Archive | September, 2007

A mountain to climb (29 September 2007)

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A mountain to climb (29 September 2007)

Posted on 29 September 2007 by admin

Conservatives 07: If they are to stand any chance of success, the Tories must recapture the Cameron Highlands.

Labour has had a “Brown bounce”, but another feature of the electoral scene this summer has been the descent from what might be called the Cameron Highlands (after a resort area in Malaysia – a place with considerably more to commend it to the visitor than Blackpool).

As a feature of the political landscape, the Cameron Highlands were the period between December 2005 and June 2007 when David Cameron was leader of the opposition to Tony Blair.

During this period, the Conservatives were scoring consistently around 38%-39% in voting intention in opinion polls and, equally steadily, leading Labour in voting intention and the head-to-head contrast of party leaders.

Although this sort of poll rating was less than ecstatic approval from the public, and not enough to win outright, it was a marked contrast with recent Conservative history.

Other than in some particularly bleak periods of John Major’s last government and the Blair honeymoon, in which the party’s ratings fell into the twenties, the Conservatives have flatlined in the polls since 1993, never escaping the prison of 31%-34% support except during the briefest of blips.

However, since Gordon Brown became prime minister, the Conservative rating has fallen back once more to the 33%-34% range. The variations in Labour’s lead recorded in recent opinion polls are mostly to do with how the non-Conservative two-thirds of the country is saying it will divide its favours, with the highest Labour leads being generated by unrealistically low levels of Lib Dem support.

The Conservatives’ ejection from the Highlands was in part a result of a strategic error, namely underestimating Gordon Brown. The Conservatives started to believe their own propaganda about Brown and extrapolate their poor personal relationships with him to imagine that the electorate would feel the same way on exposure to him.

Some of them started to expect a boring, aggressive, mechanical, far-left Brown who would be a gift to the opposition. They were not ready for the reality.

Brown’s poor showing against Cameron in hypothetical match-up polls before June was also given too much importance, because the change of prime minister – entirely predictably – was not the same as the anticipation, and the change itself caused the electorate to re-evaluate Brown in a new context.

This was the worst strategic error. But there has also been muddle about squaring the circle between being the modernising “heir to Blair” and aiming to capitalise on public disregard for Blair’s style of leadership.

Worryingly, some pre-Highlands polling phenomena have re-emerged, including the perception that the Conservatives are divided, not under Cameron’s control and too far to the right compared with the public.

The issue of Cameron not being seen as being “in charge of his party” is serious because public opinion places the Labour party much closer to the centre than the Conservatives. And while there is a belief that Cameron is moderate, he needs to be seen as fully in charge before this leads people to vote for his party.

Cameron’s personal ratings have also sagged alarmingly since June. The public perception of the Tories as a divided rabble, current since 1992, faded during Michael Howard’s leadership during 2004 and seemingly shaken off in 2006, is back.

Strategically, the Conservatives need to recapture the Cameron Highlands if they are to stand a chance of beating Brown. They can hope that conference publicity will help – they clawed back a little ground in August but disappeared from view as Brown and Labour have dominated the media in September.

To an extent, all publicity is good publicity, but there are serious dangers at Blackpool. Stories of splits and indiscipline will feed the reviving perception of the party as being incompetent. The Highlands were captured in the first place by Cameron’s fresh, progressive approach, but the party seems to be distancing itself from some of the environmental ideas it has been considering and going for the more traditional Tory fare at Blackpool of immigration and crime. Labour will no doubt point to a “lurch to the right”.

Going back to basics – if this phrase has yet been rehabilitated in Conservative discourse – may shore up the 33%-34% vote but leaves a lot of political territory in Labour’s hands, as in 2001 when the Tories aimed the campaign at their core vote and lost badly.

There is no alternative – to quote another resonant phrase – to Cameron and modernisation if they are serious about recovering from their last three dismal election performances.

To win support, the newer messages need to be presented in a balanced way with traditional Conservative thinking, in a way that tells a story about what a Conservative government would be like. The danger is that the mixture looks like an incoherent and opportunistic response to short-term pressures.

Tactically, the Conservatives have some advantages. The party’s organisation is in better condition than it has been for years, and although it has failed to attract large numbers of new members, it has once again managed to receive significant donations.

The Conservatives are now probably better than Labour at advanced electioneering, such as compiling information about the electors and funding activity in the marginal seats.

But the Conservatives cannot win an election with this alone. They need a good conference to remind the electorate why they greeted Cameron so warmly in 2005. And – if they can – they need to find a clear, resonant way of telling people why they should vote for his party. At the very least, they need to do well enough to deter Gordon Brown from calling an election.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/29/amountaintoclimb

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Should Gordon go for it? (24 September 2007)

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Should Gordon go for it? (24 September 2007)

Posted on 24 September 2007 by admin

Labour 07: The polls look good for Labour, but thanks to the peculiar workings of the British electoral system, that is not necesssarily good enough.

Labour meets at Bournemouth in a slightly giddy state of optimism, inspired by a renewed increase in the party’s opinion poll lead to 6-8 points and other evidence including sensational local authority by-election gains in Worcester and Birmingham last week that the party is in an excellent position. Supposing the polls are right, this would hold out the hope of earning a pro-Labour swing since 2005 and an increase in the Labour majority. However, the one does not necessarily imply the other. One could have both a pro-Labour swing and a reduced majority thanks to the peculiar workings of the British electoral system.

The trouble is that not all votes have the same value. The overall result depends on the votes cast in the marginal seats. Whether Labour has 18,000 or 28,000 votes in Liverpool Riverside is immaterial to the result – the seat elects only one Labour MP no matter how many votes pile up. However, whether Labour has 15,000 or 16,000 votes in Portsmouth North is highly material, as it makes the difference between that seat electing a Labour MP and a Conservative MP. Under Blair, Labour’s share of the vote suffered a severe slump (down from 43 per cent to 35 per cent) but while thousands of votes disappeared in the safe seats, support held up better in the marginals.

The risk Brown faces is that the pattern will reverse. Given that Labour’s majority allowing for boundary changes is 48, there is not much room for slippage if Brown is going to enjoy a manageable full-term parliament. If electors in safe Labour seats who stopped voting between 1997 and 2005 come back to the polls, it will boost Labour’s national share of the vote but not win any extra seats.

There is a strong possibility that Labour could do worse in the key marginals than national opinion trends might suggest. One reason is regional variation. Polls and local elections have seen the Conservatives adding votes in the south of England while doing poorly further north. It so happens that there are a lot of marginal Labour seats in the south and a 3 per cent swing from Labour to Conservative in the region would see 15 seats change hands. A swing of the same size to Labour in the north and midlands would switch only 9 from Conservative to Labour.

Another reason is party organisation and preparation. The Conservatives, in particular Lord Ashcroft, have poured resources into the marginals they want to win and worked hard – they may well now be considerably better than Labour at the campaigning on the ground and this could pay off in winning seats. In the seats Labour should hope to take off the Conservatives, most of them are constituencies Labour lost in 2005.

Newly-established incumbents tend to do better than the national swing in their first election (hence Labour’s nearly undamaged majority in 2001) and a small national or regional swing to Labour would not manage to counteract the incumbents’ bonus. While Kettering is highly marginal, requiring a tiny 0.2 per cent pro-Labour swing on the face of it, in reality it would probably take a national swing of about 2 per cent to fall. Given incumbency and regional variation, it would be quite a risk to go early without a solid poll lead of 8 points or better.

The incumbency factor also applies to Lib Dem MPs – while in principle a post-Blair party should recover ground among the liberal metropolitan electors who deserted in 2005, it may be difficult to dislodge MPs in areas such as Hornsey & Wood Green and Cambridge and Labour will also be exposed to further possible losses for instance in Oxford East and Watford. Labour also has some cause to worry about Wales and Scotland (from the Conservatives and SNP respectively) although the SNP danger has been overstated. There are only three seats which would change hands on a 10 per cent swing from Labour to SNP since 2005, and one is not comparing like with like if one starts from the 2007 Scottish Parliament results.

Before Jim Callaghan decided against an October 1978 election, he took a copy of the Times guide to the House of Commons on holiday with him and tried, seat by seat, to work out what an election result would look like. The best he could do was a hung parliament with Labour narrowly the largest party. Perhaps, somewhere in Downing Street, there is a heavily-thumbed and annotated copy of the last edition of the same volume, pointing to a Labour win by about 30 seats. Whether that is enough, and whether the risk of going now is greater than the risk of leaving the election for another year, is a dilemma Brown must face this week.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/24/labourmeetsatbournemouthin

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Could Ming bounce? (14 September 2007)

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Could Ming bounce? (14 September 2007)

Posted on 14 September 2007 by admin

Lib Dems 07: The Lib Dems need an urgent rethink after a bad year when they’ve been pushed to the political margins.

The Liberal Democrats assemble in Brighton after a bad year. More perhaps than the other parties, their morale is sensitive to performance in mid-term elections and the May 2007 elections were pretty poor. In the Scottish and Welsh elections in May, the Conservatives penetrated some historically Lib Dem territory areas. While both constituencies voted in Lib Dem assembly members, the party list vote in both the historic fiefdom of Montgomeryshire (where the Lib Dems have lost only once in the last century in general elections) and Brecon and Radnorshire went to the Conservatives. The farcical Lib Dem participation in Welsh coalition talks, in which the party managed to get nothing despite its good bargaining position, cannot have improved their standing. There was a similar tale in Scotland, where the Conservatives were ahead in the Borders. The English local elections were a bit more variable; with some good results in seats the Lib Dems need to defend against the Conservatives such as Eastleigh, Taunton and Teignbridge, but defeats in others, like North Devon and Torbay. Losses were worse in areas where the Lib Dems might have hoped to build on local success to win future contests, such as in South Norfolk and Bournemouth where they were virtually wiped out.

ICM polling data this summer suggests more severe problems than in the local elections. The Lib Dems are apparently down a massive nine percentage points in the south and seven points in London (and five points in Scotland and Wales combined). In the north and Midlands, where the party has been historically weaker and has fewer seats at stake, its existing support has held up better. However, the exposure to losses in the south and the London suburbs should terrify the party. On a 9% swing to the Conservatives across the south, few Lib Dem seats east of St Ives would survive the deluge. With southern losses on this scale, and with possible losses in Wales and Scotland, they could be talking about as few as 35 MPs. Nick Clegg, sitting on a secure majority in the intellectual Yorkshire suburbia of Sheffield Hallam, might end up leader more or less by default. Such a collapse is unlikely, as Lib Dem MPs are good at insulating themselves against the tide through personal votes and hard campaigning, but the Lib Dems are currently facing the prospect of serious losses to the Conservatives and a wounding retreat from their 2005 foothold in Labour territory.

While the anti-Labour wave of 2006-07 has subsided, so it seems has the immediate honeymoon of the Brown bounce, leaving a field that is very competitive between Labour and the Conservatives. Both parties are if not revitalised at least putting on a better face than they did in 2005. The Conservatives have tried hard to reassure liberal, professional England that they are not the whingeing, negative party they seemed in the last few elections, and have been thinking afresh. The 2005 election was about electing a third term, fag-end Blair government tainted by Iraq, and people did so unwillingly. Since taking office, Brown has worked hard, and successfully, to draw a line under that period.

With Labour and the Tories renewed and pushing towards the centre, electors may ask what is the point of the Liberal Democrats? And even if they have an answer to the question, it may be difficult to make themselves heard as the media-political environment takes shape around a presidential head-to-head between Brown and Cameron.

There are two strategies available, to slog on and hope the climate improves, or to shake it up. More or less the only way the party has to shake things up is to dispose of another leader. Rumblings against Charles Kennedy were audible at the 2005 conference, and Ming Campbell is no doubt well aware that 2007 in Brighton is a big test for his own leadership. Whether getting rid of him would accomplish anything, or just divide and demoralise the party further, is debatable. The Lib Dems are in an unenviable position, and what makes it all the more horrid is that there may be absolutely nothing they can do about it.


http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/14/couldmingbounce

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