Thursday, 16 July 2015

Hanging tough – the Conservative intake of 2015

Despite relatively few seats changing hands in May, more than a fifth of Conservative MPs – 74 in total – were not in the last Parliament.  They will have a big influence on the dynamics of the Conservative party in government.  What do they look like?  Well, here they are:
I've ploughed through MP websites, interviews and newspaper articles to find out more about them.  In the course of this, I've seen more Labradors than is healthy for any normal man to look at.
Less than 30% of the new Conservatives are women, compared with 60% of the new Labour intake.  Assessing racial and sexual diversity is more fraught (not least because not all candidates' self-identification is explicit) so I have not performed a headcount, but the Conservatives do seem to have proportionately more MPs from ethnic minorities than previously.
The biographies of many of the new MPs look familiar.  Much has been made of Scott Mann, the Cornish postman, but he is an exception rather than the rule.  At least 17 of the new Conservative MPs have previously earned their corn as political professionals and I expect that is an undercount owing to the reticence of some candidates to advertise the fact.  I count 11 business owners (some CVs are a little hazy) and 13 lawyers of various stripes.  Seven new MPs have backgrounds in PR, communications and events management.  Four new MPs had military careers.
The contrast with the background of new Labour MPs is instructive.  Few of the new Conservative MPs have a public sector background.  There are two doctors and a nurse, a police officer and two government lawyers, two teachers and the four ex-military men.  No new Conservative MP advertises his or her previous main job was as a charity worker or official, though many draw attention to their charitable work (which in some cases is very impressive indeed).  For the new Conservative MPs, charitable work is something to be done when giving back to the community while for new Labour MPs, working in the charitable sector is a normal career.  We will no doubt see this difference in world view on the floor of the House of Commons in the coming years.
What of their opinions?  For Conservative MPs the big topic for the next few years will be the referendum on membership of the EU.  David Cameron was extremely effective in getting these candidates to rally around the policy of having a referendum, but will he be able to bring him with them once the renegotiation is concluded?  The new MPs don't so much divide between Europhile and Eurosceptic as between those who avoid talking about the subject, those who give their views when prompted and those who won't shut up about it. 
For some of the new MPs, maybe eight to ten, it seems likely that campaigning in the referendum for Out will outweigh party loyalties.  They include a former leader of UKIP and the campaign organiser for the Referendum party in 1997.  Several of the new intake have signed up for Conservatives for Britain, a Eurosceptic campaign group.  None of the new MPs rebelled on the vote about public information during the purdah period during the referendum campaign (one seriously considered doing so), so they're keeping their powder dry for now.
I have found only one new MP, Flick Drummond, who so far has identified herself as pro-Europe. However, I suspect that those who have stayed quiet to date will generally follow a party line when the time comes.  The broad mass of the new MPs are content either to take the "negotiate then decide" line or to take the line that they would vote Out now but are open to persuasion.  But the awkward squad has received reinforcements.
What of the wider politics of the intake?  This was neatly summed up by Chris Green, the new MP for Bolton West:

"As Paul Goodman has previously highlighted, the Party has the Soho and the Easterhouse modernisation movements.  Almost invariably the Soho element costs us support in Bolton West and the Easterhouse element wins us support."
Both groups are well-represented in the new intake (I think we can take it that Chris Green sees himself as being in the second group), though there appear to be more acolytes of George Osborne than Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson.  But he might also have mentioned the traditional small c conservative MPs, who are perhaps most numerous of all.  These MPs, temperamentally similar to David Cameron and who would no doubt see their role as MPs as part of the Big Society, would be readily recognisable to previous generations of Conservative MPs.  The Conservative party, as you would expect from the name, is not changing all that fast.

The single strongest theme among the new MPs' campaign literature, heavily encouraged by Conservative Central Office, is a focus on local topics.  Nearly all the new MPs majored on plans for their local constituencies.  Quite a few of the new MPs have commented almost exclusively on these.  Craig Williams, MP for Cardiff North, explains why:

"You get the occasional person who says, “Why on earth are you banging on about potholes in your leaflet, that’s nothing to do with Westminster?” Well, it’s because it matters to the resident of Cardiff North."
This has worked brilliantly for getting these MPs elected (the Conservatives have learned much from the Lib Dems), but this may cause problems in the future.  Far too many MPs have prioritised superfast broadband in their constituency for the Government to sideline this and many have named the improvement of local transport infrastructure, which is laudable but expensive in these straitened times.  Amanda Solloway has already had to express her disappointment at the postponement of the electrification of Midlands Mainline.  Others will also be disappointed.  The government is going to need to draw up strategies for implementing the new MPs' tactics for getting elected.  It is unclear whether it has realised that yet.

The challenges for David Cameron of getting any repeal of the Hunting Act through are clear.  Several of the new intake are explicitly opposing it. 
Who to look out for in the new intake?  Some names are already very familiar in senior Conservative circles.  The Mayor of London's team has swept into Westminster.  Boris Johnson's deputies, Kit Malthouse and Victoria Borwick will both make an impression (I'm taking it as read that everyone is keeping an eye out for Boris Johnson).  Oliver Dowden is one of the few new MPs who arguably took a step down in government circles by becoming a Conservative backbencher, having previously been David Cameron's chief of staff.  He is unlikely to stay there for long.  James Cartlidge has already been added to David Cameron's team for preparing for Prime Minister's Questions.  Given the importance of this, he is presumably marked for early promotion.

Of those who are not already insiders, Johnny Mercer stands out as a gifted natural communicator.  His maiden speech justly won acclaim and it was no one-off.  He has the direct and incisive English of a soldier and clear thoughts to communicate with it.  The Conservatives will be fools if they do not make full use of him early on: he looks like a star in the making.  On the right of the party, Chris Green can express his views clearly and vividly, as shown above.  Andrea Jenkyns, who defeated Ed Balls, is uncategorisable and doesn't look likely to be shy to voice her opinion. 
As a general theme, there look to be a lot of forthright characters in the new Conservative intake.  And this new intake, like the 2010 intake, look unlikely to be particularly biddable.  With such a small majority, the government is going to need to accept defeats from time to time as a normal part of business.  It looks set to be a lively Parliament.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting yesterday afternoon:

Friday, 10 July 2015

Pleased to meet you: the Labour intake of 2015

The election in May was a huge disappointment for Labour, going backwards rather than forwards.  Despite losing seats, however, over one fifth of the Labour MPs elected in May were not in the House of Commons in the last Parliament.  That is a big chunk of the Parliamentary party and the new MPs will have a big influence over the party's future direction.  Who are these new MPs, what do they believe and who should we watch out for?

I've had a trawl and compiled the following table:
This is harder to compile than you might expect.  Some of the new intake have not advertised everything about their past (for example, Harry Harpham is happy to advertise that he was a striking miner in the 1980s but it took more investigation to find out that he has more recently worked as an assistant to David Blunkett).  Some have defeated me: all I have found out about Ruth Cadbury's past career so far is that she was a local councillor.  Some have so far betrayed none of their detailed political thoughts, either being publicly on-message at all times or simply not saying much at all.  No doubt we will learn more in the coming months and years.
As you can see, the new intake includes some intriguing MPs.  One, Keir Starmer, was lobbied to stand for the Labour leadership even before he'd taken his seat.  One, Nick Thomas-Symonds, is a well-reviewed biographer.  Two are close relatives of foreign Prime Ministers past and present.  But what themes can we identify?
First, there are a lot of new MPs with past experience of national politics, either as special advisers or as parliamentary assistants to MPs.  Even leaving aside the three MPs who are returning to the Commons, at least 12 of the new MPs have held a role of that type (I suspect the number is higher because quite a few of these MPs are strangely reticent about such pasts and my digging may not have uncovered them all). The public and third sector is well-represented: 11 are former union officers, five worked in health or social care and ten have worked in charities or NGOs.  As usual, the lawyers are thick on the ground: eight in total.  (Of course, some MPs have held more than one job so they may feature in more than one of these totals.)
By way of contrast, few have much private sector experience.  Even taking a broad view of what constitutes "private sector", only four of the new MPs have substantial experience in this area.  This looks like a serious gap in experience on the Labour backbenches and is likely to prove an indicator of the priorities of the new intake. 

What of their views?  One great advantage of a leadership election is that it forces the new MPs to nail their colours to the mast at an early stage, even if they are naturally taciturn or avoid internal party debate.  And the first thing to note is that only three out of 53 new MPs chose to back Liz Kendall.  There aren't many Blairites in the new crop.  Reinforcing the point, 11 chose to nominate Jeremy Corbyn, and while at least four of them apparently did so out of a wish to give party members a choice rather than ideological sympathy, more have made enough public statements to put their firm left credentials beyond dispute.

Since the election, new MPs have had three opportunities to show off their leftwing credentials.  Immediately after the election, ten new MPs called for a leader to set out an alternative to austerity:
At the end of May, many more Labour MPs wrote to defend the union link with Labour:

This was as much about internal Labour party politics as a wider defence:
"Shamefully, there are many in our own party who see the aims of the unions as alien to their own and hurl around the lexicon of our enemies willy-nilly. The phrases trade union ‘barons’, union ‘bullying’ or ‘sabotage’ should have no place in the vocabulary of Labour politicians. Perhaps some of those from the nouveaux wing of the Party should read their history and understand that the unions created the Labour Party and not the other way around."
At the end of last month, an open letter was sent to the Observer calling for debt cancellation for Greece and an end to the enforcing of austerity policies.  It included 25 MPs among the signatories:

Any signatory of any of these letters (especially the first and the last of these three) can be taken to be on the left of the Labour party.  16 of the new intake signed one or more of these letters.  Seven signed all three.
Fewer of the new intake have come out decisively on the Blairite side.  Wes Streeting has commented that "Never again can the Labour party go into a general election with negative ratings on leadership and economic credibility."  Rob Marris has said that Labour overspent when in government.  Peter Kyle has agreed with Tristram Hunt that Labour needs a fundamental rethink before putting a fresh offer to voters.  Jo Cox has said: " We must go out of our way to regain trust on the economy; talking about how much we love the NHS isn’t enough".  But otherwise MPs have either taken a mainstream line or kept their powder dry.  If the new leader is going to move the party to a new economic position, he or she will be leading the new intake rather than catching up with them.
Which of these MPs are worth looking out for?  It's early days yet, of course.  Keir Starmer looks likely to be a considerable asset for Labour straight away.  Angela Rayner is a rare example of an MP who started at the bottom as a care worker and worked her way up: she looks capable.  Tulip Siddiq seems to have panache, managing to discomfit Boris Johnson on the campaign trail.  Helen Hayes has an unusual background for an MP as an architect and town planner and she seems to be very much her own woman.  Peter Kyle's views will be much in demand as the man who was able to take a Conservative seat in the south of England.  Naz Shah's life experiences will command respect. 

Not all of the new MPs inspire immediate excitement: we have been given a heavy sprinkling of council functionaries who so far seem to have more skill at working party machines than to offer inspirational leadership.  But they may yet surprise.  Some look likely to provide entertainment value. Marie Rimmer is awaiting trial next month for assault following an incident in the Scottish independence referendum.
Taken as a whole, this looks like a talented intake and many of them are already finding their voices.  There is an undeniable leftward lean to the intake and a relatively narrow set of backgrounds.  With very few exceptions these new MPs lack experience in the private sector and interest in the getting rather than the spending aspects of politics.  The challenge they face is the same one that the Labour party as a whole faces – addressing the concerns of a much wider cross-section of society than the party as a whole managed in May.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting earlier this afternoon:

Friday, 3 July 2015

Reviewing the boundaries: the Boundary Commissions' role

In my last two posts:

I've looked at the likely impact of the boundary review and considered how the parties might wish to see those boundaries fall.    To date I haven't really looked at the role of the Boundary Commissions at all.  This is a serious omission.
In fact, it will be the Boundary Commissions that determine the constituency boundaries. The parties can make representations but the Boundary Commissions will have the final say. 

On my last post on the subject of the boundary changes, a poster called SirBenjamin commented as follows:
"The parties do not have as much power and influence as the post implies.

During the last two reviews (including the aborted one) I've advised several associations on representations to the boundary commission during the review consultation period.

This has only a limited impact for several reasons:

1. The commission is (usually quite staunchly) predisposed towards their original recommendations - a compelling (and non partisan) reason for altering the proposals is required. 

2. In a competitive seat there will be other parties making representations that will benefit them, so any proposals must not only be more compelling than the original proposal, but also better than any competing counter-proposals.

3. Even if beneficial proposals are adopted for one seat or in one area, it may have negative knock-on effects in others, so these must be considered when looking to make representations (e.g. you're not only competing with Labour, but possibly also with fellow Tories next door).

So, on balance, most counter-proposals will not be accepted and those that are will often be countered by an opposition counter-proposal adopted elsewhere that has a negative impact.

Finding compelling arguments that are prima face non-partisan can be difficult. As well as the interesting stuff like constituency shapes, electorate sizes and ward boundaries, It also involves a lot of rather dull work researching local commnity ties, access to resources, peoples shopping habits, how rivers, railways and big main roads can or can't be crossed, that sort of stuff. (And then quietly choosing to discard anything that isn't to our advantage...)"
While the identity of the poster is unknown, this has the ring of authority to me and I happily accept the points made.  It is certainly true that the Boundary Commissions are going to be looking exclusively at non-partisan reasons for taking on board suggestions.  It should be noted that local party branches, local councils and individuals will also make their own recommendations and the Boundary Commissions will look at them all.

There is no single right way of carving up boundaries. The relevant Boundary Commission will need to choose between competing possibilities.  But the new strict rules mean that the Boundary Commissions will have much less freedom of manoeuvre. In fact, the task is likely to prove to be a real nightmare for the Boundary Commissions, made easier only by the fact that they have already had a trial run.

They must do so in accordance with the legislation.  They are going to need to implement the proposed reduction in seat numbers to 600 and introduce new tight parameters on the number of registered voters in each seat.  The Prime Minister reaffirmed his commitment to this in Prime Minister's Questions on 1 July 2015, noting that it was a manifesto pledge.

Historically, boundaries have so far as possible emphasised a sense of place. It is likely that we will see composite constituencies, simply because they will be needed to make the sums add up. But let's have a more detailed look at the considerations.

The Boundary Commissions are permitted to take into account the following considerations:

• special geographical considerations, including in particular the size, shape and accessibility of a constituency; 
• local government boundaries; 
• boundaries of existing constituencies; and 
•any local ties that would be broken by changes in constituencies. 

I'm going to focus now on the Boundary Commission for England in the interests of keeping this piece of manageable length.  Different boundary commissions may take different approaches on some of the points that follow (and some will not be relevant for other parts of the UK).  Since England is by far the most populous part of the UK, I make no apology for doing so.

Last time around, the Boundary Commission for England stated that it did not consider that it would be appropriate to start from a blank sheet of paper and that it intended to have regard generally to existing constituencies as far as possible.  It would not try to make the constituencies as equal in numbers of registered voters as possible, merely to make sure that the constituencies fell within the permitted parameters.  As far as possible, it would seek to create constituencies from whole wards, from wards that are adjacent to each other and that do not contain detached parts.  I expect that it will take the same approach this time.

Its revised proposals last time round, which were as far as it got before the process was brought to a halt, can be viewed here:
The detailed proposals are found at the very end of each regional report.  Given the allocation of seats between the component parts of the UK (and within England, between the different regions) at present look likely to be similar to what was envisaged for the abortive boundary review, you could do a lot worse at present than assume that the constituencies will look very like what was set to emerge from the review last time round.  It won't get you all the way there because the English regions do vary a bit from last time round and the numbers of registered voters in the individual constituencies have also changed quite a bit, but it won't be a million miles away from what emerges.

If you have any interest in how the boundary reviews work in practice, I recommend dipping into these regional reports to get a flavour.  Some practical examples will tell you more than any explanation can.
The Boundary Commission in practice placed considerable weight on not disturbing constituencies if it could avoid doing so.  For example in Suffolk one reason it gave for preferring its revised proposal over another that had been advocated was that it left five of the existing constituencies undisturbed.

It seems likely (though it is not a legal requirement) that the Boundary Commission for England will respect regional boundaries - this is what they proposed last time around.  So, for example, there may be cross-county seats between Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire, both of which are in the East Midlands region, but there will not be cross-county seats between Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, since the former is in the Eastern region.  .

In accordance with the consideration of maintaining local ties, I expect that the Boundary Commissions will seek to keep sizeable towns in single constituencies wherever possible.  We may see a single constituency of Luton or we may see expanded versions of Luton North and Luton South (in the abortive boundary review, Luton North was to be linked with Dunstable, to the horror of the residents of the latter town). But we are unlikely to see Luton divided five ways with a mix of town and country in each one.  

This would place due respect to local ties if the revised rural constituencies have even a residual coherence.  To give a hypothetical example from a county I know well, if Ipswich or Bury St Edmunds were to be partitioned between different constituencies (as has already happened to Ipswich), this would cut across local ties. On the other hand, South Suffolk is a large rural seat with two main towns, Sudbury and Hadleigh.  Both towns are also in the same district council, Babergh, which covers almost the same area as the Parliamentary seat and the two towns have long been associated for political purposes.  But if the seat were split up and the two towns were put in separate constituencies, this would not offend local sensibilities.  Residents of both towns would look towards Bury St Edmunds, Ipswich and Colchester before they looked to each other.  This would be a fairly usual state of affairs in rural constituencies.  

But it does mean, if the Boundary Commissions decide to do this, that some of the remaining seats are going to be very different.  Some existing rural constituencies are likely to be subject to heavy reorganisation, as the effect of the reduction in seat count is concentrated in these areas.  The Boundary Commission for England seems to prefer concentrating all the upheaval in odd constituencies rather than tinkering around the edges with quite a few.

It's also very likely that some rural constituencies will inevitably lack even a residual coherence.  Cornwall, for example, will have too many voters for only five constituencies and too few for six constituencies, so it will inevitably need to share a constituency with Devon.  Local feeling in such a cross-border constituency will be outraged at such sacrilege.  

We have already had a taste of that from the abortive review in the last Parliament.  In their revised proposals for the South West, the Assistant Commissioners drily commented:
"We have been struck by the efforts of many of those making representations to reflect the history and unique cultural identity of this region. Those issues are particularly important to those who seek to ensure that a particular county, historic area, city, or broader urban area remains whole in the sense that it is exclusively encompassed by one or more constituencies. Cornwall, Wessex, Gloucester, Plymouth, and the urban conurbation around Bournemouth are obvious examples. We are particularly grateful for the enormous amount of work that has gone into the detailed representations in relation to the unique cultural identity of Cornwall.
However, we are constrained by the statutory requirement that each constituency must have an electorate within 5% of the electoral quota."
And the same problem is going to arise in most of the counties in England which have fewer than eight or nine seats at present.  

All this is going to change the nature of some constituencies quite dramatically, both in terms of the current boundaries and in many cases in terms of the degree of internal coherence of the constituency.

What would this mean in practice?  If as I expect the Boundary Commissions prioritise keeping cities and towns within a single constituency wherever possible and dividing them between as few seats as possible where that is not possible, those constituencies are inevitably going to contain high concentrations of the urban voters who are much more likely to vote Labour than their country mouse cousins.  In the south of England, that maximises Labour's chances of taking seats despite their weak levels of support there.  The Conservatives do not benefit from the reverse in the north east of England and have not done so in Scotland for some time because their support in their weaker areas is so much more diffuse.

This is good news for Labour, obviously.  But it does not come close to counteracting the bad news that much of its support is piled up in inner city areas.  Taking 75% of the vote in a constituency is a waste.  You'd rather give at least 25% of that to another more marginal constituency.  Right now this phenomenon is working more against Labour than the concentration of its weak support in the south in single constituencies is working for it.  It is too weak in the rural south and too strong in the inner city north.

Still, if the Boundary Commissions adopt this approach on a seat count reduction to 600, this will prove disorientating for those incumbents in highly disrupted seats (almost all of whom will be Conservatives, given that they hold almost all the rural seats in England), even if the new seats created are also safe Conservative seats.  The Conservative party establishment are going to need to hand out lots of tranquilisers and reassurance if they are going to get the seat reduction through.


This post first appeared on politicalbetting earlier this afternoon: