Labour exploits Osborne's pasty problem

Osborne's "pasty tax" comes under fire from Miliband.

Full marks to whichever Labour staffer positioned Ed Miliband in front of Greggs during his interview with Sky News earlier today. George Osborne's decision to apply VAT to hot supermarket food [raising the price by 20 per cent], an obscure change announced in last week's Budget, has become a political problem for the government following yesterday's select committee hearing. After admitting that he "can't remember" the last time he bought a pasty at Greggs, Osborne suggested that cold pasties would not be VAT-able, a comment that inspired today's Sun to compare the Chancellor to Marie Antoinette ["Let them eat cold pasty," reads its headline].

Shadow chief secretary to the Treasury Rachel Reeves made a well-timed visit to Greggs.

The tabloid's editorial goes further, declaring that "the Chancellor and his rich Cabinet colleagues cannot begin to understand what it's like to be so hard-up that a sharp rise in the price of a pasty will hurt.

"Unlike Sun readers, they don't worry how to pay for food, rent or petrol. If they ever have done, they certainly can't remember how it feels now -- any more than Mr Osborne can remember the last time he bought a pasty in Greggs."

It's tempting to dimiss this as a bit of knockabout fun but symbolism matters in politics and the current row both reflects and reinforces the view that the government is out of touch with ordinary people. Put simply, it has cut taxes for millionaires and raised them for pasty-eaters [the two categories are, of course, not mutually exclusive, though Osborne's performance suggested they might be]. As ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie has written, class is the Conservatives' "Clause IV" and this week's ComRes poll showed that 66 per cent of voters regard the Tories as "the party of the rich".

Miliband told reporters outside Greggs:

"Not just fuel duty going up, child benefit taken away, tax credits being cut, now even putting 20 per cent on the cost of pasties, sausage rolls, and the Chancellor's excuse? Well, he says you can buy them cold and you can avoid the tax.

"It just shows how out of touch this Government is and it shows that we've got a Budget that is hitting millions of people while cutting taxes for millionaires."

In an attempt at damage limitation, David Cameron told a press conference that he "loves a hot pasty" [although he bought his from the West Cornwall Pasty Company] but offered no hint of a U-turn. Has any Budget ever offered an opposition party so many easy hits?

Ed Miliband speaks to reporters outside a Greggs bakery earlier today.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.