Archive | June, 2006

Unhappy numbers (30 June 2006)

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Unhappy numbers (30 June 2006)

Posted on 30 June 2006 by admin

The stats from last night’s byelections make miserable reading for both the big parties.

Both of last night’s byelections were bad for the Labour party, but Blaenau Gwent was absolutely appalling. Trish Law’s election for the Welsh assembly seat was perhaps to be expected, but Dai Davies ended up winning a surprisingly comfortable majority for the Westminster seat. Labour’s share of the vote had increased only a little (1.7 percentage points in the assembly vote; 4.7 points for Westminster) since Peter Law’s landslide in the 2005 general election. That result can no longer be written off as a flash in the pan caused by the dispute over Labour’s all-women shortlist, or a personal vote for an established incumbent. Labour have occasionally lost safe south Wales seats before in unusual circumstances, like Merthyr Tydfil in 1970 or Islwyn in 1999, but the common thread is that Labour has always won the seat back at the next opportunity. Blaenau Gwent is the first time since 1918 that any of the valleys seats has rejected Labour twice in a row.

Blaenau Gwent was a defeat for New Labour rather than Labour values. Dai Davies’s victory speech focused on the four principles of socialism, trade unionism, Christianity and family – he is an unashamed old Labour socialist. His language of socialism and “the people” does not mean, as it might in London, trendy cultural politics or tabloid populism – it reflects a community in which the Labour party was first nurtured and which now feels neglected, even despised, by the government. New Labour no longer commands the loyalty of many of the voters it won over in the 1990s (as the English local elections showed), and it also risks permanently alienating the loyalty of the heartland voters who have stuck with Labour through all the party’s previous bad times.

Labour also collapsed in Bromley and Chislehurst, but that was only to be expected in an area where the party had always been weak and lacking in the sort of presence in the community that can sustain a vote. In the later stages of the campaign, as the Liberal Democrats closed in on the Conservatives, tactical votes bled away and Labour came in an undignified fourth, behind UKIP. At least they retained their deposit.

For the Conservatives, Bromley was extremely uncomfortable. A slump in the party’s share of the vote from 51% to 40% (and a majority of only 633 votes) is bad news. Conservative chatter at the start of the campaign was about whether they would get to 60% or not, but at the end people were saying things like “a win is a win”. An opposition party on the march should be getting better results than this in their core area. The Conservative share of the vote increased in every seat they defended between 1974 and 1979, the last time they went from opposition to government.

The Tories, including their candidate Bob Neill, have been extremely bitter about the Liberal Democrats’ campaign, which was sometimes pretty strong and personal. Over 10 years ago a bruising byelection in Littleborough and Saddleworth in which Labour used rough tactics against the Lib Dems threatened to strain relations between those two parties. Bromley may well set back the cause of Conservative-Lib Dem rapprochement by increasing the level of bitterness (and, let’s face it, justified fear) that Conservative members and activists feel about the other party. It would be most ironic if the lasting legacy of Bromley was that it made it more difficult for the opposition parties to combine and displace Labour if the next election results in a hung parliament.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/jun/30/post184

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The mantles of Nye and Mac (28 June 2006)

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The mantles of Nye and Mac (28 June 2006)

Posted on 28 June 2006 by admin

The voters of Blaenau Gwent and Bromley are feeling neglected. Both Blair and Cameron could be embarrassed by Thursday’s byelections.

Voters in two constituencies – Bromley & Chislehurst and Blaenau Gwent – go to the polls on Thursday to fill two seats in the House of Commons and one in the National Assembly for Wales. It is hard to imagine two places with less in common. One is an affluent south-east London suburb, the other a gritty working class south Wales valley. One had a Conservative vote of 51% in 2005, the other a Conservative vote of 2%. When Bromley sent Harold Macmillan to parliament as prime minister, Blaenau Gwent (then called Ebbw Vale) elected Nye Bevan with thumping majorities. But both may have similar messages for the political parties this week.

Bromley & Chislehurst is a mixture of suburbs, some of them extremely plush. Birds of paradise can be seen among the trees in Sundridge Park, and Chislehurst Common is genuinely high-class. However, Bromley itself is a fairly standard-issue suburban town, and Bickley are the sort of place that Delboy and Rodney would have ended up if they really did become millionaires. Bromley’s Conservatism, like its late MP Eric Forth, tends to be of the brash, saloon bar variety rather than Cameron-style metropolitan gentility.

Perhaps the culture clash explains why the Conservative campaign in Bromley seems to have been accident-prone and unimpressive, a dinosaur compared to a lively and cheeky Liberal Democrat effort that has produced propaganda in the style of supermarket women’s magazines and local tabloid papers. However, the Conservatives start with such a massive majority, and such a hard-core Tory electorate, that it is almost impossible to see them losing – although the majority will probably disappoint their hopes at the start of the campaign. Labour’s strategic objectives in Bromley are to avoid coming fourth, behind Ukip’s Nigel Farage, and to save their deposit – despite coming second with a relatively respectable 22.2% in 2005. The bad national climate, the usual poor government performance in by-elections and a developing squeeze from the Lib Dems all militate against Labour retaining many votes – although they should manage to get their deposit back and are probably likely to come just ahead of Ukip.

Blaenau Gwent is a very unorthodox election. After decades of voting solidly Labour (from 1929 to 1992 the MP was either Nye Bevan or Michael Foot) it went Independent in 2005. Peter Law, the sitting Welsh assembly member, stood against the official Labour candidate because of the use of an all-women shortlist and won. This is not the first such electoral tremor in south Wales – in 1970 Merthyr Tydfil overrode the local Labour party’s deselection of its octogenarian MP, and in the first assembly election in 1999 even Islwyn fell to Plaid Cymru. On most occasions, Labour recovers quickly, largely because a vote for someone like Law is not seen as being “disloyal” to Labour. Ideas of community and Labour loyalty are deeply intertwined in Blaenau Gwent, but the loyalty is to an idea of Labour as movement and cause rather than necessarily what a Labour government does.

Candidates associated with Peter Law – his widow for the assembly vacancy and his agent for the Westminster seat – are standing in the by-elections. With Labour nationally at a low ebb, and a strong local socialist culture that tends to disapprove of the government from the left, what might have been an opportunity to proclaim a rare Labour gain seems to be fading. The better chance for Labour is probably the Westminster seat, although the UK government needs it less than the Welsh assembly government – which would remain a minority administration if Mrs Law holds the seat as an independent. The prospect of a non-Labour government in Cardiff after the May 2007 election would look that bit closer if the party loses out again in Blaenau Gwent.

These two constituencies, on the face of it Conservative and Labour heartland territory, show that in the right circumstances more or less any constituency is now capable of producing at least a warning, if not a shock result, for their natural party in a by-election. Perhaps it is disillusion and volatility. Perhaps, in this increasingly centrist, fuzzy new political world, the voices of the workers’ social clubs of Blaenau Gwent and the saloon bars of Bromley alike are feeling a bit neglected.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/jun/28/byelections

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Cancelled Czechs (23 June 2006)

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Cancelled Czechs (23 June 2006)

Posted on 23 June 2006 by admin

The republic’s election produced a finally balanced result between right and left, and an innovative form of corruption.

This month’s elections in the Czech Republic saw yet another finely balanced result, following similar knife-edge outcomes in the last year in Italy and Germany. A prospective centre-right coalition having 100 seats and opposition parties to the left also having 100 seats. A German style grand coalition seems off the agenda but the outgoing Social Democrats may end up giving tacit support to the new government in exchange for policy concessions. The principal loser in the election was the Communist party. In contrast to most of central and eastern Europe, the Communists are still a significant force – Czechoslovakia’s pre-1948 elections showed that it had a native communist tradition that was not imposed from Moscow, and this still seems to be true.

There were some strange undercurrents in this election, including an innovative form of what – by most standards – would count as corruption. Several retailers and a restaurant were offering discounts of as much as 20% on their goods and services for customers who brought in an unused ballot paper marked in favour of the Social Democrats or Communists. One chain of shops, Rock Point, reported that they had collected 5,000 ballot papers. The Prague Post (a right-of-centre English language paper in Prague) reported the scheme without much of a raised eyebrow, and the Czech Interior Ministry did not seem to object. It probably did not dent the left’s vote much, as the most enthusiastic take-up would surely be from apathetic individuals who valued a pair of cheap hiking boots more than their recently-won democratic rights. But at the very least it was offering monetary rewards for scorning the democratic process, and at worst attempting to buy an election. I very much assume it would be illegal in Britain (and indeed, for it would be more likely to be put into practice there, the US). If not, it should be criminalised at the next opportunity.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2006/jun/23/cancelledczechs1

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