Letter from Westminster
September used to be a month when MPs would be more notable at Westminster for their absence.
The long summer recess which started in mid to late July and ran until early to mid October used to allow the government of the day a pretty free hand to do whatever it wanted.
It was never healthy and always, to my mind, summed up the weakness of parliament as a means for holding the government to account.
To see parliament back and working this week and last week was, therefore, a healthy move even if it was not a universally popular one. One of the views expressed by those who resisted the change was that the House of Commons would end up sitting “just for the sake of it”. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the last two weeks we have dealt with bills to hold a referendum on electoral reform, to standardise the size of parliamentary constituencies, to fix in advance the date of the next general election in 2015, to allow for compensation for those who lost out in the collapse of Equitable Life.
The constitutional reform agenda is one that the Liberal Democrats have pursued for many years and if we are able to pursue it to its conclusion it promises to change forever the way in which Westminster works.
There was a hidden danger in the proposals for us in the Northern Isles in the bill to standardise the size of parliamentary constituencies as the standard size of constituency is to be 75,000 – over twice the size of our electorate.
Some predicted that this would be the end of Orkney and Shetland as a constituency. That danger has been avoided and the bill makes specific provision for both the Nor-thern and Western Isles to remain as constituencies in the present form.
This is a recognition merely of the challenges of geography and transport involved in representing island communities. Some on the Labour benches suggest that this is done merely for the political advantage of the Liberal Democrats. What advantage there is to the Liberal Democrats in preserving the Western Isles (a seat that has swung between Labour and the SNP over the years) is never explained.
Even within the government the constitutional change agenda has its opponents and there are still some testing times ahead in getting the bills through. The overall shape of the changes proposed are not everything that I would want but they are what we can get and I believe they will be a significant improvement on the present set-up at Westminster. After these fairly two frenetic weeks of parliamentary activity attention will now switch towards the party conferences. Lib Dem conferences have always been fairly lively affairs in the past and I would expect this year’s to be no different. In government or not, the party conference is still where decisions are made. That may be mad, bad or dangerous but it is never dull.
Alistair Carmichael MP