Thursday, 12 January 2012

Boundaries and protests

The howls of protest from some quarters about the proposed new constituency boundaries were entirely predictable, and had probably been rehearsed for weeks if not months.  That doesn’t mean that they’re entirely unjustified, of course.  Some of the boundaries look highly artificial to me, and seem to ignore geographical and community links.  It’s not a problem unique to Wales, though; merely more acute because of the greater proportionate change here.
The outcome is a more or less inevitable result of giving primacy to the argument that MPs should have, as nearly as possible, equal numbers of constituents.  It’s a difficult argument to counter, but it does depend to some extent on what we see as the primary rôle of MPs.
If they are there, first and foremost, to make laws on behalf of the UK as a whole, then the argument for parity of constituencies is a strong one.  But if they are there, first and foremost, to be representatives of the people and communities in their constituencies, then the extent of geographical spread and homogeneity (or lack thereof) in constituencies becomes a more important one. 
It’s clear which of those two drivers is uppermost in the government’s mind – MPs are there to support (or oppose) the government’s legislative programme, and do as they are told.  But the reality is that we expect them to do both.  In a sense, the second element has become less important in Wales and Scotland as much of the representative work is now done elsewhere, so perhaps we should be less worried.
There is another aspect, though, and it is the extent to which Wales’ voice is lost in a parliament where the overwhelming majority of MPs come from English constituencies.  There are still plenty of issues of concern to Wales being discussed and decided in London, and the size and clarity of the Welsh voice is important in that regard.
Whether the difference between 30 and 40 out of 600 is really significant is another question entirely; and the inability of most of Wales’ MPs to find a specifically Welsh voice rather then being simply the Welsh wing of their UK parties undermines their argument for Welsh over-representation.  The argument for deliberate over-representation of the smaller nations in the UK Parliament is, in essence a ‘nationalist’ argument.  It is rooted in the idea that Wales is a nation which needs to have its voice heard, rather than a region to be treated on the same basis as the regions of England.
It’s fascinating to hear that argument, albeit not in quite those terms, being put by politicians in the UK parties.  The problem is that given their track record it simply sounds like an altruistic cover for protecting their own personal and party interests.  Labour, in particular, have long had a tendency to conflate their party’s interests with those of Wales, but it’s no more credible on the issue of constituency boundaries than it is on a host of other issues.
It’s also fascinating that some nationalists at least seem to be welcoming the reduction in Welsh representation.  If I could be certain that it is just another step on the road to independence than I might be tempted to join them.  But there is no guarantee that it is, and as long as Wales is part of the UK, I really don’t see why anyone would argue against the idea of maximising our representation.

9 comments:

Chris Paul said...

Hi John, Newport West has been cut and splived in a way which bears no topographical or community sense whatsoever. I am mistrustful of FPTP in the extreme already- but what kind of justification can there be for it when constituencies embrace non-related communities? Rhetorical question obviously...

Anonymous said...

I disagree entirely with your last paragraph. This change means there will be less unionist MPs in Wales, who are obviously going to be the most reactionary against independence. The change also decreases the visibilty of Westminster in Wales. We should be welcoming this reduction under the understanding that we will soon be also welcoming increased competences for the Assembly through the Silk Commission.

Welsh Ramblings said...

"If I could be certain that it is just another step on the road to independence than I might be tempted to join them."

We can't be certain that devolution is a step on the road to Welsh independence, so I don't really know about this point. From what I can tell it's more about adapting to what Macmillan called "events, dear boy", acknowledging that these aren't nationalist changes, but trying to make the most of them as an opportunity to bolster the case for more powers to be repatriated to Wales in lieu of reduced influence at Westminster.

"As long as Wales is part of the UK, I really don’t see why anyone would argue against the idea of maximising our representation."

This surprises me. More representation at Westminster means more dependency on those representatives for leadership and direction, something we cannot expect from MPs because as Adam Price illustrated, many of them become caught up in the system. If we have more representation, we will be part of the UK for longer. It creates a political dependency culture. Just look at the LCO system. Bringing MPs into the legislative process actually resulted in ridicule and our country having a bizarrely unique political system.

It's questionable whether having MPs from Wales counts as "maximising our representation" anyway. Many of the MPs from Welsh constituencies don't see themselves as particularly representing Wales but see themselves as regular British MPs.

To "maximise our representation", the best route would be through strengthening the Welsh Government's bilateral role which is what Dafydd Elis-Thomas- hardly a fundamentalist- advocates, in line with scrapping the position of Secretary of State for Wales.

John Dixon said...

Anon and Ramblings,

The points you make are not dissimilar, albeit that they are made in different terms. I'd make several points in reply.

1. Your objection to having more rather than fewer MPs at Westminster seems to be based on who they are and what party they represent rather than on their number as such. If 20 of them were nationalists, all arguing the case for Wales in the way that you (and I) would like to see it argued, would you still be arguing for a reduction in their number to 15? (It's hypothetical, of course - if 50% of them were nationalists, then we'd be a lot closer to achieving independence anyway - but nevertheless, I was left with the distinct impression that at least part of your support for the reduction is based on 'getting rid of unionists'.)

2. Specifically for Anon - reducing the visibility of Westminster in Wales may also reduce the visibility of Wales in Westminster. And it's far from guaranteed that the Silk Commission will recommend further competences, other than tax-raising powers which is a double-edged sword anyway.

3. There seems to be at least an undertone of actually wanting to be hard done by in order to help make the case for independence in Ramblings' second paragraph. There's a certain logic in there in the long term - the sort of thing of which Lenin would probably have been proud. But really, supporting a reduction in Welsh representation in order to give us more reason to complain? Which leads on to...

4. If and when we win independence for Wales it will be because we have made the effort - and then succeeded - to convince the people of Wales that it's the right thing for our future. Basing the argument on real or supposed injustice and unfair treatment is an essentially negative viewpoint; we need to be positive.

5. "More representation at Westminster means more dependency on those representatives for leadership and direction, something we cannot expect from MPs because as Adam Price illustrated, many of them become caught up in the system" Point taken and understood. But if you want to see institutionalisation happening, look also to Cardiff Bay. Getting 'caught up in the system' is a fundamental problem, and it doesn't only affect 'unionists'.

6. "Many of the MPs from Welsh constituencies don't see themselves as particularly representing Wales but see themselves as regular British MPs." Entirely agree - but see point 1 above. Wanting to get rid of them because the electors have chosen the 'wrong' MPs is not a lot different from Hain arguing that we should keep them because the people have chosen the 'right' MPs. Replacing the 'wrong' people with the 'right' ones - from any perspective - means winning the argument.

7. "To 'maximise our representation', the best route would be through strengthening the Welsh Government's bilateral role" Not sure what you mean by 'bilateral rôle', but I entirely agree with the sentiment. There is, though, a question of chickens and eggs. You seem to be wanting to kill the chickens before being certain that the eggs will hatch.

Siônnyn said...

warintI'm not really what most Welsh MPs do. Some - the Plaid 3, paul flynn and a few others do raise issues in a way that they could not do if they were not MPs. But what do people like Paul Murphy do? They have next to no constituency work, as almost all the functions that affect voters have been devolved. Only benefits and pensions remain within their domain, and even there they have little influence.

So on the whole, I welcome the reduction in their number, as it will subliminally reinforce in Welsh people's minds that everything that matters happens in the Assembly. That can only be a good thing.

Welsh Ramblings said...

Good points John. To respond briefly to some of them-

1. There's a degree of utilitarianism in my response. It's not in my political outlook to care for the health of the British state at the moment, although if it was replaced by a different arrangement I might be more interested in securing higher levels of Welsh representation.

3 and 4. I definitely agree but we have to also see things as they are, not how we wish they were. There's nothing negative about that, it's realism.

5. Again true but we both have an inbuilt preference for the Welsh institution surely? At Westminster of course institutionalisation is more likely to happen to Unionists- it's their institution, not ours.

7. I'm not killing any chickens or hatching any eggs. My stance made it clear that these changes were not being done to support Welsh nationalism, far from it. They are "unionist" changes based on tidying up the British state. They aren't Welsh nationalist policies or anything like that. I was arguing that there is an inevitability behind them, with devolution increasing, and we may as well make the most of them and argue for more powers in Wales, rather than campaign against the reductions.

John Dixon said...

Ramblings,

"true but we both have an inbuilt preference for the Welsh institution surely" If you're asking whether I'd sooner see people become institutionalised in a Welsh institution than a UK one, I'd say that's another of those false choices of which politicians are so fond. My choice is simple - 'neither'. Becoming institutionalised narrows vision and stunts progress - and I think that the evidence for that is pretty clear.

My point about seeking over-representation for Wales being a nationalist argument is simply this: Many of the problems faced by Wales, particularly the economic sort, are shared by other parts of the UK. NE England is the obvious example. Yet no-one is really arguing that they should have more representation than any other part of England. When people argue for retaining the higher level of MPs which Wales has long had, the basis of that argument is, in essence, that Wales is a nation, not a region.

Now of course you and I would agree that in our hoped-for world, Wales would be sitting at the EU table as an equal to other members rather than as a part of one of those other members. But that is, even on the most optimistic scenario, some way off, and in the meantime, over-representation on the basis of nationhood is surely better than average representation on the basis of regionhood. I don't often agee with Carwyn Jones, but I think he's absolutely right in arguing that, if Scotland were to go her own way, there is a need for deliberate over-representation for a small nation like Wales in the institutions of the remainder. I'm also arguing, though, that it's still true even if we remove his little caveat.

And in that context, I antirely agree with your point that "these changes were not being done to support Welsh nationalism, far from it. They are "unionist" changes based on tidying up the British state". That's sort of the point that I was making - the nationalist argument is to resist tidying up the numbers for the sake of uniformity across the British state, and argue for non-uniformity on the basis of Wales being a nation.

Welsh Ramblings said...

"If you're asking whether I'd sooner see people become institutionalised in a Welsh institution than a UK one, I'd say that's another of those false choices of which politicians are so fond. My choice is simple - 'neither'"

But in making that "choice" your consequence is to support retaining an element of institutionalisation at Westminster.

I agree with the practical points you have made about Carwyn Jones and the need for over-representation of peripheral nations in a larger state.

But it is the case at the moment that we support an increase in Assembly Members. Having fewer MPs being elected from Wales strengthens that argument.

John Dixon said...

Ramblings,

Your claim that, in saying I don't want people to become institutionalised in either Cardiff or London, I must therefore "support retaining an element of institutionalisation at Westminster" is a curious one. The link between what I said and what you concluded is tenuous at very best.

It is a fact that in any legislature, there will be people who become so hide-bound by the rules, processes, and limitations of the institution, and so focussed on their own roles and caareers, that they lose any ability to see that alternatives might exist, let alone profess and proclaim those alternatives. I don't 'support' that; I merely recognise it as an inevitable fact of life.

As long as any institution of government holds sway over any aspect of our lives in Wales, I want to maximise the representation from Wales within it, ensure that that representation is the 'right' representation (i.e. agrees with my view of the world!), and maximise the influence we can exert. That isn't about supporting the institution or its existence, let alone the people in it. The alternative is abstentionism; that's an honourable position to hold; but it isn't mine.

"But it is the case at the moment that we support an increase in Assembly Members. Having fewer MPs being elected from Wales strengthens that argument."

Certainly, at a time when the public esteem for politicians is at an all-time low, arguing for a reduction in one type makes it easier to argue for an increase in another; I can't disagree with that. The danger though is that you win the fist part of the argument (cull the MPs) and lose the second (increase the AMs), because, although there is a clear logical link between the two arguments, there is no legislative or procedural link.