diamond geezer

 Tuesday, December 03, 2019

As the general election approaches, have you read the party manifestos? They contain a much broader statement of intent than a few soundbites in the media and soapbox sloganeering. Admittedly they're also quite dull, so you're unlikely to make it past page 10, let alone reach page 48. But they also set the agenda for the next five years, which is a significant portion of your lifetime, so it pays to take note.
» Conservative: Get Brexit Done - Unleash Britain’s Potential
» Labour: It's Time For Real Change
» Liberal Democrat: Stop Brexit - Build a Brighter Future
» SNP: Stronger For Scotland
» Brexit: Contract With The People
Jeremy Corbyn's socialist blueprint can be discounted because his best hope is coalition, and that'd swiftly dilute his plans. Likewise all the smaller parties are merely signalling a negotiating position rather than anticipating power. Which means the only manifesto that truly matters at this election is the Conservatives', because they're the only party with a realistic chance of majority government. Let's see what's tucked away near the back of theirs.

Page 48 is where we find a section titled Protect our democracy. It asserts that Parliament is broken, having failed to deliver on the referendum result, and that a damaging rift exists between politicians and people. You may not see things that way, but the Tories claim what's needed is to put obstructive Members of Parliament in their place because that would have helped a minority government to get Brexit done.

First up, scrapping the pesky Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

The FTPA seemed like such a good idea back in 2010, a safety catch to prevent the Liberal Democrats from scuppering the Coalition, but has since proved to have unforeseen restrictive ramifications. Despite this the UK has somehow managed to shoehorn in two additional general elections before 2020, when the next was originally scheduled, by twice circumventing the Act with a two-thirds Parliamentary majority. But the current Prime Minister would rather regain the ability to call an election whenever it best suits, and a Conservative majority after this election will see his strategic power restored.

Next up, reshaping constituencies.

We've been here before, indeed equalising our constituencies should already have happened, twice, since it was first proposed in 2011. The background to the proposed change was the expenses scandal, a time when having fewer MPs sounded like a way to "cut the cost of politics". Hence the proposal to slim down their numbers from 650 to 600, an undertaking which couldn't be achieved without entirely redrawing the political map of Britain... and various existing constituencies falling through the cracks.

At the same time the Conservatives proposed making UK constituencies roughly the same size, a property they currently lack. English electorates vary from 55,377 in Wirral West to 110,697 in the Isle of Wight (average 74,000). Scottish electorates vary from 21,769 in the Outer Hebrides to 86,955 in Linlithgow and East Falkirk (average 69,000). Welsh electorates vary from 40,492 in Snowdonia to 76,006 in Cardiff South and Penarth (average 57,000). Scotland and Wales, proportionally, have a greater Parliamentary representation than England. Urban areas tend to have smaller electorates than the shires. It's no surprise the Conservatives would rather change that, and Labour would rather leave well alone.

Figures based on the December 2010 electoral register set the proposed size for a UK constituency at 76,641, with a wriggle room of 5% allowed either way. Only the remoter corners of Scotland and the Isle of Wight would be exempt, for geographical reasons, ending up with smaller electorates than everywhere else. The Boundary Commission set to work with the rules they'd been given, but the 5% limit proved tricky to implement as local government wards didn't always combine conveniently. When proposals were published various areas complained, for example east Cornwall really didn't want to be coupled with west Devon, despite mathematics dictating otherwise. But in the end Nick Clegg scrapped the process in response to David Cameron dropping proposals to reform the House of Lords, and the entire review was closed.

The 2015 election was held on existing boundaries, after which David Cameron restarted the process. This time the December 2015 electoral register was the baseline and the new target quota was 74,769. Again the Boundary Commission set to work, in each of the home nations, publishing their proposals and working through two rounds of feedback before submitting final proposals in September 2018. Again they were hamstrung by the 5% rule, so some of their constituencies looked administratively peculiar, but that's equality for you. A private members bill suggesting a leeway of 10% instead got nowhere, indeed the implementation process has since gone unexpectedly quiet, and that's why we're still fighting the 2019 election based on 2008 boundaries.

If the Conservatives gain a majority on the existing boundaries, expect full steam ahead towards implementing new ones. It's not clear whether the Boundary Commission will have to start again, using up-to-date data from the December 2019 electoral register, or whether the government will stick to existing plans. Areas with fast-growing populations and high numbers of unregistered voters, like Tower Hamlets, could end up missing out. Whatever, the opportunity to cut the proportion of MPs elected from Scotland by 10% and from Wales by 28% won't be missed, because increasing the influence of the English to 'fair' levels can only entrench a Conservative future.

The manifesto's next promise is Voter ID.

At present all you do is turn up at your polling station, give your address and receive your ballot paper. That's except in Northern Ireland where photo ID is required, and has been since 2002. Passports and driving licences are acceptable, as are railway SmartPasses, and an Electoral Identity Card has been introduced to plug any gaps. These contain a photo but not an address, so don't need regular updating as long as the photograph remains "a good enough likeness". It sounds watertight, but as well as deterring voter fraud it also deters voting, with the disadvantaged most likely to fail to clear the additional hurdle. In a multi-format ID trial at this year's local elections, 100 times more voters were turned away (and didn't come back) than were convicted of electoral fraud across the entire country last year.

And finally, there's this.

This is a constitutional biggie, with the relationship between government, Parliament and the judiciary coming into question. Over the last few months the Prime Minister's plans have been thwarted by MPs (and the Speaker) in the House and by judges in the courts, and just imagine where the country could be right now if that hadn't happened. Boris reckons the Brexit-voting public will be on his side if he makes changes that enable "effective government" and prevent "needless delays", hence his intention to set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission - a body which could have a very wide remit. Others might prefer that current checks and balances remain in order to prevent potential abuse by an increasingly authoritarian government, but they may not get a say.

An election manifesto doesn't have to contain everything a party intends to do, indeed some things it's better to keep quiet about. But if something potentially controversial is included, it's easy to argue afterwards that people "knew what they were voting for", even if they never realised. This is why reading manifestos is important. Whether you agree or disagree with what's proposed, it pays to know what the victor intends to impose.

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