How low will the Lib Dems go?

Liberal Democrats fall to 12 per cent in new YouGov poll, their lowest rating since 2007.

There's more bad news for the Lib Dems in today's papers, with a Sunday Times/YouGov poll putting the party on just 12 per cent, their lowest poll rating since October 2007. By contrast, the Tories are on 42 per cent, with Labour on an impressive 38 per cent.

Appearing on The Andrew Marr Show this morning, Chris Huhne responded to the poll results by pointing out: "I can remember a time when we had opinion polls where we were just an asterisk. We were literally within the margin of error of zero."

A few months ago his leader spoke of replacing Labour as the second party. How the Lib Dems' ambitions have narrowed.

New Statesman Poll of Polls

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Hung parliament: Conservatives 12 seats short.

Most in the party are genuinely relaxed about their slide in the polls, explaining it away as what happens to a junior coalition partner until it has established itself in government. But unless the Lib Dems' ratings improve, we can expect tensions to grow in the run-up to the conference season.

The risk for the Lib Dems is that they will share the blame for things that go badly and take little of the credit for things that go well. As Janet Daley writes in the Sunday Telegraph:

The electoral problem for the Lib Dems is this: however much they may genuinely support and help to facilitate these reforms, they will not get the credit for them. If the schools and welfare reorganisations succeed, it will be Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith who will be seen as the authors of the triumph. But if they fail, or are unpopular, the Lib Dems will share the ignominy.

For the Conservatives, the fear is that the fall in Lib Dem popularity may eventually make the coalition unworkable, and that Lib Dem MPs, fearful of losing their seats, will begin to rebel to maintain their distinctiveness. But either way, both parties should prepare for much worse once those 25 per cent cuts kick in.

George Eaton is political editor of 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.