Seeking Red Shoots

Making a comeback in previously Labour-free zones, rather than seizing back control of councils, could be the big story this May, says Lewis Baston This year will see the fourth set of elections for the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly which Labour established in 1999. They will be seen as an important early test of Labour’s national recovery, despite the very different contexts of Welsh and Scottish politics. And, of course, this is also the big year of the four-year cycle for English local government elections. Nearly everywhere outside London will have elections, either for every council seat or ‘by thirds’. In Scotland the aim is not for an overall majority, which is highly improbable because the electoral system is quite proportional, but for a clear lead in seats over the Scottish National party and a mandate to form a government either as a minority or as the clearly dominant force within a coalition. There have been extensive boundary changes for the Scottish parliament constituencies, making it harder to predict what might happen and where the crucial seats are. One is Glasgow Southside, where deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP faces Labour councillor Stephen Curran in a seat with an estimated Labour majority in 2007 of 27 votes. Clackmannanshire and Dunblane is also a key Labour-SNP contest. South of Glasgow, boundary changes have made Eastwood a likely Conservative seat, but Labour has made big progress here – Jim Murphy has been the MP since 1997 – and could spring a surprise. The mixed new seat of Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale should be SNP, but has elements of support for all four main parties. Labour’s target in Wales is a majority in the assembly, which polls indicate is very possible. The party needs five gains on 2007, although more are required if Labour loses list seats in compensation for constituency successes. Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South is possibly the most interesting seat, a three-way marginal where the winning Conservative and third-placed Plaid Cymru were separated by only 250 votes. After Nick Smith’s triumph in the Westminster election, Blaenau Gwent‘s assembly seat should return to the fold. The ‘clear red water’ in Wales over tuition fees may help in Cardiff Central, despite a large Liberal Democrat majority in 2007 – it is an ambitious target. The 2007 elections, when this year’s English local government seats were last fought, were – though pretty bad for Labour – not the humiliating drubbing that the local polls were in 2008 and 2009. It is not until May 2012, when the councillors elected in 2008 will be up for re-election, that Labour will make huge gains in terms of control of authorities...

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How the East was Lost.. and How to Win It Again

An unflinching look at the bad results Labour suffered in the East, and ideas for how Labour can change its policies and the way it does business, to reclaim the ground it has lost. [gview file=”http://www.lewisbaston.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/EasternLabour.pdf”] Lewis Baston and Bob Blizzard January 2011

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Eastern Promise?

Eastern Promise?

All the talk is of ‘winning back the south’, but Lewis Baston presents the headline findings from his report on why regaining eastern England is a non-negotiable goal for Labour ahead of a dedicated event on this next month. Labour’s performance in eastern England in 2010 was nothing short of disastrous. The party was reduced to the two Luton seats on the edge of the region. The swing against Labour (seven per cent) and the proportion of Labour seats lost (85 per cent) were both the worst of any region. We came third in several seats that had been Labour as recently as 2001 or 2005, and overall we were third in 38 seats out of 58 (in 2005 there were 15 third places out of 58 allowing for boundary changes). East Anglia is without a Labour MP for the first time since 1938. Although disastrous, 2010 was merely the culmination of a long trend – the east saw the second-largest anti-Labour swing in 2005, and our losses of seats started here even in 2001. Our cumulative losses in local elections have seen us reduced to a very low ebb – in 1983 there were around 700 Labour councillors in the region, while now there are only 264 – in 1995 we had around 1,100. In 33 of the 42 councils in the region Labour either has no councillors or a rump of one to three members. Many CLPs in rural areas are moribund. One might be tempted to respond to these depressing facts by writing off the east as being a no-hope Tory region, but this would be wrong. Eastern England is a key region for Labour and we cannot afford it to become our equivalent of the Tory wilderness in Scotland. Of the seats (using current boundaries) we need to win to gain a workable overall majority, only one region (northwest) contains more constituencies than the east. Without the east, Labour will find it incredibly difficult to win a general election in 2015, and even more so in future – the region’s population is growing and its economic base of small and medium sized private sector firms may be the future in other regions. When Bob Blizzard, MP for Waveney from 1997 to 2010, and I started discussing the politics of the east of England we both felt we needed to do something. The outcome is our report How the east was lost… and how to win again. We studied the figures, which was depressing enough, and talked to the candidates who had won and lost seats for Labour in eastern England. Several themes emerged from our interviews. One was that voters in the east, while not...

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This redrawn electoral map defies common sense – 17 Jan 2011

A bill that would reduce the number of MPs and change constituency boundaries deserves a good going-over in the Lords The government really only has itself to blame for the problems its parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill has been encountering in the House of Lords. As its name suggests, the bill combines two separate enterprises and provides both for a referendum on changing the voting system to the alternative vote and measures to “reduce and equalise” the number of MPs. The problem is that the AV referendum is legislatively pretty straightforward and – once the Conservatives had signed up to it in the coalition agreement – not very controversial. But the idea of reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600 and rewriting the rules by which parliamentary constituencies are drawn up is legislatively complicated and deeply controversial. Yoking together a simple, time-sensitive measure like the referendum and a complicated proposal like the boundary changes was asking for trouble. The “reduce and equalise” policy deserves intense scrutiny. The all-party political and constitutional reform select committee expressed its “regret that it is being pushed through parliament in a manner that limits both legislative and external scrutiny of its impact”: “While we agree there may be a case for reducing the number of MPs from 650 to 600, the government has singularly failed to make it. We recommend the government assesses and, if possible, mitigate through amendments, the likely impact of the wholesale redrawing of constituency boundaries on grassroots politics.” In terms of reducing numbers of MPs, the government has plucked a number from the air rather than starting with an assessment of what MPs do and how many of them are needed to do it. The workload of MPs within Westminster has gone up considerably over the years, particularly since the select committee system was created in 1979. There are now 467 places on the committees that run the business of the house and scrutinise the executive. Particularly if the number of ministers and PPS posts remains the same, there will be fewer people to hold the government to account.MPs also work harder than ever in their constituencies. In the 1960s MPs received about 15 letters a week; now it is 300, plus huge numbers of emails. By September, newly elected MPs were saying they had already received 20,000 emails to their parliamentary address. The standard of constituency service that electors expect has gone up steadily, and the evidence shows that MPs who have good reputations for constituency work do well electorally (such as Grant Shapps, Tim Farron and Gisela Stuart). The number of people they represent has gone up steadily – from 55,000 electors in 1950 to...

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Oldham East and Saddleworth

Oldham East and Saddleworth

Lewis Baston gives his rundown of this by-election seat, noting that Debbie Abrahams is likely to win, but that this is ‘not natural Labour territory’ and that there is a strong, historical Liberal tradition going back decades… Perhaps the first thing one should note about Oldham East and Saddleworth is that it is not ‘natural Labour territory’. Since the constituency was created in 1997, Labour has never achieved more than 42 per cent of the vote. While part of it is as gritty an urban area as you could find, most of the constituency is suburban and rural. It is on the edge of the Greater Manchester conurbation and many of the Saddleworth villages are scenic, attractive places which attract retirees and some wealthy Manchester or Leeds commuters. This is post-industrial countryside, and even in the town centre the air blows fresh and cold and one can feel the moors gradually reclaiming their territory from the depopulating town after 150 years. The seat divides into four broad areas: • Oldham inner urban, comprising basically two wards (Alexandra and St Mary’s). • Oldham eastern suburbs (St James, Waterhead) • The small town of Shaw to the north of Oldham (Crompton, Shaw) • Moorlands and valley villages in the Pennine hills east of Oldham (Saddleworth North, Saddleworth South, Saddleworth West and Lees – the last-named ward is a bit more urban) Politically, two of these elements are heavily Lib Dem with the Conservatives a distant second (at least in local elections) – Saddleworth and Shaw. In the other two it is competitive between Lib Dem and Labour. Crucially, Labour has tended to do better in general elections than local elections – despite the bad relations between the parties, some voters clearly ‘split their ticket’ for Lib Dem locally and Labour nationally. This is not a particularly Muslim seat, except for the two inner urban wards (particularly St Mary’s, which is 48.7 per cent BME population and over 40 per cent Muslim). The Saddleworth wards are below the English average for ethnic minority population. Muslim campaigners clearly dislike Phil Woolas, although it is far from clear that this reflects his Muslim constituents’ views. Much of the constituency was previously in the Littleborough and Saddleworth seat which was Conservative from its creation in 1983 until a famous 1995 by-election when for the first time in recent years Labour (candidate Phil Woolas) ran to the right of the Lib Dems, calling their candidate Chris Davies ‘soft on drugs and high on taxes’. The Lib Dems won the by-election with Labour in second place, but Labour won the redrawn constituency of Oldham East & Saddleworth following boundary changes in 1997. Election campaigning in the area since 1995 has...

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