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?

, , , , ,

  • Michael Shilliday


    You seem to fundamentally misunderstand parts of this. There are no ifs and buts about it, if the number of NI MPs decreases, the numbers of MLAs decrease. It is section 33 of the NI Act 1998, nothing to do with the “entrenched GFA”, it is not a change that would unduly alter the substance or structure of the Agreement, infact the way it worded implies that co-terminosity is the intended goal, not the figure of 108.

    The interesting thing here is the noises the DUP are making about this change. It seems that they want fewer MLAs, but they don’t want fewer constituencies. Which isn’t about good government, its about the DUP electoral agenda.

  • Michael Shilliday

    I beg your pardon, I mean Brian!

  • Don’t stop at 90. We have near enough twice the number of MLAs as Wales has MAs and half the electorate.

  • Tochais Síoraí

    Will this affect next year’s Assembly elections?

  • Greenflag

    It’s window dressing at best. At worst it’ll make life easier for the mandarins who will have a fewer number of MP’s etc questioning ‘collective’ cabinet decision making .

    The problem facing the UK , the Republic and Northern Ireland is not the number of politicians but what the politicians actually do and what their actual role in a modern democracy is . Are they the people’s representatives or the ‘paid’ spokesmen for corporate interests ? Are they the puppets of the Civil Servants or have any bodily dangly bits long since been cut off ?

    dissenter ,

    ‘Don’t stop at 90. We have near enough twice the number of MLAs as Wales has MAs and half the electorate.’

    True but then the Welsh stopped killing each other for political and sectarian reasons more than 500 years ago . Best not to compare Welsh apples with NI oranges 😉

    Given the problems facing the UK economy and indeed the local regional economies of Scotland , Wales , NI and the less ‘regional ‘ROI this number of MP’s change has to be seen for what it is -a diversionary ruse -that has as it’s ultimate objective not the better and more efficient governance of the UK but merely the future electoral chances for the Tories .

  • Brian Walker

    I actually know the redcutin is contingent. net.ccrtit’s

  • Cynic

    ” it’ll make life easier for the mandarins ”

    not if we cull them by 40%

  • Brian Walker

    I know the effect on the Assembly is contingent. But in these circumstances if the parties were all agreed there should be no change I think it likely that no change would be enacted. The onus would be to legislate to retain the status quo.The Scottish precedent would probably apply to create different constituencies. The very high figure of 108 seats was reached to maximise the chances of important minorities in the peace process, as is well known. At the time the legislation was drafted, representation in both Houses was interrelated.

    But I think it would be perverse to make a change in the Assembly simply because a change was being made in the Commons for quite different reasons. In the real world, I think the cut in Assembly seats will happen. I look forward to an informed discussion on the effect on party shares and behaviour.

  • Seymour Major

    Will a smaller Commons elected in more uniform constituencies reduce the Labour bias in favour of the two coalition partners?

    I could not get into that “authoratitive article” but seeing that 34 out of the 50 seats lost would be in NI, Scotland and Wales, where the Conservatives have little or no representation and the fact that so many Labour held seats have very small electorates, I cant see how this will not benefit the Conservatives very significantly.

    However, if the AV referendum is a “yes”, it changes everything. Suddenly, far more seats become marginals and tactical voting comes into its own.

    When it comes to Northern Ireland, will AV entrench tribal politics at General Elections? I hope not.

  • slug

    AV removes the need for tribal pacts altogether.

  • slug

    I should say the argument, not need.

  • Brian,

    I always come back to my favourite political infographic – from Anthony Sampson’s ‘Who Runs this Place’

    I’d say most definitions of ‘democrat’ could translate to ‘expanding the size of that circle marked ‘Parliament’?

    And as a secondary observation: “Is Parliament *really* that weak? You wouldn’t believe it from what you read in the newspapers!”

    And then a third observation: Surely it’s not right that Parliament should have such powerful rivals? Surely it needs beefing up a bit?

    The French ratio of voters to elected officials is 120:1. In Britain it is more like 2,600:1.

    If there is one reason to detest the Lib-Dems for buying into the coalition, it’s their willingness to go along with this right-wing populist anti-politics bandwagon.

  • Michael Shilliday

    But I think it would be perverse to make a change in the Assembly simply because a change was being made in the Commons for quite different reasons. In the real world, I think the cut in Assembly seats will happen.

    Right, so you want a reduction in the numbers, but not this one. That makes no sense. At least the DUP have a cynical electoral methodology for opposing it!

  • Hello Paul

    I think it would be a very interesting idea to attempt a similar infographic for BTland. I daresay while many of the actors would be common to all drafts, their relative size would differ depending on the draughtsman, as indeed would the number of overlapping circles to take account of differing views on collusion and securotocracy.All in all it would be totally different to Sampson’s model.

    If somecould could explain how i might post such a graphic i might even have a go myself.


  • NI v Wales. And our situation is improved by having so many politicians?

  • Cynic

    Are we allowed a 100% cut?

  • Brian Walker

    No,Michael. You’re making a difference where none exists. It is likely these cuts will happen but they won’t just be nodded through. The Welsh will also object to the cut in their Assembly and will require more, not fewer Assembly seats if legislative powers are granted. Astroundingy, Clegg seems not to have been aware of the effects on devolution. They weren’t even mentioned in his Monday statement.At the time, most reaction concentrated and the clash between AV referendum and the devo elections. The effects of the 50 MPs cut are wider.

    If you can’t access the article it is The Political Quarterly vol 80 No 4 Oct-Dec 2009
    Can the Boundary Commissions help the Conservative Party? By Ron Johnston and others

    Paul, Your view of the coalition is your own but I would point out the raft of parliamentary and other reforms in the coalition agreement.

    6 Politcal reform

  • Seymour Major


    One more thing. Every cloud has a silver lining.

    If I was the Government, which wants to see more investment in NI, I would now be pushing its plans for a regional development zone right up the political agenda.

    Of course, the Government needs co-operation from politicians in Northern Ireland for some of its measures, including the proposed lower corporation tax. If it can secure that co-operation, then the The low prices in the property market and the prospect of a lower corporation tax rate, ironically, now make it a very good time for big businesses to invest here.

  • Seymour Major

    Sorry readers, this last comment went onto the wrong website. Too many windows open…..

  • Faha

    You have a typographical error in your electorate numbers. The Northern Ireland parliamentary electorate for July 2010 is 1,185,426. That would give Northern Ireland a quota for 15.63 seats , which would probably be rounded up to 16 seats. Supposedly, the December 2010 electorate( ? parliamentary or ? total electorate ) will be used to determine the final allocation.

  • Dewi

    A simple amendment to Government of Wales act would resolve the automatic decrease in Assembly members would it not? As to the decrease in MPs – makes perfect and reasonable sense. Less Welsh MPs the better – 0 would be a nice round number…

  • English Republic

    Agreed Dewi, the ideal number of Welsh, Scottish and Irish MP’s would be zero. Around 300 English MP’s should do the trick too in the new Federal Republic of England with as much power devolved to northern, midland, south-eastern and south-western assemblies as possible and in turn down to the counties, town’s/cities and parishes with representation too at an equal level on the confederal British-Irish Council. Perhaps then England may become a democracy instead of the feudal stateless nation it is today.

  • abucs

    How many Conservative and Lib Dem seats in “lowland” Scotland ?

    I’d be cutting there first. 😮

  • HeartoftheEmpire

    Could Belfast be reduced to just 3 Westminster seats? The rumours abound………

    If it is true, North Belfast will become even more vulnerable for Unionism at the next Westminster election.

  • I would just cut the lot of em off – at the throat, especially the bunch of primping prima donnas in the south.

  • Easy enough. Just draw up the graphic, take a photo of it and email it to

    They’ll send you back a link that will let you find it online.

    But, Anthony Sampson did write a lengthy – and very learned – essay about each of the circles in that diagram – the book is a v good one to look at as a way of studying the relative power of particular institutions.

    Even if the one marked ‘Parliament’ is exaggeratedly small (and I’m agnostic on that) it still makes the point that I think almost all political discourse ignores: That elected representatives have very powerful rivals that aren’t elected – and ones that every democrat should want to see reduced in stature relative to parliamentarians.

  • Drumlin Rock

    Will the redraw (and im guessing at 16 seats) be based on the new 11 council basis? and new ward areas? it makes much more sense to have boundaries rougly matching, with a few exception of course.

  • I suspect that we’ll see another demonstration of Northern Ireland’s administrative class flexing their muscles the moment that this means that any civil servants over the £35k pay-grade start noticing their jobs being threatened by any of this.

    Prepare for an exception to be promoted successfully.

  • Take from UK polling

    600 seats

    I’ve written a lot about AV over recent days, what about the boundary review. Now we know the new target number of seats upon which the quota will be set (600), the tolerance that will be allowed either side of that quota (5%), and the exceptions that will be allowed (the Western Isles, Orkney & Shetland and a cap by area), we can take some guesses at what the overall impact will be.

    The North East is rather tricky to fit into the new quotas. Northumberland only qualifies for 3 seats (while Berwick-upon-Tweed is a large, underpopulated seat, it doesn’t come close to the geographical limit!), but they would be grossly overpopulated so would need to be paired with one or more Tyne and Wear Boroughs. Durham could be divided into 6 seats, but the Cleveland Boroughs need to be paired with it if not to produce oversized seats. We’d end up with 14 seats in Northumberland and Tyne and Wear, down 2, and 12 seats in Cleveland and Durham, down 1.

    In Yorkshire North Yorkshire would not lose anything, and would presumably have only minor changes. Humberside would lose 1 seat, as would both South and West Yorkshire.

    The North West is also relatively straightforward on paper, Merseyside would lose 2 seats, Cheshire would lose 1, Lancashire would lose 1, Manchester would lose 1 and so would Cumbria. In practice there are probably some tricky problems to solve. The Wirral would currently get three seats, but they would be just above the 5% limit, so unless the quota has risen by December 2010 (or the population of the Wirral fallen), the spectre of a cross-Mersey seat would rise again. Cumbria is also probably also going to be tricky to divide into 5 neat seats.

    In the East Midlands, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire would retain 10 and 7 seats, so would probably have only minor changes. Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire would both lose a seat. Northamptonshire would qualify for 7 seats, but they would be too small to be within 5% of the new quota, so it would need to be paired with a neighbouring county. The most obvious candidate would be Bedfordshire to the South, which also needs to be paired to avoid undersized seats. Between them they would have 12 quota sized seats, compared to 13 currently.

    In the rest of the East of England Hertfordshire and Suffolk would have only minor changes. Cambridgeshire could also be treated alone, but Norfolk needs to be paired in order to produce seats within the quota limits, and a pairing with Cambridgeshire would produce seats closest to the quota – between them the two counties would retain 16 seats. Finally for the East, Essex would need to lose 1 seat.

    The West Midlands are another tricky region. Worcestershire, the West Midlands (down 3) and Staffordshire (down 1) can all be divided into seats within 5% of quota (though dividing Birmingham’s huge wards into seats within the 5% tolerance will be fun!). Shropshire and Herefordshire would need to be paired, but putting them together doesn’t help, so they would need to be dealt with together with Worcestershire (between them losing one seat). But this leaves Warwickshire too large to result in 5 seats inside the 5% limit. It could be paired with some of the Metropolitan boroughs, but a neater solution may be pairing Warwickshire with Oxfordshire, which would otherwise be oversized – together the two seats would retain their existing number of seats.

    The rest of the South East should have very little disruption from the review. Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, East and West Sussex, Surrey could all retain the same number of seats and hit the new quota. Hampshire would lose a seat based on its own electorate, but unless an extra exception is made it will need to be paired with the Isle of Wight creating a cross-Solent seat. Between them the Isle of Wight and Hampshire will retain the same number of seats. Kent therefore becomes the only county in the South East to lose a seat.

    In the South-West Cornwall will probably be upset about being paired with another county, but it is unavoidable. With an entitlement of almost exactly 5.5 seats it will need to be paired with Devon, between them having 17 seats, one down on currently. The former county of Avon will lose 1 seat, Gloucestershire will be largely unchanged. This leaves Dorset and Wiltshire where the average seat sizes will be too small, and Somerset where they will be too large. To me, the most sensible solution is pairing Wiltshire and Dorset, with Somerset paired with one or both of the parts of Avon originally drawn from Somerset. The result will be that Avon/Somerset lose one seat between them, and Dorset/Wiltshire lose one seat between them.

    London as a whole will have 70 seats, down from 73. There are obviously a large number of possible pairings of Boroughs to get to this point.

    Northern Ireland will lose 3 seats.

    Wales will suffer the harshest reduction in seats, down from 40 to 30 as its quota comes into line with the quota elsewhere in the country. Once again, there will be some tricky decisions for the boundary commission. My guess is Gwynedd will need to be linked with Clwyd (losing 3 seats between them), Powys will need to be linked to some other county – perhaps Gwent. The ERS’s stab at what sort of result boundary changes might produce had a rather odd link between Powys and Dyfed, which looks unlikely, but does make the maths work nicely. Either way, most of the rest of Wales will need to be linked up and there are various ways it might pan out.

    Finally, Scotland would have a quota of 51 seats, down from 59. However, we know there are exceptions to the rules for the Highlands and Islands. These mean that the Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland retain their current undersized seats. The Highlands are entitled to 2 seats based on the quota (though they would be more than 5% from the quota, so it would need to be paired.) In practice, I think it would be impossible to come up with a solution that didn’t involve a seat larger than the current Ross, Skye and Lochaber, which is to be the statutory geographical limit on size, so the Highlands will probably retain three seats (one possible solution that kept all the seats within 5% of the quota and under the geographical size of RS&L would be to put the south of the current RS&L with the undersized Argyll and Bute, then splitting the remainder of RS&L between the other two highland seats – I think one would still end up being too large geographically though. With the Highlands and Islands taken care of, the rest of Scotland would be entitled to 48 seats, producing a total of 52 or 53, down 6 or 7.

  • joeCanuck

    I agree totally. 54 MLAs should be MORE than enough for what they do. Here in Ontario, we have about 100MLAs for a population of about 11 million and it works just fine.

  • Michael,

    The 1998 NI Act can be changed by any subsequent Act of Parliament. Given the rumblings from Scotland and Wales I imagine that the legislation fixing the size of the House of Commons will also include consequential provisions for the sizes of the devolved bodies.If there is consensus among the NI political parties that they prefer 7×15 = 105 MLAs to 6×15 = 90, then that is what we will probably get.


    By comparing the July 2010 NI electorate to the recorded electorate for the whole of the UK in May you are not comparing like with like. One cannot be sure but I imagine that the December figures will show NI is entitled to 15 rather than 16 seats. One cannot, of course, exclude that NI gets 16 seats anyway for political reasons.

  • Thanks for the info on how to post graphics.

    I suppose I shall have to have a go now. It almost goes without saying there will be no learned theory or knowledge underpinning this graphic, it will be borne of preconception and imagination.

    back in a couple of days.

  • Michael Shilliday

    There wont be. There is concenus that a smaller assembly is needed, however what the DUP want is 18 constituencies electing a small number of members, not a smaller number of constituencies electing 6 members. That’s why they’re complaining about this, proportionate, reduction in the numbers of MPs in Northern Ireland.

  • PaddyReilly

    The Stormont constituencies are, by law, the same as the Westminster constituencies. So if there are 16 Westminster MLAs, there will be 96 MLAs. If there are 15, then 90.

  • Surely, there’s that other criterion beyond “equalisation”: sheer geographical size. This is what will “save” the otherwise unviable Orkney & Shetland (which has been a constituency for over 300 years — and gone Tory just twice) and Na h-Eileanan an Iar seats (honourably neverTory).

    I should have thought that must apply to several NI seats, including the monstrosity of Fermanagh and South Tyrone (what’s that, Belleek to Dungannon?). Which should delight everyone and even preserve Ms Gildernew for the nation.

  • Drumlin Rock

    Its Beleek to The Birches, almost 10 miles past Dungannon and into Co. Armagh, however it probably wont get much bigger, Remember all local wards have been redrawn already for the 11 councils, and these ignore the Westminster areas.

  • That’s still — what? — 75+ miles of road. All the present county constituencies west-of-the-Bann are vast stretches, and some rough country. A couple of weeks back I trusted my SatNav’s “imaginative” directions through the Sperrins. Fortunately it was a decent June day.

    And the good news? The Commons case for defending the status quo would have to be argued by someone of the intellectual stretch, wit, wisdom, and loquacity of … Gregory Campbell.