“If elected on 12 December”, I wrote on 26 November 2019 in my blog The Tory manifesto – an Executive ‘power grab’ – we have been warned” will a new Tory government unleash an attack on some of the democratic traditions we have taken for granted for many years? After all, during the last parliament there were frequent attacks on MPs’ attempts to hold the government to account over Brexit because, as representatives of the people, they wanted to have a final say on the proposed withdrawal deal and taking ‘no deal’ off the table. A case of the Commons ‘taking back control’ you might say.”
Well maybe their more ambitious plans have been put on hold, courtesy of the pandemic, but one has not, the long delayed review of parliamentary constituency boundaries. In 2011 Parliament approved the Coalition Government’s plans to reduce the number of constituencies to 600, but moves to implement the changes were repeatedly delayed. In 2018 proposals were published by the independent Boundary Commission which recommended scrapping 32 seats in England, six in Scotland, 11 in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.
Out has gone the idea of reducing the number of constituencies to 600, they will remain the same as present, 650 due, the government says, to the increase business resulting from the UK leaving the EU. In comes the proposal contained in the new parliamentary boundaries bill presented to the Commons this week which will strip parliament of its role in approving the new boundaries which will be drawn up on the register of electors as at 1st December 2020. So away goes “one of the democratic traditions we have taken for granted for many years”.
In their 2019 Election Manifesto the Conservatives committed to delivering updated and equal UK Parliamentary boundaries with the essential aim of making sure that every vote counts the same (difficult without some form of PR but that’s another matter). The last boundary review to be implemented in England was based on data from 2000; the last to be implemented in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland used data from 2001-2003. In effect, present constituencies reflect how the UK population was at the beginning of the century.
According to Peter Walker writing in The Guardian on 3 June; “Under previous plans, the commissions’ plans would be scrutinised and voted on by the Commons and Lords. But in a government update in March, titled Strengthening Democracy, the Cabinet Office said this would no longer be the case.
Instead the changes would automatically become law. This would, the Cabinet Office said, ‘provide certainty that the recommendations of the independent boundary commissions – developed through a robust and impartial process that is open to extensive consultation – would then be implemented without interference’(i.e. Parliamentary oversight). The only way MPs could stop this would be to amend the relevant laws to allow a vote.”
Given the Government’s majority of over 80, (gained with just under 44% of the popular vote) that would not present a problem, unless there was a substantial rebellion by Tory backbenchers (unlikely as their party has most to gain from the review).
During the Commons debate on 2 June Cat Smith, the shadow Cabinet Office minister whose brief covers voter engagement, said: “The government’s decision to end parliamentary oversight by denying MPs the chance to vote on the boundary review process is yet another attempt to diminish scrutiny and concentrate power in the hands of the executive.
“The new boundaries will be dangerously unrepresentative of the current electorate. Choosing the electoral register of 1 December 2020 as the basis for drawing new boundaries is politically motivated. The December 2020 register will be heavily affected by Covid-19 as local councils will struggle to update electoral registers whilst dealing with this crisis.”
Revisiting the Tory election manifesto, it is clear that this is really the shape of things to come! Greater power to the Executive (Government) less parliamentary accountability and for the rest of us little opportunity to influence events. As George Monbiot writes in his Guardian article 4 June The UK is a democracy in name only: “Even when public trust and consent collapse, as they have now done amid the coronavirus pandemic, there are no effective channels through which we can affect the decisions government makes.”
He might also have mentioned that it’s not only parliament that is being increasingly by-passed. Look how the critical press is being treated by the Johnson administration. It took weeks to get the Cummings family’s end of March Durham great lockdown escape and subsequent journey to Barnard Castle to make the headlines, after a tip off from a member of the public, who saw Cummings listening to Abba’s ‘Dancing Queen’ in the garden. The Guardian and Mirror, who worked closely together ‘in the public interest’, had the story on 5 April. 10 Downing Street Press Office was quizzed about it the same day and responded; “It will be a no comment on that one.” Downing Street was approached again five days later by the Guardian regarding Mr Cummings’ trip. Instead of defending the journey, officials again declined to comment and did their best to rubbish the story (and the journalists), describing both publications as ‘campaigning newspapers’ and ‘More fake news’ from The Guardian. A real touch of Trump! Once the evidence was overwhelming the story broke in both newspapers on Friday 22 May and all hell broke loose, leaving the government on the back foot and public fury broke out.
The role of the No.10 Press Office has been turned ‘inside out’ according to the Guardian’s Katherine Vinner who spoke to the BBC’s Media Show on 3 June to explain how both newspapers had broken the story. She felt that it was no longer possible to expect to get answers to reasonable questions based on fact.
Lessons – we need a parliament and a press that is inquiring, vigilant and holds power to account, not act as passive spectators. The Government, like Trump in the US is hell bent on making sure that we get the second not the first.
We can’t let matters stay like this, there is too much at stake. It’s time to come together to stop the Executive power grab before it’s too late.