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28 May 2015

How the Tories are trying to make it impossible for Labour to win again

Boundary changes, allowing expatriates to vote and changes to trade union funding will all hit the opposition. 

By George Eaton

After achieving their first majority for 23 years, the Tories are determined to consolidate their advantage. The opening months of the new parliament, when the government’s authority is at its greatest, provide crucial political space to do so. There are three notable ways in which the Tories are planning to tilt the system in their favour – and make it even harder for Labour to win next time.

Boundary changes

The Conservatives signalled immediately after their victory that they intended to pursue the boundary changes vetoed by the Lib Dems in 2013. Their plan to base the new constituencies on electoral registration, rather than population, means that Labour would be hit hardest. As the Electoral Reform Society has noted: “Under the current proposals urban and socially deprived areas where registration is low [and Labour usually wins] are likely to have fewer MPs per person than affluent areas where registration is high.” Modelling suggests that the Tories’ current majority of 12 would rise as high as 50 under the new boundaries.

Allowing expatriates to vote for life

A new Votes for Life Bill will abolish the current 15-year limit on UK expatriates voting in general elections. The Tories have presented the move as merely ending an “unfair” rule but there are political calculations at work. No age group is more likely to vote Conservative than the over-65s, who account for a disproportionate share of expatriates. The Tories finished 24 points ahead among pensioners at the election, 78 per cent of whom turned out. The extension of the franchise to the 3.3m expatriates who have lived outside of the UK for more than 15 years will give them an additional advantage over Labour. 

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Forcing trade unionists to opt-in to the political levy

The Trade Unions Bill being piloted by Business Secretary Sajid Javid includes a measure consciously designed to hit funding for Labour. Under the legislation, union members will be required to opt-in to paying the political levy, rather than being automatically enrolled (and having the right to opt-out). The result, as when the change was last imposed in 1927 following the general strike, is likely to be a significant drop in subscriptions. In Northern Ireland,  where an opt-in system already exists, just 40 per cent of members contribute, compared to 8.8 per cent who opt-out in the rest of UK. 

By reducing the size of unions’ political funds, which are used to support Labour among other activities, the reform will strengthen the Tories’ already vast funding advantage. Labour currently receives nearly 70 per cent of its donations from the unions and the hope that its ground operation would counter the Tories’ financial muscle was not borne out by the election. The unions are particularly aggrieved since political levies are already subject to 10-yearly ballots and that the Conservatives did not announce the proposal during the general election campaign. 

It took until 1946 and the Attlee government for the opt-in system to be scrapped after 1927 – the Tories’ changes are designed to ensure that Labour has to wait as long this time.