Why the Tories' dream of a majority could finally end today

The likely defeat of the boundary changes by Labour and the Lib Dems means the Tories will need a lead of seven points to win a majority in 2015.

Update: MPs have voted in favour of delaying the boundary changes to 2018 by 334 to 292. 

Labour, the Lib Dems, the nationalist parties and at least four Conservatives (David Davis, Philip Davies, Richard Shepherd and John Baron) voted in favour of the rebel amendment. 


Barring any last-minute upset, the Conservatives' proposed boundary changes will finally receive their last rites in the Commons this afternoon. MPs will vote on a Labour amendment to delay the reforms until 2018 and, without the support of the Lib Dems, who will fulfil their pledge to oppose the changes in revenge for the abandonment of House of Lords reform, there is no hope of the Tories preventing defeat. 

In addition to Labour and the Lib Dems, at least two Conservative MPs - Glyn Davies and Philip Davies - are likely to rebel, with David Davis also considering voting against the changes (an assortment of rebels that suggests the whips should also keep a close eye on David Davies). Thus, even if the Tories succeed in winning the support of the eight DUP MPs (the SNP is expected to abstain), they will be well short of the numbers needed to save the reforms. As David Cameron's official spokesman delicately put it yesterday, "clearly, from the Prime Minister's perspective, the arithmetic looks pretty difficult". 

The defeat of the changes means it will be all but impossible for the Conservatives to win a majority in 2015. Under the existing boundaries, and assuming a Lib Dem vote of around 15 per cent, the Tories require a lead of seven points to win an overall majority, compared to a lead of four points under the new boundaries. Labour, by contrast, needs a lead of just one point to win a majority under the current system, compared to a lead of three points under the new boundaries. 

The party's advantage is partly due to differential constituency sizes, a factor that the boundary changes, which would have fixed constituency sizes at plus or minus five per cent of 76,000 voters, were designed to mitigate. Since Labour tends to perform best in smaller, urban seats, while the Tories perform best in larger, rural seats, it takes an average of 33,470 votes to elect a Labour MP, compared to an average of 35,030 to elect a Conservative one (and 119,944 to elect a Lib Dem, which is why they bang on about electoral reform). 

But even with the boundary changes, Miliband's party would still have enjoyed a significant advantage over its opponents. This is because the the electoral bias towards Labour owes more to differential turnout (fewer people tend to vote in Labour constituencies) and regional factors (the Tory vote is poorly distributed) than it does to unequal constituencies. As a report by the University of Plymouth concluded: "The geography of each party's support base is much more important, so changes in the redistribution procedure are unlikely to have a substantial impact and remove the significant disadvantage currently suffered by the Conservative Party."

By 2015, as the Tories struggle to even remain the single largest party (something that will require a lead of four points), the more reflective Conservative MPs might ask themselves whether it was worth sacrificing the boundary changes for the sake of preventing an elected House of Lords. When I interviewed former Conservative education secretary Kenneth Baker earlier this month, he told me that he regarded Cameron's failure to secure the boundary changes as his "biggest mistake". ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie has described the defeat of the reforms as the Tories' "worst single electoral setback since Black Wednesday". 

Note the date - 29 January 2013 - it may well be remembered as the day that the Tories' hopes of outright victory in 2015 finally ended. 

Conservative and Liberal Democrat ministers will vote against each other for the first time since the coalition was formed when parliament votes on the boundary changes later today. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.