Leading article: Parliament could be leaner, fitter – and fairer

But there are right and wrong reasons to call for a boundary review
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The Independent Online

The Conservative leader David Cameron has identified one area where he hopes to make some of the spending reductions that will be needed to fund his planned tax cuts. It is not a place where we might have expected his first axe to fall, and it could not be closer to home. In an interview with the Financial Times, he disclosed that one of his government's first moves, should he become Prime Minister, would be to initiate an urgent review into parliamentary boundaries with a view to cutting the number of MPs.

The main purpose would be to make representation more even across the country, with a similar number of voters in each constituency. But Mr Cameron also believes that the Commons could do its job quite easily with 10 per cent fewer MPs. We suspect he may be right. When belts are being tightened across the country, there is no reason why Parliament should not do the same. At best, a leaner, fitter House of Commons should be the result, along with a fairer system of representation. Perhaps he could think about introducing fixed parliamentary terms as well.

Simple justice dictates that standardising constituencies by the number of voters is a good thing. It is quite wrong that some areas are, in effect, better represented than others. Some of the most glaring discrepancies were remedied by the post-devolution redrawing of boundaries that reduced Scotland's representation in Westminster from 72 MPs to 59. Under a new review, something similar could happen in Wales.

In the past, such relative over-representation might have been justified, given the distances involved and the low density of the population outside England. There is no reason for this to continue now that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own legislatures. Indeed, there is every reason to ensure, given that the English have no legislature of their own, that English votes count as much at Westminster as those of the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish.

All that said, there must be caveats. There is only one sure-fire winner from the review proposed by Mr Cameron, and it is the Conservative Party. Wales could lose 10 of its 40 MPs, while some big conurbations in England could also find themselves with fewer, reflecting population growth in the suburbs. The big loser would be Labour. While the present situation can be seen as disproportionately favourable to Labour, however, any boundary review must be set up in such a way that it is seen to be scrupulously non-partisan. It must be utterly transparent and avoid all appearance of being no more than a vehicle for the Conservative Party to lock in a long-term parliamentary majority – even if this is what actually happens.

Any review must also be conducted with extreme sensitivity towards established district borders and local feelings of identity. People may move around the country more than they once did, in search of work or an improved quality of life, but personal roots in a community and a sense of place remain more important to many people than a self-selected metropolitan elite sometimes believes.

Community identity, as Mr Cameron should know from his Oxfordshire constituents, is something valuable in itself and an essential component of a stable society. Given the changes in Britain over the past decade, the time is probably ripe for another boundary review. But fairness, rather than cost-cutting – still less party political advantage – should be its overriding objective.

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