Ed Miliband delivers his general election launch speech at The Lowry Theatre in Salford. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Labour's electoral advantage isn't mainly due to the boundaries

Tactical voting, fewer wasted votes and lower turnout explain why the party can win more seats with the same number of votes. 

Based on past electoral trends, the Tories need to be around three points ahead of Labour before they win the largest number of seats. In 2005, Labour won a comfortable majority of 66 seats with a lead of just three, but in 2010, the Conservatives failed to win one at all with a lead of seven. What explains this discrepancy? The most commonly cited explanation is the current constituency boundaries. Since Labour constituencies are on average smaller than Conservative ones (something that the Tories' proposed changes would have eliminated by equalising constituencies at around 76,000 voters), the former gains by requiring fewer votes to win seats. With the Lib Dems having blocked the planned reforms in 2013 (in revenge for Conservative backbenchers preventing House of Lords reform), the Tories are left to lament that the next election has been "rigged" in Labour's favour. 

But while the current boundaries partially explain Labour's advantage, they do not, in fact, account for most of it. The seeming bias towards the party stems from long-standing trends that no Conservative government could automatically correct. 

First, turnout in Labour seats is on average lower than in Tory ones. The working class communities that have long supported the party are less likely to vote than more affluent Tory-aligned groups. Even were constituency sizes more equal, differential turnout would continue. 

Second, Labour has historically received fewer "wasted" votes than the Conservatives. Under first-past-the-post (a system supported, of course, by the Tories), votes for candidates who fail to win, or who have already won 50 per cent of the vote, are electorally worthless since they have no effect on the number of seats a party wins. Academic Danny Dorling has calculated that 1.7 million of the 10.6 million votes won by the Conservatives in 2010 were "surplus" (the highest level since 1918), increasing the party's majority in Tory seats beyond the point needed to secure MPs. 

Finally, in recent elections Labour has benefited from a significant level of anti-Tory tactial voting. Lib Dem supporters in Labour-Conservative marginals (where the Lib Dems are in third place and "cannot win here") have voted Labour in order to keep the Tories out. Following the same logic, Labour supporters in Lib Dem-Conservative marginals have voted for the Liberal Democrats. The result is that the Tories find it harder than Labour to win seats with a vote share of around 35-40 per cent due to the centre-left pooling its support. By contrast, Labour is capable of winning seats with this share due to the lower level of tactical voting against it. To change that, the Conservatives need to detoxify their brand, a far harder task than redrawing the boundaries. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Ben Pruchnie/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

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 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage