"One Nation" Labour has no choice but to fight hard in Eastleigh

The by-election is an important test of the party's ability under Miliband to appeal to southern voters.

Much has been said about the challenges the Eastleigh by-election will pose for the two parties of government, and it’s true that either David Cameron or Nick Clegg will face awkward questions from their party after 28 February. But Ed Miliband has no cause for smugness just yet.

Having failed to even get 10 per cent of the vote in Eastleigh in 2010, there will be little pressure on the Labour candidate in the by-election, who will be announced today. Yet the seat is a test of the party's ability under Miliband to appeal to southern voters. John Denham, the MP for neighbouring constituency Southampton Itchen, is leading the Labour campaign, and highlights the election’s wider significance in Miliband's "One Nation Labour" project.

"The reason the Labour Party is fighting this seat seriously is not just because we want to get the best possible result here, but because, as a party that’s aiming to rebuild its base in the south, this is the sort of constituency, and the people who live here are the sort of people, that we want to represent.

"When we talk about being a One Nation Labour Party - south as well as north - we’re not just talking about the handful of places that might be target marginal constituencies at the next election but the whole of Southern England. If we can get that across really strongly, that in itself is a victory for us."

Predictably, Denham wasn't prepared to put a numerical figure on this "victory". Realistically, doubling the party’s share of the vote and breaking the 20 per cent mark would be a useful first step in Labour’s arduous task of regaining the trust of the south.

Such a result would rely largely on what Denham describes as "Labour-inclined [people] who voted Lib Dem in 2010 because they thought they were going to keep the Tories out and who are particularly bitter at the moment". Labour’s problem is that it's in their interests for such voters to bite their lip and support the Lib Dems again in 2015; the Conservatives are second in 38 of the Lib Dems’ 57 seats.

So while it’s easy to see the attraction for Labour in soft-pedaling in Eastleigh, it’s one that should be resisted. Light campaigning from the party might increase the chances of the Lib Dems holding onto the seat, but it would also be very risky: even without Nigel Farage as their candidate, Coral make UKIP evens to beat Labour. If that happened, it would be hard to suggest that the party's one nation extended south of the M25.  

Ed Miliband addresses workers at Islington Town Hall on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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.