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

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear