Time to be counted

Detailed lowdown of what's going on in Wales

The most notable part of the Welsh Assembly election campaign so far is the exceptionally good weather. Canvassers have reported a good natured reception from electors basking in the sun, alas many of these voters still remain undecided as to how they will vote, if they vote at all, and a number have expressed a level of confusion as to what we all stand for. A confusion that is only enhanced by the huge amount of paper that has been thrown at them in many areas.

The most common comment on phone-ins is that very few people have met a real politician in the flesh, and there is a certain truth to that as the parties work out their differences on the television, radio, the internet and through letterboxes. The problem is that a large chunk of Wales does not watch Welsh TV or read a Welsh newspaper. As far as they are concerned it is 'election, what election?'

Despite all of that those voters I talk to, and I have been on doorsteps every night since the beginning of March, are anxious to engage with the politicians and take advantage of what the Assembly can do for them. Most are now familiar with the fact that there are two ballot papers and are showing signs of thinking quite deeply as to how they use this double opportunity. It seems clear to me that there will be an increased turnout but how this will impact upon the result is anybody's guess.

The absence of regular polling as in Scotland means that both politicians and media are working in a vacuum. Those polls that have been published are largely contradictory and every time I speak to an opposition politician they express genuine puzzlement as to how the pollsters could have secured the outcome they did. One senior Labour Assembly Member contesting a marginal seat told me that he could find no evidence of a swing to Plaid Cymru at all despite the fact that a recent poll shows the nationalists as being ready to consolidate their position as the second largest party. He and other Labour Party AMs repeat the mantra that their vote is solid and that the Labour meltdown forecast by many will not come about at all.

The truth is most probably somewhere in between. My experience is that there is a certain level of disillusionment with Labour and that people are turning away from them. In many instances this will result in an abstention, in many others it will translate into a vote for the dominant opposition party in a constituency. Labour will lose seats but the impact of those losses will be largely offset by gains at a regional level. It is possible that Labour will end up with no constituency seats at all in the Mid and West Wales region for example. The outcome in my view is that Labour will remain the largest party with between 24 and 26 seats.

What is interesting about this campaign is the way that David Cameron's reformed Conservatives have failed to gel with the electorate. There is no doubt that they will pick up constituency seats such as Cardiff North, but by no means certain that they will gain everything that they expect. Their little local difficulty in Clwyd West, where their candidate called for schools to teach creationism as part of science classes for example, may well be enough to allow Labour's Alun Pugh to survive what a few weeks ago seemed a certain loss. I think that on balance Plaid will just pip the Tories in the number of Assembly seats.

Prospects for the Welsh Liberal Democrats look good. Gains by other parties will enable us to pick up one or two regional seats, whilst the constituency of Ceredigion still remains on a knife edge. Our vote will be up once more and we will increase the size of our Assembly group.

In many ways the most interesting times look to be the weeks after the election during which various parties will be vying for a piece of the action in any future coalition government. Although the presence of a limited proportional voting system means that coalitions are mostly inevitable that does not mean that all politicians and party members accept the reality of that situation. Already we have seen parties trying to limit their own options prior to the election so as to avoid losing votes. How it will all end up is not down to us but to the electorate.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.