In the background for now at least, the long and important Labour leadership battle rages on

David Miliband launches campaign against VAT rise +++ Ed Balls benefits from Question Time bounce ++

Amid the controversy surrounding the government's benefit cuts that are serving as small print for discussion following the Budget, the long-drawn-out Labour leadership contest continues to run, the other, less-noticed story in British politics today. So, time for a quick update on the three main players:

** David Miliband has launched a campaign against the increase in VAT from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent, which the Lib Dems themselves had opposed and which even the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has labelled "regressive". He is writing to each Lib Dem MP setting out why they should vote against the move in the Budget. Miliband has also criticised the record on schooling of successive governments -- including Labour administrations -- and called for the removal of the "obstacle course" of constant exams for students from the age of 14 onward.

** In Westminster, Ed Balls is considered to have done his campaign no harm with his feisty performance on BBC1's Question Time last week, during which he tore into the "stooge" Vince Cable over the Budget and over the reversal of critical Lib Dem policy lines -- including the position on VAT -- that had provided cover for the party. Yesterday, Balls made the running on Iain Duncan Smith's plans for reallocating the jobless, likening it to Norman Tebbit's call for the unemployed to get "on your bike".

** And Ed Miliband sets out his case for "values" over "management" in politics in a ten-minute interview for the BBC's Daily Politics. In it, he says that he is a politician of the "centre ground" but that he is in politics to "shape that centre ground from the left". Miliband notes that it wasn't just people "on the left" who were outraged at the banking crisis, for example, and claims that he could reach out beyond Labour's core vote. Incidentally, he admits to having a "geekish" background, but defends his career, which has been largely in politics. He also confirms that he and his brother, David, told each other that it would be "quite wrong" to stand in one another's way when both men decided to stand for the leadership.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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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.