Should we have fewer politicians?

Lord Norton

_44776119_mps226cr_paBoth Houses of Parliament are, by international standards, exceptionally large; indeed, we have the largest Parliament in the democratic world.  David Cameron, in an interview with The Financial Times, has suggested that the number of seats in the House of Commons be reduced by sixty.

When I chaired the Commission to Strengthen Parliament, established by William Hague, we proposed an even more radical reduction in number – a House of 500.  However, recognising the argument that turkeys are reluctant to vote for Christmas, we proposed that the reduction be staggered and introduced over a twenty-year peiod: that way, sitting MPs were less likely to feel themselves under threat.  We accepted the case put to us by several witnesses that a smaller House would be able to carry out its functions more effectively with better-resourced members.  There are arguments for retaining the existing large House, by we felt the balance of argument clearly favoured a reduction in number.

We did not deal with the second chamber in respect of numbers.  I accept that, although there is a strong case for having a large membership in the House of Lords, there is scope for reducing the number from its present level.  There are members who, given the opportunity, would retire and we could fulfil our functions with a House reduced by a hundred or more.   There is provision in the House of Lords Bill, reintroduced this session by Lord Steel, to allow for retirement and for a statutory appointments commission to work towards a House that is smaller in number than the House of Commons.  The Bill is unlikely to reach the statute book, but it enables the principle to be discussed. 

Even if both Houses were reduced on the scale suggested, we would still have a large Parliament.  Are we being too radical in these suggestions?  Or not radical enough?

46 comments for “Should we have fewer politicians?

  1. Tory Boy
    13/01/2009 at 6:31 pm

    I think the number in the Commons is about right but Scotland should have less mp’s as Lord Baker has stated it is to over represented when compared to the England and Wales. I think the number of new peers in the lords should be scaled back so that the house has about 630-650 members. With the number of peers who die over a cycle of a parliament this could be achieved.

  2. TeaorCoffee?
    13/01/2009 at 7:43 pm

    As much as I am sure many members of the general public would like to see fewer politicians, don’t us Brits value the personal touch?

    Perhaps not all but certainly some MPs are overburdened with work already. When the public go out to vote for an individual, they (one assumes) expect at least on some level to have their problems/issues etc heard by that individual. If the workload were to increase due to enlarged constituencies, do we not run the risk of having whole aspects of an Member’s role (more so than is already the case) being handed over to their staff, who at the end of the day are not elected by ‘the people’. Levels of public trust toward MPs is low enough already, could a smaller House not result in the public feeling even more distant from Parliament and indeed politics as a whole?

    I do on the other hand think there is a strong case for Lords reform. If one could reduce the numbers as suggested, those remaining could have additional resources, an office of their own perhaps, which could make them more effective at their core role, scrutinising legislation.

  3. Senex
    13/01/2009 at 7:47 pm

    Use of an odd number to define membership is much on my mind at the moment on another matter. Should the opportunity arise my post will be controversial as might be expected if ever it gets posted.

    Given that Lord Soley finds my posts on foreign affairs a little too rich for his diet, he blocks them, the prospective post will positively want to make him throw up.

    On the subject of numbers I note that their Lardships in the Commons when in full attendance seem to cram the front benches like sardines. Yes, perhaps there should be fewer MPs or at least thinner ones?

    It seems to me that the Commission 2.1 should have no power of veto or the ability to abstain or sit without the number being ‘prime’. The bill as it stands seems to make deadlock a distinct possibility.

    House of Lords Bill
    2 Commission membership
    (1) The Commission shall consist of nine members.

  4. lordnorton
    13/01/2009 at 8:35 pm

    TeaorCoffee? Because of disparities in constituency size, some MPs have represented constituencies with more than 100,000 constituents, apparently without any loss of personsal service to their constituents. It would be possible for that to be the norm rather than the exception. Reducing the number of MPs would enable the remaining Members to have more resources and thus able to absorb the routine aspects of the job.

  5. Bedd Gelert
    13/01/2009 at 9:19 pm

    I’m not sure that this a runner. I have been pleasantly surprised by the responses to letters to my MP and the fact that they are able to listen to what I have to say on upcoming legislation. Of course, if I had more detailed problems for them to solve, that might be different.

    The case-load and work-load of the really hard-working MPs is probably very heavy at the moment. If they weren’t there to tackle this, I don’t see councillors or Euro MPs taking up the slack – many don’t know who they are. Most people do know who their MP is – a good thing.

    The problem for you, Lord Norton, is that you may be right that there are probably 60 MPs who, if they disappeared from the House, would not make a huge difference to the amount of work being done. But don’t be seduced by the idea that if the House of Commons were reduced it would be those very people who would disappear… Swing-the-lead time-servers have a way of hanging on for grim death.

    And you can’t defeat the ‘Pareto’ principle easily.

  6. Bedd Gelert
    13/01/2009 at 9:24 pm

    “Because of disparities in constituency size, some MPs have represented constituencies with more than 100,000 constituents, apparently without any loss of personsal service to their constituents.”

    Righty-ho, I handed read this until I’d posted above.
    Now I know you’re ‘having a laugh’. This is the sort of thing businesses say when they’re ‘rationalising’ their number of branches.

    ‘But you’ll still have access to our 24hour telephone helpline’.

    This might work with, say, 60, 000 people in leafy Surrey.
    But what about an inner-city with a high caseload of asylum seekers ?

    4 MPs for a town the size of Manchester ? Yeah, right…

  7. lordnorton
    13/01/2009 at 9:41 pm

    Bedd Gelert: As I mentioned in response to a comment on an earlier post, much of the correspondence that MPs receive has nothing to do with matters for which central Government has responsibility. The demand side may not diminish, but the way to deal with the supply side is to increase the resources available to Members. Members are not usually specialists in the matters raised with them by constituents. It makes sense to have dedicated case workers and researchers, rather than expect Members to deal with the matters themselves. Much, indeed most, correspondence is dealt with already in a routine manner, without the Member having to get too involved.

  8. Paul
    14/01/2009 at 12:23 am

    Wouldn’t reducing the number of MPs just lead to even more empty spaces on committees?

  9. lordnorton
    14/01/2009 at 8:46 am

    Paul: It would have implications not only for the pool of committee members but also for government dominance (ministers then comprising a larger proportion of the House). Both problems only exist, though, if you retain the present size of committees and the number of government ministers. My view is that one does not need so many members on a committee – so you could retain the number of committees but have a smaller number of members on each – and, as we argued in the Commission report, there would need to be a proportional reduction in the number of ministers. As I have drawn attention to in an earlier post, the number of ministers is actually increasing: the move needs to be in the opposite direction.

    Conor McGrath: Thanks for your comments. I was not disagreeing with the Committee’s recommendations, but rather arguing they did not address what was the real area of concern, and that is those who are outside the scope of the inquiry. I was not thinking of small groups who may have trouble registering but rather those interests that are not organised at all or groups who are not aware of how to make their voices heard. I would argue that we need to address that aspect; ensuring that there is a register of lobbyists may or may not be of some value, but I am not sure it gets to the heart of my concern.

  10. lordnorton
    14/01/2009 at 8:48 am

    Just realised that Conor McGrath has posted his comments in response to my earlier post on Parliamentary lobbying: see my earlier post!

  11. Noodles
    14/01/2009 at 10:43 am

    Given the recent publication regarding the failure of the Government over the past 11 years to really make a decent improvement on social mobility I’m concerned about the idea of cutting MPs from inner city areas. Although, saying that I wonder how many MPs from inner city areas voted against introducing and increasing University tuition fees…

    That being said when contrasting the Isle of White with other constituencies the system does seem rather imbalanced and more similar to the rotten boroughs of old than a modern Parliamentary democracy.

    Overall, I’m not sure about the size of the Commons, if 500 members would be more efficient then why not; it’s certainly worth looking into. Although I can’t see MPs supporting the notion, especially when their constituencies are affected even if it was phased in over 20 years!

    On the other hand the balance of geographic boundaries and population shifts, which I think was at the heart of what David Cameron was advocating, does need looking into. The disparages between how much % of the electorate’s votes Labour need to win to form government compared to the Conservatives do give the appearance of an unbalanced electoral system. On the other hand we have a first past the post system which produces non-proportional results.

    One source to backup my point is although there are many others out there.

  12. Bedd Gelert
    14/01/2009 at 10:45 am

    Good to see the Lords getting some ‘airtime’ with the sketchwriters..

  13. 14/01/2009 at 10:57 am

    Less MPs please. Now that between 50% and 80% of all legislation is dictated by the EU, depending on whose figures you use, the important central Government work of an MP must have reduced substantially.

    My town is represented by two MPs who duplicate a considerable amount of real nitty gritty work that is the responsibility of the local Council, so we have duplication of effort between them and the Council as well as with each other.

    As you said: “much of the correspondence that MPs receive has nothing to do with matters for which central Government has responsibility.” This is born out by the discussions I hear at local surgeries.

    Getting involved with a broken gutter above a local shop, or cycling on pavements (as happened recently) is hardly the work an MP is elected to do, IMO. On the positive side, they do fight for their electorate very well when required, when an issue is one that central government can resolve.

    One of the problems is that local Councils have so little power over substantive matters. Please let’s have less MPs, less unelected pseudo government ie less Quangos, less unelected regional authorities, less RDAs less regional government offices and more ‘real’ power devolved to Parish and local Councils.

    This is a bigger issue than you suggest, IMO.

  14. Bedd Gelert
    14/01/2009 at 10:58 am

    Lord Norton – you have shattered my illusions ! You will be telling me that there is no tooth fairy next… There was I thinking that my MP was looking into some of my concerns personally, or at least thinking ‘Ah, I’d better check in on that debate about supercasinos / id cards’ and actually signing the reply.

    Maybe they don’t – but I do think some are better than others. I would be interested to know why so much of the correspondence doesn’t relate to the work of ‘central government’. In a way, I think this proves my point that most people are aware of their MP in a way they simply are not aware of their councillors or MEPs. Getting rid of 60 would not necessarily change the voter’s view that their MP is their best point of initial contact about a problem.

    I suspect that it would be a shame if this like were lost, as I suspect it already is in Scotland and in Wales, where a lot of ‘who does what’ buck passing must take place. But in fairness I do take your point that MPs need to become more professional, and not have to struggle as ‘gifted amateurs’ or ‘casual enthusiasts’.

    But given that all this is going to require people to vote for the abolition of their own jobs, I think this will be like fox-hunting and Lords reform, and be kicked into some very long grass for a very long time. And with a recession on, the last thing we need is for 60 unemployable middle-aged people to be added to the dole q.

  15. Bedd Gelert
    14/01/2009 at 11:21 am

    I’ve had a quick flick through your report [the bullet point recommendations at the end are very handy..].

    The ‘video-link’ suggestion is very good. As are the points about ‘Question Time’. The idea for constraining the size of the cabinet is a good one – but coupled with reducing the number of junior ministers will reduce the ‘payroll vote’ in a way I can’t see the now more ‘presidential’ role of PM agreeing too.

    I agree that we ‘wouldn’t start from here..’ but it will be interesting to see if anything comes of this. Perhaps we could have a ‘reality tv’ contest to see who gets ‘evicted from the House’ ?

    One suspects that if the Tories get back in, they might welcome the chance to reverse-gerrymander the in-built bias towards Labour in the current Parliamentary constituency boundaries.

    Or maybe, Lord Norton, you could go ‘out on the road’ to canvass support and views for such changes in the manner of the ‘One Wales’ roadshow currently traversing the valleys. You could even ask Lord Bilimoria to help with the ‘currymandering’ process..

  16. Bedd Gelert
    14/01/2009 at 11:57 am

    Sorry, that should have read ‘All Wales Convention’..

    But the curry is still the same…

  17. Pseudonym
    14/01/2009 at 12:58 pm

    Alfred – You’re absolutely right. The reason why the UK has so many national representatives is that it has so few lower-level representatives, particularly at the tier below county council/unitary authority. I’ve seen a set of figures, which of course I can’t now find, but Simon Jenkins has written about the issue relatively recently:

    The fact that a large number of national representatives exists is both symptomatic of and contributes to an inappropriate centralisation of decisionmaking – I’m much more inclined to contact my MP about a local problem, because I perceive that he has more clout than a local councillor, who may be the more appropriate person to approach with a concern. Most people share this perception, which leads to demands for local change being put to national representatives, and which contributes to a bizarre schizophrenia: we demand that national government fix things, but bemoan the fact that everything is done in a top-down, centralist manner! This isn’t helped by the neo-localism of all major parties over the past decade or so, which basically boils down to ‘devolve administration, centralise decisionmaking’.

  18. Bedd Gelert
    14/01/2009 at 2:10 pm
  19. Bedd Gelert
    14/01/2009 at 2:17 pm

    Senex – you are so right – Lord Soley hasn’t quite understood this ‘blogging’ concept at all, and is notoriously touchy [tetchy?] about posting opinions he disagrees with – especially on Heathrow’s 3rd runway..

  20. NHackett
    14/01/2009 at 3:09 pm

    While local and regional democracy remains so weak/non existent in England then the case for a reduction in MP’s will remain in my view weak. Reducing numbers to 500 in the Commons I dont believe would benefit the working nature of the Commons. There is already concern with the growth of career MP’s and limiting numbers would only I believe limit the number of MP’s with wider experiences still further.

  21. lordnorton
    14/01/2009 at 3:24 pm

    Noodles: You are correct in that one of David Cameron’s aims is to ensure greater equity in constituency sizes. Allowance for a range of factors other than equality in numbers, plus demographic movement, has resulted in some notable disparaties.

    Alfred and Pseudonym: I very much take your points about local government. Demands on MPs have increased as the powers of local government have decreased. I cannot prove a casusal relationship but it is a notable correlation. I very much believe in pushing power (decision making power, not simply administrative responsibility) down to local government (the more local the better – I see no point in having regional government); if a consequence of that is that people pursue local issues directly with local councillors rather than MPs, then so much the better.

    Bedd Gelert: I take your point about people contacting MPs because they are not aware of what MEPs or councillors do or how to contact them. I also think there is some merit in MPs still being available for constituents who are not sure what to do. MPs can do valuable work in dealing with correspondence. Often constituents are not seeking a changed decision but simply an explanation of why a decision has been taken: the fact of receiving a reply from an MP is appreciated. Under my proposals, this would not necessarily change. MPs would be able to continue what they do at the moment, but be better resourced to engage in the routine work involved and, as appropriate, have staff to undertake the relevant research.

  22. Senex
    14/01/2009 at 6:06 pm

    Bedd Gelert: Its like this doc – the blog engine allows Lord Soley to act like a tyrant. No header is posted saying the post breaks blog rules and no email is sent to the blogger explaining why the post was blocked. It reminds me of Stalin. As a God if he did not like you or he felt that you were stealing his thunder (Hammersmith) then you would disappear.

  23. 14/01/2009 at 6:44 pm

    Lord Norton, thank you for your reply. In answer to another point you made, I don’t think that your proposals are radical enough. Having lived in the USA for a while, I am used to local government that was fully funded locally with the power and responsibility to manage those funds as the electorate saw fit. As a result, the electorate was very involved and debate was both healthy and highly vociferous. Meetings were well attended. When your pocket is being picked, you get involved.

    Senators and Congressmen were hardly involved in local politics because their electoral base was so large, unless an issue was of national importance. You didn’t write to them on a purely local issue because there was no point. It was local – just that. In a national issue such as the bank bail out, their switchboards were jammed, email boxes broken and their mail mountainous. They were forced to listen and did so. Being re-elected every 4 years helped as well. 5 years seems so long to me.

    I would love to see that sort of power and responsibility delegated locally to english councils. When people feel that they have a real say over how their money is spent, they’ll start to get involved. As Pseudonym says, at the moment we have ‘devolve[d] administration, centralise[d] decisionmaking’. The result is a disengaged electorate.

  24. lordnorton
    14/01/2009 at 6:57 pm

    Alfred: Thanks for your further comments. I have considerable symapthy with what you write, especially in your last paragraph: “When people feel that they have a real say over how their money is spent, they’ll start to get involved.” If we push decision-making power down to local councils, with more say over how money is spent (not least in relation to money raised locally), then people may get more interested and involved. That is something we do need to be pursuing.

  25. lordnorton
    14/01/2009 at 9:43 pm

    Senex: I am not aware of comments being blocked. I am the one who tends to check the comments regularly for the blog and, unless there are any that are irrelevant (most spam gets intercepted but occasionally the odd thing gets through) or abusive (haven’t come across any) I let them on.

  26. Senex
    15/01/2009 at 12:26 pm

    Lord Norton: My issue is not so much with Lord Soley as the blog engine.

    The post comes up ‘awaiting moderation’ on my box with a yellow banner and invariably as you state the post is published. This was no different on the post in question it too showed with a yellow banner. However, the post was not published and has happened twice on Lord Soley posts.

    As I said in the early days of the blog, blogging is not for the feint hearted. If your ‘fellow’ bloggers feel you have said something out of turn they will round on you in no uncertain terms and you will feel dreadful.

    The blog is a great leveller but it also teaches you about practical politics in that you have to choose your worms carefully. In the end bloggers views are personal and in no way reflect the views of the establishment.

    I suppose I am talking about blog politics and an assertion that bloggers need to know where the boundaries lie. Apart from spam any blogger that breaks the house rules must be ‘publicly flogged’ by letting fellow bloggers know of the misdeed and by a single banner signalling this. The miscreant though needs to have email feedback as to why the post was blocked so that they are wiser for the experience.

    Is this the basis for a Lords of the Blog constitutional bill of rights?

  27. 16/01/2009 at 2:21 pm

    Blogs can be said to have reached maturity when the first “you’re banning my comments, you dictators!” spat happens. Congratulations LotB for reaching this important milestone!

    On topic:

    Change for change’s sake is worthless fluff and bluster. So what if our Parliament is larger than everyone else’s? Might this not in fact mean that theirs are all too small? Numbers without analysis aren’t any use at all. If we would look to reduce the number of politicians in parliament we should at least have some stated goals beyond simply reducing the number of politicians. What would reducing those numbers achieve? Who would benefit? Who would lose out? Would it be a wash, mere shuffling of the org chart in a way that didn’t really impact the business of Westminster?

    The issue of local vs national representation, already raised, is something which is not isolated from this debate and needs to be taken strongly into consideration when discussing reducing the numbers of MPs. I feel it is necessary to start looking at reversing the seemingly inexorable centralisation of politics towards Westminster. Reducing MPs may well be a part of that, but only as part of a broader package of policies which improve and empower local or regional authorities.

    National government should not be a fat and bloated thing, but it should be one of many lean stratas of government. Too much emphasis on national vs regional or intranational governments means that one level of government gets all the cream but also has to do all the work. I certainly think there are grounds in this sense to strip down Parliament. I don’t think that there are any particular grounds to reduce the numbers if we’re not also going to address local and regional government at the same time.

  28. lordnorton
    18/01/2009 at 8:58 pm

    McDuff: The argument is not simply one that relies on comparison. The case for reducing numbers is enhanced by changes in the nature of the membership of the Commons. There has been a notable growth in the number of career politicians – politicians who, in Max Weber’s terms, ‘live for politics’. Peter Riddell in ‘Honest Opportunism’ has shown the extent of the change. This has implications not only for the nature of political discourse but also for the capacity of the House to cope with the demands of the membership. Career politicians seek to get noticed – by their constituents and their party leaders. They therefore exploit the opportunities available to get noticed and this places pressure on the resources of the House. Reducing the number of members reduces the pressure on the resources of the House.

    As I have also indicated, I favour pushing power down to local government, which may have the effect of reducing pressure on MPs.

    Senex: On the blog, I discovered another problem in relation to your comments, or at least one of them: I discovered it, quite by chance, in the Spam category. I now regularly check the Spam box – just in case.

  29. 19/01/2009 at 8:08 am

    “As I have also indicated, I favour pushing power down to local government, which may have the effect of reducing pressure on MPs.”

    But how do we make this come about? My local MP has made it very clear that we elected him for 5 years and if we don’t like what he does then our opportunity to remove him comes up at the end of 5 years. It is almost impossible to influence him in between despite at least one very angry public meeting that ~150 to 5 tried to make him change his mind. As he has said. Localism, “means a reinforcement of inequality in this country”.

    I understand where he is coming from but I totally disagree.

  30. Senex
    19/01/2009 at 7:52 pm

    Lord Norton: “I now regularly check the Spam box – just in case”

    I do the same every day. The symbolism is an interesting one. Never throw anything away until you have picked through it. Waste-not want not! If you use Outlook as I do it pays to turn off the preview pane in the spam folder and delete things without opening them but I suppose you know this.

    Not withstanding too much information: I use Sunbelt Software’s IHateSpam product that installs into Outlook. Its highly accurate and reliable but then it is a personal preference.

  31. Senex
    19/01/2009 at 7:57 pm

    Alfred: Its interesting that you say this. The people of Doncaster cannot get rid of their Mayor, he simply refuses to go. There are clearly constitutional matters that need addressing.

    Ref: Mayor loses ‘no confidence’ vote

  32. 20/01/2009 at 8:51 am

    Senex, an interesting and sad report. I’m not used to mayor’s having anything other than ceremonial power, but it would appear, from this report, that Doncaster’s is the leader of the council. Surely if you loose a vote of no confidence, then you should go and if not, the council should terminate his employment contract. If not, then he is a dictator, not a leader. I presume that the BBC article does not cover all the relevant facts or this would have happened.

  33. 20/01/2009 at 4:31 pm

    Lord Norton

    Your points are well made, but I would argue that the issues need to be connected more in policy terms. There may well be good arguments for reducing the size of parliament independent of the situation with local and regional government, but this does not mean that the two issues aren’t interconnected. Since there are also independent arguments for pushing authority down (and since strengthening regional authorities would create positions for the career politicians in Westminster to covet you lose some of the problem of Turkeys voting for Christmas) it seems reasonable to address both issues.


    Everyone thinks their particular level of authority is the one that’s important, with everyone above them being disconnected interfering busybodies and everyone below them being parochial know nothings. Unfortunately if your local MP believes he’s only accountable to the local constituents at an election, the only solution is to make sure you’re ready at the next election to make him accountable.

  34. lordnorton
    20/01/2009 at 5:01 pm

    Alfred and McDuff: I do see the two points as related. Pushing power down to local government would entail legislation, in effect undoing much legislation of earlier years, so that more is decided at local level. There is the crucial question of what form such local governance should take. The change to a cabinet system of local government has not necessarily fufilled its potential. The situation in Doncaster shows some of the difficulties that can arise where one has a directly-elected mayor. The form becomes even more important if more power is vested in local government.

  35. 21/01/2009 at 8:05 pm

    Lord Norton

    This is why regional government needs to be looked at as a serious issue rather than just a boondoggle. One of the reasons that power was pushed upwards from cities and counties is that there is a need to make decisions on larger scales than simply the City of Doncaster or the County of Northumberland, but simply piling all this authority into Westminster Palace has created vacuums where people feel a palpable lack of concern for the needs of their region. Outside of the major cities people can feel both abandoned and unimportant. There is of course no guarantee that regional representation would be an absolute solution for this problem, but the issue does point to a genuine need for advocacy on behalf of the many towns like Oldham or Darlington which are “neither nowt nor summat” in governmental terms, stifled by the increased centralisation of government.

  36. lordnorton
    21/01/2009 at 9:01 pm

    McDuff: I fear that regional assemblies would become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. There is in many cases no regional identity (and sometimes no obvious region; what region, for example, does Oxford fall into?) and the likelihood is that powers would not be pushed down from central government but rather sucked up from local government. There is also the problem of avoiding imbalance within a region. If there are dominant urban areas within a region, other parts, especially rural areas, can feel left out and resent the structure. One can see some of the problems in the troubled existence of the now defunct Humberside. I favour pushing power down to the level with which feel the greatest affinity, which tends to be the county or the city/town.

  37. 21/01/2009 at 9:56 pm

    Surely the main problem with regional assemblies must be that they are not accountable to the electorate. They are yet another example of non representative government like the mushrooming number of Quangos, regional government offices, and other government funded bodies like the ACPO which have power but no electoral accountability. The electorate has no say over how they spend its money, how they organise themselves, how decisions are made etc etc.

  38. 21/01/2009 at 11:02 pm

    Isn’t Oxfordshire one of the Cthulu counties? I think there are a great many counties wrapped in the tentacles of the Capital Ubercity of London which have lost much sense of their identity aside from places where history once happened and where people now live to commute because it’s too expensive to buy a house in London. Whether there’s a cause to incorporate that orbital mass into a donut-shaped “Not London Honest!” region or just advise them to throw up our hands and submit to being the world’s largest suburb is probably one of the wrinkles to be ironed out.

    Nonetheless, I don’t see that there is such a vast issue once you move out of London’s dark gravitational pull. The North-East and North-West, stretching from The Scottish border down to Middlesbrough and Chester respectively, don’t seem to have many problems with residents not knowing more or less where they’re from. The North-East in particular (where I lived for a long time – I even used to be represented by Tony Blair for all the good that did. You could hang a red rosette on a donkey in Sedgefield and see it win) would benefit from being able to pool the resources of Tyneside, Wearside and Teeside into something more than a local ITV catchment area. We did vote no against the regional assembly four years ago, but this wasn’t because the population was opposed in principle as much as nobody could give a straight answer about what the proposed Assembly would actually do.

    The European Parliament already has administrative regions pre-made in fairly reasonable chunks and it seems not-unreasonable that more could be made of these, provided that more was made of them and it wasn’t merely an expensive place for people to sit and argue about dustbins. This also links into whether power will be sucked up or pushed down. I understand your concerns, but this is why I think it’s important to couple local government reform to a shrinking of the national government. If we’re going to hack chunks off Westminster anyway, the only issue is where we’re going to put the powers. Some will be better devolved down to City level, others would benefit from pooled resources. If we’re not going to shrink national government, then there is no use nor point to regional government.

    Lastly, on affinity and the urban/rural divide I’m not sure that merely reversing legislation to put old councils back in charge would necessarily solve the problem. I don’t think that people are going to feel any more separated from a region made up of six counties all called some variation of Yorkshire or Lincolnshire than they do from a Parliament which sits in London. And while a North-West region would indeed most likely suffer New York State style tensions with Cumbria keeping most of the area but only a fraction of the population and income of Manchester and Liverpool on the lower southern end, it’s hard to see that they would either get a fairer shout from their tiny representation in the national Parliament in London or that they would be better served by being told to deal with their issues all alone without the weight and resources of the major cities.

    All that being said:

    This is all abstraction and theory at present. I’d be open, as I think would most people, to looking at any concrete government proposal which sought to distribute the administrative function of government as efficiently as possible. My belief about the need for regional government in the areas that aren’t London is variable depending on the details of policy that such regions would be charged with formulating and carrying out. In some cases they would be a perfect solution, in others an unnecessary waste of money. I’d vote for a wide-reaching re-empowerment of the counties if that seemed to be the only way forward or if the national government decided that it only wanted to let go of a little bit of its power. Like most people, I’ve no desire to see regional government emerge just for its own sake.

    And, let us admit, under the current crop of control freaks in government, we are unlikely to see the ravenous need to centralise, categorise and control everything in a big database in London diminish any time soon.

  39. 21/01/2009 at 11:05 pm

    Alfred: that is indeed a big problem with unelected regional assemblies. It can be fixed by making them elected. Seems like an easy enough fix to me.

  40. lordnorton
    24/01/2009 at 3:32 pm

    McDuff: I am not sure that everyone in the North-West would wish to be governed from (or by?) Manchester or Liverpool. The areas for the European Parliament elections I would not regard as establishing much of a useful template. You should bear in mind that I come from Lincolnshire. The concept of Yorkshire and the Humber I find an abomination. There is also more to regional structures than efficiency. When the county of Humberside existed, the objection to its existence was not related particularly to the efficient delivery of services.

  41. 24/01/2009 at 7:56 pm

    “Abomination” seems a strong word. What is it in particular that you (and presumably other people from Lincolnshire) find abominable about the region?

    The problem with political slicing and dicing like this seems to be that “people” want different things. They don’t want to be ruled by Brussels or London or even Manchester or Liverpool, but at the same time they don’t want to be independent fiefdoms and quite enjoy the economic advantages of not being the independent nation of Cumbria. They want local control and taxation but not a “postcode lottery” of service provision. To a certain extent, you pick the course you wish to chart and take your lumps.

    Personally, as a resident of Salford, I wouldn’t mind “doing an Albany” and having the North West’s HQ located in Carlisle or Lancaster, especially since the entire point of taking power away from Westminster is to counteract overcentralisation. Manchester is already stupid to drive in on a weekday, I don’t see that we’d be better off by putting both the BBC and another branch of government here. Of course, the people of Lancaster might well like the idea of a few thousand government jobs but they might not want the extra traffic either.

    Now, my politics is more minimalist than most, but I don’t see that much beyond the efficient delivery of services or management of the administrative tasks put before them can be anything other than ornamental to a government. I do of course know that people do like their ornamentation (the motor industry has for years failed to convince many people that cheap and efficient but ugly vehicles are better than works of art that burn gas like it’s going out of fashion) and that political brutalists like myself will never see our elegant liberal federalisms realised. Nonetheless there is something quite frustrating when discussions about the best way to distribute what is, in all practical effect, simply an administrative structure being hamstrung by romanticism.

    So allow me to turn the question around. You wish to push powers down from Westminster to the counties and cities. Do you have any particular theories as to how this could be done in such a way that people will not in a decade or so grumble about the inefficiencies created by “too many local authorities” and the difference in services offered between Lincolnshire and Yorkshire? While not wishing to say that we should design a utopian “end of history” structure that will be the be-all and end-all of government in Britain forever and ever amen, it doesn’t make much sense to me to just yo-yo the powers from the Palace of Westminster to the various City Halls every decade or so.

    As I said, if a city/county-centric structure could be implemented that enabled local authorities to be more flexible and responsive to the needs of their constituents without requiring an intermediary regional body, I would be all on board, and the local planners in Lancaster could breathe easily once more.

  42. Senex
    25/01/2009 at 9:00 pm

    Lord Norton: “When the county of Humberside existed”

    I don’t think the locals would take kindly to this, as the official designation was I believe ‘Kingston Upon Hull’ which was a county borough. Humberside is now a non-metropolitan county.

    “The concept of Yorkshire and the Humber I find an abomination.”

    I’m sure the viewers of local BBC television would not take kindly to this either as it covers both Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire.

    Hull has a special place in our history because of its association with Edward (Long Shanks) I and the special charter that it was granted. Edward started the First War of Scottish Independence.

    Principle antagonists were the clan Duff a collection of Scottish Ideotes. Many of their descendants to this day search for a political identity believing the end justifies the means, for many though its Game Over.

    Ref: The new local government areas

  43. lordnorton
    28/01/2009 at 8:33 am

    Senex: Humberside and Kingston Upon Hull are completely different entities. The county of Humberside (encompassing the East Riding of Yorkshire, Hull, and North Lincolnshire) no longer exists. The city of Kingston Upon Hull continues in existence; following the demise of Humberside it became a unitary authority.

    McDuff: I would apply the principle of subsidiarity to local government. There are some strategic issues that will need to be resolved at a level above that of the purely local, but a great many issues can be resolved at local level. It is achieved elsewhere, so I know no reason why we cannot do it.

  44. 28/01/2009 at 8:51 am

    On a technical note. I am subscribed to this thread but only get email copies of Lord Norton’s posts, not of those of any other contributor. Therefore I am grateful that Lord Norton posts frequent replies as then I know of the other posts to this important topic.

  45. lordnorton
    28/01/2009 at 10:12 am

    Alfred: In the light of your comment, I thought I had better respond! Glad to know that my responses are of some value.

  46. 29/01/2009 at 1:01 am

    Lord Norton

    Subsidiarity is a double-edged sword. One of the reasons (as I understand it anyway) that we have seen mission creep in the role of central government is not because people necessarily disputed the underlying principle of subsidiarity (although many doubtless did), but that they made arguments that the town, city and county levels had ceased to be the “lowest practicable level” of government.

    The “postcode lottery” is an example in this country, where there is a popular clamour for equality of service provision regardless of location. There is also a matter of the expansion of businesses which work on an increasingly national level, particularly with the rise of the internet. It is more difficult to distinguish between “local” and “national” business enterprises, and thus even the principle of subsidiarity might call for increased centralisation of such things. (Indeed, the principle contains within it a good argument for the establishment of a multinational government to deal with multinational corporations, for precisely the same reasons, so it is not per se the strictest defense of small government.)

    Further, we can see in the American education system the costs associated with too much localisation, since in many places school districts raise funds for education from local property taxes. The wealthier the families in the area, the better funded their schools are. You don’t need to be a political scientist to work out why that’s a problem for the society en masse, although the wealthy obviously do not mind, but the principle of subsidiarity does not necessarily prevent such things from happening.

    I agree, in principle, that government works best when it is carried out as locally as possible. It’s the “as possible” part where it all starts to get murky. The argument for regional authorities comes not from a desire to see the people of Carlisle ruled from Lancaster or Manchester, but rather from a desire to not see them ruled from London. As it stands, whenever the people of Carlisle cannot solve an issue on the local or county level, the next level up is the huge jump right down to London, with all the associated costs we are trying to avoid in putting the control back in their hands in the first place.

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