In this week's New Statesman

Clegg the martyr: will the Lib Dems sacrifice their leader?

This week's New Statesman is now available on newsstands around the country. Single issue copies can also be ordered here

The Martyr Complex: Rafael Behr on Nick Clegg

In the New Statesman Cover Story, Rafael Behr travels up to Nick Clegg’s Sheffield constituency to investigate whether the Deputy Prime Minister is vulnerable to leadership decapitation by the Liberal Democrats. As Labour and Conservative MPs “gloat in private that Clegg cannot possibly fight the next general election as Lib Dem leader”, Behr finds members of Clegg’s own party increasingly speculating along the same lines:

“It is the topic that people talk about most in the party,” says a prominent activist. “But it’s a whispered conversation because people find the whole thing a bit difficult.”

Behr looks back on the weight of expectation that British voters attached to Clegg in the run-up to the 2010 general election to explain how he has become the emblem of weakness and false promises in politics:

[T]he act of compromise, without which two-party government is impossible, reinforces the Lib Dems’ reputation for weakness and cynicism. It is a terrible fix – the device that defines coalition has become, in Clegg’s hands, also the practice that debases it.

Richard J Evans: Europe on the verge of a nervous breakdown

In the NS Essay, Richard J Evans, Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge and author of The Third Reich in Power 1933-39, asks whether soaring youth unemployment and a resurgence of the far right signal that Europe is on the brink of repeating the catastrophe of the 1930s:

Where extremism flourishes, political violence is never far away, and the desire for a restoration of public order can often play into the hands of right-wing politicians who, as Hitler did, promise to end the chaos on the streets, even though, like Hitler, they were one of the main forces behind it in the first place. It is no surprise to learn that a large proportion of the police force in Athens – perhaps as much as 50 per cent – voted for Golden Dawn in the 6 May election.

Top independent school headmaster attacks Gove

In the Politics Interview, the Master of Magdalen College School in Oxford, Tim Hands, talks to Alan White and slams Michael Gove’s plans for education reform:

“I simply don’t understand what Michael Gove is doing. He seems to be stuck on a Scottish moor, shooting off rockets in different directions which look brilliant in the night sky but are actually beacons of distress.”

With which reforms does he have a problem? “Gove seems to be a reversionist . . . The idea we have to go to terminal exams is wrong. That’s not how you’ll be judged at work or at university. So, almost de facto, you should have continuous assessment in school.” He shakes his head sadly. “Idiotic.”

Tim Montgomerie: Cameron needs a new emblem

The editor of the ConservativeHome website, Tim Montgomerie, offers a view of David Cameron in this week’s NS Politics Column. Unlike Margaret Thatcher, who chose to brandish a shopping basket to show that she understood the needs of ordinary families, and John Major, with his little wooden soapbox, the current Tory Prime Minister, Montgomerie notes, chose a “very different defining moment”:

Climate change was just one of the metrosexual issues that Cameron chose to suggest that the Conservative Party had changed. More women candidates and the concept of the “big society” were two others. The [danger] for Cameron was always that he wouldn’t be as committed to these changes as he needed to be and that he would run the risk of Tory modernisation appearing shallow and inauthentic. And so it has come to pass. Cameron has in fact played fast and loose with each of his great change factors.

Montgomerie warns that, as the next general election approaches, Cameron needs a new defining image – something like that of his predecessors – which will “pull him closer to blue-collar Britain”.

Elsewhere in the New Statesman

  • In Observations, Laurie Penny warns that David Cameron risks incurring the wrath of Britain’s young people; Dan Hodges on the change in Ed Miliband’s fortunes, brought about by his “moody and acerbic spin doctor” Tom Baldwin; and, following last week’s New Statesman cover story, Mark Leonard argues that Germany, led by Angela Merkel, is Europe’s only possible saviour.
  • In the Diary, the Irish comedian Patrick Kielty offers some words of advice to his “mate” Jimmy Carr and considers the Queen’s handshake with Martin McGuinness (“For the jubilee girl, it’s just another backstage meet-and-greet on the ‘Sorry one’s ancestors came’ world tour”).
  • Grayson Perry talks rubbish art, cross-dressing and running around with guns in the NS Interview with Jemima Khan.
  • In Lines of Dissent, Mehdi Hasan asks if the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt should worry us.
  • In the Critics, poet Craig Raine writes about Tate Liverpool's exhibition of late work by J M W Turner, Monet and Cy Twombly; Helen Lewis is engrossed in Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams and Andrew Adonis reviews The Passage of Power, the fourth volume of Robert A Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon B Johnson.

For all this and more pick up a copy of this week's New Statesman, available from today on newsstands around the country. Single issue copies can also be ordered online here

Original cover artwork by Chris Price

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.