St. Matthew's Catholic Cathedral near the Sudanese capital Khartoum. Photograph: Getty Images.
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We must stand up for Meriam Ibrahim and other persecuted Christians

The government must speak out firmly against her barbaric sentence and call on the Sudanese government to revoke it.

The plight of Meriam Ibrahim has outraged and shocked people across the world. Sentenced to death by hanging in Sudan simply for being a Christian, 27-year-old Meriam is a prisoner of conscience who has been specifically persecuted because of her faith.

Amnesty International has rightly described her sentence as "appalling and abhorrent" and their online petition calling for her release has already reached 154,000 signatures. Not only is her sentence abhorrent, but she has also been forced to suffer cruelty at the hands of the Sudanese authorities during her detention in jail.

Her current conditions in Omdurman prison near Khartoum are desperate. She is reported to have spent the past five months chained to the floor of her cell. Reports that she was shackled whilst giving birth this week show that her treatment, and the treatment of her young innocent children, has been both inhuman and cruel. Human Rights Watch claims the prison is "beset with overcrowding' and suffers from 'poor sanitation, disease and the deaths of many children living with their mothers."

Merian's plight is just one of a growing number of cases around the world of Christians being persecuted for their faith. She was raised as a Christian by her mother, and refuses to renounce her religion despite the offer from the Sudanese courts to withdraw her sentence if she does. It is vital that at these moments - when the world's attention is focused on such victims of persecution - politicians are not afraid to speak up and speak out against such attacks on innocent people because of their religious beliefs.

The Labour Party has asked British ministers to apply pressure to the Sudanese government to try and ensure her release, and it is vital that the UK government continue to speak out firmly against her barbaric sentence and to call on the Sudanese government to revoke it. The British government will continue have our full support in their efforts resolve this matter, and in speaking out more vocally on the issue of Christian persecution.

Indeed, this year the UK assumed its place on the UN Human Rights Council, and as part of that body the UK government now has a unique and timely opportunity to use this platform to speak up for religious freedom as a fundamental human right and speak out against the persecution of Christians worldwide.

Merian's case is a reminder of how significant a struggle this is, and just how urgent a task.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow foreign secretary and Labour MP for Paisley and Renfrewshire South.

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.