The Tories might be winning the air war but they're losing the ground game

The story of the Conservatives’ shrivelled membership is potentially as significant as the story of Labour’s presentational shambles.

On the bright side – or is that sunny side up? – there won’t be any more complaints about Labour keeping too low a profile this summer. Ed Miliband’s picture will be in all of tomorrow’s papers. Unhelpfully for the opposition, it will be as the recipient of a dissenting egg. Or six. 

That will surely prolong the "Miliband’s summer of woe" story just when it might have been running out of momentum. The charge that Labour have mismanaged their recess is simultaneosuly true and unfair. As some of us pointed out early on, there was an awkward haitus after parliament rose in which the coalition parties carried on campaigning and the opposition appeared to stop.

That set the tone for the ensuing weeks, although Labour got more organised – effectively turning the conversation to the cost of living crisis for a few days – while the Tories and Lib Dems went quiet. The problem for Miliband was that a fallow patch and the suspicion that "the grid" of planned news interventions had been neglected aggravated an older and deeper anxiety about the lack of clarity in Labour’s offer to the electorate. It hasn’t been hard in recent months to find Labour people who will complain about the situation in private; the silly season lull meant those gripes were amplified in print. Before long there was a bad news feedback loop – people who need to write about politics and dread the period over summer in which there is nothing to write about, found that they could write about the politics of there being nothing happening and why it was bad for Labour (Look, here I am, at it again).

It is interesting to compare the treatment of Milband’s travails with another summer story rumbling on in the background about Conservative party membership. A number of prominent Tories connected to the ConservativeHome website have been trying to extract a definitive number from their party (£). CCHQ has refused, although in the process it has become clear that there are very probably fewer than 100,000 active card-carrying Tories.

It is a fairly arcane row and there is no reason why it should be reported with the same breathless vigour as Miliband’s malaise – but it is also a bona fide crisis for the Tory party. Since David Cameron became leader, membership has fallen by two thirds. (Numbers are falling across the board, with the exception of Ukip, but the drop is steepest among Conservatives.) So what? Perhaps, the days of mass membership of political organisations are over. Some form of looser association will be devised; innovation and modernisation might yet come to the rescue. That, at least, is the hope.

The problem for the Tories is that, even in the most optimistic analysis, the gap left by missing members won’t be plugged in time for a general election. As I wrote a few weeks ago, concern about a rusty machine with missing pieces in vital marginal seats is one the two issues that otherwise confident Tory MPs say could really scupper their chances of being the biggest party in the next parliament. (The other one is an outbreak of panic if Ukip win the highest share of any party in next year’s European parliament ballot.)

Labour, by contrast, are getting relatively organised on the ground. The Lib Dems are famously tenacious in the bastions where they are fortified around a local council and local MP. One senior Conservative recently told me he expects the next election to throw up a whole lot of constituency results that will look anomalous – cases of rogue swings, unexpected defeats or strange episodes of incumbent survival, which on closer inspection will turn out to be the result of especially effective local organisation.

There have always been a few such cases – Labour holding Birminghan Edgbaston in 2010 is one often cited example – but the Tory expectation is that there could be many more like it in 2015. The risk is made greater by losses in successive council elections over the course of a parliament. Each small defeat demoralises another member, his or her family, their friends. There is an aggregate effect that ends in fewer feet pounding the pavements and fewer hands stuffing envelopes when the big push comes.

In short, the story of the Tories’ shrivelled membership is potentially as significant as the story of Labour’s presentational shambles but, crucially, one is a London-based media topic and the other unfolds elsewhere, below the radar. In that sense, what the summer has confirmed is that Labour are losing the "air war" but are no less a force to be reckoned with on the ground.

Air supremacy matters, of course. Labour cannot afford the aura of mystery surrounding their basic offer to the country to continue. But the Tories should also be wary of celebrating what feels like a victory in the battle for control of the political landscape, when the quiet hills may conceal pockets of guerrilla tenacity sufficient to halt a Conservative advance.

David Cameron talks to staff during a visit to the Salford Royal Hospital accident and emergency department on August 8, 2013 in Salford. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former 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.