The question Lib Dem MPs must ask themselves

Will passing the health bill improve patient outcomes in the NHS?

There appears to be some confusion as to what the Lib Dem members were saying about The Health and Social Care Bill at Spring Conference over the weekend. Let me attempt to clarify things.

In short we are asking our MPs and Peers to decide if the cost of passing the Health and Social Care Bill is a price worth paying.

We don't like this bill. We trust our Conservative coalition partners on the NHS about as far as we can throw them. Our peers have done a tremendous job at amending the bill but it still has a very bad smell hanging around it. Even Nick made clear in his speech to conference that "this isn't a Liberal Democrat bill".

Nonetheless, there are some good things in the bill. No one pretends the NHS is perfect. Even Andy Burnham - who wrote an open letter to all Lib Dem members last week - says there is work to do to "enable the NHS to make some of the difficult service changes it needs to make to have a care model ready for the challenges of this century".

But everyone in the party does agree on one thing. Somehow - oh, how has this been allowed to happen - we have been manoeuvred into a position whereby if the bill passes, in the eyes of the electorate the responsibility for it will lie with us. And even if in the long term it turns out that supporters of the bill are right and the NHS improves through the passing of this bill, we wont get any of the credit, and we will get still get hammered by the voters for passing it. The cost of allowing this legislation comes with a heavy price tag for the Lib Dems.

So here is the question our Parliamentarians need to consider. It is perhaps a fairly obvious question - but in the midst of negotiations both around the bill and within the party, it is one that hasn't been asked enough.

Are you absolutely convinced that passing this bill will improve all patient outcomes in the NHS?

If you are - and I'm duty bound to point out this means you believe you know better than just about every professional healthcare body in the country - then you must pass this bill, no matter what the electoral cost to the party. It may mean another 80 years of electoral oblivion but if that's what you believe, you should put the NHS before the party.

But if you're not sure (and until the Risk Register is published, how can you be?), then is the cost of passing, as Nick calls it, the Conservatives' Health and Social Care Bill a price worth paying?

The members have done their bit and been clear that they don't think that it is.

But it's up to you now.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.