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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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.