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8 March 2018updated 24 Jun 2021 12:25pm

The Conservative party is engaging in dangerous fantasies about how to win the next election

All too often, the default response is to find ways to stop Labour people voting.

By Stephen Bush

Everything’s coming up Tory? Guido Fawkes reports that Downing Street are increasingly confident that they can pass boundary changes to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600, although the DUP may yet scupper the plans.

Are they right? Well, I’m not going to speculate about whether the DUP or Conservative MPs are going to play ball, because, to be frank, I can’t be bothered to put the phone calls in, and in any case it could all change very quickly.

However – and apologies if I’m starting to sound like a stuck record on this – it is worth noting that the whole endeavour is much ado about nothing. The British electoral system used to have a small Labour bias, most neatly illustrated in the 2005 and 2010 elections, when a 35 per cent Labour share of the vote in 2005 delivered a Labour parliamentary majority of 66, while five years later a 36 per cent Conservative share of the vote left David Cameron 20 seats short of a majority. However that went sharply into reverse in 2015 because of two collapses: the Liberal Democrats’ collapse which directly benefited the Conservative Party, and the SNP surge in Scotland that made their vote considerably less efficient.

Although the Liberal Democrats revived a bit – in seat terms – and the SNP tide went in a bit, the overall pro-Conservative bias in the electoral system continued, with it taking considerably more votes to elect a Labour MP than a Conservative one. In 2017 the Labour party got 40 per cent of the vote and 40 per cent of the seats, while the Conservatives got 42 per cent of the vote and 48 per cent of the seats.

Reducing the number of seats doesn’t really make that much of a difference as far as the parliamentary arithmetic goes: on a 600-seater House of Commons the Conservative Party would still be a few seats short of a majority and dependent on the DUP to help them over the line.

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Ultimately under the British electoral system, whichever political party’s electoral coalition happens to be most efficiently dispersed around the country will be the beneficiary of a bias, and anyone who bases their asks for boundary or voter registration changes on the idea it will help their side risks looking very foolish in short order.

Take the other Conservative measure designed to make it harder for Labour to win: mandating that people need to take a form of photo ID with them when they vote. The nominal argument for this policy is to combat electoral fraud, however, as I explain in greater detail here, there is no evidence or indication that this is going on, unless someone has been rigging election results entirely in keeping with national swing and demographic behaviour.  Which would be a perfect crime, it’s true, but also a pointless one.

At present, it is likely that if anyone ends up unable to vote because they don’t have photographic ID they will be Labour, rather than Conservative voters. But if the longterm demographic changes in who votes Tory and who votes Labour continue into the next election, it could turn out that Labour take a greater share of the graduate population while the Conservatives take a growing share of the population that is not educated to degree level, meaning that it is the Tories, rather than Labour, who do worse as a result of the change.

The whole thing is a hangover from a failed era of Conservative politics when, unable to defeat Tony Blair, the party engaged in a series of what are little better than conspiracy theories about how they needed to remake the electoral map to make it easier for them to win. Then they discovered David Cameron and briefly realised it was a whole lot easier to just try to win over Labour voters.

It’s an interesting contrast with Theresa May’s big speech on housing this week and the Conservative plan to unveil a youth wing. The Tory mouth opens and it says the things it ought to do if it actually wants to not only hold onto office but secure the big majority that has eluded it since 1987: build more houses, appeal to the young and the socially liberal. But when the Conservative hand reaches for the policy lever, the preferred solution is to erect barriers in front of “Labour people” and the ballot box.

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