There will be no Lib Dem U-turn on boundary changes

The offer of state funding (or anything else) will not induce Clegg to change his stance.

Without the introduction of the proposed boundary changes, there's almost no chance of the Conservatives winning a majority at the next election - the party would need a lead of around seven points on a uniform swing. With the changes, however, it would need one of just four. So it's no surprise that some Tories are still hopeful that they can persuade the Lib Dems to renege on their opposition to the reforms. 

Today's FT reports that the Conservatives are planning a "cash-for-seats" offer under which the Liberal Democrats would approve the new boundaries in return for the introduction of state funding for political parties. So woeful is the Lib Dems' financial situation that the Tories believe Nick Clegg will have no choice but to withdraw his veto. "They are basically out of money," one minister tells the paper, while another adds: "There is a plot". That the Lib Dems' finances are increasingly strained is beyond doubt. As Rafael noted in August, the party's entry into government has seen it deprived of the "short money" made available by the state to opposition parties (something that will cost it £9m over the course of the parliament), while the loss of a quarter of its membership in 2011 helped result in a deficit of £299,964 last year.

But even with this in mind, it's hard to see the offer of state funding (or anything else) inducing Clegg to change his stance. In August, after the abandonment of House of Lords reform, he said:

Coalition works on mutual respect; it is a reciprocal arrangement, a two-way street. So I have told the Prime Minister that when, in due course, parliament votes on boundary changes for the 2015 election I will be instructing my party to oppose them.

In September, when rumours of a deal first surfaced, he declared: "Nothing will change my mind on that." His stance was overwhelmingly endorsed in a motion at the party's conference last month. For these reasons, Lib Dem Scottish Secretary Michael Moore was almost certainly right when he told the Today programme this morning that there is "no prospect of any kind of deal like that." A "cash-for-seats" agreement would only confirm Clegg's reputation as a turncoat, while making his party look irredeemably grubby.

Last month, whilst apologising for breaking his pledge not to support an increase in tuition fees, Clegg declared: "I will never again make a pledge unless as a party we are absolutely clear about how we can keep it." And the pledge to vote against the boundary changes is one that will be kept.

Nick Clegg has previously stated that "nothing" will persuade him to drop his opposition to the propsoed boundary changes. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.