Magazine article The Spectator

Stolen Tory Votes

Magazine article The Spectator

Stolen Tory Votes

Article excerpt

Matters could scarcely look worse for the Conservative party. Its immediate predicament means that it is incapable of opposition, and Tony Blair has rarely looked more confident. But there is still a strange belief in Tory circles that everything will come right. This is partly based on the proposition that the economy will go wrong, and that Prime Minister Brown will lead Labour to disaster at the general election.

However, technical factors play an important part in this Tory optimism. The Boundary Commission is due to publish its findings next year, and its recommendations should be put into effect before the next general election.

Many Conservatives are sustained by a touching confidence in the Commission. They believe it will remedy the grotesque injustice that tilts the electoral system massively in favour of the Labour party and against everyone else. They consider that the Tories - without even lifting a finger - will secure numerous extra seats at the next election for no better reason than that this anomaly will have been put right.

There is no question at all about the unfairness. It is breathtaking. At last May's election Labour commanded 36 per cent of the vote, and the Conservatives 33 per cent. This comparatively small 3 per cent discrepancy converted itself into 355 seats for Labour and 198 for the Tories - a massive 157-seat advantage for the government over the largest opposition party.

Imagine for a moment that the situation had been reversed, and that Michael Howard's Tories had managed to secure 36 per cent of the popular vote, while reducing Labour to 33 per cent. It would have made surprisingly little difference. The Tories would have gained an extra 45 or so seats, while Labour would have sunk to around 305. So Labour would still have enjoyed a 50-seat margin of comfort over the main opposition party, despite enjoying a 3 per cent smaller share of the national vote. In 2005 Labour supporters cast 27,600 votes for each sitting MP, Tory voters 45,000.

This gigantic structural unfairness is mainly accounted for by the way parliamentary constituencies are constructed. To give one glaring example, barely 13,000 people voted in the close SNP/Labour contest in the Western Isles this year. By contrast, 65,000 voters turned out in the comfortable Conservative victory in the Isle of Wight.

This startling contrast owes a great deal to historic Tory complacency. The last Boundary Commission review was carried out in the early 1990s, when Norman Fowler was Conservative party chairman. Fowler permitted the Tory case to be presented with unique incompetence, and in what can only be regarded as a suicidal manner. Each Tory constituency under threat from the Boundary Commissioners hired its own barrister to make its case, often against Tory rivals. Seats with comfortable majorities fought to be made even more comfortable, with little or no consideration for neighbours under threat. By contrast the Labour party, with a far clearer strategic view, fought a holistic campaign. Norman Fowler remains a dirty word in some Conservative Central Office circles to this day as a result of the negligence he is considered to have displayed in the early 1990s.

This time round, the Conservatives have learnt from their mistakes. Roger Pratt, a senior Central Office official, has been charged with making the argument at local tribunals. Partly as a result of his vigilance and hard work, an estimated 11 new seats will be created in broadly Tory-supporting rural and suburban areas, and perhaps half a dozen Labour pocket boroughs in inner cities will be abolished. Pratt reckons that if the new Boundary Commission proposals had been in place in May 2005, the Labour party would have enjoyed a majority of some 50 seats at the election, not the 66 it actually achieved.

It is absurd, however, to represent this minor improvement as a Tory triumph, as some try to do. It is nothing of the sort. The recent work of the Boundary Commissioners merely entrenches and gives a spurious legitimacy to the indefensible structural bias to Labour. …

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