Weeks after winning reelection, Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, is already laying the groundwork for the next Conservative Party victory.
The New Statesman‘s George Eaton lists three measures that should help the Conservatives beat Labour five years from now.
The first are boundary changes. The Liberal Democrats, who ruled in coalition with the Conservatives until last month, vetoed constituency changes in 2013. Now the Conservatives have an overall majority in Parliament, they can push through their plans.
Models suggest new boundaries would raise the Conservatives’ majority from twelve to around fifty.
Eaton, who edits a leftist publication that typically endorses Labour, sees a Tory plot to ever deny the left a majority again. But in reality, the existing constituencies benefit Labour. Even the left-wing The Guardian newspaper recognizes as much. Labour constituencies are often smaller and turnout there is typically lower, meaning the party can win a majority with a lower share of the national vote than the Conservatives.
So reform is long overdue and should make the boundaries fairer rather than give the Conservatives a built-in advantage.
The new constituency borders will also be drawn by an independent commission, not the government, so there is no risk of gerrymandering.
A second policy that will help the Conservatives is allowing expatriates to vote for life. Britons living abroad now lose the right to vote after fifteen years. Given that expatriates tend to be older and wealthier than the average voter, they disproportionately favor the Conservatives.
Most Western countries allow their expatriates to vote, regardless of how long they’ve been living outside the country. The Council of Europe and the European Union have long advised Britain to do the same. So again, this looks less like a deliberate attempt to skew the electorate in the Conservatives’ favor than a reform that ends an unfair advantage for Labour.
The third reform contemplated by the government is definitively in that category. It would stop trade unions from funneling their members’ dues to the Labour Party without their consent.
Union members are now automatically enrolled in a scheme that funds Labour. They have the right to opt out but only 9 percent does. Most are probably unaware the opt-out is available if they even know their money is being used to sponsor a political party.
The Conservatives want to change the rules so union members need to opt in. Such a system exists in Northern Ireland and just 40 percent of union members there allow their contributions to be used to finance the Labour Party.
Given that Labour gets 70 percent of its funding from the unions, changing to an opt-in system would obviously hurt. But Labour has changed its own rules to limit the power of the unions.
In leadership elections, the unions used to have a set third of the votes. This helped them elect Ed Miliband in 2010, a leftist who lost the general election in May because the British electorate is more in the middle.
Under Labour’s new rules, union members are allowed to vote in leadership contests but only if they sign up. In other words, Labour itself has changed to an opt-in system! They can hardly complain when the Conservatives propose to do the same for party financing.
These changes listed by Eaton should help the Conservatives win the next election but only if the Conservatives’ share of the vote doesn’t shrink. What’s far more important to that end, argues the Financial Times‘ Janan Ganesh, is that David Cameron is shifting the middle ground to the right — “in ways that are easy to underestimate and hard to reverse.”
Cameron is no right-wing ideologue and won two elections in row promising reasonable and pragmatic government. But he has led a team of important reformers, including George Osborne, his chancellor, Michael Gove, the former education secretary, and Iain Duncan Smith, responsible for pensions and welfare.
In the last five years, they reversed Labour’s thirteen-year expansion of the public sector payroll, reduced state spending as a share of economic output, liberated schools from central planning and stopped those on benefits earning more than those in work.
Private sector job creation has been prolific. Self-employment is at its highest level since official statisticians began tracking it forty years ago. Britain is becoming a looser, more atomized economy, with fewer voters having a direct stake in government largesse. You need not approve of this to see the electoral implications.
More is coming. The Conservatives propose to make it more difficult for union leaders to call strikes. Power will be devolved to England’s major cities. Sajid Javid, the new business secretary, wants to cut regulations worth £10 billion.
Ganesh warns there is a chance the party will overreach, “restoring popular demand for a state that is large, reassuring and dirigiste.” But the fact that this is now Labour’s recourse — “passive hope that the other guys screw up” — shows what desperate state the party is in.
Some, especially those on the Labour right, recognize they need to come back from Ed Miliband’s leftism and reconnect with the political center (also known as the average voter). In the last few weeks alone, they have come around to a referendum on European Union membership as well as a lower household benefit cap, dropped a proposed mansion tax and some are even supporting free schools.
“This,” writes Ganesh, “is what political hegemony looks like. Having defeated his opponents, Mr Cameron is bending them to his view of the world.”