The Oliver Observations

Posts Tagged ‘Conservative Party

Just how bad was the 1983 Election for Labour?

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[Executive Summary: Pretty bad]


One of my colleagues asked me last week if I had anything planned for the Easter weekend.

‘Well’ I replied ‘BBC Parliament are showing a re-run of the 1983 General Election on Monday, so that’s one day sorted.’

She laughed. But I wasn’t joking.

The recent habit of BBC Parliament has adopted of reshowing ‘classic’ election night programmes on bank holidays is I think a master stroke, guaranteeing them small but select audience of politics and history devotees who draw the curtains and devour them with delight.

I’ll certainly be watching the 9th, June 1983 election, thirty years ago this year. My only sadness is that other engagements may keep me from watching the full 10am-9pm programme, though of course I’ll keep checking in to see if Michael Foot becomes Prime Minister.

In honour of the occasion I’ve written a post only slightly shorter than Labour’s 1983 manifesto.

Some general elections were such pivotal events that they succeed in seeping into the collective folk memory and national consciousness.
Ken Loach’s new film, Spirit of ’45, about Labour’s great victory which swept in the transformative Attlee Government and ensured the foundation of a comprehensive Welfare State would be a leading example. (Though Steven Fielding, Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham suggests in The Guardian the film could be more accurately titled Myth of ’45.)

To a lesser extent, the 1979 election which brought Margaret Thatcher to power, is still popularly (or unpopularly) remembered, perhaps as much for the atmosphere of crisis in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ preceding it, and broadcast images of rubbish piling up in the streets, than for the election campaign itself.

Other elections are primarily remembered only by those particularly involved and interested in politics – the sort of minority of people who can, without checking, reel off the years in which General Elections took place (1931, 1935, 1945, 1950, 1951, 1955, 1959, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1974 (twice), 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001, 2005, 2010…) as others remember World Cup winners. [Apparently people do this for reasons other than their alleged impact on election results, as in 1966 and 1970.]

These elections all have their own distinct ‘flavour’ and defining images, forming a shared currency amongst political obsessives and anoraks.
As the Labour politician (and of course Honorary Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield) Roy Hattersley noted ‘Election campaigns all have distinct characteristics. For Labour, 1983 was ludicrous, and 1987 desperate. At least 1979 was only dismal.’

The 1983 General Election has a particular place in Labour Party folklore as the party’s most traumatic defeat, and rock-bottom low point, in modern times. The political memoirs and bar room tales of Labour veterans often still seem to vie with each other to describe just how terrible the result was, and how agonisingly inept Labour’s campaign.

The Guardian’s Political Editor Michael White gives a good overview of the campaign here.

More comprehensively, the great documentary ‘Labour; The Wilderness Years’, broadcast in 1995 and covering the party’s then 16 years in opposition, is well worth watching for anyone interested in Labour History.

For those like myself, used to political events being ruthlessly stage managed (with differing degrees of success), the scenes of Labour’s campaign have to be seen to be believed.
Watching this section, you don’t so much question why Labour lost but wonder at how the party managed to win any seats at all.

Labour’s 1983 manifesto has also become the stuff of political legend, being a hugely lengthy compilation of all the party’s diverse and divided policies. As recounted in the above video, no real attempt was made to summarise the document, or make it reader-friendly. Rather, all the policy pronouncements were lumped together, so as to avoid bitter disputes about what to include and what to leave out.

As Roy Hattersley relates, those on the right-wing of the party, such as John Golding (political fixer extraordinaire who called his book about the period Hammer of the Left) knew they didn’t have the votes internally to pass more moderate policies, so decided not to even bother; The manifesto should be as uncompromisingly left-wing as possible, to give left-wingers like Tony Benn ‘enough rope to hang themselves’ so they could then be blamed for the inevitable massive electoral defeat.

Gerald Kaufmann, then Labour’s Shadow Environment Minister (and incidentally the one member of Michael Foot’s Shadow Cabinet still in the House of Commons today), famously called his party’s manifesto ‘the longest suicide-note in history’, a description which unhelpfully become common currency even during the campaign. (As Roy Hattersley remarked to be fair ‘it only seemed interminable’.)

Interviewed in The Wilderness Years Kaufmann was even more forthright;

‘The problem with the document was it was a stupid document. It contained a number of extremist things. It contained also utter nonsenses! During the course of the compilation we only narrowly staved off a proposal that we should have a socialist policy for puppy farms.’

The published version did include sections, on issues which were undoubtedly important but far from voters’ most pressing concerns, such as ‘The Laws of the Sea’.

As Tony Blair, first elected as a Labour MP in 1983, commented ‘I had no doubt at all it would lose us the election. I won my seat in spite of our programme, not because of it.’
Labour’s campaign itself was often as Roy Hattersley, then Shadow Home Secretary, put it ‘ludicrous’.

As Hattersley recalls in his memoirs Who Goes Home?;

“New ground was broken on almost every day of the campaign…The campaign committee raised doubts about Michael’s capacity to lead the Party by passing a resolution confirming its confidence in his leadership qualities – thus giving a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘shooting yourself in the Foot’.
Leader and Deputy Leader [Michael Foot and Denis Healey] confirmed allegations that they disagreed about defence policy by issuing a joint statement which set out their two conflicting positions.

…I was prepared for public disputes about doctrine. But the small inefficiencies were too much to bear. One day, when I spoke at a Transport House press conference about crime, the visual aids were left in the Labour Party’s Walworth Road headquarters. On the following morning, I chaired a press conference on education. The visual aids arrived, but all the lettering slid off the pictures just as the television cameras focused on the graphs of Tory failure.
I telephoned Michael and told him that there was no reason why our sign writing should be as incompetent as our policy formation.”

As The Wilderness Years shows, Michael Foot, then in his 70th year and looking frail and unwell [though he would in fact happily go on to live another 27 years], selflessly embarked on ‘An arduous and poorly organised speaking tour of the country’.

Labour Deputy Leader and Shadow Foreign Secretary, Denis Healey’s memoirs The Time of My Life make clear that the 1983 election certainly wasn’t:

‘Our election campaign was worse organised than any I have ever known…
Michael Foot and I were given ridiculously heavy programmes, and were foolish event to accept them without protest. For almost four weeks we would start the morning at seven, with a meeting of our Campaign Committee in London, followed by a press conference which relieved lazy journalists of the need to follow us around. Then we would leave London for a series of meetings and walkabouts all over the country from ten in the morning until ten at night, returning to London after midnight for a few hours’ sleep before the next day began.

Many of our meetings were a complete waste of time; on one housing estate in the Midlands I was made to visit three old people’s homes in succession, on the grounds that if I visited only one, jealously from the others would cost us votes…
Michael was almost literally thrown to the wolves; the television cameras showed him being torn limb from limb by a pack of hounds at a demonstration in favour of blood sports.

…We lost eight points, or a quarter of our support, during the campaign itself. A modern election is fought essentially on television. Only one voter out of a hundred ever attends an election meeting, and he or she is nearly always already committed to one party or the other. Michael Foot and I never had the slightest idea what was happening in the campaign which mattered, on television; we were speaking every night at public meetings of people whose minds were already made up. We did not monitor our opponents’ activists; they never missed the smallest details of ours. And they were able to orchestrate the bulk of the press to make on concerted attack on one particular theme each day.”

As Tim Bell, who worked on the Conservative’s advertising campaign recalls his abiding memory was being told to cancel all advertising for the last four days of the campaign, given the Tories were so far ahead there was no point wasting money.

John O’Farrell’s book Things Can Only Get Better has become a bit of holy text within the Labour Party, treasured for its hilarious accounts of the often sheer grimness of political activism. His description of disasters of the 1983 election is no exception;

“In 1983 the United States of America went to war against the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. This, however, was a far more equal battle than the British general election of the same year.
It was said that the Labour campaign started badly and then fell away, but this is being generous. It was the worst campaign in electoral history and it hurt to watch it.

There are various things that can lose a party votes in elections. You might have a leader that doesn’t look like prime ministerial material, you might have a manifesto that alienates many of the electorate, you might have a hostile media, you might appear hopelessly divided as a political party, or your campaign might be poorly organised and unfocused. Or like Labour in 1983 you might manage all of the above.”

The Labour Party did at least have one ‘secret weapon’ – the battle bus;

“This was an open topped double-decker bus, which toured marginal constituencies helping make them into Conservative strongholds. Its route was carefully planned to take it as many tree-lined avenues as possible so that overhanging branches could whiplash across the top of the bus knocking members of the Shadow Cabinet to the deck. The evening news would feature Margaret Thatcher being presented with flowers by rosy-cheeked school children, all waving Union jacks and cheering. Then it would cut to Labour’s campaign and we’d see Jill Foot getting back to her feet and picking a bird’s nest out of her hair with the tannoy booming ‘Vote Labour – for an end to NHS queues’, as the injured headed down to the nearest casualty department to make them even longer.”

The pictures of the battle bus in The Wilderness Years show John O’Farrell was barely exaggerating.

But surely these accounts must be slightly over the top. Was the election really that bad for Labour?

Well, yes.

As the results show Labour actually gained 4 seats, the only problem was that they lost 55 more.
Combined with some seats disappearing in a boundary review, Labour actually ended up with 60 seats less than the 269 won at the previous election in 1979 – itself at the time seen as a low point.

Labour wasn’t helped by the fact in several of these seats, the sitting Labour MPs had left the party to join the break-away Social Democratic Party, founded primarily because the Labour Party was felt to have become too irredeemably left-wing. [Again, a completely different world for those of us who grew up in the Blair years.]
These MPs proceeded to defend their seats for the SDP, in almost all cases, succeeding only in splitting the opposition vote and leading to more conservative gains.

Labour actually came third, or worse, in 292 out of 650 constituencies – a pretty abysmal result for a party hoping to form a Government.

Indeed, one measure of how far from power Labour were, is that of the Michael Foot’s 1983 Shadow Cabinet only one member ever reached the actual Cabinet – Shadow Attorney General John Morris, who would, a mere fourteen years later, get to be the real Attorney General under Tony Blair.

Indeed, another seven members of the twenty-seven Shadow Cabinet were sadly dead by the time Labour finally returned to power.*

The one thing the Labour leadership could console themselves with in 1983 was that the result wasn’t even worse; the party at least managed to retain the status of Official Opposition and the hope of someday returning to power.

As Jack Straw, then a young Labour MP and junior Treasury spokesman, stated confidently ‘Had that election gone on another week we would have come third. There is no doubt about it. Our votes were dissolving like snow in the sunshine.’

Jack Straw’s own Blackburn seat was also one of the few bright, or at least slightly less gloomy, spots of the night – having been one Labour had expected to lose. Straw clung on, with a swing to Labour ‘thanks to the work of scores of people in the Blackburn Labour Party, and no thanks to those who’d drafted our manifesto, nor to those who’d defected to the SDP in the hope of destroying us.’
Straw cheerfully notes that during the campaign ‘We came to the conclusion that the most we could hope for was Labour’s survival’.

As well as Blackburn and other seats that Labour managed to hold by much more slender margins, the Party saw several new, young MPs elected for the first time.

Many of them were on the left of the Party, including a handful of Militant tendency supporters who would cause an added headache for the leadership over the coming years. As Tony Benn noted in his Diary amidst the devastation, including his own defeat in Bristol, “But there are a lot of good new Members now in – Tony Banks, Richard Caborn [These first two going on to eventually serve as Ministers in the Blair Government] Bob Clay, Frank Cook, Jeremy Corbyn, Terry Fields, Bill Michie, Dave Nellist, Bob Wareing.”

There were also other rising stars – including most prominently two future Prime Ministers; Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Future Liberal Democrat leaders Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy, then standing as a Liberal and a Social Democrat respectively, were also first elected in 1983. [Ashdown later boasting that his seizing the formerly safe Tory seat of Yeovil was the one moment of the night when Margaret Thatcher later confessed she worried things might not go to plan.]

With new Conservative MP Michael Howard later going on to serve as Tory leader 20 years later, the 1983 intake of MPs produced perhaps the highest number of future leaders at any election.**

Speaking of future leaders, in Labour party folklore, as The Wilderness Years shows, the 1983 election was also the making of another future leader, Neil Kinnock.

Effectively giving up on the national campaign, Kinnock ‘got myself behind a wheel of the car and went rampaging round the country’, including delivering his famously psalm-like eve of poll warning about life under Thatcher, which many believed turned his succeeding Michael Foot as leader from a likelihood into a certainty.

When I saw him speak recently, Neil Kinnock reminisced that ‘I was very lucky in that I had a constituency party made up of people with good sense. When I arrived there to campaign they said ‘We’ve got a 20,000 majority. What the hell are you doing here? Get out round the country and go and go and kill some Tories (..metaphorically speaking of course)’.

Martin Westlake, in his doorstopper of a biography of Neil Kinnock, has a section simply titled ‘Disaster’ on the 1983 election, but concludes that ‘amidst the wreckage Kinnock had a good war’.

Westlake describes how 1983 for Kinnock ‘quickly came to represent a baseline against which all future campaigns would be judged.’
On making his first speech as leader, Neil Kinnock, told the Labour Conference ‘Remember how each and every one of you felt on that dreadful morning of 10th June and think to yourselves ‘9th June 1983 – never, ever again will we experience that!”

Labour’s long, painful march back to power had begun. It would only two more such dreadful mornings, in 1987 and 1992, before the youngest Labour MP elected in 1983, Tony Blair, would enter Downing Street.

The four years until the anniversary when BBC Parliament will surely reshow the 1997 General Election programme seems a short time to wait in comparison.


*[Afraid, I did actually look this up – they were Brynmor John, John Silkin, John Smith, Norman Buchan, Guy Barnett, Eric Heffer, and Lord Ponsonby. A further two Shadow Cabinet Members, Alec Jones and Frank McElhone, had actually died before the 1983 General election.
In addition to John Morris, Gerald Kaufmann and the late Gwyneth Dunwoody were the only members of the 1983 Shadow Cabinet still in the Commons by the time of Labour’s 1997 victory.]

** [I haven’t looked this up, but thinking about it the 1945 Election must come close, with every Labour leader between 1955-83, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan and Michael Foot first being elected then.]


The Boundary Changes Showdown: The Result

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I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of interest and non-sarcastic kind comments my last post, with its rather obsessive analysis of the parliamentary arithmetic of Tuesday’s vote on boundary changes, or the Electoral Registration and Administration Act (2013), received.
I was also pleased Andrew Sparrow kindly included it in his excellent Guardian Live Blog of the day’s events (I now have no ambitions left in life).

So, due to popular demand – i.e. no open dissent – because I’m still getting quite a bit of search engine traffic from people clearly after information about the vote, I thought I should update it with details of the result.

Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham and High Priest of parliamentary arithmetic, rebellions and back-bench behaviour, has already written two fine analyses the vote. In the first he addresses the vexed question of whether this can be described as a ‘Government defeat’, when part of the Government was clearly delighted to defeat the rest of it, while in the second he examines five more aspects of the result.

Intriguingly he notes that the Commons Authorities actually miscounted the result and therefore the Tellers – the MPs who announce the result declared the result as 292 votes for to 334 votes against, while in fact 335 MPs who went through the No lobby – meaning the Opposition’s majority was 43 rather than 42.
This doesn’t make as much difference as the occasion John Major’s Government lost in the Commons by one vote, to find later it was a miscount and they’d actually won, but it does show the result was even worse for the Conservatives than initially thought.

In terms of the way MPs actually voted, David Cameron’s much heralded plans to get MPs from minor parties to vote for the bill came to nothing.
Or not quite nothing as I was wrong to assume that Naomi Long, Alliance Party MP for East Belfast, would vote against, along with the Alliance’s sister party the Liberal Democrats, as she in fact became the only non-Conservative MP to vote with the government.
According to the best available source – Alliance Party members on twitter – this was because on principle the party believes in reducing the number of MPs.

Nadine Dorries, not technically a Conservative MP after having the whip withdrawn last year and presumably anxious to get back in the party’s good books, also voted for, leading to online mockery from Labour MPs.

As well as failing to attract support from outside the party, despite their appeals Conservative whips were unable to keep all their own MPs onside.
4 Conservative MPs voted with the Opposition – David Davis and Philip Davies, whom I’d predicted would, and John Baron and Richard Shepherd whom I hadn’t.
2 others on record as opposing the boundary changes – Glyn Davies and Andrew Percy – abstained, which in such a tightly whipped vote I think can fairly be counted as a rebellion.

Conservative whips could at least have comforted themselves over a brandy after the vote that the rebellion wasn’t even bigger.
Some Conservative MPs who’ve previously opposed the boundary changes (such as Geoffrey Cox) clearly voted in favour on the day. Perhaps such MPs had been won round by the strength of the arguments, or maybe felt they needed to be loyal seeing their party being done over by the devious Lib Dems. They might also have felt they could comfortably vote in favour, not wanting pointless rows with the whips or possible damage to career progression, safe in the knowledge that the changes had no chance of passing anyway. We can draw our own conclusions depending on our level of cynicism.

Five other Conservative MPs didn’t vote. Two, David Amess and Lee Scott [who I remember for his resignation as a PPS during the tuition fees vote], weren’t eligible to vote as they’d served on a Committee of the Whole House. I’m afraid my parliamentary knowledge fails me as to quite why this means they weren’t couldn’t vote – presumably they’d previously scrutinised the Bill and had therefore had their say, and therefore need to remain neutral.
(The latest edition of Erskine May’s Parliamentary Procedure is currently reduced to a mere £274.05 on Amazon if anyone really wants to know.)
Regardless of the obscure reason, they were joined as non-voters by Labour’s Katy Clark who also served on the Committee. (Thanks to the @LabourWhips‘ helpful twitter feed for this information.)

Three Ministers also missed the vote – William Hague, Ken Clarke and Helen Grant.

William Hague was in the United States hosting a farewell dinner for Hillary Clinton as she leaves the State Department.
As the only foreign country to have their offer to host a farewell event accepted, you can see why the Foreign Office wanted the Foreign Secretary in attendance rather than voting to redraw boundaries in Westminster. Though given Hillary Clinton’s fondness for David Miliband, perhaps they could have struck a deal where the two were paired and co-hosted the dinner?

A bit of digging reveals Ken Clarke was in Brazil as part of his new role as the Government’s roving trade envoy (or as some journalists have put it ‘Minister for not writing his memoirs’).

While Helen Grant, the Equalities Minister, was meeting Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty; either going AWOL as Labour MP Chris Bryant suggests, or being allowed to miss the vote as the whips knew it was already lost.

The opposition in contrast were at their full strength with all the 254 Labour MPs eligible to vote present, including two serving as tellers, and all 57 Liberal Democrat MPs – including the 9 months pregnant Jenny Willott [another MP who eventually resigned as a PPS over tuition fees] – turning up to vote against their Conservative Coalition partners.
They were joined by all 6 SNP MPs, 3 SDLP MPs, 3 Plaid Cymru MPs, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Respect’s George Galloway, and the Independents Sylvia Hermon and Eric Joyce.

Only the Democratic Unionist Party weren’t at full strength – with 2 of their 8 MPs, Sammy Wilson and Jeffrey Donaldson not voting (perhaps absent in there Northern Ireland constituencies – where Wilson also serves in the Northern Ireland Assembly as Minister for Finance and Personnel in the Northern Ireland Executive?), while the remaining 6 joined the opposition.

And that concludes more than anybody could ever want to know about the boundary changes vote. The full division lists can be found in Hansard.


As Tim Shipman, The Daily Mail’s Deputy Political Editor reports in an article full of vintage vitriol, the vote has caused real resentment amongst Tory MPs towards their Coalition Colleagues, with much talk of Lib Dem betrayal in the air.

Given how big the defeat was, despite the time and effort committed to trying to force the new boundaries through, it’s hard to see how David Cameron’s authority, and hold over his own party isn’t damaged to some extent by this.
For example if you’re a Conservative Minister and want to vote against a measure you disagree with at some time in the future, why should you have to resign to do so when Liberal Democrat Ministers can remain it their posts while voting against Government Bills?

As the next election slowly hoves into view, and the tension both between and within the Coalition parties grows, we can’t rule out seeing more such split votes, and maybe even some new precedents for just how loyal Ministers have to be to Government policy.
Parliamentary arithmetic fans will be delighted.

Odds and Sods of Parliamentary Arithmetic – The Boundary Changes

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Even as someone who tends to cultivate rather niche interests, there’s one I’m careful not to mention in conversation unless I want to see the eyes of the person I’m talking to either glaze over or frantically flick around the pub for someone they can suddenly realise is a long lost acquaintance requiring instant greeting; I’m mildly obsessed with parliamentary arithmetic.

I say ‘mildly obsessed’ as it doesn’t keep me up at night, or even particularly interest me, but on any given day I can of course tell you what the Government’s majority is, on paper and in practice, and whether the strength of each party has changed during the current parliament. Can’t everyone?

This condition can be diagnosed as dating back to my time as a Students’ Union Sabbatical Officer during the long run up to the vote to increase tuition fees, eventually held on the 9th December, 2010.
In the months beforehand, as we campaigned and lobbied to try to stop the vote passing, I walked around with a running total of how MPs were voting in my head, and the figures for how different combinations would add up burnt into my brain. I could never have anticipated I’d spend so much time in the study of obscure Liberal Democrat MPs.

As the vote drew closer and our efforts became more and more desperate [‘Can we get that MP who’s facing trial for expenses fraud to turn up to vote before he’s suspended from Parliament and goes to prison?’ (Yes) ‘Any chance we can get that MP who’s in Mexico to fly back without alerting the whips?’ (No)], I covered an office wall with movable slips of paper listing how MPs were intending to vote.

A low budget West Wing
(As one friend said on seeing it ‘It’s like a shit episode of The West Wing.’)

Of course we lost that one – though I was proud of our efforts, given me faced the full might of the Government machine and Whips’ Office armed primarily with post-it notes.

Neil's filing system cropped
(A fuzzy image of my colleague Neil demonstrating our filing system on another occasion.)

Gradually the figures and the increasingly bizarre contortions of MPs faded from my mind.
But I’ve subconsciously retained a good working knowledge of parliamentary arithmetic and feel my ears pricking up whenever I hear talk of a vote in the House of Commons potentially being close.

A long awaited Government defeat?

Particularly in the first year or so of the Coalition Government there was frequently excited chatter that votes on controversial topics (and almost everything this Government does is controversial to some extent) could be very close, and that Lib Dem MPs in particular could cause a Government defeat by rebelling and voting with Labour. This has never come to pass, and much heralded defeats for the Government have always vanished on being approached like the will-o’-the-wisp.

[True parliamentary watchers will know this isn’t quite true – the Opposition did win what now looks like a distinctly pyrrhic victory in October 2012 when a Labour non-binding amendment, supported by Tory rebels, calling for a cut in the European Union’s budget passed by 13 votes.
The Government also lost a December 2011 vote by 134 votes in strange circumstances, when Labour forced an unexpected vote on the motion ‘This House has considered the economy’, a banality which Government whips had expected to pass without a vote, but which was defeated as most Coalition MPs had gone home.
Proposals for House of Lords reform were also withdrawn on the day of the vote, as they faced almost certain defeat.]

But now finally – the moment has arrived! The unashamed parliamentary pedants and scourers of division lists are to be rewarded after years of patience!
I don’t see any way the Government can avoid defeat in tonight’s vote on boundary changes.

The pros and cons of the proposed boundary changes probably deserve a separate post (the BBC have a good introductory Q&A on them), but the debate has become one about shear party political advantage, with the changes seen primarily as an attempt to boost the number of Conservative MPs and increase their chances of winning the next election, ever since last year’s headlines like ‘’Reform Lords or it cost you 20 MPs’ David Cameron told’.
Fundamentally, they also face defeat for reasons of party advantage – the proposals have appeared in serious trouble ever since the Liberal Democrats announced last August their intention to vote with Labour to block the changes, in retaliation for Conservative MPs effectively scuppering Lord’s Reform.

This all, by the by, raises the vexed question about whether this can be considered a Government defeat given that the Government is clearly split, and its Deputy Chief Whip and Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, the jovial Orcadian Alistair Carmichael, will clearly be encouraging part of it to vote against the other.
It may therefore be fairer to refer to this as the first major Conservative defeat of this Parliament, although as it’s a key part of the Government’s legislative programme I imagine many commentators, will with justification, refer to it simply as a defeat for the Government.

But back to the lovely arithmetic

It’s often reported that Labour and the Liberal Democrats together have 315 MPs to the Conservatives’ 307 [though as we’ll see below neither of these figures is quite correct] so it would seem that their defection alone should end the chance of a vote passing.
But some slightly obsessive number crunching is required just to make sure:

The Major Parties?

In 2010 the Conservatives won 307 seats – from these we should deduct the Speaker, John Bercow, and the Deputy Speaker, Nigel Evans, who due to their roles don’t vote, and Louise Mensch’s Corby seat lost to Labour in a by-election last year.
We should also technically – and technicalities are important in this – deduct Nadine Dorries, who had the Conservative whip withdrawn amidst controversy over her decision to appear on I’m a Celebrity Get me out of Here. Despite requests, she hasn’t had the whip restored as of yet, so is not officially a Conservative MP.
This makes 303 Conservative MPs.

Labour won 258 seats in 2010, to which we currently need to add Andy Sawford, winner of the Corby by-election, but subtract the Bradford West seat, lost to Respect’s George Galloway last year.
We also need to subtract Lindsay Hoyle and Dawn Primarolo who don’t vote as Deputy Speakers [Deputy Speakers are traditionally chosen for balance – given the Speaker is currently from the Conservative side of the house he is joined by one Conservative Deputy and two Labour.]
Eric Joyce, who had the Labour whip withdrawn in circumstances even more bizarre than Nadine Dorries, should also be subtracted, making 255 Labour MPs.

The Lib Dems have 57 MPs so 255 + 57=312
Even IF – and it’s a big if – all Conservative MPs vote in favour of the new boundaries, this would result in a clear defeat 303 for – 312 against.

The Odds and Sods?

Roy Hattersley recalls in his memoirs how in the late 1970s when Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government lost its overall majority the Chief Whip would convene regular meetings before each vote to run through a list of ‘Odds and Sods’ – MPs from minor parties or independents who might be persuaded to support the Government and help it survive another day.
(This strategy came to an end on the dramatic night when the sods outnumbered odds and the Callaghan Government, faced oddly enough by a Conservative-Liberal-SNP-Ulster Unionist alliance, lost a Vote of No Confidence by a single vote. This precipitating the 1979 general election and, though no-one could know it at the time, 18 years of Conservative rule.)

So who would the current Whips Office be counting as odds and sods?

In terms of MPs outside of the three main parties we have:
(In Nothern Ireland)
The Democratic Unionist Party – 8 seats
The Alliance Party – 1
The Social Democratic and Labour Party – 3
The Independent Unionist MP, Lady Sylvia Hermon – 1

(In Wales and Scotland)
Plaid Cymru – 3
The Scottish Nationalist Party – 6

(In England)
The Green Party’s Caroline Lucas – 1
Respect’s George Galloway – 1
Nadine Dorries –1
Eric Joyce – 1

A total of 26 – easily enough to swing the vote in either direction.

[On paper the the Nationalist Sinn Fein have 5 seats, or 4 following Martin McGuinness’ recent resignation, but not recognising Westminster sovereignty over Northern Ireland they do not take up their seats. While I remember some mordant speculation the Government might offer them a united Ireland in return for their voting in favour of tuition fees, I think they can safely be discounted.]

Some of these votes are relatively easy to assign, only making the picture even bleaker for the Tory whips.

The Social Democratic and Labour Party informally take the Labour whip and will almost certainly vote with them.

The Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, left the Ulster Unionists in 2010, after she disagreed with the party forming an alliance with the Conservatives.
She made clear she would support the re-election of a Labour Government and, after being re-elected as an Independent, has usually voted with Labour. It seems likely she’ll do so again.

The Alliance Party is the sister party of the Liberal Democrats in Northern Ireland, so likewise their MP, Naomi Long, will presumably vote with the opposition.

Eric Joyce has also continued to vote with Labour, so we can presume he’ll attend and vote with the opposition.

The Green’s Caroline Lucas has called the proposed changes to her Brighton Pavilion seat as ‘absurd’ and has said she’ll vote against.

This gives the Opposition 320 against to 303 for.

So can the Conservatives find the extra 16 votes they need in the remaining diminished pool?
It looks highly unlikely.

Respect’s George Galloway is an equally lost hope having said he opposes the boundary changes, so the best Conservative whips can hope for is that he doesn’t turn up.

UPDATE: Diane Abbott tweets that Geogre Galloway has shown up.
Conservative MP Ben Gummer also tweets to report a sighting: ‘Mon dieu – the lesser spotted Galloway is in the chamber!’

How Nadine Dorries will vote is a bit of a mystery. As of May 2012 she was strongly opposed to the boundary changes, understandably given they’d abolish her Bedfordshire constituency.
However, clearly eager to be readmitted to the Conservative Party she won’t want to antagonise the whips further. Perhaps they can hope she’ll abstain?
Or just possibly vote in favour, calculating she can afford to, knowing the changes won’t pass and that she probably won’t have a seat either way if she’s not able to stand as a Conservative candidate?

A Nationalist/Unionist Alliance?

There has been much speculation, as recently as last week in The Guardian, and the week before in The Telegraph, that David Cameron might still be able to win the vote by doing a deal with Northern Ireland’s Unionists and Scottish and Welsh nationalists.

We can see why Tory whips would consider the proposal, and why they’ve reportedly been ‘trawling for support’.
If theoretically they were able to attract the votes of the Democratic Unionist Party’s 8 MPs, the Scottish Nationalist Party’s 6, and Plaid Cymru’s 3, they could theoretically have a chance of squeaking the vote through against all the odds.

303 Conservative + 8 DUP + 6 SNP + 3 Plaid Cymru = 320 for
255 Labour + 57 Lib Dem + 4 SDLP + 1 Alliance + 1 Green + 1 Sylvia Hermon + 1 Eric Joyce = 320 against

This still assumes Nadine Dorries and George Galloway and Nadine Dorries at best abstain, and would require the Speaker to cast a tie-breaking vote for the first time in 20 years, which would also open a big constitutional can of worms over how he should apply Speaker Denison’s rule, but there is admittedly an anorexically slim chance.

So how likely is such an alliance? Doomed, it would seem on three counts.

Plaid Cymru

Plaid Cymru MP, Jonathan Edwards, ‘speaking in a personal capacity’ in October 2012 tried to publically bargain with Downing Street, saying that his party would be ‘open to offers’ to support the boundary changes in return for ‘huge amounts of power devolved’ to the Welsh assembly, to make up for the cut in the number of Welsh MPs, and a ‘permanent Tory majority’ in Westminster.

However this rather cynical sounding deal hasn’t come to pass – two months later ITV were quoting an unnamed Plaid Cymru MP saying ‘It’s all over for boundary changes’.
The Guardian last week reported Labour were keeping in close contact with Plaid Cymru and hadn’t ‘detected any sign’ they intended to vote with the Government.

The Scottish Nationalist Party

There has been various speculation that the SNP’s six MPs might be more amenable to the government.
Mark Seddon in The Guardian discussed whether David Cameron and Alex Salmond would strike a deal ‘effectively reshaping the United Kingdom without any public debate’.
The plan being that the Prime Minister would offer the Scottish Parliament much greater powers, just short of full independence, in return for the SNP voting for the boundary changes; ‘According to former Conservative MEP John Stevens, Cameron could announce shortly after the European elections in 2014 that the Scottish referendum would be a choice between “devo max” and full independence.’

In terms of narrow political tactics both parties stand to benefit from anything that damages the Labour Party, and the SNP were also reportedly pleased that the changes would protect their existing six seats while potentially making more winnable.

There were reports up to last week that the SNP were ‘in talks’ with the Conservatives, but yesterday’s Scotsman quotes an SNP spokesman saying no deal had been done and that the party had ‘no intention’ of voting with the Conservatives.
The paper adds ‘There was speculation that the six SNP MPs will now abstain on the vote with the party refusing to say whether they would vote against.’ – which seems to be the best the Conservatives can hope for.

UPDATE: Word is SNP will not simply abstain but will vote against.

The Democratic Unionist Party

This leaves the Democratic Unionist Party looking like the Tory whips’ last hope of attracting any support outside their own party.
The Guardian speculated last week that they might vote in favour – ‘history has shown unionists have been willing to trade with the government in return for specific concessions’, and the Conservatives have clearly been bidding for their support.
However, DUP MP William McCrea has said he won’t vote in favour of the boundary changes, and called for them to be scrapped straight away to avoid wasting public money.
It’s unclear whether he’ll vote against or merely abstain, and the Conservatives may still have faint hopes of attracting his seven colleagues into the Aye lobby, but even this would seem most unlikely.

UPDATE: The Irish Times reports, as of this morning, that the DUP caucus of MPs had not yet met to decide how to vote. Word on the street is – i.e. I saw somebody tweet it but can’t remember who – that they will now certainly not vote in favour, but will either abstain or vote against.

These dismal figures, would leave the Tory Whips facing a result anywhere between

A ‘best’ case scenario

303 Conservative MPs + 1 Nadine Dorries + 7 DUP MPs vote for = 311

The SNP, Plaid Cymru, William McCrea, Eric Joyce, and George Galloway don’t vote.

255 Labour + 57 Lib Dems + 3 SDLP + 1 Alliance + 1 Green + 1 Sylvia Hermon vote against = 318

An opposition majority of 7.

Or a worst case scenario

303 Conservative MPs vote for
255 Labour + 57 Lib Dems + 8 DUP + 6 SNP + 3 Plaid Cymru + 3 SDLP + 1 Green + 1 Alliance + 1 Sylvia Hermon + 1 Eric Joyce + 1 George Galloway + 1 Nadine Dorries vote against = 338
A comfortable opposition majority of 35.


Under the highly unlikely ‘best case scenario’ you can see why the Conservatives want to press ahead with the vote, desperately hoping something will turn up, or that they’ll be saved, as Government’s have been before, by poor attendance from the opposition.

Though they might hope that a few Labour MPs won’t actually turn up for the vote, this seems unlikely given how important this is to Labour, and their briefing The Guardian that the vote would be close.

Mark Seddon also argued that ‘the Tories will probably be able to buy off some Liberal Democrat MPs threatened with extinction with a place in the Lords or on a quango’. Even taking into account the fact that some Lib Dem MPs could personally see their constituencies become safer under the changes, it seems unlikely even the most pro-Conservative Lib Dem (David Laws springs to mind) would be willing to risk the fury of their colleagues by doing the Conservatives a favour.
Most will probably relish a rare chance to vent months of lingering resentments against their Coalition allies. Though it’ll be interesting to see whether any of the 57 fail to turn up for the vote.

David Cameron also reportedly suggested, presumably in joke, that the whips could ‘lock a Lib Dem in the loo’ during the vote – but it looks like an awful lot of Lib Dems would have to find themselves mysteriously trapped before it altered the outcome.

Even if by some miracle opposition MPs don’t turn up, or the Conservatives are able to tempt the DUP, SNP and Plaid into the Aye lobby, to give them a wafer thin majority, there’s another rather large problem.

Many Conservative MPs themselves hate the boundary changes and would like to see them defeated.

The Tory Rebels?

It seems at least a couple, and potentially many more, Tory MPs are ready to defy their party over this.

As Isabel Hardman noted in The Spectator, Glyn Davies, MP for Montgomeryshire, used the modern form of political dissent – a blog – to announce he was considering voting against, saying if his constituency were carved up ‘The outcome would be so horrific I simply couldn’t carry on’.
Apparently he hasn’t however decided whether to vote against or simply abstain.

The BBC’s Welsh politics correspondent, David Cornock also writes ‘As I understand it, at least two other Welsh Tory MPs have serious doubts about the plans’.
Given the Conservatives only have 7 other MPs in Wales, 2 of them Ministers, it shouldn’t be too hard for a journalist how really cared to find out who these are – I’d think David Davies, MP for Monmouth would be a good bet for one.

Clearly the Davies are a rebellious breed, as Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, has also told The Telegraph he’s always opposed the changes ‘on a matter of principle’ as he disagrees with reducing the number of MPs.
While another near name-sake David Davis, MP for Haltemprice and Howden and David Cameron’s former rival for the leadership, tells the same paper ‘I shall probably vote against.’

Fellow Northern MP, and another regular rebel, Andrew Percy of Brigg and Goole has also said he’ll ‘fight against’ the changes which ‘should be scrapped’, so can presumably be counted in the No camp.
The Telegraph also says ‘Three more MPs are also said to be preparing to defy Tory whip’. Might these be the same three MP for Cornish seats, George Eustace, Sheryll Murray and Sarah Newton who previously opposed the changes?
It’s also probably safe to assume another South-West MP Geoffrey Cox, who represents Torridge and West Devon, will could vote against, given he told the BBC in October ‘These are the zombie proposals. They are the walking dead proposals which will never see the light of day’.

Rory Stewart, the exotic MP for Penrith and the Border, has also said he was pleased the Lords voted to delay the boundary changes until 2018 as he wants to continue representing the same constituency. It doesn’t sound like he’ll vote for with any enthusiasm.
Perhaps Mark Field, who has previously called the boundary changes disruptive, and would see changes to his Cities of London and Westminster seat, might also be tempted to vote against, while South Derbyshire MP Heather Wheeler has said she would be ‘hugely disappointed’ if the changes to her seat go ahead.

Even if there are no other Conservative rebels, this makes at least 11 MPs who can’t be counted as certain to vote with the party, taking the votes they can definitely muster in favour down to 292.

Against an opposition of anywhere between at the very least 318, and – if all MPs from minor parties and unhappy Conservatives, including the mysterious Welsh pair, vote against – 351.

This means we could see the ‘Government’ losing tonight by anything between 7 votes and 59.

Of course the result will probably be somewhere in the middle, and nothing’s certain until the tellers read out the result, but it would seem Labour’s talk of a ‘close’ vote is merely managing expectations, and the Conservatives could be about to lose very badly indeed.


Some, or rather most, might question why anyone would take any notice of a single parliamentary defeat, and indeed there’s no immediate impact beyond some embarrassing headlines and a further blow to Conservatives’ morale. But in the long term the outcome of this vote will be very important.
Fighting the next election on the current boundaries could make all the difference in a close contest to who wins, and to the make-up of the next Government.

As The New Statesman says ‘Note the date – 29 January 2013 – it may well be remembered as the day that the Tories’ hopes of outright victory in 2015 finally ended.’

UPDATE – The Result: The final result was 292 for – 334 against, so an opposition majority of 42. Not the absolute worst it could be but a pretty bad day for the Conservative Whips.

Tim Shippman from The Daily Mail tweets that Conservative David Davis (the English one), Philip Davies, and John Barron and Richard Shepherd whom I didn’t predict voted with the opposition.
According to the Labour Whips Office on twitter Andrew Percy and Glyn Davies eventually abstained.
Ministers William Hague, Ken Clarke and Helen Grant all missed the vote. I knew William Hague was abroad but had ignored this as I’d assumed Ministers away on Government business would be paired – but maybe not in such a contentious vote?

Intrguingly the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman spotted Tory Minister ‘Grant Shapps deep in conversation with Nadine Dorries who walks off with him into the lobbies’ – it’ll be interesting to see if he managed to entice her into the Aye lobby, or whether she subsequently broke away.

Tim Shipman also captures some of the prevailing feeling tweeting: ‘Labour cheers as they win the next election’.

I’ll be interesting (for anyone who’s read this far down the post) to see just how MPs voted when the full division lists are published, but we can assume given the low number in the Aye lobby Conservatives failed to convince a significant number of their own MPs to vote with them, let alone any from minor parties.

I’ve posted about the final result here if you just can’t wait for more excitement.