Election move would cut MLA seats

By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show presenter

image caption, Nigel Dodds is concerned at plans to reduce the number of Westminster constituencies

At Prime Minister's Questions this week Nigel Dodds seemed somewhat irked at David Cameron's plans to "reduce and equalise" constituencies across the UK.

The MP for North Belfast seemed to think that the prime minister's plans ran contrary to the "respect agenda" he professed to follow towards the devolved regions.

Mr Cameron begged to differ and replied that the number and size of Westminster constituencies was first and foremost a matter for the Westminster parliament.

Under the coalition proposals, the number of Westminster constituencies would be reduced and their size roughly equalized.

The principle behind this is to ensure that each vote has equal value.

No doubt principle is the driving force behind the prime minister's reforms, but there is a practical benefit from applying this principle - it's likely to hit Labour and benefit the Conservatives.

New constituency size

This is because Labour's urban strongholds are currently over-represented, so too is Scotland where the Conservatives have nothing to lose and everything to gain by reducing the number of Westminster seats.

According to the Electoral Reform Society, the new average size of constituency - by number of voters - would be 77,000.

Allowing for variation either side, the new minimum size would be 73,000 with the maximum being 81,000.

Our own election guru, Nicholas Whyte, has done some number-crunching relating to Northern Ireland.

And here we start to see why Nigel Dodds may be concerned.

His blog on the 600 seat parliament (http://nwhyte.livejournal.com/1471864.html) is worth reading.

Best estimate

He predicts that our number of MPs would drop from 18 to 15. And one constituency that may disappear is North Belfast.

He says it's difficult to predict winners and losers, but his best estimate is that the DUP will lose two Westminster seats and Sinn Fein one.

But the changes aren't limited to Westminster.

Elections to Stormont are based on Westminster constituencies. With six MLAs per constituency, there are currently 108 MLAs elected.

But reduce the number of constituencies by three and you reduce the number of MLAs by 18 - 15 times 6 makes 90.

So, electoral reform of the Westminster constituencies may primarily be a matter for the Westminster Parliament but you can see how it will have a profound impact on the working of devolution too.

On Sunday's Politics Show, we'll take a look at this issue in more depth and on the eve of the Twelfth demonstrations we'll assess the fallout from the Orange Order's rejection of the DUP's hard-fought attempts to redraft the parades legislation.


PS - Not sure who my guests are this week yet. If the bookies were laying odds there would be two favourites. For these two have been on the programme only slightly fewer times than me thanks to their press officers who don't seem able to persuade anyone else to work on Sundays.

I have a recurring nightmare that I'll show up for work one Sunday and John O'Dowd and Simon Hamilton will have started without me.

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