The Boundary Review: Ask a silly question…

So, here we are. After months of speculation, the Boundary Commission for England has finally released its provisional proposals for the parliamentary constituencies on which the next general election will be contested. The headlines focus on high-profile MPs, such as Ed Balls, Nadine Dorries and George Osborne, whose seats have been abolished in the review, but this masks the fact that the proposals themselves are largely, as widely feared, a horrible mess.

The reason for this? The Boundary Commission was tasked to redraw the parliamentary boundaries with a couple of criteria in mind. Firstly, the number of constituencies was to be fixed at 600. Previous boundary reviews have not been so constrained, with the number of MPs returned fluctuating after each review – usually somewhere around 650, which is incidentally the number of MPs we have at present.

Secondly, the constituencies were required to be of equal size, within a 5% margin of error. Therefore, with a few notable exceptions (which I’ll get onto in a moment), every parliamentary constituency in the UK has an electorate of between 72,810 and 80,473.

And that’s it. No regard for pre-existing administrative divisions, local communities, geography or anything else. Add to this the Boundary Commission’s apparent phobia of splitting local government wards between parliamentary seats, and you have some truly hideous proposals. One seat, for instance, crosses the River Mersey.

This flagrant disregard for the reality on the ground would be easier to stomach if it weren’t for the previously noted exceptions. The Scottish constituencies of Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan an Iar (known before 2005 as the Western Isles) will retain their status as individual seats. These seats are grossly undersized anyway (Na h-Eileanan an Iar is the smallest constituency in the UK with an electorate of a little over 20,000) and will be even more so after the review is completed. In addition, the Isle of Wight has been granted two undersized seats, whereas previously it had one oversized one. Yet other considerations reflecting local culture and geography – such as the retention of the Devon-Cornwall border and the independence of Anglesey – were rejected.

Conservative supporters have long griped about parliamentary boundaries favouring Labour. It is true that if Labour and the Conservatives got the same number of votes nationwide, Labour would have more seats – after all, Labour secured a comfortable majority in 2005 with 36% of the vote, while the Tories got 37% in 2010 and still ended up 19 seats short. It is also true that, on average, Labour seats are slightly smaller than Conservative ones.

However, it is not the case that this is the sole, or even the main, cause of Labour’s electoral advantage over the Tories. Analysis by Electoral Calculus in 2006 showed that the main reason for Labour’s advantage was that, in Labour seats, voter turnout was generally lower. It takes fewer votes to elect a Labour MP because, in those seats, fewer voters (for all parties) tend to come to the polling station on election day. Even with equal constituency sizes, therefore, Labour will still find it easier to win a majority than the Tories.

I say “equal constituency sizes,” but what is “equality” anyway? The constituencies are calculated according to the electorate sizes received by the Boundary Commission at the start of the review several months ago, so they are already out of date. People moving around changes the number of electors in a given area, but this information was unavailable to the Boundary Commission. By 2015 the boundaries will be even further out of date, and since demographic trends are that people are moving out of (generally Labour-voting) inner cities to the (generally Tory-voting) suburbs and countryside, the boundaries in 2015 will still favour Labour.

Additionally, the Boundary Commission only takes into account registered voters, rather than total population. The highest proportion of unregistered voters are in poorer areas, which tend to vote Labour. Unregistered voters (and people who are ineligible to vote, such as children) are surely still entitled to parliamentary representation – so why weren’t the boundaries drawn on the basis of overall population, rather than voter registration?

The other unfortunate consequence of the boundary review is the loss from Parliament of 50 MPs. Both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, in their pre-election manifestos, promised to “cut the cost of politics” by reducing the number of MPs. But this move makes MPs less accountable to voters by increasing their electorate, reduces the possibility of minor parties winning Commons seats (because they have to win over more voters to do so – indeed, preliminary notional figures indicate that Caroline Lucas would not have been an MP on the proposed boundaries), and also reduces the opportunity for women and minority candidates to be selected to contest seats. Moreover, it is alarming that the government regards democracy as a commodity, the costs of which can simply be cut.

The boundary review will not improve representation for ordinary people, or make our electoral system “fairer” in any meaningful sense of the word. A truly fair electoral system would include a measure of proportionality, to ensure that all votes are counted and all voters represented. The resources expended on redrawing the parliamentary boundaries would have been better invested in strategies to boost voter turnout across the board, improving representation and probably correcting for some of the current electoral imbalance as a side-effect.

None of this, incidentally, is the fault of the Boundary Commission (except for the silliness about not splitting wards). They were simply performing the task that they were asked to perform, by a government that either did not understand or did not care about the consequences of its policies. Instead, it is an example of the old adage, “ask a silly question, get a silly answer.”

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Scottish Labour’s choice of leader shouldn’t play into the SNP’s hands

Discussions on the future of Scottish Labour, after a disastrous performance in the May Scottish Parliament elections, have been pretty quiet of late. Sarah Boyack and Jim Murphy are still working on their review of the Labour Party in Scotland, but also looming should be a leadership election, with Iain Gray set to stand down in September.

LabourList published a list of the potential runners and riders for any leadership contest back in May, but since then things have been pretty quiet. Until last week, that is, when Glasgow South MP Tom Harris appeared to throw his hat into the ring, telling the BBC he would be interested in the post “if the party would be interested in having me.” Harris also expressed the hope that other prominent Labour Scots, such as Jim Murphy or Douglas Alexander, would stand.

At present, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party must be an MSP, but this could change after the review – the absence of these potential leaders at Holyrood may not be an obstacle to their entering the contest.

However, just because it might be possible for an MP to become leader of the Scottish Labour Party does not mean that it would be desirable; there are a number of reasons why such an arrangment should be avoided, if at all possible.

Firstly, while Alex Salmond successfully worked as SNP leader in absentia from 2004 until 2007, there is no guarantee that this would work for Labour. The effective spin doctors in the SNP and in the ever more nationalist-friendly press would be at pains to undermine both the leader and his chosen representative at Holyrood, highlighting even the tiniest division between the two.

Secondly, any attempt by a new leader to enter the Scottish Parliament via a by-election would surely end in disaster. They couldn’t enter via the resignation of a list MSP, and most of Labour’s remaining constituency seats would be easily reachable by the SNP, especially in the context of a forced by-election. The Nationalists are formidable opponents at any by-election, and for a new leader to potentially lose their first electoral contest would be a PR catastrophe for Scottish Labour dwarfing anything we’ve seen so far.

Thirdly – and most importantly, in my view – appointing a Scottish Labour leader from outside of Holyrood would play directly into the SNP’s hands, by appearing to confirm the prejudice that “all of Labour’s best talent goes to Westminster.” This myth, that the Labour benches at Holyrood are filled with second-rate politicians, is offensive to our hard-working MSPs and cements the perception that Labour is not interested in, and hence cannot deliver for Scotland.

Painting Labour as a party that takes Scotland for granted is a key tactic of the SNP, and surely contributed to our poor election performance in May. To suggest that not one of our 37 MSPs is good enough to lead the party, and we need to draft in someone from outside, would only make it easier for the Nationalists to claim that Labour isn’t interested in Holyrood, and harder for us to regain lost ground in Scotland.

To defeat nationalism, we need to tackle it head-on, not confirm its barest prejudices. The Labour leader in Scotland should be a current Member of the Scottish Parliament – anything else, and we’ve lost the battle almost before it’s begun.

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Lessons from Inverclyde

Last week’s Parliamentary by-election in Inverclyde was a moment primarily of relief for the Scottish Labour Party, who held onto the seat with a majority nearing 6,000. The election, called after the tragic death of David Cairns MP, was the first electoral test for Scottish Labour at Westminster level since their disastrous performance in the Scottish Parliament elections in May.

While the by-election provided some amusement for Labour supporters like myself, if only for confirming that SNP supporters are extremely bad losers, in reality there is little cause to be complacent. Labour’s vote share essentially held firm, while Liberal Democrat support collapsed and the SNP surged forward. This was basically the same pattern as observed across Scotland in May’s elections, and it led to the routing we received then. All of the analysis about Scots “split ticket voting” and still being prepared to support Labour at Westminster is premature. Clearly there is much to be done to make Scottish Labour an acceptable home for disaffected Lib Dem voters – especially in the wake of Alex Salmond’s appeal to ex-Liberals to join his party.

More importantly, however, the Inverclyde poll demonstrated again the importance of an effective, positive campaign in winning over Scottish voters. Iain McKenzie’s campaign in Inverclyde emphasised his record as a local council leader and his commitment to securing local jobs, and he was rewarded with a healthy majority over the nationalists. Labour’s Holyrood campaign, by contrast, was all about griping about the Westminster government and the SNP, and conveyed little of a positive vision for Scotland. The result of that, of course, was an SNP landslide.

The importance of a positive campaign in Scottish electioneering is something that needs urgently to be recognised in the run-up to the near-inevitable referendum on Scottish independence. The SNP will certainly phrase the referendum question so that a “Yes” vote is a vote for independence, immediately casting unionists into the negative “No” campaign. The challenge for that campaign will be to argue a positive case for the union. It will certainly not be enough to get tied up in the kind of rhetoric Nationalists use when parodying Scottish unionism – arguments that Scotland is “too wee, too poor and too stupid” to go it alone.

As a supporter of Scotland’s continued presence in the United Kingdom, believing – as I do – that nationalism is an inherently unpleasant, ignorant and dangerous ideology will have next to no relevance when it comes down to an independence referendum. To go on the attack – as the No campaign successfully did in May’s AV referendum, for instance – is not something that will necessarily wash with Scottish voters. Scare tactics, personal attacks and empty rhetoric about “broken promises” can no longer be the linchpin of any campaign.

It is important to give Scottish voters positive reasons to vote both for Scottish Labour and for retaining Scotland as part of the United Kingdom. These lessons should perhaps have been obvious to begin with, but they have been cast into sharper relief by the Inverclyde by-election – and it is to be hoped that, this time, they do not go unlearned.

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Private degrees will be bad for science education

This morning, the government’s proposals to shake up higher education by compelling universities to compete for student places have met with criticism for a number of reasons. Particularly scandalous is the option – being considered – of allowing wealthier students to pay off their loans early, so that poorer graduates end up in greater amounts of debt than their richer counterparts.

That, I suspect, will be for another post. The issue that I want to focus on here is that, if the proposals outlined in Universities Minister David Willetts’ White Paper are taken forward, private companies will be allowed to offer degrees, and compete with mainstream universities for student places.

This government’s free-market fetishism has already encroached upon the hitherto National Health Service, and it appears that the same will happen in higher education also. Quite why competition is touted as the solution to all of life’s problems (even, it would seem, those that most of us weren’t even aware existed) isn’t clear, but whatever the reasons behind it, the introduction of private providers of degrees into the university system is one that must be resisted at all cost.

As Shadow Universities Minister John Denham pointed out this morning, opening universities up to this kind of competition will likely incentivise the mass creation of cheap humanities places at the expense of more costly science and engineering courses. At a time when science and engineering graduates are needed more than ever, this seems to be a reckless move. Recall that, whenever higher education is discussed, conversation always seems to drift towards the stereotype of the lazy, feckless humanities student, who spends four hours a week in the classroom and the rest of the time squandering his student loan on cheap alcohol. The reality is very different, of course – particularly for students of the sciences, who generally have more contact hours, for instance – but the stereotype persists, and the government’s response to this is apparently to create more humanities places and fewer in the sciences.

The other danger concerns the kind of private providers who might emerge, in the post-Willetts “degrees market,” and what kind of threat they might pose to useful, honest science education. Plenty of universities today offer courses in medicinal quackery like reflexology and herbalism, and this can surely only get worse under an unregulated market system. Indeed, as David Colquhoun, tireless campaigner against this kind of nonsense, pointed out on Twitter when I raised the issue, private degree providers would be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, making the kind of work he does much harder.

The slope from there, to a situation where private universities could offer degrees in other ignorant pseudosciences like Creationism (as is the case in the US), would probably be sufficiently steep and well-oiled for it to be traversed with a minimum of fuss, to paraphrase Douglas Adams.

It is in nobody’s interest to have universities offering degrees in quackery and pseudoscience, muddying the waters of what constitutes honest science and what does not. It is unconscionable for them to be able to rake in massive profits while doing so. It is vitally important, therefore, that this dangerous element of the government’s plans for universities is dropped immediately, if not sooner.

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This isn’t about “public vs. private,” Mr Alexander

Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander has come out today to announce that public sector workers will have to work for longer and contribute more to their pensions in what appears to be a pre-emptive strike against public sector unions, as fears grow over a potential “summer of discontent.”

While the debate continues, it is interesting to note one particular argument used by Alexander, which sets the tone for the way the government wish this issue to be read in the media:

It is unjustifiable to ask the taxpayer to work longer and pay more so that public sector workers can retire earlier and receive more themselves.

Note that Alexander suggests this is a case of “the taxpayer” being pitted against “public sector workers.” He appears to have forgotten, or is ignoring, that public sector workers are “taxpayers” too.

But, of course, it suits the government to treat this as an adversarial contest, placing themselves on the side of “the taxpayer” in trying to negotiate down the “unjustifiable” pensions of the public sector. In his report – on which these negotiations are based – Lord Hutton explicitly rejected the accusation that public sector pensions are “gold-plated,” but this is nonetheless a common refrain, especially among private sector workers who have already taken their share of the pain and wish to see some of the burden borne by the public sector too.

Of course, it is not the public sector’s fault that the private sector has allowed itself to be placed in this position by allowing management to ride roughshod over workers for decades, and that a truly “fair” approach to pensions would try to improve the lot of private sector workers rather than damage that of the public sector, but all of this misses the point.

The point is that this is not a “contest” between public and private. Old, tired, right-wing myths such as “the private sector creates wealth; the public sector spends it” are divisive and unhelpful. Simply put, in our mixed economy, they are false. It suits the Tories, and some of their Lib Dem enablers like Danny Alexander, to foster divisions between public and private – and indeed, this corresponds closely with their paradigm that the private sector is automatically righteous and good, with the public sector being backward and wrong. But the reality is rather different – in our economy, public and private complement, rather than conflict with, one another.

It also suits the Tories to engineer a punch-up between themselves and the unions, probably in order to acquire some justification for the next round of anti-union legislation they will surely try to push through. Already we have Tory MPs suggesting that minimum wage laws be relaxed, with further assaults on workers’ rights probable as this parliament proceeds.

While the government pretends that it is in meaningful talks with unions, with Alexander accusing them of being “hell bent on premature strike action before discussions are even complete,” the government indicated months ago that neither the increase in workers’ contributions to their pensions, nor the shift in the pension inflation link from RPI to CPI, were negotiable. Having foreclosed the discussion on both of these important factors, the government was always setting itself up for a battle with the unions – one in which the prize, it hopes, will be the further curtailment of workers’ human right to withdraw their labour.

The way forward, for those of us opposing the government’s moves, will be to outflank them by calling out their adversarial posturing for the stupidity it is. All sectors will need to work together, rather than against one another, if we are serious about fixing our floundering economy.

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What next for Scottish Labour?

Now that the dust has settled from the SNP’s landslide victory in last month’s Scottish Parliament elections, the focus for Scottish Labour moves towards reshaping the party, making them electable once again after they were rejected at the polls. As the Westminster government acquiesces seemingly daily to constitutional tantrum after constitutional tantrum by the Nationalists, Labour north of the border have – the Inverclyde by-election aside – some much-needed breathing space to define their direction and approach to the next few years, in opposition in both London and Edinburgh.

The work on this has already started. At the Scottish Young Labour policy forum event a few weeks ago, held at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, we engaged in a number of focus groups aimed at providing fresh input into the official review of the Labour Party in Scotland, which is being co-chaired by Sarah Boyack MSP and Jim Murphy MP. Sarah herself was present at the event, along with Kezia Dugdale MSP and Thomas Doherty MP, the three of whom took questions from the floor in an informative and useful session.

No consensus has yet emerged on what direction Scottish Labour should take in readiness for the next elections – though we have plenty of time to decide. My view, however, is that we need to understand why we lost so badly in May, and address those issues, before we can move further.

One of the key factors in the SNP’s victory was capitalisation on the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote, much of which went to them rather than to Labour. This was probably not due to sudden Damascene conversions, up and down the country, to nationalism, but the culmination of a process we have seen since the Holyrood assembly was founded – the establishment of the SNP as the natural “protest party” for Scottish voters.

How have the SNP maintained their position as the default destination for “anti-establishment” votes, despite having been in government for the past four years? One major element of their armoury has been to attack the “unionist” parties for attempting (as they see it) to thwart good, wholesome SNP policies for no reason other than political pettiness. Labour had solid reasons for opposing minimum alcohol pricing, for instance – such as the belief that Scotland’s alcohol problem will not be solved by giving greater profits to supermarkets – but their dissent was successfully spun by the SNP as political showboating, opposing “sensible” policy for the sake of opposition itself.

With an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, the SNP will have a harder job of painting themselves as the anti-establishment party in this Parliament – they are, after all, the establishment themselves – but Labour needs to change too, to prevent similar charges from being levelled against us in the future.

One obvious way to address this problem would be to base all of our policy on principle (and to vote accordingly in the chamber), rather than populist sloganeering that chimes well with a particular interest group. I was amused – but slightly worried – to hear Thomas Doherty, at the Scottish Young Labour event, warn that we must not “drift to the left” in order to recapture lost votes. To warn against a leftward shift, after a campaign in which we had been totally hammered and when one of our flagship policies was “Carry a knife, go to jail,” seemed to show an astonishing lack of self-awareness.

Something approaching a consensus that did emerge from the Scottish Young Labour event was precisely this; that once we have established our vision for Scotland and its people, the policy should follow naturally.

One of the hard lessons we had to learn in May was that Scotland is not “natural” Labour territory; we do not “own” the Scottish voters nor the Scottish political landscape. That much should have been obvious already. What we also had to learn is that regaining power in Scotland is not just about attacking the Tories and expecting the Scottish people to side with us. As Kezia Dugdale pointed out, when we asked the voters “Who can best protect Scotland from the Tories?” they told us it was Alex Salmond. Labour had no vision – or, at least, no vision that it effectively presented to the Scottish electorate.

We need to outline our own vision for Scotland, to inspire and inform policy, before we can begin the process of making policy itself. That will not happen by allowing a few people at the top of the party to cobble a manifesto together, or let them hurriedly ape the SNP in all but a few areas. It requires positive, active engagment with the party’s grassroots and local communities, to build a future for Labour and for Scotland in which we all have a stake. On these terms, we can beat the SNP, by eschewing presidential grandstanding in order to focus on delivering for the Scottish people.

The review of the Labour Party in Scotland needs to be more than merely cosmetic – the voters won’t fall for that. I trust Sarah Boyack and Jim Murphy to deliver – and it is vital that they do.

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Some thoughts on the Rally Against Debt

The abject failure of yesterday’s Rally Against Debt, a march designed to bring out the “silent majority” of selfish, wingnut libertarians that our sizeable online cohort of selfish, wingnut libertarians insist really exists, provided much mirth across the left-wing blogosphere. But pointing and laughing at the way that 300 pro-cuts activists made public fools of themselves conceals a wider point about the way our current political narrative is being skewed towards what is, self-evidently, a tiny minority of right-wing blowhards.

Even the attendance of such heavyweights as UKIP’s Nigel Farage, TaxPayers’ Alliance director Matthew Sinclair and blogger P. Staines (a.k.a. Guido Fawkes) failed to attract more than a handful of attendees. Even Toby Young, touted as one of the march’s “big names,” was too busy taking his kids to a pirate exhibition to attend – as has been suggested by many others, presumably he was taking the opportunity to treat his children in this way while such things are still free.

Yet, as numerous commentators have pointed out, the Rally Against Debt still attracted more media coverage than this week’s “Hardest Hit” march, raising awareness for the government’s assault on sick and disabled people, despite the fact that ten times more attended the latter. As Sue Marsh said in a guest post at LabourView:

Thank goodness we’re not still being ruled – and our media controlled – by an out of touch, elite, mish-mash of greedy self-interest eh? It is our proud democracy and free press that make this country a beacon of hope around the world.

Isn’t it?

In terms of the ratio of rally attendees to column inches generated, the Rally Against Debt was a rip-roaring success. By any other metric, it was a miserable failure.

One explanation offered to me for the derisory turnout at yesterday’s march was that “it’s hard to organise a march without well-funded backers.” (Contrasting yesterday’s disaster, presumably, with the TUC’s “March for the Alternative” which attracted upwards of 250,000 attendees). Two rebuttals immediately spring to mind:

Firstly, to suggest that a march backed by the TaxPayers’ Alliance didn’t have “well-funded backers” is beyond absurd. The TPA is extraordinarily well funded, even if they won’t say by whom.

Second, the Hardest Hit march had no really wealthy backers at all. It was the tireless efforts of disabled rights activists and charities, predominantly on the Internet, that made the march such a success.

No, there is a far simpler explanation for the failure of the Rally Against Debt. There is no “silent majority” of libertarians at all. In fact, they are a very tiny, if very vocal, minority. Hopefully the unmasking of their fringe status yesterday will persuade the media to give them the attention they deserve – that is, not much.

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