Fewer MPs, better politics

26 May 2015

In the next Parliament, we will address the unfairness of the current Parliamentary boundaries, reduce the number of MPs to 600 to cut the cost of politics and make votes of more equal value. We will implement the boundary reforms that Parliament has already approved and make them apply automatically once the Boundary Commission reports in 2018.

Conservative Party Election Manifesto, 2015

Recent news reports indicate that MPs fearing the loss of their parliamentary seats could scupper plans to reduce the size of the House of Commons to 600 MPs. This is despite the reduction having already been legislated for, and which the Conservative Party laudably committed themselves too in their Manifesto.

The House of Commons is a comparatively large parliamentary chamber only surpassed by the House of Lords, the People’s Congress of China and the North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly. As such, it is the largest democratically elected parliamentary chamber in the world. If one considers the number of constituents represented by each MP, the Commons remains a comparatively large elected body. Westminster MPs on average represent 98,611 citizens. In a comparative group of countries with bicameral parliaments and populations between 50 and 90 million, members of parliament represent on average 118,515 constituents.

In the Federalist Papers James Madison asserted that “no political problem is less susceptible to a precise solution than that which relates to the number most convenient for a representative legislature”. The problem pitches representativeness against deliberative and decisional efficiency, each decreasing as the number of legislators increases. Unsurprisingly, there have been many calls for a reduction in the size of the House of Commons over the years. In 1995, for instance, Robert Blackburn, Professor of Constitutional Law, King’s College London, called for a reduction to between 525 and 475 MPs, stating in The electoral system in Britain that: “An excessive number of MPs diminishes the importance of the individual Westminster politician, and reduces the impact of general debates in the House when there are so many participants who may wish to speak, and from whom the Speaker has to make a very restricted choice in the time available.”

A reduction in the size of the Commons would not only address efficiency issues but also – as highlighted in the Conservative Manifesto – reduce the cost of politics. In a recent report, Reform, calculated that the reduction to 600 MPs as currently legislated for, would save £11.2 million annually through savings on MP pay and expenses. A reduction to 500 MPs, which would put the House of Commons on roughly equal terms to the German Bundestag in terms of constituents per MP, would save nearly £34 million annually.

Reform has argued that part of these substantial savings should be reinvested into improving the quality of politics, for instance by strengthening the select committees, which have successfully improved cross-party cooperation and brought greater depth to the policy debate in Westminster. Reform has advocated that select committees are given a greater role in legislative scrutiny and that chairs and members are paid salary increments commensurate with the responsibility and workload inherent in their roles. This could strengthen the status of the Commons against the Executive, weakening the party political patronage by creating alternative career paths in politics, and improving policy making through ensuring the application of expertise in deliberation.

Government must not kowtow to the vested interests of MPs but reform Parliament to be smaller and smarter in the national interest.

Camilla Hagelund, Senior Researcher, Reform

Relevant links:

Propose your own reforms to the size of Parliament and select committee pay with our cost calculator.

Read Reform’s take on improving the quality of legislative scrutiny in the House of Commons and reducing the number of MPs: How to run a country. A Parliament of lawmakers.

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