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Will MPs continue to run away from the challenge of political reform?

Change can be painful but is sometimes very necessary. We all know that our political system is broken: electors are disconnected, cynical and untrusting of politicians and the systems and institutions in which they operate. All the parties at the last General Election apparently embraced reform. Now it seems that they are all rapidly finding reasons to run away from those commitments now they have seen the potential consequences. I can think of few things - apart from another major expenses scandal - more likely to turn voters aways from the major parties and from engaging in the political process than a conspiracy of inaction on reform among the political establishment.

The charge sheet gets longer by the week and the latest furore is over the plans to reduce the number of MPs to 600 (from the current 650). An analysis in The Guardian today shows the Liberal Democrats are getting very cold feet about this reform which is already largely opposed by Labour. I'll put my cards on the table: I have always been in favour of reducing the size of the House of Commons and equalising the size of constituencies as this piece from February 2007 argues.

Reduction in the number of MPs is, of course, the other half of the reform proposals put through in the first year of this government, the first part being the referendum on the alternative vote. Having made an horrendous mistake in rushing into holding this, Nick Clegg and his party are now just waking up to the consequences of accepting the remainder of the package.

To me much of The Guardian's analysis rings true. Without the cushion of the alternative vote the Liberal Democrats will struggle to win in many of the new, larger seats but this doesn't mean they should be pushed into a corner and be made to look as if they are now opposing the reforms. As a party they already have enough problems with former leader Lord Steel lining up as one of the leading opponents of reform of the House of Lords.The Liberal Democrats once thrived as the party of reform and if they can't keep hold of that mantle then there will be very little left to enthuse potential supporters.

So, where will the debate over the reduction of seats take us?

At a national level it will be about the government holding its nerve and limiting the rebellions among backbench Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs who find they have signed up to abolish their own seats. Labour seems likely to continue to cast itself as the leading anti-reform party and I expect will vote against the final package.

At a local level there will be all sorts of fun and games as endless reviews of proposed new boundaries are heard. There will be all manner of specious arguments about natural boundaries, community links (or non-links as the case may be) and accusations of gerrymandering bandied about with depressing ease. Most of it will be nonsense. Indeed, it has already started with one senior Labour source quoted today in The Guardian complaining that the 'rule' that Parliamentary constituencies shouldn't cross London borough boundaries will now be broken. The only problem is that Labour and Tories accepted that this rule should go back in 1997 - just look at the constituencies on the edge of east London that bizarrely cross the boundaries of the boroughs of Waltham Forest and Redbridge. Of course, that wasn't gerrymandering and didn't break any imaginary rules. Expect alot more of this hypocritcal nonsense between now and when the final proposals are put to Parliament in two years time.

I still think that the realisation among Liberal Democrats that many will be without seats steadily increases the prospects - still small - of the next General Election being a 'Coupon Election'. This may turn out to be a neat way for the Tories to resolve the inevitable battles where two sitting Tory MPs face each other across the ballot box. It would be a small step for the 'coupon' to be extended to favoured Liberal Democrats who the Tories think have a better chance of beating Labour, returning us to the days of the National Liberals and splitting the Liberal Democrats much as the old Liberals were split in the days of Lloyd George and Asquith.


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