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.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.