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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It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage