Thursday, 16 July 2015

Hanging tough – the Conservative intake of 2015

Despite relatively few seats changing hands in May, more than a fifth of Conservative MPs – 74 in total – were not in the last Parliament.  They will have a big influence on the dynamics of the Conservative party in government.  What do they look like?  Well, here they are:
I've ploughed through MP websites, interviews and newspaper articles to find out more about them.  In the course of this, I've seen more Labradors than is healthy for any normal man to look at.
Less than 30% of the new Conservatives are women, compared with 60% of the new Labour intake.  Assessing racial and sexual diversity is more fraught (not least because not all candidates' self-identification is explicit) so I have not performed a headcount, but the Conservatives do seem to have proportionately more MPs from ethnic minorities than previously.
The biographies of many of the new MPs look familiar.  Much has been made of Scott Mann, the Cornish postman, but he is an exception rather than the rule.  At least 17 of the new Conservative MPs have previously earned their corn as political professionals and I expect that is an undercount owing to the reticence of some candidates to advertise the fact.  I count 11 business owners (some CVs are a little hazy) and 13 lawyers of various stripes.  Seven new MPs have backgrounds in PR, communications and events management.  Four new MPs had military careers.
The contrast with the background of new Labour MPs is instructive.  Few of the new Conservative MPs have a public sector background.  There are two doctors and a nurse, a police officer and two government lawyers, two teachers and the four ex-military men.  No new Conservative MP advertises his or her previous main job was as a charity worker or official, though many draw attention to their charitable work (which in some cases is very impressive indeed).  For the new Conservative MPs, charitable work is something to be done when giving back to the community while for new Labour MPs, working in the charitable sector is a normal career.  We will no doubt see this difference in world view on the floor of the House of Commons in the coming years.
What of their opinions?  For Conservative MPs the big topic for the next few years will be the referendum on membership of the EU.  David Cameron was extremely effective in getting these candidates to rally around the policy of having a referendum, but will he be able to bring him with them once the renegotiation is concluded?  The new MPs don't so much divide between Europhile and Eurosceptic as between those who avoid talking about the subject, those who give their views when prompted and those who won't shut up about it. 
For some of the new MPs, maybe eight to ten, it seems likely that campaigning in the referendum for Out will outweigh party loyalties.  They include a former leader of UKIP and the campaign organiser for the Referendum party in 1997.  Several of the new intake have signed up for Conservatives for Britain, a Eurosceptic campaign group.  None of the new MPs rebelled on the vote about public information during the purdah period during the referendum campaign (one seriously considered doing so), so they're keeping their powder dry for now.
I have found only one new MP, Flick Drummond, who so far has identified herself as pro-Europe. However, I suspect that those who have stayed quiet to date will generally follow a party line when the time comes.  The broad mass of the new MPs are content either to take the "negotiate then decide" line or to take the line that they would vote Out now but are open to persuasion.  But the awkward squad has received reinforcements.
What of the wider politics of the intake?  This was neatly summed up by Chris Green, the new MP for Bolton West:

"As Paul Goodman has previously highlighted, the Party has the Soho and the Easterhouse modernisation movements.  Almost invariably the Soho element costs us support in Bolton West and the Easterhouse element wins us support."
Both groups are well-represented in the new intake (I think we can take it that Chris Green sees himself as being in the second group), though there appear to be more acolytes of George Osborne than Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson.  But he might also have mentioned the traditional small c conservative MPs, who are perhaps most numerous of all.  These MPs, temperamentally similar to David Cameron and who would no doubt see their role as MPs as part of the Big Society, would be readily recognisable to previous generations of Conservative MPs.  The Conservative party, as you would expect from the name, is not changing all that fast.

The single strongest theme among the new MPs' campaign literature, heavily encouraged by Conservative Central Office, is a focus on local topics.  Nearly all the new MPs majored on plans for their local constituencies.  Quite a few of the new MPs have commented almost exclusively on these.  Craig Williams, MP for Cardiff North, explains why:

"You get the occasional person who says, “Why on earth are you banging on about potholes in your leaflet, that’s nothing to do with Westminster?” Well, it’s because it matters to the resident of Cardiff North."
This has worked brilliantly for getting these MPs elected (the Conservatives have learned much from the Lib Dems), but this may cause problems in the future.  Far too many MPs have prioritised superfast broadband in their constituency for the Government to sideline this and many have named the improvement of local transport infrastructure, which is laudable but expensive in these straitened times.  Amanda Solloway has already had to express her disappointment at the postponement of the electrification of Midlands Mainline.  Others will also be disappointed.  The government is going to need to draw up strategies for implementing the new MPs' tactics for getting elected.  It is unclear whether it has realised that yet.

The challenges for David Cameron of getting any repeal of the Hunting Act through are clear.  Several of the new intake are explicitly opposing it. 
Who to look out for in the new intake?  Some names are already very familiar in senior Conservative circles.  The Mayor of London's team has swept into Westminster.  Boris Johnson's deputies, Kit Malthouse and Victoria Borwick will both make an impression (I'm taking it as read that everyone is keeping an eye out for Boris Johnson).  Oliver Dowden is one of the few new MPs who arguably took a step down in government circles by becoming a Conservative backbencher, having previously been David Cameron's chief of staff.  He is unlikely to stay there for long.  James Cartlidge has already been added to David Cameron's team for preparing for Prime Minister's Questions.  Given the importance of this, he is presumably marked for early promotion.

Of those who are not already insiders, Johnny Mercer stands out as a gifted natural communicator.  His maiden speech justly won acclaim and it was no one-off.  He has the direct and incisive English of a soldier and clear thoughts to communicate with it.  The Conservatives will be fools if they do not make full use of him early on: he looks like a star in the making.  On the right of the party, Chris Green can express his views clearly and vividly, as shown above.  Andrea Jenkyns, who defeated Ed Balls, is uncategorisable and doesn't look likely to be shy to voice her opinion. 
As a general theme, there look to be a lot of forthright characters in the new Conservative intake.  And this new intake, like the 2010 intake, look unlikely to be particularly biddable.  With such a small majority, the government is going to need to accept defeats from time to time as a normal part of business.  It looks set to be a lively Parliament.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting yesterday afternoon:

Friday, 10 July 2015

Pleased to meet you: the Labour intake of 2015

The election in May was a huge disappointment for Labour, going backwards rather than forwards.  Despite losing seats, however, over one fifth of the Labour MPs elected in May were not in the House of Commons in the last Parliament.  That is a big chunk of the Parliamentary party and the new MPs will have a big influence over the party's future direction.  Who are these new MPs, what do they believe and who should we watch out for?

I've had a trawl and compiled the following table:
This is harder to compile than you might expect.  Some of the new intake have not advertised everything about their past (for example, Harry Harpham is happy to advertise that he was a striking miner in the 1980s but it took more investigation to find out that he has more recently worked as an assistant to David Blunkett).  Some have defeated me: all I have found out about Ruth Cadbury's past career so far is that she was a local councillor.  Some have so far betrayed none of their detailed political thoughts, either being publicly on-message at all times or simply not saying much at all.  No doubt we will learn more in the coming months and years.
As you can see, the new intake includes some intriguing MPs.  One, Keir Starmer, was lobbied to stand for the Labour leadership even before he'd taken his seat.  One, Nick Thomas-Symonds, is a well-reviewed biographer.  Two are close relatives of foreign Prime Ministers past and present.  But what themes can we identify?
First, there are a lot of new MPs with past experience of national politics, either as special advisers or as parliamentary assistants to MPs.  Even leaving aside the three MPs who are returning to the Commons, at least 12 of the new MPs have held a role of that type (I suspect the number is higher because quite a few of these MPs are strangely reticent about such pasts and my digging may not have uncovered them all). The public and third sector is well-represented: 11 are former union officers, five worked in health or social care and ten have worked in charities or NGOs.  As usual, the lawyers are thick on the ground: eight in total.  (Of course, some MPs have held more than one job so they may feature in more than one of these totals.)
By way of contrast, few have much private sector experience.  Even taking a broad view of what constitutes "private sector", only four of the new MPs have substantial experience in this area.  This looks like a serious gap in experience on the Labour backbenches and is likely to prove an indicator of the priorities of the new intake. 

What of their views?  One great advantage of a leadership election is that it forces the new MPs to nail their colours to the mast at an early stage, even if they are naturally taciturn or avoid internal party debate.  And the first thing to note is that only three out of 53 new MPs chose to back Liz Kendall.  There aren't many Blairites in the new crop.  Reinforcing the point, 11 chose to nominate Jeremy Corbyn, and while at least four of them apparently did so out of a wish to give party members a choice rather than ideological sympathy, more have made enough public statements to put their firm left credentials beyond dispute.

Since the election, new MPs have had three opportunities to show off their leftwing credentials.  Immediately after the election, ten new MPs called for a leader to set out an alternative to austerity:
At the end of May, many more Labour MPs wrote to defend the union link with Labour:

This was as much about internal Labour party politics as a wider defence:
"Shamefully, there are many in our own party who see the aims of the unions as alien to their own and hurl around the lexicon of our enemies willy-nilly. The phrases trade union ‘barons’, union ‘bullying’ or ‘sabotage’ should have no place in the vocabulary of Labour politicians. Perhaps some of those from the nouveaux wing of the Party should read their history and understand that the unions created the Labour Party and not the other way around."
At the end of last month, an open letter was sent to the Observer calling for debt cancellation for Greece and an end to the enforcing of austerity policies.  It included 25 MPs among the signatories:

Any signatory of any of these letters (especially the first and the last of these three) can be taken to be on the left of the Labour party.  16 of the new intake signed one or more of these letters.  Seven signed all three.
Fewer of the new intake have come out decisively on the Blairite side.  Wes Streeting has commented that "Never again can the Labour party go into a general election with negative ratings on leadership and economic credibility."  Rob Marris has said that Labour overspent when in government.  Peter Kyle has agreed with Tristram Hunt that Labour needs a fundamental rethink before putting a fresh offer to voters.  Jo Cox has said: " We must go out of our way to regain trust on the economy; talking about how much we love the NHS isn’t enough".  But otherwise MPs have either taken a mainstream line or kept their powder dry.  If the new leader is going to move the party to a new economic position, he or she will be leading the new intake rather than catching up with them.
Which of these MPs are worth looking out for?  It's early days yet, of course.  Keir Starmer looks likely to be a considerable asset for Labour straight away.  Angela Rayner is a rare example of an MP who started at the bottom as a care worker and worked her way up: she looks capable.  Tulip Siddiq seems to have panache, managing to discomfit Boris Johnson on the campaign trail.  Helen Hayes has an unusual background for an MP as an architect and town planner and she seems to be very much her own woman.  Peter Kyle's views will be much in demand as the man who was able to take a Conservative seat in the south of England.  Naz Shah's life experiences will command respect. 

Not all of the new MPs inspire immediate excitement: we have been given a heavy sprinkling of council functionaries who so far seem to have more skill at working party machines than to offer inspirational leadership.  But they may yet surprise.  Some look likely to provide entertainment value. Marie Rimmer is awaiting trial next month for assault following an incident in the Scottish independence referendum.
Taken as a whole, this looks like a talented intake and many of them are already finding their voices.  There is an undeniable leftward lean to the intake and a relatively narrow set of backgrounds.  With very few exceptions these new MPs lack experience in the private sector and interest in the getting rather than the spending aspects of politics.  The challenge they face is the same one that the Labour party as a whole faces – addressing the concerns of a much wider cross-section of society than the party as a whole managed in May.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting earlier this afternoon:

Friday, 3 July 2015

Reviewing the boundaries: the Boundary Commissions' role

In my last two posts:

I've looked at the likely impact of the boundary review and considered how the parties might wish to see those boundaries fall.    To date I haven't really looked at the role of the Boundary Commissions at all.  This is a serious omission.
In fact, it will be the Boundary Commissions that determine the constituency boundaries. The parties can make representations but the Boundary Commissions will have the final say. 

On my last post on the subject of the boundary changes, a poster called SirBenjamin commented as follows:
"The parties do not have as much power and influence as the post implies.

During the last two reviews (including the aborted one) I've advised several associations on representations to the boundary commission during the review consultation period.

This has only a limited impact for several reasons:

1. The commission is (usually quite staunchly) predisposed towards their original recommendations - a compelling (and non partisan) reason for altering the proposals is required. 

2. In a competitive seat there will be other parties making representations that will benefit them, so any proposals must not only be more compelling than the original proposal, but also better than any competing counter-proposals.

3. Even if beneficial proposals are adopted for one seat or in one area, it may have negative knock-on effects in others, so these must be considered when looking to make representations (e.g. you're not only competing with Labour, but possibly also with fellow Tories next door).

So, on balance, most counter-proposals will not be accepted and those that are will often be countered by an opposition counter-proposal adopted elsewhere that has a negative impact.

Finding compelling arguments that are prima face non-partisan can be difficult. As well as the interesting stuff like constituency shapes, electorate sizes and ward boundaries, It also involves a lot of rather dull work researching local commnity ties, access to resources, peoples shopping habits, how rivers, railways and big main roads can or can't be crossed, that sort of stuff. (And then quietly choosing to discard anything that isn't to our advantage...)"
While the identity of the poster is unknown, this has the ring of authority to me and I happily accept the points made.  It is certainly true that the Boundary Commissions are going to be looking exclusively at non-partisan reasons for taking on board suggestions.  It should be noted that local party branches, local councils and individuals will also make their own recommendations and the Boundary Commissions will look at them all.

There is no single right way of carving up boundaries. The relevant Boundary Commission will need to choose between competing possibilities.  But the new strict rules mean that the Boundary Commissions will have much less freedom of manoeuvre. In fact, the task is likely to prove to be a real nightmare for the Boundary Commissions, made easier only by the fact that they have already had a trial run.

They must do so in accordance with the legislation.  They are going to need to implement the proposed reduction in seat numbers to 600 and introduce new tight parameters on the number of registered voters in each seat.  The Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment to this in Prime Minister's Questions on 1 July 2015, noting that it was a manifesto pledge.

Historically, boundaries have so far as possible emphasised a sense of place. It is likely that we will see composite constituencies, simply because they will be needed to make the sums add up. But let's have a more detailed look at the considerations.

The Boundary Commissions are permitted to take into account the following considerations:

• special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency; 
• local government boundaries; 
• boundaries of existing constituencies; and 
•any local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies. 

I'm going to focus now on the Boundary Commission for England in the interests of keeping this piece of manageable length.  Different boundary commissions may take different approaches on some of the points that follow (and some will not be relevant for other parts of the UK).  Since England is by far the most populous part of the UK, I make no apology for doing so.

Last time around, the Boundary Commission for England stated that it did not consider that it would be appropriate to start from a blank sheet of paper and that it intended to have regard generally to existing constituencies as far as possible.  It would not try to make the constituencies as equal in numbers of registered voters as possible, merely to make sure that the constituencies fell within the permitted parameters.  As far as possible, it would seek to create constituencies from whole wards, from wards that are adjacent to each other and that do not contain detached parts.  I expect that it will take the same approach this time.

Its revised proposals last time round, which were as far as it got before the process was brought to a halt, can be viewed here:
The detailed proposals are found at the very end of each regional report.  Given the allocation of seats between the component parts of the UK (and within England, between the different regions) at present look likely to be similar to what was envisaged for the abortive boundary review, you could do a lot worse at present than assume that the constituencies will look very like what was set to emerge from the review last time round.  It won't get you all the way there because the English regions do vary a bit from last time round and the numbers of registered voters in the individual constituencies have also changed quite a bit, but it won't be a million miles away from what emerges.

If you have any interest in how the boundary reviews work in practice, I recommend dipping into these regional reports to get a flavour.  Some practical examples will tell you more than any explanation can.
The Boundary Commission in practice placed considerable weight on not disturbing constituencies if it could avoid doing so.  For example in Suffolk one reason it gave for preferring its revised proposal over another that had been advocated was that it left five of the existing constituencies undisturbed.

It seems likely (though it is not a legal requirement) that the Boundary Commission for England will respect regional boundaries - this is what they proposed last time around.  So, for example, there may be cross-county seats between Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, both of which are in the East Midlands region, but there will not be cross-county seats between Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, since the former is in the Eastern region.  .

In accordance with the consideration of maintaining local ties, I expect that the Boundary Commissions will seek to keep sizeable towns in single constituencies wherever possible.  We may see a single constituency of Luton or we may see expanded versions of Luton North and Luton South (in the abortive boundary review, Luton North was to be linked with Dunstable, to the horror of the residents of the latter town). But we are unlikely to see Luton divided five ways with a mix of town and country in each one.  

This would place due respect to local ties if the revised rural constituencies have even a residual coherence.  To give a hypothetical example from a county I know well, if Ipswich or Bury St Edmunds were to be partitioned between different constituencies (as has already happened to Ipswich), this would cut across local ties. On the other hand, South Suffolk is a large rural seat with two main towns, Sudbury and Hadleigh.  Both towns are also in the same district council, Babergh, which covers almost the same area as the Parliamentary seat and the two towns have long been associated for political purposes.  But if the seat were split up and the two towns were put in separate constituencies, this would not offend local sensibilities.  Residents of both towns would look towards Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and Colchester before they looked to each other.  This would be a fairly usual state of affairs in rural constituencies.  

But it does mean, if the Boundary Commissions decide to do this, that some of the remaining seats are going to be very different.  Some existing rural constituencies are likely to be subject to heavy reorganisation, as the effect of the reduction in seat count is concentrated in these areas.  The Boundary Commission for England seems to prefer concentrating all the upheaval in odd constituencies rather than tinkering around the edges with quite a few.

It's also very likely that some rural constituencies will inevitably lack even a residual coherence.  Cornwall, for example, will have too many voters for only five constituencies and too few for six constituencies, so it will inevitably need to share a constituency with Devon.  Local feeling in such a cross-border constituency will be outraged at such sacrilege.  

We have already had a taste of that from the abortive review in the last Parliament.  In their revised proposals for the South West, the Assistant Commissioners drily commented:
"We have been struck by the efforts of many of those making representations to reflect the history and unique cultural identity of this region. Those issues are particularly important to those who seek to ensure that a particular county, historic area, city, or broader urban area remains whole in the sense that it is exclusively encompassed by one or more constituencies. Cornwall, Wessex, Gloucester, Plymouth, and the urban conurbation around Bournemouth are obvious examples. We are particularly grateful for the enormous amount of work that has gone into the detailed representations in relation to the unique cultural identity of Cornwall.
However, we are constrained by the statutory requirement that each constituency must have an electorate within 5% of the electoral quota."
And the same problem is going to arise in most of the counties in England which have fewer than eight or nine seats at present.  

All this is going to change the nature of some constituencies quite dramatically, both in terms of the current boundaries and in many cases in terms of the degree of internal coherence of the constituency.

What would this mean in practice?  If as I expect the Boundary Commissions prioritise keeping cities and towns within a single constituency wherever possible and dividing them between as few seats as possible where that is not possible, those constituencies are inevitably going to contain high concentrations of the urban voters who are much more likely to vote Labour than their country mouse cousins.  In the south of England, that maximises Labour's chances of taking seats despite their weak levels of support there.  The Conservatives do not benefit from the reverse in the north east of England and have not done so in Scotland for some time because their support in their weaker areas is so much more diffuse.

This is good news for Labour, obviously.  But it does not come close to counteracting the bad news that much of its support is piled up in inner city areas.  Taking 75% of the vote in a constituency is a waste.  You'd rather give at least 25% of that to another more marginal constituency.  Right now this phenomenon is working more against Labour than the concentration of its weak support in the south in single constituencies is working for it.  It is too weak in the rural south and too strong in the inner city north.

Still, if the Boundary Commissions adopt this approach on a seat count reduction to 600, this will prove disorientating for those incumbents in highly disrupted seats (almost all of whom will be Conservatives, given that they hold almost all the rural seats in England), even if the new seats created are also safe Conservative seats.  The Conservative party establishment are going to need to hand out lots of tranquilisers and reassurance if they are going to get the seat reduction through.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting earlier this afternoon:

Monday, 29 June 2015

The art of changing boundaries

In my last post ( I spent some time looking at the likely impact of the impending boundary changes on the numbers of seats in different regions and the potential impact on the seat numbers of different parties.  In this post I shall look at how the detail of the boundary review might assist or hinder the different parties.

National party strategic considerations

What, however, would be better for the national parties?  To answer this, we need to think about what the parties need.  They will simultaneously wish to:

1) Maximise their current notional seat count
2) Maximise their chances of taking new seats
3) Minimise their chances of losing seats
4) Keep incumbents happy

But these aims are inconsistent, so the parties will need to choose which are most important to them.  This will vary for each party.

Right now the Conservatives are fairly content with how things stand.  They have an overall majority on a lead of 6.5% of the national vote share.  They will retain power, however, only if they have a substantial seat lead over Labour so they need to ensure first of all that the smallest possible poll lead will produce the most seats possible.  If they go below that level they're expecting defeat anyway so the margin of defeat is less important than maximising the chances of success at or above that level.

Labour, by contrast, are already in a losing position.  The current shares of votes are unacceptable to Labour and they need to plan on the basis that they are going to do better.  They will want to ensure that small improvements in their vote share will result in as many extra seats as possible.  

From Labour's perspective a reduction in their notional seat count now following a boundary review may not necessarily be bad news if the result is to bring the possibility of winning more seats in play in 2020 should their vote share improve.  They shouldn't be planning on the basis of their current vote share: that is a losing proposition, as we saw in May.  

For example, York Central and York Outer are respectively a safe Labour and safe Conservative seat.  If they were combined and then divided on a homogeneous basis, the Conservatives would have two marginal seats that would both fall on a swing of just over 3% to Labour.  Labour might conclude that such a reorganisation might suit them if they were working on the basis that a swing of 3% was the minimum that they were targeting.

So each party needs to identify a seat share that they regard as the minimum acceptable and then take decisions on the boundary review with that in mind.  There is no point in Labour giving up a seat in the manner described above if it is not going to be recouped on a smaller swing than that presently required for their target number of gains.  And there is no point in the Conservatives seeking a redistricting that results in a notional gain on current vote shares if it makes retaining power on a slightly lower vote share harder.

Selling the strategy to incumbents may on occasion prove difficult and that cannot be overlooked.  In particular, the Conservatives want to get the boundary changes through if they can since it will in general benefit them.  So they don't want to upset incumbents unduly: they have a vote on the matter.  It may be better to get an arrangement that isn't the very best for the national party if it is decent enough and keeps an incumbent happy.

As for the best tactic for each party in a given area, much will depend on the detail of local voting patterns.  

Developing strategy into tactics

But some general tactics are apparent.

For now, let's work on the basis that the reduction in seats to 600 takes place. 
Based on the national total of registered voters in the May 2015 of 46,425,476, that would produce a range of possible seat sizes of 73,508 to 81,244 registered voters with a par of 77,376 voters.

In the south of England, Labour's weakness actually simplifies its strategy.  Some seats will look likely to drift out further of Labour's reach as a result of the reduction in seat numbers and these strict limits on seat sizes - larger seats will generally favour the party that is dominant in the area still further.  

The process will be uneven.  For example, on the general election registered voter numbers Cambridgeshire and Suffolk would be due an additional seat between them even with a seat reduction from 650 to 600.  Meanwhile, Peterborough is below the minimum number of registered voters so it will need to take on more rural (and presumably Conservative-voting) voters from an adjoining constituency.  Ipswich, another constituency where Labour has a keen interest, is likely to suffer the same fate, being a constituency only just above the minimum threshold for registered voters in a county which elsewhere has oversized constituencies.

But some seats where Labour are interested will actually need to be reduced in size.  In more populous seats in which Labour have some strength, like Watford and Waveney, Labour will be looking to shed outlying rural districts from the constituency which will be presumed to be more Conservative in the hope of creating a Labour seat.

In less populous adjacent constituencies with Labour strength, Labour will seek to construct a new seat which takes the best of their support from both.  The tactics here can be trickier.  Both Luton seats are undersized.  Do Labour seek to have the core made into a single seat, accepting the loss of a single seat but creating a single Labour stronghold, or do they accept the attachment of large rural areas to each in the hope of getting both but risking losing both?  Given their current seat tally, they need to take the chance, I think.  This gives the concept of political betting a whole new meaning.

Minor problems

So far I have had much to say about Labour/Conservative battles in the south.  But the smaller parties need to watch out.  For example, the Conservatives will be keen to disrupt UKIP so far as possible.  It would be utterly unsurprising if the Conservatives proposed an arrangement in Essex which left the current Clacton constituency bisected, halving the effect of Douglas Carswell's formidable incumbency and swamping both new constituencies with Conservative voters.  This constituency is going to need some adjustment, being underweight in registered voters, and the Conservatives will want to make it as difficult as possible for him.  

I expect that Labour will have similar thoughts about Brighton and may well seek to despatch Caroline Lucas by providing her with a new cohort of Labour voters to challenge her grip on her seat or partitioning the seat out of existence.  And both main parties may well seek to partition isolated Lib Dem constituencies like Southport, Sheffield Hallam, North Norfolk and Leeds North West.  Even as the electorate becomes less and less inclined to vote for one of the two main parties, the minor parties will find it harder to get or keep Parliamentary representation.

Major problems

By means such as those I described above, Labour managed in the mid-1990s to get a boundary review that actually worked against the Conservatives by bringing into play seats that would not previously have fallen on a landslide.  Might such tactics work again?  It would be much harder this time, as can be illustrated with four pictures:


In these four areas, Labour have over 100 seats in solid blocks.  All four blocks will suffer substantial reductions in seats under the review. If the seat count is reduced to 600, three of the 18 Labour seats in Birmingham and the Black Country, one of the four Labour north east Welsh seats, two of the 18 English Labour seats in and around Merseyside, two of the 22 Labour seats in and around Manchester, three of the 26 Labour seats in the north east and four of the 19 Labour South Wales seats look set to go.  That's nearly a third of the seat count reduction accounted for already (and the seven seat reduction in Scotland and two seat reduction in Northern Ireland will do the Conservatives no harm either, taking us up to 24 seats lost from Parliament without the Conservatives having to leave the sofa). 

The chances of offloading any of these 15 seat losses in Labour heartlands onto other parties looks limited, given the solid nature of these Labour blocks, painstakingly built over a generation.  Labour will be doing well if it avoids a dozen notional seat losses in its heartlands before it gets started. 

A reduction in seat count to 600, if achieved, is likely to benefit the Conservatives nationally considerably.  It would be bad for Labour and particularly bad for the Lib Dems, with serious challenges for both the Greens and UKIP.  Each party would need to think carefully about how best to protect its position, bearing in mind what they are trying to achieve in 2020 rather than focussing on what the reorganisation would mean in the context of the May 2015 result.
  But will it be achieved?  Conservative incumbents are going to need a lot of reassurance before they are going to feel able to support it because their seats are likely to be chopped and changed a lot.  That process of reassurance hasn't started yet.  The Conservatives need to decide whether they want to try to get this through.  If they do, they need to start laying the ground right away.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting earlier this afternoon:

Friday, 26 June 2015

The boundaries of reason: the possible shape of the 2020 election

I previously looked back at the impact of demographic changes on party politics from 1992 to 2015.  That's all well and good, but what changes can we expect for 2020?  To determine that we first need to consider what the new boundaries are likely to look like.
It might be thought that the future musings of the Boundary Commissions are imponderable, but we have quite a lot of clues to go on.  We should use them.

The terms of any boundary review are closely delimited in legislation.  The following will occur unless the law is changed or the proposed boundary changes are defeated in Parliament:

1) The election will be fought on 600 seats.
2) There will be two Isle of Wight constituencies, a constituency for Orkney & Shetlands and a constituency for Na h-Eileanan an Iar.
3) The 600 seats will be allocated between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland according to a strict formula based on the number of registered voters as at the review date in each.
4) Except for the exceptions already noted, the seats will have a population of 95% to 105% of the average constituency size (there are size requirements that are relevant only in Scotland and Northern Ireland has special rules).

These are pretty prescriptive rules. There are already rumblings among Conservative MPs that the seat count should be kept at 650.  As we shall see, this may be in the interests of individual Conservative MPs but it is unlikely to be in the interests of the Conservative party as a whole.

The next thing to realise is that the Boundary Commissions have already started looking at this once (until their work was brought to a juddering halt by the Lib Dems ganging up on their coalition partners: as we shall see, this was absolutely correct from a narrow party interest).  So we already can see the general direction of travel.

For the moment I'm going to work on the basis of a 650 seat Parliament to explore what difference the boundary review might make.  While this is not what the law currently requires, it makes it easier to see what difference the impact of movements in registered voters might have.

Allocation of seats around the component parts of the UK

So, what should we expect?  The first thing to do is to determine the number of registered voters in each part of the UK.  This will be set at the end of this year, so we don't have the precise figures, but the numbers from the general election should provide a fairly decent guide.  We have the electoral commission's preliminary results:                                                                                                          

This gives a national total of registered voters of 46,425,476.

I've separated these out into the component parts of the UK:

From these we can derive the following totals of registered voters:

Northern Ireland:1,236,683
Wales: 2,282,297
Scotland: 4,094,784
England: 38,811,712

When the seat allocation is eventually determined, it is done by a broadly proportionate approach.  Since we don't have the relevant registered voter numbers yet, it is pointless doing anything more than a pro rata approach.  If the seat allocation stays at 650, we can expect Northern Ireland to get roughly 17 seats, Wales to get roughly 32 seats, Scotland to get roughly 57 seats and England to get roughly 543 seats (with one seat up for grabs).  If the seat reduction to 600 seats takes effect, we can expect Northern Ireland to get roughly 16 seats, Wales to get roughly 30 seats, Scotland to get 52 or 53 seats and England to get 501 or 502 seats.  This is almost exactly what the allocation would have been if the boundary review had gone ahead last time.  So much for all the fuss about the voter registration changes.
Either way, English MPs will become still more dominant in Parliament.  This can only be good news for the Conservatives, who dominate much of England and rely on it for almost all of their seats.

Allocation of seats within England

Just as important as how the seats are distributed in the UK is how the seats will be distributed in England.  The Boundary Commission for England is not legally obliged to follow the same approach when allocating seats between English regions, but in practice it intended to do so in the last Parliament and I expect it to do so again this time.

The English regions had registered voter totals at the general election as follows:

Eastern: 4,364,656
East Midlands: 3,350,769
London: 5,401,616
North East: 1,941,841
North West: 5,240,724

South East: 6,419,548
South West:4,076,494
West Midlands: 4,140,587
Yorkshire & the Humber: 3,875,477

This would result in the following seat allocations, based on England having 543 seats in a 650 seat Parliament (I have assumed a 650 seat Parliament for ease of comparability):

Share of registered voters
New seat count
Old seat count
Change in seat count
East Midlands
North East
North West
South East
South West
West Midlands
Yorkshire and the Humber

 *Plus two Isle of Wight constituencies

Again, this seems to benefit the Tories.  More seats are being added in their strongest areas while the seat count in the North West and the North East, two of their weaker areas, continues to decline.

Putting numbers on these changes

So, what would these movements mean in real seat numbers?  Unfortunately, we cannot simply apply a formula because much depends on how the boundaries are actually set.  Thinking about the detail of boundary commission reviews will need to be the subject for another post, but some general principles can be laid down now.

1) Boundary reviews are bad for incumbents.  The more extensive the boundary alterations, the less of an advantage incumbency gives.

2) Within an area, a seat reduction will increase the advantage of the party with the most support.  To give an extreme example, if Wales were reduced to one constituency, Labour would expect to take 100% of seats in the area.  Considered on a wider scale, it would obviously be to Labour's detriment to have only one seat within Wales, but within Wales itself it would accentuate its political dominance.

3) With a seat reduction in an area, regional strength of trailing parties will outweigh general strength in the area.  For example, if Wales were reduced to four constituencies, Labour might reasonably hope to take all four constituencies.  But it would probably be most worried about losing a seat to Plaid Cymru because of its regional strength in north west Wales.  The fact that the Conservatives poll twice Plaid Cymru's vote share across Wales as a whole would not affect this calculation.

4) An increase of seats in an area will naturally tend to produce more seats for the dominant party in the area, but the increased granularity may help another party gain an odd seat where a pocket of support has previously been swamped by the dominant party's support in previously-attached areas (this is the inverse of the last two points).  For example, Peterborough is a Conservative-held marginal seat comprising a city with outlying areas attached.  Making the reasonable assumption that the city is more Labour-leaning than the outlying areas, I infer that if the seat count in the area were increased and the boundaries were confined more tightly around the town, Labour might hope to pick up a new seat in an area of Conservative dominance.  Incidentally, this will tend to work better for Labour than for the Conservatives, given the way in which Labour support tends to cluster in towns.

With these principles in mind, and without going through the detail of my thought process (which is more art than science in any case), my guess is that if the votes cast in May were cast on the boundaries of a new 650 seat Parliament that I have outlined above, the seat count would be something like:

Conservative: 335
Labour: 229
SNP: 55
Lib Dem: 8
Plaid Cymru: 3
Green: 1
Speaker: 1
Northern Irish parties: 17

So I imagine a hypothetical increase in the Conservative majority by ten or so, but it wouldn't fundamentally alter the dynamics of the next election.  I feel that I have made midpoint assumptions in coming to these numbers.

The impact of switching to a 600 seat Parliament

But as the law stands, the boundary review will be conducted on the basis that we will get a 600 seat Parliament, and that will intensify some of the effects that I have just noted.  The new 600 seat Parliament would be comprised roughly as follows:

Scotland: 52
Wales: 30
Northern Ireland: 16
England: 502
     - Eastern 56
     - East Midlands 43
     - London 70
     - North East 25
     - North West 68
     - South East 83 (including two Isle of Wight constituencies)
     - South West 53
     - West Midlands 54
     - Yorkshire & The Humber 50

The seat reorganisation would be relatively minor in the Eastern, South East and South West regions, given the minor adjustments in seat counts, and these are as it happens all overwhelmingly Conservative areas.  They would, however, be very extensive in Wales, the North West and the North East: all Labour areas (Scotland also would be seriously affected).  Of the Conservative-leaning areas, only the West Midlands would see heavy reorganisation.

The consequence might well be that the bulk of Conservative incumbents could see their incumbency damaged in only minor ways, while Labour incumbents would be much more likely to see their incumbency seriously affected.

It gets worse for Labour.  Many of the constituencies with the lowest number of registered voters are in contiguous Labour-held areas.  On a shrinking seat count determined by numbers of registered voters, that is the worst permutation for a party, because there is much less scope to recoup lost seats in the area by taking seats of a rival party.  Leeds, Bradford, Hull and Liverpool are all stuffed full of constituencies with very low numbers of registered voters, all with large Labour majorities.  If the seat count in those areas is reduced, that will probably come straight off the top of the Labour seat total.

Meanwhile, the smaller parties all get hit still harder because of the consequences of reducing the seat count noted above.

My artist's impression of how the results of the last election might have translated onto reasonably normal boundaries on the new basis is something like the following:

Conservatives: 316
Labour: 209
SNP: 50
Lib Dems: 5
Plaid Cymru: 2
UKIP: 1 (maybe)
Greens: 0
Speaker: 1
Northern Ireland: 16 

By this stage, the Conservative majority, now hypothetically 32, is starting to look very solid given the smaller size of the House.  Again, I don't feel that I have particularly stepped out in one direction or another.

So if you want to see why the Opposition (and the Lib Dems in particular) might seek to block the boundary review, this is why.  Their task is hard enough, without the Conservatives being given a still greater head start.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting yesterday: