Commons cuts will force radical reform and a smaller Assembly

It’s now clear that the UK coalition’s decision to cut the number of MPs by 50 to 600 will have radical implications for the Assembly. Northern Ireland is set to have its numbers cut to 15 MPs, three fewer than at present.

This is the up to date data

Electorate                                                                 600 MPs

England 38,241,036                                                 504.62

Northern Ireland 1,135,835                                    14.98

Scotland 3,864,416                                                     50.96

Wales 2,261,816                                                            29.82

 Quota 75,839

The Assembly is of course elected on the basis on the 18 Westminster constituencies. But if these are cut to 15, 108 members don’t divide equally into them. Hypothetically, we could have a solution of say, 12 seven seat constituencies and 3 eight seaters (monstrosities all) – were it not for the fact a uniform UK national quota is being imposed, allowing for a variable of only plus or minus 5% in the size of each constituency – except for two vast Scottish constituencies. This will create problems of breaking up natural communities up and down the UK

For NI, this means electing 108 MLAs in completely new, different constituencies – or much more likely – scaling down the Assembly proportionally to 90 MLAs. Despite the rumbles about leaner, fitter government coming from the DUP especially, the natural inertia of the Assembly might have staved reform off indefinitely. It’s probably for the best that its being forced on them in  a way they would never have suspected. It will not happen automatically, becuase of the entrenched status  of the GFA.   lt will have to be negotiated and  then passed by Westminster. The implications for each party and the sectarian balance will be profound.

NI MPs will have to react fact. The Bill will be published in the week beginning July 19 and debated in early September. The number of MPs will be cut whether the AV referendum is won or not. Westminster and Stormont elections will coincide on the same year 2015, because of the passage of a fixed five year term for parliament, if the coalition survives.

The Welsh Assembly also faces a cut, from 60 to 45 AMs, but this runs counter to their wish for an expanded Assembly to be able to take on legislative powers. Holyrood is not affected as their elections are held in different constituencies.

Will a smaller Commons elected in more uniform constituencies reduce the Labour bias in favour of the two coalition partners? Not much, according to an authoritative article in Political Quarterly. Differences in average electorates in 2005 would have accounted for only 26 of 111 seats won by Labour. Main party distribution and the impact of other parties were more influential, accounting for 38 Labour, 35 Cons and 9 Lib Dems.

But why should the facts get in the way of the conviction politics of reform?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London