A Budget blow to the "big society"

Osborne's relaxation of Sunday trading laws continues the hyper-marketisation of life.

There is general consensus that the deregulation of Sunday trading around the Olympics is a dry run for the real thing.

When the figures roll in some time early in the autumn and it is shown that an extra x-million pounds were taken in those precious Sunday evenings, the Chancellor will step forward to tell us that we need to marshal all the forces we can to reinvigorate the economy and that the summer experiment showed this was one way of doing it and that in any case it isn't the government's business to tell people when they can and can't go shopping and... well, the conclusion writes itself.

When scholars come to write the history of our time, they should take note of the fact that the 25 year assault on Sunday trading legislation came exclusively from "Conservative" governments. From Thatcher's 1986 Shops Bill, through the 1994 Sunday Trading Act, to this year's efforts, it is Tories who have repeatedly brought the moneylenders back into the Temple.

Ranked against them has been one of the oddest coalitions of recent political history, including Christians, Trades Unions, small business, and old school Tories, achieving a remarkable success in 1986 but firmly on the back foot since then.

The fact that Conservatives can be found on both sides of this argument is indicative of the division that has dogged the Tory party for many years now, for which Sunday trading is merely a cipher. On the one hand, are the "One Nation" Conservatives, for want of a better term, who believe that cultural constraints, both written and unwritten, are essential to any society worth the name. On the other are the neo-liberals, for whom individual freedom and choice are totemic and to be prioritised irrespective of the wider social cost.

The division runs through today's Tory party as it has every one since the '70s. The difference now is that the present Prime Minister has made a "One Nation" style policy, "the big society", his stated political ambition, which means that, theoretically, it is the neo-liberals who should be on the back foot. Or not, it appears.

The brute fact is that if you genuinely want a "big society", in which people seriously invest in their neighbourhoods, they need time and energy to do so. And the hyper-marketisation of life - in which millions are required to work on Sundays, there is no area of our lives immune to consumerism, and independent, local businesses that bind communities together are further put under pressure by multinationals for whom Sunday trading presents no problem - in which, in short, there is no opportunity to stop and collectively draw breath - drains us of that time and energy.

It would be daft to read in this little spat over (even more) Sunday trading the epitaph for the big society. But it would be foolish to ignore its implications. No epitaph, maybe, but perhaps another letter chiselled on its headstone.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos.

Nick Spencer is director of studies at the think-tank Theos. His book Freedom and Order: History, Politics and the English Bible is published by Hodder & Stoughton

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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.