ElBaradei the nucleus

The returning former IAEA chief is becoming the centre of the opposition in Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood has historically provided the main opposition to Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak. But as April's parliamentary elections approach, their internal struggles and the return to Cairo of a key reformist figure suggest that the colour of Egypt's opposition is changing.

The return of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has increased speculation that he will challenge Mubarak in the 2011 presidential elections. Mubarak has yet to announce whether he will run and commentators have suggested he is grooming his son Gamal Mubarak -- head of the ruling National Party's policy committee -- to succeed him.

That ElBaradei has not been associated with corruption and comes with a good international reputation makes him a popular contender. Further, as Magdi Abdelhadi, the BBC's Arab affairs analyst, notes, ElBaradei's appeal lies in being a civilian. Egypt has been controlled by the military since 1952.

Although he has suggested he would stand if the election could be guaranteed to be fair, or if he could run as an independent, amendments to the Egyptian constitution in 2005 make ElBaradei's challenge ineligible.

Candidates must be members of political parties that have been in existence for at least five years. Alternatively, they must be independents, endorsed by parliament and the local councils. As both forums are dominated by Mubarak's ruling party, an endorsement for ElBaradei seems somewhat unlikely.

Yet while it may be difficult for the ex-IAEA chief himself to stand, and even though he has been somewhat noncommittal about his plans, he has offered encouraging signals to Egypt's reform movement. This week he met with various opposition groups to form the National Front for Change and has opened membership to anyone demanding an alternative to the National Party.

Reports indicate that the meeting, which took place at ElBaradei's house, was attended by a mix of prominent Egyptian activists, intellectuals and politicians: leaders of the Democratic Front, the liberal Constitutional Party, the Ghad party, a faction of the Wafd party, as well as representatives of the Kefaya movement and the Sixth of April Youth. Although the Muslim Brotherhood are rumoured to have attended the meeting, which took place on Tuesday, their dominance in Egypt's opposition would appear to be waning as the focus shifts to the new man.

This is certainly not helped by divisions within the Brotherhood. The party leadership elections in late 2009 demonstrated the split between the party's older conservative elements, who invest their energy in religious and social programmes, and the largely reform-minded younger members. While the conservatives won, the reformists continue to advocate engagement with other democratic, secular opposition movements. The reform faction is preparing candidates for the April elections.

It would be foolish to expect one man to lead the charge against Mubarak and the presumed succession by Gamal. However, ElBaradei has galvanised the opposition and given it fresh momentum in the lead-up to the elections. It will be interesting to see if the presence of this new focal point for the opposition helps it shed its familiar Islamist guise.

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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.