Archive | May, 2006

Volatile voters get a glimpse of the post-Blair landscape (6 May 2006)

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Volatile voters get a glimpse of the post-Blair landscape (6 May 2006)

Posted on 06 May 2006 by admin

It has been so long since the Conservatives had a good election result that it takes a little time to recognise it for what it is. Their total of gains, at 273 seats and counting, is at the upper end of expectations for the party, and they polled quite convincingly in a range of local elections from Plymouth to Bury, as well as in London.

Labour’s losses are a little less than I had predicted, mostly because there was much more give and take between Labour and Lib Dem than I had bargained for. For every Labour calamity in, for instance, Lewisham, there was Lambeth to balance it up; and the party also made gains rather than losses vis-a-vis the Lib Dems in Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.

While in the northern metropolitan boroughs and some of the shire districts Labour were resilient and even improved on their result in 2004, in London the swing went further than merely catching up with what had happened in the rest of the country between 2002 and 2004.

Labour’s terrible results in parts of London should be deeply worrying to the party. There is not even the excuse of low turnout, as turnout was significantly up on 2002. The electoral landscape is starting to look distinctly post-Blair. In the very areas where electors responded so warmly to shiny New Labour in 1997 and 2001, they have turned away in droves in 2006.

The Greens are a far more successful minor party than the BNP, but have so far attracted less attention. They fought on a much broader front, while the BNP is a highly localised force that comes and goes. By contrast, the Greens have staying power and have elected effective and durable councillors.

Local elections can provide interesting straws in the wind. The West Yorkshire borough of Kirklees has once again – as it did in 2004 – refused to award any party a higher share of the vote than 25% and its politics are a kaleidoscopic mix of Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green and BNP. An additional element this time was the success of a “Save Huddersfield NHS” candidate. The appeal of purely local politics seems to be growing.

The Lib Dems have carved a niche in politics as the party of local government, but these results put this into question. They failed to take relatively easy target councils in Portsmouth and Bristol, and where they held power, or had recently held power, they tended to do badly.

The 2006 elections hint at a revival of an older political geography, with the Tories gaining in suburban areas of former strength and Labour holding up better in its traditional areas. It is perhaps not surprising that a civilised west London liberal Tory like David Cameron struck a chord in metropolitan suburbia, but did little for his party in earthier parts of England. Perhaps the 2009 election will resemble the patterns of 1992 or 1974 more than it does the rather classless electoral landscape of 2001.

But despite the Conservatives’ promising results last night, there is no sign that the electorate has any nostalgia for two-party politics, and even three-party politics now seems distinctly passé. The electorate seems volatile, grumpy and unconvinced, but it has given Cameron more cause for encouragement than it ever did for his three luckless predecessors.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2006/may/06/uk.localelections20061

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Post-Blair, but not quite convinced of Cameron (5 May 2006)

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Post-Blair, but not quite convinced of Cameron (5 May 2006)

Posted on 05 May 2006 by admin

The electorate is in volatile mood and even three-party politics is now looking distinctly passé.

It has been so long since the Conservatives had a good election result that it takes a little time to recognise it for what it is. Their total of gains, at 273 seats and counting, is at the upper end of expectations for the party, and they polled quite convincingly in a range of different local elections from Plymouth to Bury as well as in London.

They did well enough to wrest control of a larger haul of councils than they can have hoped for. Conservative satisfaction must be all the greater because of the uncanny symmetry with which their gains mirror Labour’s losses.

In the last few rounds of local elections Labour have tended to slip back, but the spoils have been shared between the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and a variety of minor parties and independents. Labour’s losses are a little less than what I predicted before the elections, mostly because there was much more give and take between Labour and Lib Dem than I had bargained for. For every Labour calamity in, for instance, Lewisham, there was Lambeth to balance it up; and the party also made gains rather than losses vis-à-vis the Lib Dems in the northern cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.

While in the northern metropolitan boroughs and some of the shire districts Labour were resilient and even improved on their result in 2004, in London the swing went further than merely catching up with what had happened in the rest of the country between 2002 and 2004. Labour’s terrible results in parts of London should be deeply worrying to the party. There is not even the excuse of low turnout, as turnout was significantly up on 2002 and in some areas where Labour took a terrible beating (like Bexley) the increase was above average.

The electoral landscape is starting to look distinctly post-Blair. In the very areas where electors responded so warmly to shiny New Labour in 1997 and 2001, they have turned away in droves in 2006. A scary result for Labour outside London was the runaway success of the Conservatives in the borough elections in Swindon, a town with two close-fought marginal parliamentary seats.

But the London suburbs were the most dramatic illustration of the trend. Harrow has been a close fight in the last couple of borough elections, but the Conservatives won by miles this year. In Ealing, Labour’s most shocking loss, there was a 10 per cent swing to the Conservatives, who regained control of a borough some had privately believed to be beyond them permanently thanks to demographic change.

This was even bigger than the 8.5% swing in the thoroughly anticipated Conservative gain in the gentrifying borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. Ealing topped their four gains from Labour and three from no overall control (for the loss only of Richmond to the Lib Dems) to put the Tories in control of exactly half the London boroughs, not quite where they were in their last good London borough election year in 1982.

Back in the 1980s when Labour’s image was poor in London and the party had trouble winning elections, Labour’s local authorities contributed a lot to the damage. It was not so much the well-advertised and often entirely fictional ‘loony left’ excesses, but the general feeling that Labour was not capable of running a local authority efficiently and in the interests of local residents. High local taxes and poor services were not an attractive mix and the national party leadership was keen to distance itself from the boroughs.

Patricia Hewitt, in her capacity as one of Neil Kinnock’s senior advisers, wrote in 1987 that London local government’s policies “were costing us dear among the pensioners”. This must have raised a bitter smile from a few dispossessed London Labour councillors today. In this campaign, Labour’s borough councils felt rather proud of their record, and were brought low by the sorry display put on by the national government.

While Labour weren’t on course for a triumph before the government fell into disarray, it may well have made the difference between holding on and losing in Merton and possibly Croydon, and dashed any chance of a surprise pick-up in Enfield.

While suburban London politics is reasonably straightforward, the politics of inner city London is contradictory and complex. Voters in some authorities such as Lambeth and Islington seem to be short of patience – in Lambeth Labour felt surprised and rather hurt to lose control in 2002, only for their Lib Dem successors to feel the same now. Camden, and more surprisingly Lewisham, chucked out reasonably successful Labour authorities. One of the small band of Lib Dems previously on the council in Lewisham is Councillor Harry Potter, but Labour had obviously missed a lesson or two in Defence Against the Dark (Electioneering) Arts.

In Tower Hamlets there was a most peculiar result, with Labour (subject to recounts) looking on course to retain control having lost seats to the Conservatives and Respect, and picked them up from the Lib Dems. Results from Hackney are slow in arriving, but it is a borough that has produced more than its share of weird results in the past. The Green Party is becoming established in parts of inner London, particularly Lewisham where Darren Johnson, their only councillor in 2002, is joined by five colleagues. Less obvious is the steady 10 per cent or more of the vote Green candidates polled across boroughs such as Camden and Lambeth.

The Greens are a far more successful minor party than the BNP, but have so far attracted less attention. They fought on a much broader front, while the BNP is a highly localised force that comes and goes. In its stamping grounds of a few years ago, Burnley and Oldham, it has faded away (after considerable anti-fascist campaigning by opponents), while it has flared up in Barking & Dagenham and West Yorkshire more recently. By contrast, the Greens have staying power and have elected effective and durable councillors.

Local elections can provide interesting straws in the wind. The final collapse of the Liberals as a party of government in the first quarter of the 20th Century started in local elections. The continuing decay of the party system is most apparent in some florid examples in local government. The West Yorkshire borough of Kirklees has once again (as it did in 2004) refused to award any party a higher share of the vote than 25 per cent – its politics is a kaleidoscopic mix of Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green and BNP. Its wards have delivered surprise after surprise as the votes have been counted, with hardly any local politician resting securely.

An additional element this time was the success of a “Save Huddersfield NHS” candidate in one ward, making Kirklees a six-party system. Hospital campaigners also got elected in some hitherto safe Conservative wards in Enfield and the appeal of purely local politics seems to be growing.

The Liberal Democrats have carved out a niche in politics as the party par excellence of local government, but the 2006 results put this into question. In previous rounds of local elections they have tended to outperform uniform swing and most people’s expectations before the result, but this time they have fallen short (despite their high share of the vote). They failed to take relatively easy target councils in Portsmouth and Bristol, and where they held power (or had recently held power) they tended to do badly. With the Conservatives apparently restored to acceptability as an alternative for voters cross with Labour, the Lib Dems must show more dynamism and strategic vision.

The 2006 elections hint at a revival of an older political geography, with the Conservatives gaining in their suburban areas of former strength and Labour holding up better in its most traditional areas of support. It is perhaps not surprising that a civilised west London liberal Tory like Cameron struck a chord in a swathe of metropolitan suburbia, but did little for his party in earthier parts of England like Gosport or Thurrock.

Perhaps the 2009 election will resemble the patterns of 1992 or 1974 more than it does the rather classless electoral landscape of 2001. But despite the Conservatives’ promising results last night, there is no sign that the electorate has any nostalgia for two party politics, and even three party politics now seems distinctly passé. The electorate seems volatile, grumpy and unconvinced, but has given Cameron more cause for encouragement than it ever did for his three luckless predecessors.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/may/05/lewisbaston

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How low can they go? (2 May 2006)

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How low can they go? (2 May 2006)

Posted on 02 May 2006 by admin

A Labour rout on Thursday may owe more to the disillusion of its voters than a surge to the opposition. The thing to watch for is turnout.

Labour councillors nervously anticipating Thursday’s local elections must wonder how much harder the government could work to mess things up for them. One probably has to look back to 1968 to find a parallel. Devaluation, financial crisis, tax rises, spending cuts, Cabinet resignations and lurid press coverage of immigration and Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood were bad enough, but just before polling day the government put up NHS charges (despite having promised not to). The result was a massacre at the polls, with nearly 800 losses in London alone and many cities including Birmingham where Labour won not a single seat.

Local election results tend to go consistently against the party nationally in power, particularly when the government is a Labour government. Even during the honeymoon period of the 1998 local elections, the Labour lead was lower than in the 1997 general election or in the national polls. There is always a turnout differential that makes it difficult to get Labour supporters to the local polls while Labour hold office nationally even at the best of times. These are self-evidently not the best of times. Labour must expect a bad result, but how bad?

Assessing what is a reasonable benchmark for success or disaster is difficult and bedevilled both by the complexities of local elections and the expectations management practised by all the parties. Election night will see spin in its purest form, as each party claims to have out-performed what could reasonably be expected of it. Those with long memories will recall 1990, when Conservative success in Wandsworth and Westminster distracted attention from poor national results, and 1996 when the Tory disaster wasn’t quite as complete as the year before.

The most consequential measure of performance is in terms of council control. This matters because it gives (or takes away) a party’s ability to put policies into practice at a local level. Because every seat in London is up for election, this is where the most dramatic changes will take place. Labour did well from the electoral system in 2002 (the last time the seats were fought), winning 15 boroughs (including 4 where the party actually polled fewer votes than the Conservatives). Even before last week, their chances of holding Bexley and Hammersmith & Fulham looked vanishingly small, and it would be no surprise if Croydon and Merton also flipped to the Conservatives. Labour’s vote has eroded both in ethnically mixed areas and liberal middle class areas to the Lib Dems and others, and the loss of at least Brent (and quite possibly Hounslow, Camden and Tower Hamlets) is likely. If any of these boroughs survive under Labour control, it is a tribute to the local councillors’ management of services rather than an endorsement of the government’s recent record. It would be a less expected, and very serious, blow if any of Haringey, Ealing or Lewisham fell.

The Conservatives will be hoping to pick up the four boroughs from Labour, and also take another three where they didn’t quite make it in 2002 (Harrow, Havering and Hillingdon). There is also an interesting confrontation with the Lib Dems in three middle class south-west London boroughs – Kingston and Sutton are run by the Lib Dems and Richmond by the Conservatives, but there is a lively contest in all three. If the Lib Dems carry off Richmond and defend the other two, they will gain in confidence about repelling the electoral challenge of David Cameron’s liberal conservatism.

Outside London, fewer changes are likely – Labour did so badly in 2004 that even unexpectedly good results would not be enough to recapture power in cities such as Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham. Labour control of Derby and Newcastle-under-Lyme hangs by a thread, but it would take a real meltdown to lose Manchester.

The measure of party performance that will probably attract most attention is the net Labour loss of seats over the night. In assessing what this might be, it is important to disentangle the different starting points. If Labour were to do pretty much as badly as in 2004, which was a rotten local election year for the party, the party would lose something of the order of 350 seats. This would be composed of no change in the metropolitan boroughs (because these seats were last contested in 2004) and substantial losses in the areas last fought in 2002. There was a swing of 5 or 6% away from Labour in the metropolitan boroughs between 2002 and 2004, and if all that happens is that the London boroughs catch up with this movement London alone would produce a loss of about 200 Labour seats. Adding in the seats in the district and unitary authorities which Labour are defending from 2002 and comparison with results in 2004 is possible, Labour would lose 131 more seats. Labour losses of 300-350 seats would therefore signal an overall result on a par with 2004.

Although 2004 was a bad result for Labour, the party went on to win a general election with a perfectly adequate majority only 11 months later. In the current circumstances, a similar result should be the occasion for a certain amount of relief and it certainly wouldn’t count as “meltdown”. Given the recent hellish run of bad publicity for the government, something a little worse than 2004 should be expected – perhaps total losses around the 420 mark. Anything much over that would be a sign that Labour’s position is a lot worse than in any other set of local elections under this government, and put its future into question.

The gains are unlikely to all be in one direction – the Conservatives will have to share the spoils with the Lib Dems and a host of others – Greens, Ukip, the BNP, independents and a variety of local and single-issue parties. If the Conservatives are more than 250 up, they will have done well.

The better measure of how well or badly the parties are doing nationally is their share of the vote. One indicator of this is the national equivalent vote share projection that the broadcasters will do on election night, but that is at best approximate and trends may be distorted by the dominance of London and other urban areas in this round of elections. Labour came third in this measure in 2004 and must be braced to do so again.

However, the detailed voting numbers are more interesting and reliable. In every election in London since 1994 – for parliament, boroughs, mayor, Europe and Assembly – the Conservatives have been more or less flatlining on around 30% and have varied only between 27% (2004 Euro election) and 34% (2002 London boroughs). If the Conservatives break out of this range into the high 30s, they can claim to be making real progress in the capital, and if they get over 40% in London they are entitled to savour a triumph. Labour’s vote, on the other hand, has fluctuated wildly – although third place, or anything under 25%, would be bad news.

Although the metropolitan boroughs are unlikely to see much drama in terms of seats and councils changing hands, the share of the vote will be interesting. The Conservative share has been incredibly stable in these elections, holding steady at 26% in every set of borough elections since 1998 with the exception of William Hague’s best year, 2000, when they won 31%. If the Conservatives are still stuck on 26%, this would be a disappointing result for Cameron, but anything above 30% would be pretty good, as would overtaking Labour. It is also possible, but a long shot, that the Lib Dems could win the largest share of the vote in the metropolitan authorities this year – the results in 2004 had Labour on only 33% and both Lib Dems and Conservatives on 26%.

There are several notes of caution to enter about interpreting local elections. One is that local issues do matter, and seem to be increasing in importance in recent years. Some councils (such as Conservative Wandsworth) have a good relationship with their electorates and seem insulated from national trends. Others fall foul of local issues and suffer the consequences, as the Plymouth Conservatives did in 2003 when they lost badly despite a favourable national trend.

The decay of the traditional system is more advanced locally than nationally. The Lib Dems have long capitalised on local issues and done better than expected in local elections, even in areas such as Southampton that tend to be Lab-Con fights at general elections. Smaller parties and independents can also expect to do well. In some areas local politics has become bewilderingly plural, for instance in Kirklees in Yorkshire where no party won more than 25% of the vote in 2004.

Variations in local election turnout can be important. A Labour rout on Thursday may owe more to the disillusion and alienation of Labour voters than any great surge to the opposition. If turnout drops significantly from the 33% reached in urban areas in 2002, it is questionable how significant the gains of the other parties will turn out to be. If, however, turnout is in the high 30s and Labour are trounced, then the government should be seriously worried about a real voter revolt.

The multi-party nature of modern politics will save Labour from a 1968-style wipe-out even if the party’s vote is just as low. Back then, voters who turned against Labour went by default to the Conservatives, but now there is more choice for the disaffected and local elections are rarely as uniform. There may be a few crumbs of comfort for Labour in the actual results – but, ironically, the party has probably got the national spin wrong. As noted in the Guardian today: “If Mr Blair loses more than 200 seats nationally he will be in serious trouble.” If he loses only 200, he’s probably actually in better shape with the voters than he was two years ago.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/may/02/howlowcantheygo

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