Archive | May, 2008

Cold comfort (4 May 2008)

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Cold comfort (4 May 2008)

Posted on 04 May 2008 by admin

Local elections 08: Just how bad were these local election results for Labour? Very. Gordon Brown may survive until 2010, but his party is in real danger

Outside London, in urban England, the election results for Labour were an utter disaster. The dimensions of this defeat have so far escaped much analysis because of the impact of Johnson’s victory. In 2006 and 2007 Labour were getting hammered in the south and the suburbs, but the vote was holding up in the cities and working class towns in the north, and even recovering noticeably from the Iraq-blighted elections of 2004. Those local results looked like a post-New Labour political geography. Elections seemed to be reverting to the previous Two Nations pattern of the Thatcher years. The 2008 elections, however, are different.

The regional differences were less apparent, with a few scattered examples of Labour holding or gaining ground in the south, such as in Hastings and Slough, and some epic collapses in the north. Some of the local detail is almost unbelievably bad for Labour. What is one to say when the Conservatives pull ahead in Rother Valley, of all places? The Tories showed considerable strength in smaller working class towns around Manchester. While their gain in ever-marginal Bury attracted some attention, the rise in their share of the vote in places such as Failsworth, Swinton and Eccles was up since their relatively good results in 2007. This was not a feat of targeting, picking off a couple of vulnerable northern councils as in 2007, but a broad increase in popularity in places where the Conservatives have been nearly absent for decades.

On the face of it, the core cities looked exempt from the trend, with no Conservatives on the councils of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle, although even in these dead zones the Conservative vote improved noticeably on last year.

Local elections, while basically determined by the national trend, do have local variations and in some areas there were movements of opinion in 2008 that compensated for unusual electoral behaviour four years ago. For instance, the Conservatives won Coventry a bit ahead of the curve in 2003, and lost ground this time as their local administration grew stale. But in other places, like Reading and Wolverhampton, the Labour vote that had been resilient in 2004 collapsed in 2008. The Conservatives were 13 points clear of Labour in the heavily working class Wolverhampton North East constituency, a seat that the Tories have only ever won once, in 1987. The Tories even won Heath Town ward, a poor, troubled and much-redeveloped area of the city.

Labour can find very little consolation in these elections, except – oddly – at the scene of the most painful defeat, London. Ken Livingstone gave Labour voters something to fight for, and the party’s vote stood up reasonably well in inner London. Labour even won an extra seat on the London Assembly. But this is cold comfort indeed.

Comparisons have already been made between these local elections and the wipeout Labour suffered in 1968. In some ways, Labour’s defeat in 2008 was worse because the party’s share of the vote was lower, but in other ways it was less drastic. In 1968 anti-Labour voters lined up behind the Conservatives, with the result that the Tories won nearly everything that year. In 2008 multi-party politics is a reality in many local authorities, and Labour retained seats even with a low share of the vote because of split opposition. The Conservatives are nowhere near as dominant in local government as they were in the late 1960s or even the late 1970s, when they had a majority in Merseyside. Their national share of the vote, and lead over Labour, are smaller than in 1968, but to win around 44% in a multi party system is still an impressive accomplishment, reminiscent of Labour’s sweeping triumphs in 1995 and 1996.

Historical comparisons naturally lead to speculation about what the 2008 elections might mean for the general election, due before mid-2010. In 1968, 1977 and 1995, the governing party at the wrong end of the landslide went on to lose the general election. However, in 1968-70 and 1977-79, if not in 1995-97, the defeat was not a foregone conclusion and there were times when re-election even looked likely.

Another point of comparison is the position of the prime minister. Traumatic defeats in 1968 and 1995 led to bouts of speculation and conspiracy aimed against Harold Wilson and John Major respectively, although both survived. Jim Callaghan came out of his 1977 drubbing almost unscathed because he was personally popular, and could both hold the Labour party together and retain the confidence of the Liberals in a finely balanced House of Commons.

Parties, and prime ministers, can ride out local election landslides, but the long term effects are insidious. Parties become demoralised and organisation decays. The emergence of a new political landscape confuses election planning. In 1970 and 1979 Labour lost seats that had previously been considered safe, and the same thing happened on an even greater scale in 1997 to the Conservatives. The logic of general election campaigning insists that Labour prioritise seats where the party’s presence has been reduced almost to vanishing point in local elections, such as Portsmouth North and Harlow – but in such circumstances, how is effective local campaigning possible?

The risk, as the Conservatives discovered, is that one misdirects resources by defending lost causes (like Mitcham and Morden, which some Tories convinced themselves even on the election night of 1997 had been held), while suffering enormous swings and losing seats in areas that had not seemed to be in much danger. This year’s local elections saw a dam break. When that happens, the floods can reach the most unexpected corners, and may never recede to their previous levels.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/may/04/coldcomfort1

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The scale of the swing bodes ill for Labour (2 May 2008)

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The scale of the swing bodes ill for Labour (2 May 2008)

Posted on 02 May 2008 by admin

Despite some isolated disappointments, the Conservatives have scored staggering successes, writes Lewis Baston

Local election results always produce a mixed picture; there will be councils where local factors produce swings that go against the national pattern.

The Conservatives should have regained Worcester, which they only lost last year in a byelection that took place at the brief high tide of enthusiasm for Brown’s Labour last autumn, but they did not.

They might lose Coventry. But these seem likely to be only small, isolated disappointments in a generally very strong Conservative performance.

They are also balanced up by some staggering local Tory successes. Their gains in Harlow were so stunning that they took overall control of the council for the first time ever, and Labour did not win a single ward in what had been until recently an old Labour (in every sense) municipal stronghold.

But the most bizarre result so far seems to have taken place in Southampton, which was at the furthest edge of possibility for the Tories. They made eight gains and took control in a bitter and unpleasant election campaign, following the formation of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition at the budget vote in the spring.

The city will now have two years of Tory control and will be an experiment in hard-right populism. We shall see whether the tide goes out as quickly as it came in.

In most of the country the pattern seems to be modest Conservative advance from the 2004 baseline, which is a highly creditable overall performance.

They should have little difficulty in passing the benchmark of 200 net gains by the time the final result comes in tomorrow afternoon.

Labour can forget about claiming much comfort, let alone satisfaction, from the English local elections, and the scale of the swing bodes ill for London.

If net losses go much below 200 seats, and Livingstone loses London, that is a recipe for a normal-sized post-election panic.

But the horrific detail in places like Harlow and Southampton almost pales besides the near-disaster in County Durham.

Labour looks like having squeezed out a small majority in this council, which has been a fortress since 1919 – with 62 Labour seats, 52 opposition seats and 12 still to declare. When Durham trembles on the brink, it is a real disaster.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2008/may/02/localgovernment.labour

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Poll position (1 May 2008)

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Poll position (1 May 2008)

Posted on 01 May 2008 by admin

London elections 08: It’s been a hard-fought, close-run race in the mayoral election and a great deal is at stake – and that’s just for the pollsters

Polls on the London mayoral election have divided into two types – YouGov’s and everyone else’s. YouGov has consistently shown Boris Johnson with a sizeable lead, while the other polling companies have shown the race to be more or less neck-and-neck. As well as the actual election, there is something resembling an election within the opinion-polling industry as two contrasting methods of sampling public opinion fight it out.

A lot of well-established pollsters would love to see YouGov come a cropper; it is a brash, media-savvy outfit which has trumpeted a record of relatively accurate polling in public elections and even television show votes, and whose method (asking its panel for opinions via the internet) contrasts with the telephone or in-person polling as practised by most of the others. The anonymity of the net may produce less inhibited, or more considered, answers than person-to-person interviews, but getting a really representative sample requires quite a bit of weighting and tweaking. The same, to some extent, is true of person-to-person polling. Pollsters now need to get two things right – a good sample, and an accurate set of adjustments.

Polling is perhaps particularly difficult in London, with its enormous diversity, fast-changing population and Britain’s largest proportion of people eligible but unregistered to vote. Pollsters also have to screen for likely turnout, estimates of which range widely between the 37% reached last time to a scarcely credible 60%. Then, because the second preferences of people who voted other than for the top two will be reallocated, they need to get a representative view on how the Lib Dems, Greens and others will line up in the final stage of the count, which is difficult on a small sample.

Boris Johnson has to win pretty big for YouGov to have bragging rights about this election. Their mayoral campaign polls put him between six and 13 points ahead, and their last poll indicated a margin of 7 points. If the result is Johnson by more than six points, YouGov can chalk up the impressive feat of polling in an election in very difficult territory for pollsters. More conventional polling companies would need to ask themselves why they had the election so wrong, as the excuse of a late swing is probably not available, in contrast to the last big polling fiasco of 1992.

A Livingstone win, on the other hand, would vindicate Ipsos Mori and ICM, which have shown the late stage of the race to be extremely close. It would certainly not discredit YouGov, or internet polling, but it would at least require a bit of a rethink of its sampling and weighting techniques. However, a Johnson win by something like two to five percentage points would leave the clash of the pollsters unresolved.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/may/01/pollposition

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