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The proposed constituency boundary changes will hurt the Liberal Democrats and not help the Tories much either

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The proposed constituency boundary changes will hurt the Liberal Democrats and not help the Tories much either

Posted on 15 June 2011 by admin

With the conclusion of the AV referendum last month, focus now turns to one of the few certain electoral reforms that this parliament will contain; the redrawing of constituency boundaries, and the reduction of the number of seats by 50 to 600. Presenting recent research by Democratic Audit, Lewis Baston finds that the Liberal Democrats will suffer the most by far, and Labour and the Conservatives will suffer very similar seat reductions.

The two most striking findings of the recently released Democratic Audit model of the boundary changes were the damage it inflicted on the Liberal Democrats, and the relatively even pattern of losses between Labour and Conservative. These findings caused a certain amount of surprise in politics and the media, but they are fairly predictable from the point of view of political science, leaving aside the detail of the projection.

Overall impact of boundary changes by party

The Liberal Democrats lose the most…

The Liberal Democrats will suffer severely in boundary changes. The model suggests 14 out of 57 seats will go. This harsh result stems from two factors common to most of their seats. They tend to have smaller majorities than Conservative or Labour MPs; the mean Liberal Democrat majority is 12.5 percentage points, about two-thirds the size of the other parties. This makes it less easy for them to withstand adverse boundary changes. The other is that they tend to represent yellow islands in a red or blue sea, rather than clump together. This means that in exchanging territory with neighbouring seats, Liberal Democrat seats will tend to acquire areas where the Liberal Democrat vote in 2010 was low. The model takes out several such island seats, such as Burnley, East Dunbartonshire, Mid Dorset & North Poole and Lewes.

However, Liberal Democrat incumbents have been able to survive radical and unhelpful boundary changes in the past – David Alton in 1983, Malcolm Bruce in 1997 and Sarah Teather in 2010 all managed to engineer huge swings from the ‘notional’ result in their altered seats. Local activism has succeeded in changing the way that voters in newly arriving areas see the contest and persuaded them that they can now vote Liberal Democrat with a good chance of winning (and conversely that by voting as they did previously they might ‘let in’ the main party they dislike more). However, the context may be different now. In past changes, only a tiny number of voters would be completely unwilling to ever vote Liberal Democrat, and therefore there were a lot of persuadable voters. There will now be far more people who will never consider voting Liberal Democrat. The party has succeeded in running up the down escalator in several boundary changes in the past, but it is harder now. A regime of permanent revolution in parliamentary boundaries such as that created by the 2011 Act is a difficult environment for Liberal Democrats, even beyond the particularly tricky election of 2015.

… but the Labour and Conservative losses are even

Net losses in seats for Labour and the Conservatives came out more or less even in the model, with Labour down 18 and the Conservatives down 15 overall (it was 17 and 16 respectively before a late tweak to the model in Warrington).

This finding, too, should not be very surprising for solid reasons of political science. Variation in constituency size is a very minor contributor to the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system. It should be expected that a neutrally-implemented measure altering the size of constituencies should therefore not do very much to alter the balance between Labour and Conservative. Constituency size was worth something like six seats in Labour’s favour in 2010, and seven against the Conservatives according to Rallings, Thrasher, Borisyuk and Johnston)

Even before looking further at any local detail, a net effect of 13 seats (11-12 when applied proportionally to a smaller House) is small beer. A lot of the existing bias stems from the over-representation of Wales – but cutting down Welsh seats then will probably have a disproportionate effect on the Welsh footholds the Conservatives currently enjoy, as they are mostly either marginal or obvious candidates for merger.  It should also be borne in mind that proportionately, Labour loses 7.0 per cent of its seats, while the Conservatives are down only 4.9 per cent. The scale of change in the Democratic Audit model is within the bands one might expect from first principles, allowing only for Welsh local factors.

Looking forward to 2015

The boundaries model is static – it assumes that everyone voted as they would have done in 2010. While the result and pattern of support in 2015 may resemble 2010 more than most people expect, there will be significant changes in electoral behaviour. It is impossible to predict what might happen in terms of the swing between Labour and Conservative.  But it is likely that the Liberal Democrat vote will fall, and that the SNP vote will rise, and that the regions of England will continue to polarise between a Labour north and a Conservative south. How the new boundaries translate the national swing and its local variations into seats is more important than what would have happened in 2010, but much harder to estimate.

The Democratic Audit model may not have changed the 2010 election result in any important way had the boundary changes been in place then, but it might look different in 2015. This is one of the reasons why the predictable chorus of ignorant people claiming it is an unduly pro-Labour map is wrong. It is not in Labour’s interests to maximise its notional number of seats in 2010, but to get the best result possible in seats when the national shares of the vote of Labour and Conservative are fairly close. This was the underpinning of Labour’s successful boundary review strategy in the 1990s. Labour would be best off creating Tory marginal seats – ideally ones with sitting Labour MPs to benefit from the incumbency effect!

It is difficult to be precise, but the Democratic Audit model appears to depopulate a vital area for Labour – seats with narrow Conservative majorities that would be susceptible to a small to medium sized pro-Labour swing. Of the 50 top target Tory seats for Labour on current boundaries (winnable with swings of up to 4 per cent), 15 would see Labour’s prospects improved, 17 would see the Conservatives strengthened instead, 14 would be unchanged or not significantly politically altered, and 4 would be abolished – a fairly even spread.

Of the seats improved for Labour, 8 of them would be flipped to the party on the notional 2010 results, and therefore not available for gaining in 2015. Eight of the seats are also so much improved for the Tories that they would no longer count as marginals. This makes 20 seats taken out of Labour’s easiest target list. In exchange, four new targets result from Labour seats being flipped into being Tory marginals by boundary changes, and probably four previously safer Tory seats now made marginal. The number of Tory seats vulnerable to a pro-Labour swing of 4 per cent or so falls from 50 to 38. The hill Labour has to climb to get an overall majority is therefore steeper than it would be under existing boundaries, while it is probably a little easier for the Conservatives.

This was probably the intention of the more sophisticated Conservative supporters of this proposal – to put a finger on the scales a little by systematically adding bits of rural territory to marginal seats in towns outside the big metropolitan areas (e.g. Great Yarmouth, Harlow, Redditch, Stevenage, Lincoln, Stafford, Tamworth, Brighton, Dover – and indeed Bath and Southport…). They may have been less aware that there will be locations where increased size of seats might lead the Boundary Commission to create a core urban (Labour-inclined) seat rather than two increasingly Tory marginals (as for instance in Thanet and Norwich in the Democratic Audit model).

The Democratic Audit model illustrates the simple principle that altering something (constituency size) which is not much to do with the problem you are seeking to address (electoral bias) is unlikely to achieve your aim. It also illustrates some of the complexities in measuring the effects of boundary changes. It may superficially look a better outcome for Labour than expected, but there is a story below the headline numbers.

Link to original post with additional reader comments at LSE Politics Blog

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Pollwatch: Conservative coalition could cost Liberal Democrats dear (12 May 2010)

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Pollwatch: Conservative coalition could cost Liberal Democrats dear (12 May 2010)

Posted on 12 May 2010 by admin

Lib Dem losses are likely at the next election, especially in Scotland, cities and where Labour voters backed them tactically

The decision to go into full coalition with the Conservatives will probably cost the Liberal Democrats dear at the next election. Coming to agreements in hung parliaments has not done them much good in past elections, as it inevitably involves taking tough decisions and alienating many of their supporters.

In 1923-24 they managed to relegate themselves to the fringes of politics by first installing a Labour government and then throwing it out again, and the hung parliament in 1929-31 ended with the Liberals split into three factions. David Steel was lucky to escape relatively unscathed in the 1979 election after the Lib-Lab pact. But they have always lost votes and seats following pacts and peacetime coalitions.

Lib Dem losses are likely to be particularly severe in three categories of seat.

Eleven of their 57 MPs represent Scottish constituencies, and the hostility of Scottish public opinion to anything connected with the Tories remains undiminished. There has been a substantial Labour vote even in quite rural Lib Dem constituencies. The Scottish secretary, Danny Alexander, already looks a candidate for a “Portillo moment” in the next election in his Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey constituency. Labour also came fairly close in several other seats, such as East Dunbartonshire and Edinburgh West.

The Lib Dems have won several seats from Labour in the last three elections in urban areas, intellectual middle-class seats such as Manchester Withington, Leeds North West, Hornsey and Wood Green, and grittier constituencies such as Redcar and Brent Central. There are about 11 constituencies in this category, and they will be lucky to hold any of them.

The third category of likely losses are those seats where there is a substantial latent Labour vote which has been giving tactical support to the Lib Dems to keep out the Tories. Labour-inclined voters are now unlikely to see the point of doing this, and the tactical message of supporting one coalition partner to tame the excesses of the other is a bit more difficult to sell than “keep the Tories out”.

There are around eight seats here, none of which would probably go Labour but where a big withdrawal of tactical support would throw the seat to the Tories or Plaid Cymru. Chris Huhne in Eastleigh would be a likely casualty. In other constituencies, though, the loss of tactical Labour support is probably going to be counteracted by votes gained from the Conservatives and there is less of a threat – Taunton and Eastbourne are examples of this kind of seat.

The Lib Dems have relied on personal votes for incumbents in many seats, and while some of them look safe, holding Berwick without Alan Beith or Bermondsey and Old Southwark without Simon Hughes look tough tasks.

This means that about half the party’s seats are therefore either write-offs or severely vulnerable in a future election. However, this is to assume that the next election will be fought on the same lines as the one just finished. The electoral system might change if the alternative vote (AV) is approved in a referendum. This could save many of the Lib Dem MPs because they would still attract grudging second preferences from Labour voters, and perhaps more enthusiastic ones from Tories.

Another possible change, a Tory shibboleth that the Lib Dems seem to have signed up to, is more ominous for the party. This is the plan to have a radical review of parliamentary boundaries and reduce the number of constituencies. Farewell, then, the undersized seat of Orkney and Shetland, and others.

Personal votes for incumbents will be disrupted by radical boundary reviews, with territory mixed and matched between constituencies in a way that will make it difficult for them to build up personal votes and retain constituencies.

While the referendum may not pass, the “reduce and equalise” plan just needs legislation. The Lib Dems would be wise to make one conditional on the other. But even without being carved up by their coalition partners under “reduce and equalise”, many of their MPs are dead men and women walking unless they get AV.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/12/pollwatch-liberal-democrats-conservatives-coalition

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