on our side in that Cornwall's population is increasing in comparison with other parts of the UK and so whilst our voter numbers might be outside the threshold range at the moment, they would be 'coming right' as time goes on.
- Second, to test the firmness of the 600 figure. If the Conservatives stuck to their original 10% cut in MPs proposal then it just about be possible for Cornwall to retain its borders and have five MPs. Alternatively, if the 600 figure were to rise to about 615, then the the threshold limits would allow for six Cornish seats to be retained.
- Third, to increase the threshold limits to 7%, rather than the current five. This would still allow for the proposed reduction in seat numbers and correct the greatest anomalies in Scotland and Wales, but would allow the Boundary Commission to have greater regard to community boundaries - including the borders of Cornwall.
- Fourth, to 'de-couple' the MP number issue from the AV referendum. The AV issue is pretty clear and could be introduced (if voters agree) on current boundaries. The reduction in the number of MPs is far more complicated and requires a substantial boundary review. If the Boundary Commission is instructed to complete their work in just 18 months (instead of the usual 4 years) then the finished product is likely to be less good and the ability of the public to have their say will be far less.
- Of course, there is one other option. If the Government clarified the law to exclude the registration of second home owners then I suspect that this would remove sufficient numbers from the Cornwall electoral register to allow five Cornish seats which easily fit within the threshold limits.