Cornish patriots are gathering today beneath the Tamar Bridge at Saltash to protest against the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. There is even serious talk of hunger strikes. What is it that has brought this on?
The Bill paves the way for a referendum next May on replacing First-Past-The-Post with the Alternative Vote system. So far so good; Single Transferable Vote is a better system still but at least things are moving in the right direction.
The same cannot be said for the Bill’s other components. One implements David Cameron’s pledge to cut the number of MPs. Nearly one in ten seats will go. In light of the snouts-in-trough expenses scandal the public will not mourn their passing, even though a Parliament with fewer MPs will undoubtedly require more staff if they are to do the same job. The truth is that this move does not so much respond to the public mood as exploit it. The real reason for cutting the number of MPs is to cut the chances of a successful backbench rebellion. There are no plans to devolve decision-making to powerful regional Parliaments, such as the one we demand for Wessex. Ministers’ in-trays will remain as full as ever and so the number of Ministers will not be cut. Thus a larger proportion of the reformed House than currently will be on the Government payroll, their loyalty bought and the ability of the legislature to hold the executive to account correspondingly curtailed.
Hand-in-hand with fewer MPs comes a comprehensive re-drawing of constituency boundaries, with the margins for flexibility severely reduced. Stubborn geography gives way to even more stubborn statistics. Already we have seen some very silly constituencies that add one town to part of another and join them up with a slab of countryside in between. An obsession with numerical equality will deliver much more of this. It is the kind of obsession that in 1969 had the Royal Commission on Local Government recommend merging the Isle of Wight with Portsmouth. It is the kind of obsession that has the Cornish deeply worried. After 700 years as a Parliamentary county, Cornwall could be sharing some of its MPs with areas in Wessex. Which makes life very difficult for a nationalist party like Mebyon Kernow. It makes life very difficult for us too. And we face the prospect not only of a Devonwall constituency but of others like it right around our borders. Get set for Herecestershire, Oxhamptonshire, Berkrey and Hampsex.
At one level, this disregard for counties is just part of a sloppy modern trend, recently marked by Royal Mail’s moves to phase-out their use for postal purposes. At another, it is deeply ideological, the playing-out of a long-standing Jacobin desire to eradicate all intermediate identities that come between the State and the individual. Consider how Cameron’s new-style MPs will actually set about their work. Representing a meaningless area, a block of voters randomly generated, they can no longer act as advocates of the local and particular but must confine themselves to being the conduit between national politics and the atomised constituent.
The Cameron/Clegg axis of evil talks about promoting ‘community’ in the abstract while destroying it in the concrete, rounding on the very people who elected them. It may seem ‘fairer’ to insist that every constituency is exactly the same size, even where that means over-riding the views of local people on how they wish to be represented in their Parliament. Indeed, it is one of the demands made by the Chartist reformers in the 1830’s and one of only two that has yet to be enacted. But to think in these terms is to give Parliament an exalted status it has never deserved. Parliament should not be an assembly of directly-elected individuals representing blocks of 100,000 people each. It should be, in the ancient tradition, a gathering of the self-governing estates of the realm, to co-ordinate, not to rule. Localities should govern themselves, and regions should be the means to co-ordinate activities over a wider area. In a world turned the right way up, the very idea of ‘Parliamentary sovereignty’ over a subject people will be laughable. It will not matter how many people an MP represents because every single representative – or, rather, delegate – will have an unlimited right of veto so far as his or her own territory is concerned. Out-voting will be out-moded.
One of the ancient traditions still preserved in elections to Parliament is the issue and return of the writs. The instruction to hold an election in each constituency is issued by the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery to the High Sheriff (in county constituencies) and the Mayor or Lord Mayor (in borough constituencies), as it has been since the first Parliaments were summoned. The writ is returned with the name of the successful candidate endorsed. That is why the sheriff or mayor formally returning the writ is known as the Returning Officer, and why the local authority chief executive who oversees the day-to-day administration is known as the Acting Returning Officer. For some, including the Electoral Commission, this tradition is written off dismissively as ‘plainly redundant’ and ‘confusing’ to the general public but in truth is a harmless part of our heritage.
How this tradition will fare in a system where constituencies no longer match the geography of counties and boroughs has yet to be seen. A foretaste appears in a recent report from the Electoral Commission, who were tasked with finding out why long queues developed at certain polling stations back in May, with the result that many voters were unable to cast their votes before the polls closed. The brief seems straightforward. Find out what the Acting Returning Officer had done or had failed to do. Organisation of the poll was the responsibility of the local authority and no-one else. Yet the Commission could not resist slipping in to their report a call for radical reform, including the abolition of the ceremonial role of sheriffs and mayors, a role that has no bearing whatsoever on the issue under investigation.
We wrote to the Commission’s Chair, Jenny Watson, protesting at this deep lapse from professionalism. Ms Watson replied at length, singing the praises of her organisation but failing utterly to address the point. Such is the New Labour bureaucracy, hiding its ignorance of history and its lack of intellectual rigour behind a figleaf of patronising insouciance. For Watson, the electoral system is a creaking Victorian structure on its last legs. To anyone with brains it is obvious that the system worked well enough for the Victorians and any shortcomings today must therefore be laid at the door of the current generation of know-nothings. Well-crafted legislation is being picked apart by people whose blindspots appear deliberate and equally well-crafted. The expansion of postal voting has been accompanied by an explosion in electoral fraud. The Victorians could have told you it would.
We have been involved in elections for over 35 years and have seen the downward spiral as costs are cut and corners with them. Ballot box security will be the next area to go as plastic and cardboard replace steel and as stock-market pressure for early declarations means seals that can be applied and removed more swiftly. And all the time, the Electoral Commission fiddles while Rome burns, childishly proposing new laws because it cannot grasp how it is that the current ones are those that work best in current circumstances. The defence of democracy will be no thanks to that bunch of third-rate sociologists but rather to those who understand how we got where we are and how easy it can be to slide back again.
The pieces of the jigsaw are falling into place. First came the Electoral Commission, its role ostensibly to police political parties, in fact to agitate aggressively for the aggrandisement of its own powers. Now comes the breaking of the centuries-old link between the counties and their ‘knights of the shire’. Next will come the clamour to tidy-up the resulting anomalies. Why should local authorities be involved in running elections when their boundaries diverge so radically from those of the constituencies assigned to them to administer? The Electoral Commission’s final triumph will be when it is placed in charge of the entire process, directed by a tightly-knit group of politically motivated men and women from an office in central London. Everything from the registration of parties and voters to the casting and counting of votes. And then the stage will be set for State-sponsored electoral fraud on a scale to make even Robert Mugabe appear whiter than white.