Commons Confidential: Who’s laughing now?

Plus: Bad news for Ivan Lewis.

Photographs of a giggling David Cameron and George Osborne are Ed Miliband’s secret weapon. The shots of the Laurel and Hardy of the Con-Dem coalition laughing their heads off in the House of Commons trigger the strongest anti-Tory reaction when Labour hands round the snaps in focus groups. Government is viewed as a serious business and the photos reinforce the image of Dave the Dandy and Boy George as a couple of out-of-touch Bullingdon toffs. Labour is discussing how to exploit this. Deckchair Dave’s rave in Ibiza post-Woolwich will have heightened the PM’s vulnerability to suggestions that he’s more interested in spare time than in work time.

Tory chatter is growing that Cameron may recycle Andrew Mitchell. The former chief whip, forced to resign after an altercation with a Downing Street police officer, has retained his old office on a cabinet corridor behind the Speaker’s Chair. The failure to eject Mitchell is viewed as evidence that Cameron has a guilty conscience and might give him a job, should he be absolved of Plebgate.

Bad news for Ivan Lewis: Lembit Öpik was mistaken for the shadow international development secretary. I overheard a Labour MP’s former researcher say, “Oh, there’s Ivan Lewis,” in the Strangers’ Bar. Alas, it was a false spotting. Your correspondent looked up to see the Libido Democrat, not the Labourite, barging through the door. There is an uncanny physical resemblance, but if the pair were separated at birth they’ve gone different ways. Öpik the Cheeky Boy is an attention-grabber, while Lewis just gets on with the job.

To Cardiff Bay for a Welsh Assembly seminar on the “democratic deficit”, otherwise known as a whinge about the media. Assembly members feel neglected, especially by British national papers. They’re wrong if they believe extra column inches automatically lead to voters in polling booths. Turnout in the 2011 assembly elections, at 42 per cent, was higher than the 38 per cent for the exhaustively covered Ken v Boris battle for London. The turnout among 60 AMs, by the way, was 1.67 per cent, with only the Tory David Melding, the deputy presiding officer, attending the morning bout.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Treasury minister, wins an award for being Labour’s best networker. Hers was the first handwritten note of congratulations received by a wannabe Labour MEP. Good manners and clever politics, should Reeves ever wish to run for the party leadership.

Male snappers in need of equality education shouted, “Squeeze up, girls,” when Harriet Harman posed for a photograph with Labour women outside the Commons. The thin smile on Sister Harriet’s face said she’d heard it all before but wasn’t going to bite.

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Montage: Dan Murrell/NS

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 03 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Power Christians

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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.