Tuesday, 27 July 2010

A wolf in sheep's clothing

With apologies to the predominantly Scottish readership but there's some more news from Wales which I've found interesting (and, which has potential relevance to Scotland as well).  And it's this:  How much are the Tories about to royally shaft Labour?

I shall, perhaps, have to put that in a slightly more socially acceptable format should it ever grace the pages of an academic journal, but I felt the terminology apt.  Basically, I'm thinking about David Cameron's (and, to be fair, Nick Clegg's) plans to reduce the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and ensure constituencies of roughly equal numbers (75,000 voters).

The reason I'm interested?  The reduction of Welsh representation at Westminster by a QUARTER - or from 40 seats at present to 30 after the reduction.  In actual fact, Wales is, and has been for some time, over-represented at Westminster, so this would really be a simple bringing them into line with the rest of the UK in terms of representation.  As far as I understand, Scotland would be in line to lose 6 or 7 seats while Northern Ireland would lose 3 and the remainder would come from England.

Anyway, three knock-on effects (identified by John Osmond as "unintended consequences") resulting from the changes.  Firstly, the constituencies for the Welsh Assembly are tied to those for Westminster - meaning any reduction in seats for the House of Commons means a corresponding reduction in Cardiff Bay.  If nothing is done to change that then Wales would have an Assembly of just 50 members - 30 constituency and 20 regional list.  And given there are discussions at the moment to increase its powers (and the Richard Commission recommended in 2004 to increase members to 80) that might cause a re-think there.  

Secondly, they could de-couple the constituencies.  There is precedent here - Scotland's were tied too, but an amendment to the Scotland Act allowed us to maintain 73 Holyrood constituencies when we reduced the Westminster ones in 2005 to 59.  However, Welsh Tories aren't keen on the idea - the Welsh Assembly already suffers from a lack of electorate enthusiasm, and confusing the constituencies may make that apathy worse.  Which means that to maintain numbers, they could have an extra 10 list members, which would increase the proportionality of the system (and, one would think, the outcome of elections, the last of which was less proportional than the English local elections).

Thirdly, were the Assembly elected more by PR (with less reliance on FPTP) it would hurt Labour more, as they have benefited most from the only 1/3rd PR element - though, as I noted last week, their vote has been diminishing in Wales for the last decade.  Wales remains the last of the devolved administrations led by a Labour figure - with Carwyn Jones, as Welsh First Minister, the highest elected Labour official in the country.  It appears as though that position is under threat, as with diminishing vote numbers and a potential reduction in MPs, Labour's position as the dominant party in Wales is no longer guaranteed.  In short, the institution which they delivered in 1997 in  the expectation that they'd be governing - individually - for the subsequent two decades looks like it may end up as a further harbinger of doom for the party.

A final thought on that.  In 1997, the Conservatives opposed devolution.  Now, 13 years on, they've found ways to work with it and adapt the system to how it suits them after a damning defeat.  PR, a system which they are not fond of, has saved them electorally in Wales and, ironically, might be the system that secures their position and weakens Labour further.  Sea change indeed, and change that is fuelled by pragmatism on their part.  

A little pragmatism goes a long way - a lesson the Tories have learnt the hard way.  The question is - will Labour?


Bill 27 July 2010 at 16:59  

Can you post details of the amendment which you mention was passed to the Scotland Act 1998 which 'decoupled' the number of MPs at Westminster from the number of MSPs at Holyrood?

I know that the Scottish Parliament itself debated this issue and passed a resolution to that effect, but I am not aware that the UK Parliament (House of Commons and House of Lords), the only body which can amend an Act of Parliament of the UK so far as I am aware, has ever passed an amendment to the Scotland Act 1998, although it seems tacitly to have accepted the illegal 'fait accompli' of what Holyrood purported to do.

If there was indeed a formal amendment passed at Westminster of which I have somehow remained unaware I shall be glad to know of it - if possible with a link to the online version of the amendment so I may read it.

In that case of course I will apologise profusely for my use of the term 'illegal' to describe what the Scottish Parliament has purported to do.

Many thanks.

Malc 27 July 2010 at 17:56  


As you rightly point out, any act by the the Scottish Parliament in this field would be illegal, and elections to the Scottish Parliament remain the purview of Westminster.

This is why the UK Parliament passed the "Scottish Parliament (Constituencies) Act 2004", which made sure the Scottish Parliament maintained its 73 constituencies and was not reduced to 59 (as would have happened had the Scotland Act not been amended.

You can read it here:

Bill 27 July 2010 at 18:03  

Hi Malc

Thanks for filling in that gap in my knowledge; I'll bear it in mind for the future and gladly withdraw my use of the term 'illegal'.

Cheers! :)


Bill 27 July 2010 at 18:36  

Am I correct in thinking that this Amendment was passed to regularise a resolution already passed by the Scottish Parliament and that it was not an amendment inittiated within Westminster?

My strong impression is that the reason that the Scottish Parliament passed its resolution was not solely (or even mostly) to allow for adequate nummbers of MSPs to allow the various sub-committees to be manned [the reason that was heavily touted at the time], but largely to maintain the status quo of the political parties and the numbers of paid employees (i.e. MSPs) with little regard to the continuing costs or the real necessity of their continued presence.

Malc 27 July 2010 at 20:44  


As far as I'm aware, when the review of boundaries in 2001 was initiated, the then Secretary of State (Helen Liddell, I think) put out a consultation asking for views on retaining the link or maintaining the size of the Scottish Parliament, with most respondents supporting the latter. Whether they were members of the public or (likely) stakeholders I'm not sure.

The Scotland Act, in its original form, contained an agreement to reduce Scottish representation at Westminster, which was acted upon by Labour in government through the Fifth Periodic Review of boundaries in Scotland. Scottish (mostly Labour) MPs were not happy with the proposed changes, which you would expect, but there was an agreement by the UK government in the Queen's Speech not to reduce the Scottish Parliament constituencies by the same token, which was subsequently turned into law by the above noted Act.

Whether the UK Government would have taken notice of something a devolved legislature had resolved is a debatable point (though perhaps - but I'm not sure if the Holyrood resolution preceded the UK one). I suspect there were murmurings of discontent that were passed on though.

Your assumption is that Holyrood was looking out for its own interests; I'd probably go along with that to an extent - particularly given that it was LABOUR would would lose out on UK boundaries (given they had most to lose/ turf wars) and they wouldn't want the same to happen for Holyrood. However, it would also be something of a slap in the face for devolution if, after just 5 or 6 years the number of MSPs was reduced, so that probably factored into it too.

Anyway, the following links may be of interest:




Bill 27 July 2010 at 22:26  

Hi Malc

Thanks for your usual prompt and informative responses. However, I think the comment that it might have been a 'slap in the face for devolution' is completely wrong. The reduction in MSPs, consequent upon the reduction of Scottish representation at Westminster, were both provided for in the Scotland Act 1988, which of course was steered through Parliament (the UK one) by the then recently-elected Labour government. The latter was designed to even-out the average constituency size in Scotland with the rest of the UK, given the increased powers to Scotland which devolution provided for; the Act of Union 1707 had specifically provided for an uneven (more favourable) representation for Scotland, given that the UK parliament would always be dominated by English MPs, given the much larger population of England. Of course within Scotland itself there are very dramatic variations in constiutency sizes (by population) and a reduction of MSPs at the same time as Scottish representation at Westminster was being reduced would have gone some way to correcting this problem so far as the Scottish Parliament was concerend too.

It is the de-linking of MSP numbers from MP numbers with this amendment (and the resolution of the Scottish parliament which preceded it) that is the anomaly and which has resulted in a permanent distortion in voter numbers in Scottish Parliament constituencies, a didtortion which is dramatically beneficial to the Labour Party, although other political parties benefit to a lesser extent in certain areas.

The resolution purporting to maintain MSP numbers at 129 was passed in March 2002 by the Scottish Parliament; as my blog was started only in April 2002 you can read two articles I wrote in the predecessor 'comment area' of my main website in March 2002 here:
(Scottish Parliamentary Seats and the Boundary Commission - 13 March 2002)
and here:
(Scottish Parliament Votes for its Numbers to Remain Unchanged - 29 March 2002)

You will note that the 2004 Amendment to the 1998 Act was passed through Parliament in 22 July 2004, indicating that it was probably one of the final pieces of legislation rushed through prior to the summer recess that year as the reduction in Scottish MPs was to take effect at the next Westminster election to be held probably in 2005 or 2006, in the event held in May 2005; I do not recall its passage being widely publicised at the time. I'm afraid the circumstances of the passage of this legislation stinks to high heaven. The legislation in the OPSI website is here:

Here, for reference, is the pre-Act Bill research paper from the HoC Library:
and the Act as published

Here is the vote on Clause 1, on 4th May 2004:

Here's another vote on the same day on Schedule 1:
(full view of votes here:
http://www.publicwhip.org.uk/division.php?date=2004-05-04&number=158&display=slab )

Malc 28 July 2010 at 08:55  

Thanks Bill.

I don't know that I have much to add, other than the motivations for maintaining Scottish Parliamentary numbers may well have been partisan... but the impact on reducing the numbers may well have been bad anyway.

I know you are not convinced that the Parliament needs 129 MSPs (at least according to your third comment) but remember that we don't have a second chamber here, and that the committee system provides for the scrutiny of bills passed (which during the first 2 sessions was substantial - 60+ in each if memory serves). This is why (to tie this back to the post!) there has been talk since the Richard Commission Report in 2004 of increasing the Welsh Assembly from 60 to 80 IF they are granted legislative powers, though Labour don't seem keen on the idea at all.

Anyway, of course you are right that the Scotland Act allowed for reduction in line with UK constituencies (as per your last comment) but I think that the experience of devolution and the practicalities meant that this was always unlikely. And my "slap in the face" comment was a reference to the fact that if the devolved legislature had made clear its position vis-a-vis its own numbers (which, from your posts in 2002, it is clear they did) it would indeed have been a slap in the face had the UK Government ignored those concerns.

Bill 28 July 2010 at 11:34  

Well, I know the sub-committee argument was the one used to try and justify maintaining a bloated legislature, but I don't find it convincing. I think there were two main motives for maintaining the status quo:
- the MSPs, many of whom were formerly local councillors with the mentalities of local councillors, had grown used to the pretty lavish remuneration packages on offer in the Scottish Parliament and fewer constituencies would mean, quite simply, fewer jobs (this motivation encompassed all the political parties);
- an as you say 'partisan' motive on the part principally of the Labour Party, in an effort to maintain its stranglehold on Scottish politics, indeed this was its motive for creating the Scottish Parliament in the first place.

This latter is why the Labour Party was so upset in 2007 when it lost majority control and tried for some time to form a coalition to 'keep the SNP out', indeed just as it tried to do earlier this year when it lost its majority in the House of Commons and tried to stitch up a deal with the LibDems, in this case to 'keep the Tories out'.

The argument that the lack of a bicameral parliament requires a bloated Scottish Parliament to allow formation of committees is no argument at all. The problem, if there is one, could be solved easily by our legislators passing fewer and better thought-out laws. Labour seemed to believe (whilst in government in London and Edinburgh) that the solution to every problem, if a problem really existed at all which in many cases is extremely doubtful, was to rush through another piece of poorly-drafted law. Fortunately the SNP is unable to mimic entirely this behaviour because as a minority administration it requires the approval of other political groupings, just as the Conservatives now do in London, so we will probably see less pointless legislation there, too.

It speaks volumes for the poor drafting of the original Scotland Act (and the thought-processes that went into its develoment) that it was thought necessary so soon to carry out such a major (and purely self-serving for the legislators) amendment.

It is striking that the US Constitution has required so little modification in over two centuries, with the first 10 amendments (the 'Bill of Rights', passed only a few years later) not altering anything fundamental in the original document, but in fact clarifying and enlarging upon what was already there. The remaining (so far) 17 amendments occurred over slightly less than two centuries and one of those the (the 18th) was repealed just a few years later (by the 21st), so in fact there have been only 15 lasting changes since the original 10 amendments were added.

Allowing for trigger-happy legislators is not a good long-term solution and this is, I fear, what the Scottish political class has managed to do for itself, rather than us, for motives that have a lot more to do with maintianing their numbers and privileges than improving our lot. Cynical I know ;)

Malc 28 July 2010 at 12:01  

But isn't your point that the Bill of Rights being passed "only a few years later" evidence of the same thing? That is, that after the experience of government in practise there was a realisation that slight amendments were required?

Anyway, I'm with you on the fact that legislation is not always the answer to problems, but I think the first two sessions' work was about establishing the Parliament as a legislative body, ensuring that distinctly Scottish legislation was passed (Abolition of Warrant Sales, Free Personal Care, Tuition Fees paid at end etc) and justifying the establishment of the institution itself.

Of course Labour acted out of self-interest, but it wasn't just their interest and the public gave their support - the Tories were the only ones against the devolution proposals.

Bill 28 July 2010 at 13:07  

No, I don't think the 'Bill of Rights' is evidence of the same thing; it added clarity to the rights already embedded in the US Constitution, but not explicitly stated, it did not fundamentally alter the nature of the original document, as changing the basic principles of its composition did with the Scottish Parliament amendment.

"... and justifying the establishment of the institution itself"
- sounds very much like a description of an organisation spinning wildly to confuse people into thinking that much of its activity was necessary or worthwhile, a sort of legislative ledgerdemain, when a lot of it was mere posturing ;)

As for the rest, well we can agree to disagree.

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