In general, people loathe politicians and like their representatives, so when a former front-bench politician calls for a substantial reduction in the number of MPs in the Danish Folketing, then this is bound to have some resonance in the media (well, it has: Berlingske’s Bent Winther is happy to play the “irrelevant politicians” song) and among voters.
As it is, Berlingske’s coverage shows that politicians are happy to come up with arguments for a reduction in the number of parliamentarians – but it is also very easy to see that they have highly differing motives for doing so. Some argue that the size of the Folketing should be reduced because many tasks have been moved from the national level to local governments, others that the size of the Folketing should be reduced so that the Folketing won’t mess with local governments.
The relationship between national and local government is an important one, but the fact that Denmark went through a major administrative reform just a few years ago seems to have eluded all participants in the debate. In any event, the reform of the Danish regional and local government implemented in 2007 almost halved the number of elected politicians from 374 in 2001 to 201 in 2013 at the regional level and from 4647 in 2001 to 2444 in 2013 at the local level. We could argue that this has reduced democratic representation at the local and regional level while local and regional administrations have been professionalised. Perhaps local politicians make less noise while civil servants have greater influence?
The same problem applies to the argument that we need fewer parliamentarians because of the increasing Europeanisation and globalisation of governance. We might argue that the EU and globalisation have made national regulations less relevant but we might also argue that if there is a trend towards judicialisation and marketisation of relations then this makes political oversight as necessary as ever. So perhaps the problem is less the number of politicians than what they spend their energies on?
Then there are a number of issues which will have to be addressed if the Folketing wants to reduce the number of MPs.
First of all, we should note that section 28 of the 1953 Constitution only sets a maximum limit of 179 MPs including 2 MPs from the Faeroe Islands and 2 from Greenland. This means that the Folketing is free to set a lower number of MPs in the legilsation guiding national elections. It gets slightly more complicated, however, when we take section 29.2 and, especially, 29.3 into account as they state that not only the representation of political views but also regional population numbers, number of voters and population density must be taken into account in the design of the electoral system. As it is, peripheral parts of Denmark are overrepresented if we look at where MPs are elected (even if MPs by far aren’t representative of the Danish population in terms of residence and education). What would happen if a reduction in the number of MPs would lead to Bornholm losing one or both of its present MPs?
A reduction in the number of MPs would affect the different parties in different ways. Unlike a cornucopia, the talent pools of political parties aren’t exactly infinite and larger parties like the Liberals and Social Democrats might lose a number of less important MPs who lack – or feel that they lack – relevant tasks but MPs from smaller parties like the Conservative People’s Party or Liberal Alliance have to cover a broad range of policy areas in their daily work.
This could put parliamentary scrutiny of legislation under even greater stress than it already is and turn the Folketing into even more of a rubber stamp on government decisions. But reducing the size of parliament might be a way of securing the power of the larger parties over smaller ones. Incidentally, fractionalisation in the Danish parliament has been on the rise since the 2001 election with the Liberals and Social Democrats running neck and neck (possibly joined by the Danish People’s Party in the coming election) followed by a number of medium-sized parties and some smaller ones.
A smaller number of MPs would also mean a smaller interface between the Folketing and society at large. Here, we should remember that large parts of MP’s schedules are devoted to contacts with interest organisations, lobbyists, the civil society and individual voters. With fewer MPs, parliament will be less approachable to voters – even if MPs could counter this by hiring greater numbers of assistants and advisors. If the exclusion of ordinary people from national politics is a real problem, then reducing the number of elected politicians may in fact increase the feeling of alienation among voters in the longer run.
I suspect that the work of the Folketing and individual MPs could do well with a thorough investigation and reflections among the parties but all things considered, then the problems have less to do with the number of MPs than the way the respective leaderships of the parties represented in the Folketing make use of their MPs.
And the size of the Folketing? Actually, there is a rule of thumb saying that the size of a national parliament should be the cubic root of the size of the population. If we apply that to mainland Denmark, we need to calculate the cubic root of 5,627,235.
In case you wonder, the number is 177.9.