Leader: Labour needs to become more of a fighting force in its own right

It's easy to look at the current political situation and see Conservatives on the march, Labour yielding under pressure - but is that really the case?

A wind tends to run through the media’s coverage of politics. A collective view is formed that everything is going right for one party and wrong for its opponents. News is reported selectively to fit that thesis. Currently the wind is at David Cameron’s back. Why? Traces of economic recovery are visible, the Tories have taken a break from infighting and headline-grabbing incompetence, Labour’s lead in the opinion polls has narrowed.
 
Meanwhile, Ed Miliband spent the weeks before parliament’s summer recess tied up in a debate about his relationship with the trade unions which is necessary, but introspective.
 
By contrast, the Conservatives are advertising themselves as being ready for battle. That is certainly the spin successfully put on their recruitment of Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s former election strategist. The signing of a big hitter from the US Democratic Party was depicted as a coup for Mr Cameron. It also served as a reminder that Mr Miliband has yet to appoint a replacement for Tom Watson, his campaign co-ordinator who resigned in June amid the controversy over allegations of candidate selection-fixing.
 
Mr Cameron, meanwhile, has been employing the services of the Australian Lynton Crosby, his campaign consultant, who is credited in part with restoring discipline and fighting spirit to the Conservative benches.
 
So, it is easy to build an account of Conservatives on the march and Labour yielding under pressure. Yet how reliable is that analysis? The crucial piece of evidence on which the story hangs is the shift in opinion polls. Although there is plenty of variety between the different surveys, a trend has emerged that shows Labour drifting away from the doubledigit advantage it once boasted. The question is whether that indicates irresistible Conservative momentum and an inevitable Miliband decline.
 
A longer view suggests not necessarily. The periods in which Labour has pushed ahead have coincided with a patch of egregiously inept government – the “omnishambles” Budget of 2012, which led to panic in the Conservative ranks and a Ukip surge in by-elections and council ballots. The underlying picture has barely shifted in three years. Labour’s core vote is bolstered by disgruntled former Liberal Democrats, giving Mr Miliband a slight advantage over the Conservatives, who appear able to call reliably on the support of roughly a third of the electorate, but rarely more.
 
British politics has been stuck in the same rut since the 2010 general election: there are not enough people who trust Labour to run the economy and too many people with a visceral dislike of the Conservatives for either side to win a majority. Ukip and the Liberal Democrats cloud the picture but the blue-red contest is fairly stable and immune to the wild swings of the media weathervane.
 
It is convenient to pretend that the frenzied cycle expressed by rolling television news, and accelerated by Twitter, feeds directly into parties’ popularity. This is the political equivalent of the dubious hypothesis that financial markets, in which millions of trades are made every second, give prices for assets that accurately reflect those assets’ value. In reality, there is much meaningless noise, making it harder to discern a clear signal of what is happening. Most of the country has no interest in the daily obsessions of the Westminster village. London SW1 is surely the most atypical postcode in the country; as such, it is not a safe vantage point from which to read the national mood.
 
The good news for Mr Miliband is that reports of a summer of Labour discontent need not portend disaster. The bad news is that his party’s support seems more closely pegged to fluctuations in Tory discipline than to any campaign strategy that he has devised. A sustained Conservative civil war before polling day in 2015 is possible but not guaranteed. Before then, Labour needs to become more of a fighting force in its own right.
The good news for Mr Miliband is that reports of a summer of Labour discontent need not portend disaster. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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.