According to today’s Guardian a study has found that the Lib Dems will lose 25% of its seats under the proposed boundary changes. This is an argument that has been trotted out numerous times before and is certainly nothing new as the very people who have done the study that has made news today reported exactly the same story before just with less academic research behind it. Perhaps they’ve been taking lessons from the previous Labour government in continually announcing the same story on several occasions just to get another good headline. But is there anything in it?
Firstly, I have to say I am writing this purely on the basis of one article on the front page of the Guardian and without seeing the full report *, which wasn’t available at the time of writing (although it should be published here later on). However, the main argument appears to be that because Lib Dem seats don’t tend to be next to another Lib Dem seat then when the boundaries are expanded this will happen to such an extent that the Lib Dem incumbent will lose. Superficially this is a logical argument, but when you look at individual seats then the argument becomes less convincing and here’s why:
- It is true that many Liberal Democrat constituencies border seats that are held by other parties, but that does not necessarily mean the neighbouring areas are poor for the Liberal Democrats. Just to use an example from the area I know best, Sheffield. Even in what was clearly a very bad year for us electorally, every ward won by the Liberal Democrats was either in Sheffield Hallam or adjoining it, and so if boundary changes to Sheffield Hallam extended the seat in to Sheffield Heeley (a traditionally Labour seat and where both other wards held by the Lib Dems are situated) it doesn’t mean that there’s an electoral problem for the party. The same is true of Stockport where if both of the current constituencies of Hazel Grove and Cheadle were retained but with enlarged boundaries, they may (and I emphasise ‘may’, as no knows what will happen yet) end up taking in Lib Dem wards in neighbouring Labour constituencies.
- Bordering non Lib Dem seats can also help us to win two constituencies rather than just holding one. This came very close to happening in the last General Election when the abolition of Sarah Teather’s Brent East constituency led her to win Brent Central by 1,345 votes and us failing to gain Hampstead & Kilburn next door by just 841 votes. A few votes either way in both seats could have made it very different, but the boundary changes there came close to benefiting us, despite the fact that the notional majority in Brent Central made it look dreadful for Sarah Teather and none of the neighbouring seats were Lib Dem.
- Moving parts of neighbouring seats in to one that is already Lib Dem (or that is a target constituency) may turn them Lib Dem when they weren’t before. As many Lib Dems know, there are lots of places that would vote Lib Dem if someone just tried to make it happen. For example, it was a committed group of activists that were determined to win Redcar at the last General Election that also led to us winning a string of council by-elections as well. Yet, on paper neither the General Election result in 2005 nor the previous local government base would have suggested we could win it in 2010). It was because people tried that meant that we won.
- Finally, the obvious thing to point out is that the effect on the Lib Dems is always likely to be disproportionately greater because we have a smaller number of MPs and so even losing just one seat will produce a greater percentage. That is less relevant to this report, but it has certainly been ignored in many previous reports on the effect that the boundary changes will have on the Liberal Democrats.
Of course the popularity of the Liberal Democrats will have an impact on whether the boundary changes are good or bad for the party and so I’m not complacently trying to say that everything will be fine. But given we don’t yet know how popular or unpopular the party will be by the time of the election any academic research should quite rightly take a neutral point of view.
The article in today’s Guardian is yet another attempt to portray the Lib Dems as a chaotic party that is being led astray by the Conservatives, rather than to simply report the news. It is of course fine for the left to argue this if they wish, and given that Labour has responded to the report by saying that:
“the Liberal Democrats clearly did not know what they were agreeing to. It was extremely naive.”
that is their clear strategy, but even this doesn’t hold water. To be fair a small negotiating team trying to get a coalition agreement as quickly as possible potentially could make this mistake, but I imagine it must have crossed people’s minds beforehand and what people forget is that it has been Lib Dem policy for some time to reduce the size of the House of Commons. In particular though, given that the Lib Dem side included Andrew Stunell who, and I don’t think he’d mind me saying this, is nerdy enough about elections to notice if we were about to create a massive problem, I really am not convinced.
* Just for clarity, Lewis Baston who works for Democratic Audit who published the report is a self-confessed Labour Party member (although with a mother who was a Lib Dem councillor until recently). That may of course not effect the rigor of the research especially as it is being done as part of an organisation that is more than just himself, but some might wonder if it affects the presentation of the results?
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