Archive for the 'Guest slot' Category


Antifrank considers what the Blairites could do if Liz Kendall comes last

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

Blair Faith

Go fourth and multiply

The Labour leadership election hasn’t gone according to the Blairites’ plan, to put it mildly.  Dan Jarvis declined to run and Chuka Umunna launched an in-and-out campaign that prefigured the performance of England’s top order in the last Test, leaving Liz Kendall as the sole standard bearer of the right of the Labour party in the contest.

She has chosen, probably unwisely, to drop some truth bombs on her electorate.  This has not gone down well.  Social media amplifies the voice of the left wing, which has freely characterised her as a Tory.  Many have suggested that with her views she ought to decamp to the Conservative party, often with an invitation of sex and travel thrown in.

For whatever reason, her campaign has not ignited.  Right now it seems probable that she will finish last: Paddy Power are quoting 1/6 on this and given the one published opinion poll has placed her a distant fourth, that price is hard to argue with.

Let’s assume that Liz Kendall indeed comes a poor fourth and that Jeremy Corbyn does well.  (Those assumptions are consistent with all the evidence we have, so we should plan on that basis).  How should the Blairites react to such a comprehensive rejection of everything they stand for?

They effectively have five choices.

1) Knuckle down quietly

The Blairites could accept office under a new leader taking a more leftwing direction, hoping to influence policy direction rightwards in whatever ways they can.  This is what most Blairites did under Ed Miliband, hoping by their loyalty to secure a more favourable candidate on the other side of the general election.  But far from deciding that the party had swung too far to the left, the membership appears to have concluded that the party was too right wing or was simply led too ineffectually.

Even before the leadership election is over, there is talk of a second leadership election in 2018 or even sooner.  Some Blairites will hold out for that hope.  There is no evidence at present that the party will then take a more Blairite view of the world at that point.  Nor, given the way in which British politics focuses on the party leader, is there much hope of dragging policy rightwards in any very significant way.

2) Sulk

The Blairites may feel that the new leadership direction is too leftwing for them and decline to serve in the shadow Cabinet, but remain quietly on the backbenches, occasionally giving coded speeches.    This would again be on the premise that at a later date the party would swing back in their direction.  As noted above, there is no particular reason to assume that this will happen any time soon.

3) Noisily oppose within the party

The Blairites may decide to fight, fight and fight again to save the party they love.  Tony Blair obviously thinks this would be the way forward.  In his conversation with Progress on 22 July, he said that ” ‘Unity’ does not work if you’re all together in the bus going over the edge of the cliff”.

If the Blairites are going to fight, they need to decide what victory looks like.  Right now, it’s not at all clear that they know the answer to that question.  It’s still less clear that they can win any battle that they pick.  They may do better fighting a guerrilla war, ambushing the leadership on specific topics where they can more easily command popular support.

This type of action would need sustained co-ordination among the Blairites.  To date they have not shown any organisational skills in opposition.  If this is their option, they need to caucus.

4) Leave the Labour party

If the Blairites decide to caucus, might they do so in a different party where their aims might be achieved more effectively?  That again begs the question what their aims are.  I identify the guiding thread of Blairites as the pursuit of power to implement social justice by pragmatic means and by building broader public confidence in the means of implementation.  Given the parlous state of the Lib Dems, they are not going to offer power any time soon.  The Conservatives do not focus on the plight of the poor to the extent that most Blairites believe necessary.

Might the Blairites found a new party?  Any defectors will be doing so without the blessing of Tony Blair, who has said that he would not leave the Labour party if Jeremy Corbyn wins, declaring himself Labour through and through.

The SDP was founded by a similar breakaway group, but the circumstances were more conducive to success.  Three of the four founding members of the SDP were more considerable than any of the current Blairites active in politics (the same is not true of the eminences grises, of course).  Secondly, the SDP was founded at a time when the Labour party were heading left and the Conservative party were heading right simultaneously.  Right now, the Conservatives at least are trying to look as if they are occupying the centre ground.  Nor have the current generation of Blairites exhibited organisational prowess.  And even in much more favourable circumstances, the SDP fizzled in seat numbers at the 1983 election.

The odds are firmly stacked against those seeking to found new parties and none of the current crop of Blairites looks to have the appetite for such a challenge.  While individual MPs may defect to other parties, I do not expect them to do so en masse.  In point of fact, I suspect that defections to the Lib Dems by disillusioned MPs not traditionally identified as Blairites are more likely.

5) Retire

Being a politician is not compulsory.  The Blairites aren’t obliged to keep staking out a position without wider support.  Many of them are young and ambitious.  If politics is not going to help them achieve their ambitions, they may choose to look at new opportunities in the private sector or in senior NGO positions.  Rather than do anything dramatic, they may simply fade away.

If they follow this course of action, the left of centre of British politics will hollow out.  Nature abhors a vacuum and the question will be whether their voters get co-opted by the Lib Dems or by the left of the Conservative party or whether the new left Labour can hang onto them.  None of those three options will look attractive to Blairites.

Which way will they jump?

All the options right now will look invidious to the Blairites.  On the most optimistic outlook, their star is going to be occulted for some years.  They are not a homogeneous group and they may well take different options.  But my best guess is that the greater portion of them will seek to oppose the new leadership from within.  If that is correct, the Labour party is going to look divided for some years to come.  Plan your long term betting accordingly.



Antifrank: Hanging tough – the Conservative intake of 2015

Saturday, July 18th, 2015


Antifrank looks at the new members of the Tory parliamentary party.

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.



Pleased to meet you: the Labour intake of 2015

Friday, July 10th, 2015


Antifrank looks at 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.



Continuing his series on the boundaries Antifrank on the role of the Boundary Commission

Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Election 2015  Maps of turnout and party strength   BBC News

The body that will oversee the shake-up

In my last two posts, here and here, 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.

1) This has only a limited impact for several reasons: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.

2) 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 apparent 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 based on 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 tranquillisers and reassurance if they are going to get the seat reduction through.



Heathrow is a major headache for Cameron (and an opportunity for Labour)

Thursday, July 2nd, 2015

Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Whilst the Conservatives fight over this week’s Airport Commission report, expanding Heathrow is exactly the type of common sense, business friendly policy that Labour should be supporting as it seeks to win again. The party must embrace it argues Keiran Pedley

The Prime Minister has a leadership crisis on his hands.

Perhaps this crisis is not as serious as recent world events in Tunisia or Greece. Perhaps it does not animate Conservative back benchers as much as his plans to renegotiate Britain’s membership of the EU or present the most important immediate challenge of next week’s budget.

But make no mistake, it is a crisis.

The Airport Commission report, led by Howard Davies has been very clear in its recommendation that Heathrow must expand and as soon as possible. Sure, some caveats have been put in place, regarding banning night flights and meeting both air and noise pollution targets, but there has been no fudge or ambiguity in the report’s key recommendation – Heathrow must expand.

The report claims that expanding Heathrow will add billions to the economy, air fares will fall and thousands of jobs will be created. Crucially, alternative plans are considered either unworkable (Boris Island) or do not match the economic benefits of a third runway at Heathrow (Gatwick). Furthermore, the business community appears squarely behind the report’s conclusions, with the IoD and CBI urging the Prime Minister to avoid any ‘further delay’.

So why is this a crisis? Well, Cameron’s problem is many in his own party not only mildly disagree, but are utterly opposed to this policy. Cabinet is split, with high profile names such as Theresa May, Philip Hammond and Justine Greening opposed. The party’s likely next candidate for London Mayor, Zac Goldsmith, has threatened to resign and force a by-election in protest whilst Boris Johnson has not given up on his ‘Boris Island’ dream and will likely use this issue to champion his cause as the next Conservative leader in-waiting.

So this one may be a slow burner, but a crisis it is. The government’s immediate response is to kick the can down the road (again). It has said that a decision will be made later this year.

Labour’s opportunity

This all presents a tremendous opportunity for Labour.  Much has been written before about Labour’s credibility problem and how it needs to win back trust on the economy. Fully backing the expansion of Heathrow will not solve this problem overnight, but it would be a welcome start. It is the type of opportunity that Labour ought to dream of. It is business friendly, creates jobs and piles substantial pressure on the Prime Minister from his own side too.

Early signs are positive. Harriet Harman was vocal in attacking David Cameron at PMQs whilst Liz Kendall has been quick to back the report’s findings too.  I would be surprised if other candidates do not follow suit. This issue is live and not going away. As Labour seeks to reconnect with the electorate and show that it is a serious party of government once more it could do worse than champion Britain’s economic interests and job creation whilst not avoiding a tough decision in the process. It is, after all, what governments do.

Perhaps most of all this issues teaches us something important about the next parliament. With GfK data showing consumer confidence up and Labour leaderless, things look bleak for the party. However, events will happen, the government will mess up from time to time and at some point there will be an EU referendum and Conservative leadership contest to contend with. Labour’s path back to power may be a tough one, however, if it gets its act together it is not impossible.

Keiran Pedley

Keiran Pedley is an Associate Director at Presenter of the podcast ‘Polling Matters’ He tweets about polling and politics at @keiranpedley


Electoral analysis: The art of changing boundaries

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Antifrank looks at 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

In the boundary commission review in the mid-1990s the Conservatives were widely expected to benefit from the review.  It didn’t work out that way: the 1997 election was of course a landslide for Labour. What happened?

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 vote share that they regard as the minimum acceptable and then take positions on the boundary review with that in mind.  There is no point in Labour seeking to give 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 their 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 mainly looked at Labour/Conservative turf wars 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.  His existing 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 Pavilion 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:

AF 1 AF 2 AF 3 AF 4
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 their heartlands before they get 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 their 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.



Antifrank compares 2015 to 1992

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

We spend much time looking at the most recent developments.  But every now and then it is profitable to stand back and look at longer term trends.  That is most easily done by comparing elections which produced quite similar overall results and then looking at the detail.  The 1992 and the 2015 election results are sufficiently similar overall to make that a valuable exercise.  Except in Scotland.

The overall result in 2015 was as follows: Con 330 Lab 232 SNP 56 Lib Dem 8 Plaid Cymru 3 UKIP 1 Green 1 Speaker 1 Northern Irish parties 18

The result in 1992 was as follows: Con 336 Lab 271 Lib Dem 20 Plaid Cymru 4 SNP 3 Northern Irish parties 17 (The outgoing Speaker had retired).

As you can see, the Conservatives tallied much the same seat count in both elections, Labour did considerably better in 1992, as did the Lib Dems, while the SNP went from nowhere to third place.  For Lib Dems surveying these two election results, it must feel like clogs to clogs in five elections.  They have fewer seats now than they had then. The only seat held in both elections is Orkney & Shetland.

Let’s start with the big point of difference, Scotland.  In 1992, the SNP were nowhere.  They had fewer seats than Plaid Cymru.  It is easy to forget, but the Conservatives as well as Labour and the Lib Dems had substantial seat numbers in Scotland.  A generation on and the landscape is unrecognisable.

Scotland’s seat count has declined by 13, reducing its numerical significance in Parliament even as demands for independence and further devolution have catapulted up the political agenda.  And the SNP have effectively wiped the other three parties off the map.  In the same period, Plaid Cymru have gone nowhere.

This is, of course, a disaster for Labour who at a stroke have lost a large block of MPs.  They will either need to be recovered or replaced elsewhere.  Right now, the latter looks much more achievable.

 If we look at just England and Wales, the results converge:
1992 Con 325 Lab 222 Lib Dem 11 Plaid Cymru 4
2015 Con 329 Lab 231 Lib Dem 7 Plaid Cymru 3 UKIP 1 Green 1 Speaker 1

These results are as close as you will ever get any two election results.  So substantial differences in the detail will have real meaning.

There were 11 more seats in England and Wales in 2015 than in 1992. But the distribution of the seats has been uneven. Despite the rapid population growth of London, there are 11 fewer seats in greater London now than in 1992 (the newcomers must in large part be non-voting immigrants). There are five fewer seats in the north west and the north east combined than in 1992 (regional boundaries were a little different then).

Meanwhile, there are seven extra seats in the south west, four extra seats in the east midlands, an extra seat in the west midlands, two extra seats in Wales and 13 extra seats in the south east and east. The seats have been accumulating in more Tory-friendly areas over the last 24 years.

And this is the real story. Labour are not taking fewer seats now than in 1992 in the south. They took ten seats in the south west, the south east outside London and the east in 1992 and 12 seats in the same areas in 2015. But the Conservatives, benefiting from this southwards drift of population, are taking 20 more seats in these areas. Labour’s failure to find a message for southern England is becoming ever more damaging to their chances.

We see the same picture in the east midlands, where Labour have the same seat tally as in 1992 but the Conservatives have gained ground, pocketing all the increase in seat count in the area. Only the west midlands have decisively swung away from Labour.

In Wales, Labour have lost a quarter of its vote share in under 25 years (and 40% of its vote share since 1966).  So far it has not significantly affected its seat count, though it is drifting down, because the rest of the vote is still more fragmented with the rise of UKIP.  But Labour looks vulnerable in Wales in the longterm if this trend continues.  The example of Scotland should be fresh in their minds.

If Labour have underperformed in these areas relative to 1992, there are areas of outperformance too. They have increased their stranglehold on the north east and the north west, getting four more seats in these regions even with a reduced seat count to aim at. Most strikingly, they have conquered London, holding 60% of the seats now as opposed to the 40% of seats that they held in 1992.  But again, there are fewer seats in London than there once was.

It is anachronism to refer to the Core Cities in 1992, since this grouping of the largest cities outside London was only set up in 1995.  Labour always found strength in the larger English cities, but Labour have strengthened their position in the English areas now covered by that grouping still further.

In 1992, the seats in what is now covered by the Core Cities in England divided as follows: Labour: 82 Con: 31 Lib Dem: 2

Now, the split is:Labour: 83 Con: 16 Lib Dem: 3

The seat count in the Core Cities in England has declined, but Labour are getting ever closer to a whitewash.  55% of all Labour seats are now found in an English Core City or in London.  The perspective of the average Labour MP may be unhealthily influenced by concerns of constituencies that are not particularly representative.Wherever they have strengthened over the last 23 years, Labour are getting a larger slice of a smaller cake. Meanwhile, the Conservative-dominated areas of England have gained seats, benefiting the Conservatives by default. Labour risk being on the wrong side of longterm demographic trends.

There is another way of looking at this.  Twice at low ebbs Labour have been reduced to nominal seat counts in the rural south, but in better times in the interim they have picked up a lot more seats in those areas.  They simply need to rediscover that art.

Even in good times, however, the Conservatives have found themselves progressively squeezed further out of their weaker areas and are losing London.  Labour have an immediate demographic problem but the Conservatives have a much more enduring demographic problem.  Their room for further progress is limited unless they can unlock more seats in areas that have been turning their backs on them for a generation.

Meanwhile, the distance that they could fall is much greater.  George Osborne is developing policies such as the Northern Powerhouse to appeal to the Core Cities.  Will they be enough?  We shall see, but I doubt it.  Both main parties are facing longterm trends that should trouble them deeply


Antifrank is a long standing contributor to PB and blogs at News To No One, where this piece first appeared.


Guest Slot from Peter the Punter: Matthew and Peter Go To The Seaside – with a Marf cartoon

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Clacton doesn’t look like being the most exciting of elections.

Matthew Shadwick [Shadsy] of Ladbrokes was kind enough to invite me along on a visit to the scene of one of tomorrow’s by-elections. I wondered whether he might need help collecting a flood of money, or maybe he just wanted some company while he stood outside the firm’s shop on Pier Avenue with his board optimistically offering odds of 1/50 UKIP, 14/1 Conservative and 33/1 Labour. We’d arranged to meet at 10.30 am. I got there at midday and still felt it was an hour too soon. There was a queue of about a dozen people, but that was for the bus. The driver was taking rather more money than Shadsy.

On the way I’d asked directions from a couple carrying UKIP boards. No, they couldn’t help; they were strangers here too. The locals looked disinterested. Even the seagulls looked bored.

Over a leisurely lunch we discussed the contrast with Newark where there was a lively atmosphere and a steady stream of (ultimately unsuccessful) UKIP backers. Perhaps the re-election of Douglas Carswell in UKIP colours is just too much of a foregone conclusion. Perhaps too little rides on the outcome. Perhaps the voters of Clacton just don’t like that kind of thing. They couldn’t even be tempted by Shadsy’s generous offer of 25/1 against Charlotte Rose [Independent] to beat the LibDems. “I mean, if she can’t beat the LibDems, who can she beat?”

We caught sight of the Sky TV crew, leaving early. A local MP, down in support of Giles Watling [Conservative], kindly spared us some time but was unable to offer any insights, or even a bet. Labour was nowhere to be seen.

On the way home I passed the UKIP offices, festooned with Carswell banners. It looks like tomorrow will be a coronation. What will be his vote share? Ladbrokes go 11/8 against 50-60%, 5/2 60-70%, 11/4 40-50%. Yesterday gave no clues as to where the value lies.

Turnover at Under 50% might be a bet. Shadsy will give you evens. I see from my betting notes that I went for Over, back in August when the market, like the weather, was a good deal warmer.

All right, we all make mistakes.

Peter the Punter