Labour’s response to the Boundary Commission showed us the political class at their worst

The only people who will really notice changes to constituency boundaries are MPs. As a result they are making a fuss. However, this achieves nothing, except to remind people of how self-serving the political class has become.

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Emily Thornberry has been particularly vocal
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Guy Stagg
On 15 September 2011 11:43

The response to the Boundary Commission's draft redrawing of the electoral map generated a lot of heat, but very little light.

Perhaps this is no surprise. Nothing animates politicians like an issue where their self-interest is at stake. Nonetheless, almost everything that they said sounded hysterical.

Labour MPs were especially vocal. Emily Thornberry argued that the proposed changes would ‘destroy what is left of representative democracy’. Meanwhile one shadow cabinet member compared the proposals to ‘the partition of India’. Not only are these claims nonsense, but they betray an extraordinary level of self-regard.

However, Labour’s central criticism – their accusation that the government is gerrymandering – is the most lunatic claim of all. It is not enough that the Boundary Commission is independent. It is not enough that the current system gives Labour up to a five point head-start. It is not even enough that the cut in MP numbers is a necessary step to restore the reputation of a body still marred by the expenses scandal. None of this can stop Labour MPs from crying foul.

But to justify themselves, and to defend the status quo, Labour have to twist and writhe. It is not an edifying sight. Though in the end their intellectual contortions come down to one argument: Labour constituencies are on average smaller than Conservative and Lib Dem ones. However, because turnout among Labour voters is smaller, that makes it OK. This isn’t an argument. It is an excuse. And a pretty poor one at that.

Labour know this. And they know that the public won’t buy it. So instead they spend their time complaining about the communities that will be torn apart by the new constituency boundaries.

There can be no doubt that the Commission has got it wrong in cases. Some of the new constituencies will have been insensitively hurried together. But are any of the examples so ill-judged that the entire project should be thrown out? Of course not. If a more democratic system is on offer, then some compromises will have to be made on a local level.

To anyone outside the bubble this seems obvious. Step away from  Westminster and the shrieking stops. There is broad support for the Commission’s efforts from every side of the political spectrum. The central argument appeals to any fair-minded person: constituencies should be roughly the same size and parties should not gain more seats with fewer votes.

Look at yesterday’s leaders from the Guardian and Telegraph. Both are calm and balanced, and both come to similar conclusions. The electoral system should not favour any one party. Equal constituency sizes are more democratic. Indeed, the two papers go further, to offer their support for the shrinking of parliament – with the important condition that government gets smaller as well.

Politicians often accuse the media of hyping a situation. But here the opposite is true. The people who will really notice these changes are MPs. As a result they are making a fuss. However, this achieves nothing, except to remind people of how self-serving the political class has become.

Guy Stagg is a freelance journalist, based in London.  He tweets at @guystagg

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