Archive for the 'Guest slot' Category


Assessing the mood amongst Labour pragmatists

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2016


Ex-MP Nick Palmer on a non-Corbynite Labour focus group

For friendship and nostalgia, I had a dinner last week with 14 veteran campaigners who have mostly been with me in every campaign since 1997. Coincidentally or not, I think I was the only one at the table who had voted for Jeremy Corbyn. The others are pragmatic Labour campaigners who fight every election to win, and turned a safe Tory seat in 1992 (16% margin) into a perpetual marginal. They’d voted for the other three, and are probably a fair focus group for Middle England pragmatic Labour activists.

Some impressions may be of wider interest:

  • The group was generally pessimistic about the short-term outlook: an election tomorrow would be lost. Nobody disliked Corbyn personally, but they didn’t feel he was cutting through with voters at this point.
  • Membership was up hugely as elsewhere, with some of the influx active and some not – “much the same as usual with new members”. One veteran councillor said he discouraged new members from coming to branch meetings as their first activity – “My boring people to death talking about planning decisions and Section 106 agreements is no way to get them involved”.
  • Several had been nervous that the ascendancy of the Left would lead to purges of officers and other in the local party, and were cautiously pleased that the influx was proving tolerant. McDonnell had given a speech to Nottingham Momentum the previous week urging a broad-church approach.
  • Not least because of that, but also because of perceived good performances on Question Time and the coherent-sounding economic strategy, they were cautiously warming to McDonnell. Pragmatists as ever, they wanted a leadership that would win without splitting the party, and felt he was making progress. The past comments on the IRA were shrugged off – “every veteran has said a few odd things”.
  • The idea of a PLP move to force a fresh election without Corbyn on the ballot was seen as a coup and a recipe for civil war, and I had the strong impression that they would mostly support the Left in opposing it. “The PLP needs to let things take their course”, said one. “Either Corbyn will break through or he’ll move on and someone else will, but people who split the party won’t be forgiven.”

What struck me was that pragmatism isn’t quite the same as centrism. The group wanted to find a way forward with a potential win in 2020. I wouldn’t overstate the cautious interest in McDonnell, but the immediate relevance is really point 5. They didn’t favour any sort of split, and didn’t feel winning necessarily had to be led from the centre-right. Punters and plotters alike may think this relevant.

In 2004 Nick Palmer became the first sitting MP of any party to post publicly on PB. He’s been a regular contributor ever since




Mark Pack on his polling archive database

Tuesday, January 5th, 2016


Way back in the 1980s, one day I was watching David Owen being interviewed on television, responding to probing questions about the then Alliance’s opinion polls ratings by saying there was a seasonal pattern in third party support in the polls.

Frustration with the lack of detail in his answers or knowledge in the interviewer’s follow-up questions turned into a fruitless search for sources for answering the question afterwards. Which then led to the birth of my collection of opinion poll data, which with the kind help of many others who have shared their information is now the largest set of national voting intention polls for Great Britain.

Starting in 1943, with a passing reference back to February 1939, the latest update just published takes the data up until the end of December 2015.

I now know there is tentative evidence that David Owen was right, at least about that seasonal trend, though the polling disaster which was May 2015 may well make reasonable people doubt quite what the value of the overall data set is.

The main answer to that is that even in the polling disasters of May 2015, April 1992 and June 1970 the polls were wrong by a handful of percentage points. In a first past the post, two-and-a-bit party system, that margin of error is enough to produce widespread egg on face for pollsters. But it does also mean that even at their worst, polls have been accurate enough to distinguish between, for example, parties languishing in the low thirties or soaring up to the upper forties.

Especially as there is a pattern to the errors. When the polls get it wrong, they usually over-estimate Labour support, and when they get it badly wrong, they’ve always over-estimated Labour’s support.

Knowing that pattern and the level of accuracy with which polling can reasonably be interpreted, there is therefore still plenty of knowledge to be gleaned from voting intention figures.

The polls in the last quarter of 2015 put Labour on average at around 31%. They aren’t accurate enough to say for sure that Labour’s support isn’t really a little higher, and past errors might make you lean to thinking the truth may rest a little lower. But there are enough grounds for confidence that the party’s current support is well short of election winning territory.

Likewise, for the Liberal Democrats – whose support has often varied noticeably over the decades between different polling methodologies, especially back in the days of regular Gallup polling – it is pretty clear the party’s support has not (yet?) recovered substantially from the general election. Perhaps it is a little up, perhaps not, but we can be confident that if there was a general election tomorrow, Tim Farron’s party would not be up there in the 20s.

That is why such a large historical data set is also useful as it allow comparisons with the past. History is not a sure guide to the future, but it does give clues about regular patterns to watch out, such as that Labour’s current poll ratings are well down on where they have been after previous changes of leader.

Knowing just how much history would have to be bucked for Labour to do well from here is useful, even if it does not tell us for sure that it cannot be. And would-be knowledge is at its most reliable when based on data.

Now YouGov – please, no return to daily polling which requires collating…

Mark Pack

Footnote: The full database of national voting intention polls for Great Britain since 1943 is available here.


Ex-LAB MP Nick Palmer says “Don’t underestimate the interest that MPs have in survival”

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015


How do modern political parties cope with change?

The current turbulence in Labour is part of a wider picture seen across the West. Simmering dissatisfaction with established parties and politicians is generating support for iconoclastic individuals and movements in nearly every country to an extent not seen for a long time. From Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to Syriza, Podemos, UKIP, the AfD, the FN and numerous others, merely being not part of the familiar establishment attracts a wave of interest. In Britain, it’s not clear if Labour will settle in markedly different policy positions to its previous stance, and a bad-tempered European referendum with a Leave victory or narrow defeat could leave us talking in similar terms about the Conservatives.

As punters assess how likely these trends are to stay, there is a non-trivial general question. Leave aside whether these changes are good or bad. How can political parties legitimately change their political positioning?

Traditionally, in Britain, these things are leader-driven. A leader (Blair, Thatcher) says, “Things can’t go on like this, we need to change.” The party and the wider electorate may or may not go along with it, but if they succeed the membership generally either puts up with it or leaves. However, the democratisation of leadership elections (membership rather than MPs) increases the likelihood that restless members elect a leader with different views to most MPs – who by definition were selected when the party was whatever it was before.

At this point, honest disagreement can arise, separate from any rivalries or bitterness. Say you’re  a pro-Trident Labour MP but the party votes to scrap it, or a pro-EU Tory if the party has elected a Eurosceptic leader. It’s not that you hate the leader or the membership, but you find yourself in disagreement with it. What do you do?

One answer is “defy the party and vote the other way”. But if you do that across a wide range of issues, inevitably both members and electorate will be unsure what they’re voting for.

Another is “sigh wearily and go along with it”. But what if the issues are central to your beliefs?

A third is “defect to the other side”. But that’s like getting divorced and marrying someone you’ve been feuding with for years – it goes against the grain.

A fourth is “set up a new party”, but we’ve seen where that tends to lead with FPTP – oblivion, and the end of your working life.

Don’t underestimate the interest that MPs have in survival. The number of alternative Parliaments that they could join if they lose their seats is more or less zero. It’s no more dishonourable to think about that than it is in any other walk of life, and MPs will be influenced by polling as well as personal belief.

The members have a similar problem. Mad fanatics are a rarity: most members rather like their MPs (who they chose and voted for) and make plenty of allowance for honest differences of view. But ultimately there will come a point where they get tired of their representative constantly disagreeing with them. There isn’t an iron law – legal or moral – that says that the current parliamentary membership of any party has an absolute right to determine policy forever.

What parties have to try to do is discuss possible change with as little rancour as possible (which is difficult) and a clear sense of what is a fundamental expectation and what is merely a preference.

Both MPs and members need to be frank during this process – there isn’t anything dishonourable about saying politely, “If we change to policy X I shall feel I can no longer be your MP” or “If you don’t feel able to support X then I’m afraid we need to find someone who does.”. But out of common sense everyone needs to minimise the list of such policies. For example, I know lots of people who have definite views for or against fracking, but I’ve never met anyone who changed their party over it or talked of deselecting an MP who disagreed. I’m not sure that Trident is that decisive for most Labour people either, for all the rhetoric – a weapon system that nobody can imagine using is neither quite as valuable or quite as horrific as one might suppose. Similarly, many Tories have a definite view on Europe, but I’m not sure that many would really quit the party if it moved in the opposite direction.

Two conclusions. First, it’s important that the legitimacy of disagreement is accepted. Of course an MP selected in a different time may think differently to a group of new members: it doesn’t mean either is morally wrong, and all sides need to think hard before deciding that an issue is absolutely make or break for them. Second, the pressure of personal loyalty and continuing political careers will tend to dampen down apparently irretrievable differences. Journalists like to highlight the drama, but despite Trident and Europe and whatever else comes up, I suspect that the political landscape in 2020 will look less different than we might think, with few defections or deselections and no new parties. Politicians, generally, play the long game. In Britain, it’s often the only game in town.

Nick Palmer was MP for Broxtowe from 1997-2010


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