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Posted on 12 June 2012 by admin

Local election results – England and Wales

The 2012 local elections, leaving the London mayoralty aside, were a considerable success for Labour. While in 2011 Labour did very well in the big urban areas and not so well elsewhere, in 2012 Labour advanced pretty much everywhere that the party is a viable proposition, including such places as Weymouth, Tamworth and Great Yarmouth where the Conservative vote held up well in 2011, suggesting that the party is making progress on a much wider front than last year.

In terms of benchmarks and targets for party performance, Labour exceeded all realistic expectations. The party made a net gain of 823 seats across Britain, comfortably over the 700-720 that was the highest legitimate benchmark for a good performance. The party also took nearly all of its target councils, including some which had been regarded as rather ambitious targets: my previous paper describes Dudley, Cardiff and Redditch for instance as tough asks for Labour, but the party won the first two easily and the third narrowly. The only failures were Swindon (where the Conservatives retained a 1-seat majority despite Labour polling more votes) and the always peculiar West Midlands borough of Walsall.

As expected, Labour won the inaugural contests for the new mayors of Liverpool (in a landslide) and Salford (easily).

However, given the low turnout in these elections, it may be more a case of the Conservatives being in much worse shape in 2012 rather than a large positive movement to Labour. Turnout at around 32 per cent in England was poor, particularly in comparison with last year when it does appear that the AV referendum increased turnout (also significant is that the 2011 elections took place in more suburban and rural areas where turnout is higher anyway, while 2012’s elections were mostly urban). However, while it was pretty low, turnout was not as bad as it was during the first term of Blair’s government and not too much worse than years such as 1995 (which saw a big drop in turnout and a Labour landslide). In most areas, for every ten people who voted Conservative in 2011 about six did so this year, while for every ten Labour voters in 2011 there were about eight or nine this year. The net effect was a significant swing to Labour.

Looking at the local elections, another ‘hung parliament’ general election emerges as a strong possibility. A strongly regionalised swing, favouring Labour in the north and the Conservatives in the south, has interesting consequences, particularly when combined with the Liberal Democrats’ resilience in many of their stronger constituencies and the success of the SNP in Scotland. A swing to Labour will take out a few Tory remnants in the north, a swing to Tory will conquer Labour’s remaining outposts there – but these swings may well not be enough to win a Commons majority if there are 30 Lib Dems, 16 Northern Ireland MPs and perhaps 15-20 Nationalists.

The swing was less regionalised than it was in 2011, but it was still clear that Labour were doing less well in the south than in the north in terms of their recovery since 2008. Perhaps the main difference from 2011 was that the Midlands joined the North in swinging hard towards Labour, rather than joining the Tory South as it did last year. The Midlands will be the key battleground in political strategy in the next period – the Black Country marginals west of Birmingham and the smaller towns outside the metro area, and the towns and suburbs around Nottingham and Derby – will be crucial.

In general, it was another appalling year for the Lib Dems, and the hostility to the party in some areas (particularly the big cities) was just as evident as last year. The Lib Dems did worse in Liverpool, and were once again at the wrong end of a wipe-out in Manchester. In the areas where Conservatives compete with Lib Dems, honours were fairly even between the two parties, in contrast to last year when there was a strong trend to the Conservatives. The Conservatives did manage to gain Winchester from no overall control, although the Lib Dems had a swing in their favour in Portsmouth.

Local elections always demonstrate the peculiarities of some political micro-climates. The Conservatives did well to cling on in Swindon (despite Labour winning more votes), and there were a few strong Liberal Democrat showings against the national background of devastation. In Eastleigh and Watford they won landslides, and in Portsmouth they made significant gains from the Conservatives. There were even a few patches where wards that had gone Labour with a vengeance last year returned to the fold, particularly in Hull but also a few scattered outposts from Wigan to Basildon.

For the ‘other’ parties in England the results were mixed. The BNP lost all the seats it was defending and managed to field many fewer candidates than in 2008, and appears to be collapsing as a political force. The Green Party also did quite well, winning 40 seats (a net gain of 11), consolidating its position in areas of strength (Norwich, Solihull) and picking off a number of other wards where it has targeted its campaigning efforts. It may emerge, given the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in the northern metropolitan areas, as the principal opposition force to local Labour control in due course.

It was quite a good election for UKIP, in that the party won 12-13 per cent of the vote where it stood. In wards where both it and the Lib Dems were standing ‘paper candidates’ (i.e. people standing to represent the party on the ballot in areas where they do not expect to win and do very little campaigning) the UKIP candidate usually got more votes. In some areas (Great Yarmouth, Dudley, Basildon) UKIP polled quite serious vote shares of over 20 per cent in many wards. However, it has not managed to target its campaigning effectively for local authority elections, in contrast to the Greens, and it made no net gains in the elections despite its strong vote. The lack of targeting seems to me to be a puzzling aspect of UKIP strategy; it would surely be in the interests of the party to prioritise gaining elected local representatives, but it seems to concentrate on building its vote share, perhaps as a means of putting pressure on the Conservatives.

Wales, because every seat in 21 of the 22 councils was up for election (rather than a third of the seats, as with most of England), saw a huge turnover of seats and sweeping Labour gains, effectively reversing two sets of quite bad losses in 2004 and 2008. Overall, Labour made a net gain of 231 seats across Wales, with the Conservatives (-61), Lib Dems (-66) and Plaid Cymru (-41) all suffering losses. The most dramatic result was the Labour win in Cardiff, with a gain of 33 seats. But there were also some quite surprising Conservative losses of control of their councils in Monmouthshire and Vale of Glamorgan, where the party has generally been on an upward trend.


Local elections – Scotland

Because local elections are conducted under a proportional system in Scotland, changes in seats are less dramatic but in some ways the story there is the most surprising of all. The SNP gained, but by less than some over-optimistic expectations, and so did Scottish Labour despite their drubbing in the Scottish Parliament election last year. Both parties profited from the collapse of the Liberal Democrats, the SNP making a net gain of 57 and Labour of 58. In Edinburgh, where the Lib Dems had led the council since 2007, the Lib Dems dropped to three seats (and saw one of its candidates famously outpolled by a man in a penguin costume), Labour emerged as the largest party and formed a coalition with the SNP to run the city, the first Labour-SNP coalition in Scottish politics.

The SNP will be very disappointed. In many elections in the past, the SNP has ramped up expectations and believed its own hype, and seen the results come well below what was hoped. In the Scottish Parliament elections in 2007 and, dramatically, 2011 this did not happen, but this old pattern has reasserted itself. The reality was that it was a moderately encouraging result for the SNP but not a breakthrough, and had it not been for the expectations and the results of the 2011 elections it would have been seen as good news for the SNP.

The importance of the elections was in the possibility that local government, collectively – with the trade unions the main non-Nationalist area of public life in Scotland – would become part of the developing SNP establishment. The SNP duly won outright control of two councils – Dundee and Angus – where this might have been expected given the SNP’s long-established strength in that part of Scotland. They fell short in other north eastern councils such as Aberdeenshire and Moray, and were cut out of a share of the administration by deals between Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Independents. The hopes of using local authorities and COSLA to support the push for independence in the forthcoming referendum came to nothing. Labour lost one council (Midlothian) it had gained because of a defection, held two (Glasgow and North Lanarkshire) and most surprisingly gained two (Renfrewshire, displacing an SNP-Lib Dem administration, and West Dunbartonshire). Labour also came out ahead in seats but without an overall majority in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In Aberdeen they formed a coalition with the Conservatives and Independents and in Edinburgh with the SNP.

With control only in Dundee and Angus, and the SNP locked out by surprising coalitions among the other parties in other councils (Lab-Con is the formula not only in Aberdeen but also in Stirling where the SNP did well, Inverclyde, Falkirk and even South Ayrshire where the parties have been harshly competitive), something clearly has been going on. A lot of it has to do with the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. The parties opposed to independence (i.e. Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem and most Independents) have decided to deprive the pro-independence parties (SNP and Green) of the levers of power in local government. Local government could have been used as a way of promoting independence, and giving pro-independence SNP activists publicly funded full time positions running councils, but this will not now happen. This could be an important result of the 2012 local elections.


The result was more or less as expected, with Boris Johnson re-elected as Mayor and Labour dominating in the Assembly election. However, Johnson’s margin of victory was smaller than many had expected during the campaign – 3 points after distribution of second preferences rather than the 6-8 points suggested by most polls and some expectations of a bigger win for Johnson than that because of differential turnout. Johnson’s re-election had been so widely expected that it had effectively been ‘priced in’ to media assessments of the results, and the fact that it was fairly narrow was added to the evidence that the Conservatives had a bad night.

What appears to have happened is that the suburban Conservative vote, which had turned out very strongly for Johnson in 2008, was less enthusiastic this time, probably as a reflection of dissatisfaction with the central government’s performance. Labour also seems to have had, this time, a superior ‘get out the vote’ operation on the ground, perhaps particularly in strong areas like Newham and Barking & Dagenham (where anti-BNP campaigning had revitalised the party in 2010) and in Enfield and Hackney.

But it was not quite enough to get Ken Livingstone across the line. In 2000 he was vastly popular and won as an Independent, and in 2004 he was much more popular than the Labour brand, but in 2008 the electorate appeared to be getting tired of him and this was even more evident in 2012, even though his first preference vote was its highest ever. Unlike before, his popularity did not reach beyond Labour’s – and did not even extend to all of the Labour Party. There were appreciable numbers of Labour supporters who did not vote for him.


Labour Assembly list % Mayoral FP % Mayoral advantage %
2004 25.0 36.7 +11.7
2008 27.6 37.0 +9.4
2012 41.1 40.3 -0.8


Conservative Assembly list % Mayoral FP % Mayoral advantage %
2004 28.5 29.1 +0.6
2008 34.6 43.2 +8.6
2012 32.0 44.0 +12.0


The election will have no particularly strong influence on policy in London, with Johnson (who has been notably slow to change much that he inherited from Livingstone in 2008) now overseen by a strengthened Labour group on the Assembly,  although the Assembly’s power is so weak that it will not be much of a constraint.

The detail of the election reveals some fascinating demographic and social trends about London. Working class areas of outer London appear to be changing rapidly and becoming much more ethnically mixed – for instance in Enfield and Croydon – while a wedge of London to the south west is becoming increasingly dominated by the wealthy (Wandsworth, Wimbledon etc).

What seems to have happened to the social bases of each candidate is that Livingstone lost the liberal middle class vote he had done very well among for a Labour candidate – Hampstead, Richmond, central Ealing, Muswell Hill, Wimbledon… but recovered some ground among the outer London white working class that he had done particularly badly among in 2008.

Overall, Labour’s Assembly election results were good – but perhaps not that good. The party was 9 points ahead on the list vote, although in the General Election of 2010 Labour led by 2 points. The swing was therefore 3-4 per cent to Labour, while in general the swing in the rest of England was around 8 per cent. There are a couple of viable alternative explanations for this discrepancy:

  • Perhaps having Livingstone at the top of the ticket dragged down the Labour share in all the elections in London, while Johnson probably dragged up the Conservative list. This can work through turnout – if a Labour supporter is unenthusiastic about Livingstone, she may just fail to vote, while an unhappy Conservative may find himself reluctantly voting only because he likes Johnson.
  • Perhaps the swing to Labour in London really is less than it is outside the capital. This could be because Labour did not do as badly in London in 2010 as elsewhere, so there is less of a mountain to climb. Or it could be because of other particularities of the politics and sociology of London.

It is likely that both factors contributed a bit to the small Labour swing in London.


Local elections – effects

The effect of local elections on the national political environment is complex. While they are largely determined by the state of general public opinion, they have feedback effects. Governments that suffer bad results often see their position decline once the elections are over, sometimes in public opinion (as with the severe and surprising Tory losses in 1993, or Labour’s drubbing in 2008) and often in broader ‘climate’ terms.

After a bad defeat, the media become more critical, troublesome backbenchers make more and louder trouble than they have already been doing, previously loyal MPs start to murmur dissent, ministers start to fear or hope for reshuffles, and in general a bad atmosphere descends. Sometimes, as in 1993 and 1995, it degenerates into a real crisis for the government; it nearly did in 2009 as well but the anti-Brown plotters mishandled it. So far in 2012 the political effect on the government from the local elections has been fairly modest. The government is still in trouble, but it has not deepened since the ‘omnishambles’ period of March and April, and in some polls the Labour lead has subsided a bit as May has gone on. But the local elections have consolidated the new post-Budget political narrative (and reality) of a government in trouble, rather than the ‘Labour failing and Ed is hopeless’ mood with which we started 2012.

The elections are part of a pattern of events. One casualty has been the reputation of George Osborne as a political strategist, given that his budget contained one extremely provocative measure (the top rate tax cut) and a number of smaller measures that have caused a series of minor political explosions and alienated several interests (pasties, caravans, historic buildings, pensioners…) at once. There has also been, it appears, an effort to shift blame onto Osborne for this from elsewhere in government, for instance briefing that Andrew Cooper at Number 10 was not permitted to test the tax cut with public opinion, or that Osborne wanted to cut to 40p but was stopped by Cameron and Clegg. Conservative journalists have written stories suggesting that Osborne has not been working hard enough, trying to divide his time between the Treasury and political strategy and doing neither well enough, and his lack of attention led to him being ‘bounced’ by the Treasury civil servants into a number of the minor changes that have proved politically difficult. Neither has Cameron’s leadership looked very sure-footed since, with tetchy performances at PMQs and apparently ever-deeper problems with Hunt and Leveson.

The Conservative Party is in a more disenchanted condition than it has been probably since 2003; while only eccentric lone voices such as Nadine Dorries have been open with harsh criticism of Cameron, there is a murmur of unease with the direction of policy under the coalition, with Cameron’s personal performance and attitude to his MPs, and for the first time with the party’s electoral prospects. The government has been in place for two years without a reshuffle, other than emergency mini-reshuffles after the resignations of Laws and Fox, and the mood of instability, plotting and every-man-for-himself that comes with reshuffle speculation has started (although Number 10 is trying to say that the reshuffle will be in September, not before). The high votes for UKIP in a number of constituencies will have impressed some Tory MPs – UKIP at around 10% in his Bury North constituency will merely encourage rebellious right-winger David Nuttall to be even more rebellious, for instance.

The election results combined with the economic news , and the sense that the argument for austerity is starting to be lost with the ‘double-dip’ recession and the election result in France, is shifting views. The Conservative right is keen for some ‘red meat’ to give to supporters who are abstaining or voting UKIP, in the form of dropping the gay marriage proposal, confronting Europe some more and adopting the Beecroft proposals on employment law.

The Lib Dem response to another horrible set of results was fairly calm. If a person is punched in the face twice, the second punch is less shocking (even if it may end up doing more long term damage than the first blow).This has been the fourth year in a row of local election losses, and after the trauma of their worse-than-expected massacre in 2011 they were resigned to a bad result in 2012. There were some crumbs of comfort in some areas where the results were better than last year (Hull, Basildon, Wigan and others). The Lib Dems, I think, know that the die was cast in 2010 by joining the coalition on the terms they did, and that there is not a lot they can do about it now except to hope that they survive the journey to 2015 and that there is a record of achievement in government to show for it with which they can impress voters at the election.

Part of the reason for the passive response among MPs is that for many of them the local results were not bad, often appreciably better than last year. This table shows the local election results in a number of Lib Dem held seats in England where there were local elections. In some the chances of Lib Dems holding on against Labour seem very remote, but against the Conservatives in suburban England they did pretty well. Rebellious MPs Mike Hancock (Portsmouth South) and Bob Russell  (Colchester) saw their local election colleagues do well, and in Chris Huhne’s Eastleigh the Lib  Dems won another landslide victory. These sorts of figures give the party some hope that where there is a functional Lib Dem local organisation, a local MP and a number of electors who have a partisan identification with the Lib Dems, survival is possible.


2010 general election

2012 local elections









Manchester Withington








18% to Lab








11% to Lab








2% to Con








17% to Lab









Portsmouth South








5% to LD









1% to LD
Hazel Grove








Sheffield Hallam








11% to Lab


For Labour, the results have consolidated Ed Miliband’s leadership. This would have been regarded, a year to six months ago, as being a paradoxically good thing for the Conservatives! But Miliband has grown in confidence and stature during 2012 and the elections have helped him in terms of his personal confidence and in encouraging Labour to have faith in him. Labour’s mood has, sensibly, been of satisfaction rather than complacency and the party tried hard to take a humble tone after the election results. But with a solid election win, a sense that the party’s arguments about economic policy are being vindicated and at last gaining some traction, and a party organisation whose greater efficiency was shown in its campaigning this year, Labour is in a better mood than it has been probably since autumn 2007.

Last but not least in importance, the election results in Scotland were the first dent in Alex Salmond’s armour for a long time; Scottish councils are unlikely to be used as forward bases to push for independence, and we are back to close rivalry of Labour and SNP rather than SNP domination. The launch of the Yes campaign for the independence referendum (25 May), after the local elections, did not seem part of a triumphant progress towards the SNP’s goal.


Ten wards to watch on election night

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Ten wards to watch on election night

Posted on 03 May 2012 by admin


Or… which councils’ websites should you have open as browser tabs by 11pm on Thursday 3 May?


The local election polls close at 10pm on Thursday, but in contrast to the general election in 2010, a large number of counts are starting on the Friday morning. This is probably sensible from the point of view of allowing time to verify postal votes and to get the counting done after a good sleep rather than by tired people being paid overtime, but it does cut down on the fun for those of us who watch election results and like to drawn conclusions from the first straws in the wind.

The Press Association  helpfully publishes a list of anticipated declaration times. These are basically the times at which councils expect to have finished the count, so results in individual wards will be available considerably beforehand and allow us to see which way the wind is blowing. The following wards are worth looking out for, because they will be counted overnight and because they will tell us something about the national picture – or in a couple of cases just give a glimpse of interesting local peculiarities.

  1. 1.       Blundellsands, Sefton

Blundellsands is the remaining Conservative ward of Crosby, north of Liverpool, and it has been very close in the last two sets of local elections, with the Tories winning by 85 votes in 2010 and 21 votes in 2011. If Labour win this ward, it is a sign that they are on course to gain control of Sefton. That would be notable because no party has had a majority since 1986, and Labour has never won it before – a symbol of long term political change in the North West. Andrew Teale has written a rather good guide to the complexities of Sefton elections at Britain Votes – and see also his Greater Manchester preview.

Sefton election results 


  1. 2.       Little Horton ward, Bradford

Until the victory of George Galloway in the Bradford West by-election at the end of March, Bradford seemed one of the surer Labour victories. Labour would not even have to do as well as in 2010 to secure control. However, it remains to be seen how much of Galloway’s vote transfers over to his Respect colleagues in several Bradford wards. Labour losses to Respect in two wards, Manningham and City, seem to be expected but there is doubt about other wards, including inner city Little Horton, which is actually in the currently Lib Dem Bradford East seat. The Guardian wrote up the ward campaign.

Bradford election results.


  1. 3.       Peartree ward, Southampton

Southampton is one of the key Labour targets in the 2012 local elections and Peartree is one of the key marginal wards in the city. It is a suburban area lying to the east of the River Itchen, and since 2011 it has had the distinction of having one councillor from each of the three main parties. The Conservative seat gained in 2008 is up for election, and the Lib Dem elected in 2010 has left the council causing a by-election. Labour’s win in 2011 was surprising and narrow. If Labour win one or both of the seats today then they probably have a majority in this marginal city. For more on Southampton, see Southern Front.

Southampton election results. 


  1. 4.       Chipping Norton, West Oxfordshire

West Oxfordshire is the council for David Cameron’s Witney constituency, and the town of Chipping Norton is associated with Cameron and his ‘set’. The Conservatives are defending a seat here in the local elections. However, it is one of the more marginal areas of West Oxfordshire and Labour held the other council ward in Chipping Norton last year.

West Oxfordshire election results


  1. 5.       Lydiard & Freshbrook, Swindon

Every seat in Swindon is up for election this year because there have been ward boundary changes. It is just about feasible for Labour to take overall control from the Conservatives, although it is quite a tall order. If the Conservatives hold this newly drawn outer suburban area, whose component parts have previously been in marginal wards, then the Tories have probably retained their majority in Swindon and probably therefore good prospects in holding the two marginal Parliamentary seats. I’ve written more about Swindon for Southern Front.

Swindon election results



  1. 6.       Amblecote, Dudley

Dudley is another key contest between Labour and Conservative. The parties each won 12 wards last year, something of a disappointing result for Labour, and Labour needs to win 15 seats this year for a majority, and Amblecote would be one of them. It is a Black Country town lying between Stourbridge and Brierley Hill. The Conservatives were 317 votes (8.5 percentage points) ahead in the 2011 local elections, so Labour needs a significant swing since then. The UKIP vote is well worth watching in Amblecote and Dudley more generally. They won 8.5 per cent across the borough (12 per cent in Amblecote) in 2011 and if they improve their showing could tip the balance between the two main parties.

Dudley election results


7.       Fant, Maidstone

The Conservatives will almost certainly retain control of Maidstone council, but this ward is a real curiosity. It is, as it were, the Latin Quarter of Maidstone, on the left bank of the Medway, and it is a four-way marginal. The Conservatives gained it from Labour in 2008, but the Lib Dems came out on top in 2010 before the Tories won again in 2011 but with only 29.4 per cent of the vote. The fourth-placed Greens won 21.4 per cent. Labour will be trying to break back onto the council and show a small ‘red shoot’ in Kent.

Maidstone election results



  1. 8.       Cockett, Swansea

Labour should be on course to regain their majority in Wales’s second city – although Cardiff is a tougher nut to crack. A key step on the way is the Cockett ward in western Swansea, a four-member ward (some Welsh wards have more councillors than any in England), where Labour must hope to sweep aside the Lib Dems – who in turn gained the seat from Plaid Cymru in 2008.

Swansea election results


  1. 9.       Heanor East, Amber Valley        

Heanor is traditionally one of the more Labour towns in the marginal borough and constituency of Amber Valley, and it was a particularly depressing result for Labour in their disaster year of 2008 when the BNP won both Heanor East and Heanor West. The sitting BNP councillor is defending the East seat this year. In the 2010 local election (the last time these wards were fought) Labour had fairly narrow margins over the Conservatives.

Amber Valley election results


10.   Bradwell North, Great Yarmouth

Eastern England turned in Labour’s worst results in the 2010 general election, and results in the region in the 2011 local elections were very patchy. One of the less successful patches was the marginal town of Great Yarmouth, and Labour has to hope that they have improved their position in 2012. Bradwell North, a residential area south west of the town centre, is one of the key wards Labour must win to gain control for the first time since the Tories gained it in 2000. Southern Front has an article on Yarmouth.

Great Yarmouth election results


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Local elections 2012: what will the gains and losses figures mean?

Posted on 02 May 2012 by admin


 How should we assess the local election results when we have a sense of things on Friday morning? The gains/ losses figures are the most popular measure as far as the media is concerned, because perhaps the best and most comparable measure – National Equivalent Vote share – is complex to calculate and can be worked out in more ways than one.

Benchmarks for local election gains and losses vary year by year because:

  • Different numbers of seats are available each year; for instance there were 4,104 seats in the 2008 locals (the baseline for 2012) and over 10,000 in the big year for English local elections that is the 2007/11 year of the cycle. 2012 is a fairly small year for seat numbers, so that massive gains and losses like Labour’s haul of around 2000 gains in 1995 are impossible.
  • Different sorts of area are contested in different years – Scotland and Wales this year, other years England only, and in general terms rural England in 2011 and 2013, and urban England in 2011 and 2012.
  • Different starting points. This year’s starting point (except in Scotland) is 2008, which was a very good local election year for the Conservatives. Labour therefore have to win a biggish number of seats to be respectable, and the Conservatives can afford to shed a number of seats won at their high water mark.
  • Electoral system  – the seats up in 2011 (and 2014 in London boroughs) will tend to magnify changes, because the multi-member first past the post system often involves large turnovers of seats if there is a swing. The STV PR system used in Scotland will produce smaller changes for a given swing.
  • Expectation management. This works in a couple of ways. The most obvious is that parties will try to under-claim their expected gains or exaggerate potential losses, to make the results on the day look ‘better than expected’. The more subtle is that they are affected by opinion polls and the general climate. A party that is, say, 10 points ahead in the national polls but whose local results are in line with a 5-point lead may be said to have had a ‘disappointing’ set of results, even though they are ‘objectively’ better than those of a party that is level in the polls but gets a two point lead on the local result and claims a triumph.

Figures for gains and losses are fuzzy around the edges, for several reasons.

They are affected by a few or more councils each year having boundary changes and therefore not being comparable with past years (this year: Hartlepool, Rugby, Daventry, Broxbourne) and affecting the overall party numbers.

Another factor is by-elections; some of the changes, particularly in a cycle like 2008/12 when there has been a big change in political climate, will have been discounted because the seats have already changed hands in by-elections. Take Walsall, for instance, where two wards that were Conservative in 2008 have already been won by Labour in by-elections. There are also defections, which tend to pattern wider political trends and can be important in some individual authorities – for instance the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in Rochdale or the Conservative split in Sefton. In some such cases a party can make apparent ‘gains’ by just recapturing seats from defectors. Another complication is sometimes that by-elections run concurrently with the local elections. In Bolton for instance there is a triple vacancy in a safe Conservative area, Bradshaw, giving the Conservatives an apparent extra 2 seats.

Seat totals are also skewed against urban England. The number of electors in each seat is much smaller in rural and suburban authorities, and seats are particularly small in the most rural areas. In terms of seats coming up in 2012, Claverdon ward (Stratford on Avon DC, Warwickshire) with fewer than 2,000 electors is weighted the same as over 20,000 in some Birmingham wards. A party doing differentially well in big cities and poorly in smaller towns and rural areas (as Labour did in 2011) will find its seat gains looking unflattering.

With all these warnings, the starting point needs to be the previous set of local elections in England and Wales in 2008. This was a very good Conservative year and a Labour disaster (national equivalent vote Conservative 43 per cent, Labour 24 per cent and Lib Dem 23 per cent). The Conservatives gained 300 seats and Labour lost 434. Reversing these figures would more or less restore the position that existed in 2004. Allowing for the fact that there are fewer seats available (large councils in Cheshire and Durham were contested in 2008), by-elections, and a possible slippage in Scotland, a Labour gain overall of around 400 would be something like a repeat of 2004. Now this would be a poor result. The local elections in 2004 were not a good year for Labour, with urban voters in particular giving the party a ‘kicking’ over the Iraq war and general ennui, and the Tories picking up in a number of marginals like Tamworth and Swindon. It was not a drubbing like 2008, but it was still a defeat. Translated into a national vote share, the Conservatives were ahead with 37 per cent, Lib Dems on 27 per cent and Labour on 26 per cent.

So, a net Labour gain of fewer than 400 seats is bad, particularly as a repeat of the 2011 local elections would mean a net gain of over 250 seats in the 36 metropolitan boroughs alone, another 70 in the 16 comparable unitary authorities, and about another 130 (very approximately) in comparable district councils. Fewer than 400 net gains in England would suggest slippage from 2011 (Labour can expect to make more gains in Wales than losses suffered in Scotland).

A ‘par’ result for Labour would involve doing a bit better than 2011 in urban England, consistent with a clear (but not landslide) lead over the Conservatives in national vote share, and picking up considerably in Wales while slipping a bit in Scotland. Perhaps about 100 gains in Wales, 500 in England, and 30 losses in Scotland, gives us a net gain of 570. (Having examined the local detail, I have revised this down a bit).

Translating recent trends in by-elections and polls, the leading experts in local elections, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University, project about 700 Labour gains which feels a bit high. Anything from 550 to 700 should probably be regarded as more or less par.

Over 700 is therefore extremely good for Labour. The party cannot exceed this total much, because its ability to win seats is already ‘maxed out’ in many areas on the basis of the 2011 results (e.g. Manchester) or would be on a modest swing from 2011, and there are simply not all that many seats available. Also bear in mind the caveats about seats that have already switched in by-elections.

The Conservative picture is a mirror image of Labour’s. They must expect losses to Labour, and unlike in 2011 there will not be many places where they can make compensating gains from Liberal Democrats and Independents.

A repeat of 2011 in England would involve net Conservative losses of the order of 180-200 seats. They should hold reasonably steady in Scotland, and lose a bit in Wales – perhaps 30 seats? A net loss of 200 must be accounted a success for the Conservatives if they manage it, given the poor context for the 2012 elections.

A par result would be a bit worse than this (300 odd), and a genuinely bad result would be something like 400 down.

The Liberal Democrats must expect to lose, possibly very severely. A repeat of 2011 would involve around 280 losses in England, perhaps 30 in Wales and something of a caning in Scotland, losing around half of their 166 seats from 2007. This adds up to a little short of 500 for the expected level of losses, assuming that they are pretty much where they were in May 2011. If they have recovered a bit since then, though local activism or a hint of recovery in the national position, they will do better. Because a repeat of 2011 would put them at rock bottom in many areas (the reverse phenomenon to Labour being maxed out in the big cities), there is not a lot of downside risk for the Lib Dems – the main forecast is pretty brutal. Much worse than this and they are still losing support compared to 2011.


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Maps and numbers: meeting OCHA (Tuesday 7 February)

Posted on 23 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Conscience and power

I’m an election analyst, so I love maps and numbers. They are also in my comfort zone, particularly in a situation like this one where emotions run high. I am moved when I meet someone who has suffered injustice, as I was when I saw Omar’s Kafkaesque situation at Al-Walajah yesterday, as it would take a heart of stone (or concrete) not to be. But I am also conscious that these are not the only human tragedies in the conflict, and that the grief of the people who lost friends and family in suicide bombings or rocket attacks is not to be ignored. Human sympathy is, or should be, universal although in Israel/ Palestine it often appears that it is not fully extended to the innocents (still less the combatants) on either side. But maps and numbers can tell me what the overall situation is like; one sometimes needs distance to make out the landscape.

This visit, and my trip in January to Moldova, have made me think more highly of the United Nations. There are two principal UN organisations in the Palestinian territories, namely UNRWA (Relief and Works Agency, which deals with refugees) and OCHA-OPT (Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Occupied Palestinian Territory). We visited OCHA at its modest offices in an old building in East Jerusalem (none of that UN luxury that the tabloids always complain about!)  for a briefing, based around numbers and maps.

The OCHA briefing covered a lot of subjects, and it informs a lot of what I’ve written elsewhere. I strongly advise going and having a look at the OCHA website at which publishes much of the valuable research and analysis that OCHA does in the occupied territories. Much of what we learned was deeply depressing, and confirmed the evidence of one’s eyes, that normal life in the West Bank was frequently disrupted for its inhabitants, and that the interests of settlers were always placed ahead of the Palestinians. There was, in the background, the horrifying prospect that the West Bank would become like the caged dystopia of Gaza.

We didn’t go to Gaza. Hardly anyone does. The OCHA briefing was as close as we got.

It is very difficult to get into Gaza unless one is working for an international organisation, but it is even harder to get out. While the West Bank is a complex tangle, the situation in Gaza is brutally simple. It is a tiny fragment of territory, only 360 square kilometres in size (a bit smaller than Rutland), with a million and a half people crammed into it. Since the Israeli army pulled out the few thousand settlers from Gaza in 2005 (destroying the houses as they left) it has been entirely Palestinian. Around half the population is aged under 16. Gaza is dependent on foreign aid, coming through strictly controlled channels via the Israeli port of Ashdod. Self-sufficiency in this densely populated urban strip is hampered by the fact that a fair proportion of the arable land lies along the border zone with Israel, which is covered by an exclusion order enforced by Israeli forces. The ‘buffer zone’ is officially 300m deep, but it seems that people up to at least 800m within Gazan territory are at risk of being shot.

The import of construction materials to Gaza is banned, a problem in any circumstances but given the population boom and the dilapidation of the city this creates a cruel situation. People attempting to gather gravel and other materials (sometimes from the demolished settlements) in the Israeli-imposed ‘buffer zone’ near the border fence are often shot by Israeli soldiers. The alternative is to acquire supplies through the illegal tunnel system, which is of course largely under the control of gangsters and extremists. Exports from Gaza are a tiny trickle, of 6-9 truckloads per week. 90 per cent of drinking water is unsafe, and electricity supply is rationed with 4-12 hours a day of power cuts since the Israelis destroyed the power plant in a raid in 2006. The sea, traditionally a source of livelihood for Gazans, is patrolled by Israeli ships who enforce a unilateral 3km limit, and coastal waters are increasingly polluted by sewage. Gaza is a nightmarish slum city by the Med.

There are some terrorists in Gaza who periodically shoot off rockets into Israeli territory, posing a threat to the civilian populations of towns such as Sderot and Ashkelon but serving no legitimate military function. 31 people have been killed in these attacks since 2001, mostly Israeli civilians. The main consequence of such attacks is to enable Israel to legitimise the blockade and take disproportionate military action against Gaza, thereby sowing more hatred, misery, poverty and terrorism. The lowest estimate of civilian casualties of the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008/9 is 295; it is hard to obtain accurate figures. A further Israeli incursion was widely expected by observers in early 2012.

My friend Aharon Nathan, one of the few Israelis who knows and cares about Gaza (he established the civil authority there after the 1956 war), has a vision of Gaza as an independent state, a kind of Mediterranean Hong Kong or Dubai city state open to the world. Most Palestinians, though, feel that the West Bank and Gaza are part of the same nation and should be in the same state.  A Palestinian artist, Mohamed Abusal dreams of Gaza being like modern, peaceful metropolitan areas in the rest of the world and having a Metro system running underground, but all he could do was imagine a map and take his single iron pole with an ‘M’ insignia on the top to the locations he envisaged as station sites. It takes optimists of the calibre of Nathan and Abusal to look at Gaza and feel hope.


( image is the artwork of Mohamed Abusal

NEXT: Monopoly, Jerusalem style

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Yad Vashem

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YAD VASHEM (Friday 10 February)

Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

Yad Vashem is more than a museum. Physically, it reminded me of a campus university, set on a forested hillside on the edge of Jerusalem, and it is of course a centre of scholarship on the Holocaust as well as a museum, national shrine and place of pilgrimage. I had a brief, damp, wander around the garden of remembrance for the Righteous Among the Nations, paying my respects at the tree commemorating Oskar Schindler and noting one English name among them (Charles Coward, a brave soldier who helped 400 Jews escape Auschwitz and testified at Nuremberg). But the museum is a focal point, housed in a low concrete building the shape of a mutilated half-star of David.

Anything one writes about the Holocaust seems trite. Like any European with an ounce of intelligence or empathy, I have stared into this abyss before as a reader, and as a traveller I have been to Auschwitz, Stutthof, Babi Yar and other defiled places, and to Berlin’s museums and memorials. Yad Vashem is different in some ways, in that the ground it is built upon is not complicit in the evil of the Shoah but instead implies a kind of complicated redemption from that valley of death. As a museum it is of course fascinating and thoughtful. One of the first bits of museological design one comes across is a ditch across the main route of the exhibition containing contemporary copies of the forbidden literature burned by the Nazis on Opernplatz in Berlin in May 1933. It evokes the German-Jewish writer Heine’s amazingly prescient words of 1821:

Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen
(Wherever they burn books, they end up burning people)

Crossing the ditch of discarded books takes one to a realm of cruelty and degradation.

In the museum there were some artefacts of anti-Semitism I had not seen, or perhaps not registered, the like of which before – anti-Semitic board games from Nazi Germany and a nose-measuring tool so-called scientists used in racial classification, for instance. There was also some harrowing testimony from a survivor of the Sonderkommando, who had encountered evil cruelty at its most extreme. The terrifying singularity of the Aktion Reinhard ‘camps’ – although camp is a misnomer for these genocide factories – defies the imagination. How could these small places, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, run by human not demons, kill millions and then fade back into the countryside from which they emerged? Yet it happened, in my father’s lifetime. It’s somehow shocking that the birds still sing, that the stones do not cry out in horror and shame.

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Arafat Mausoleum, Ramallah

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Meeting Fatah (Wednesday 8 February)

Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

Previous: ‘Administrative detention’

On the trip, we were the fraternal guests of the Fatah political party, with whom we held several meetings in Ramallah. Fatah are secular nationalists, with Christians and Jews represented in its governing councils, and are therefore on the defensive in the politics of the Arab world, where Islamists seem to have all the momentum. In domestic ideology Fatah are social democrats. Fatah is a member party of the Socialist International and therefore has fraternal links with the British Labour Party, just as in Israel the Meretz Party do as a full member and the Labour Party do as an observer party. I had the feeling that Fatah, particularly its leaders such as Nabil Sha’ath, an impressive and charismatic man who would slot in naturally as a Foreign Minister or Prime Minister, are tired of the abnormal situation in Palestine.  They want to reach a position where politics is about the same sort of things it is about in most countries – taxation, public services and social justice. The party is not perfect by any means, but it is deserving of support, encouragement and engagement (the international community needs to show the moderates that they have friends) and it is the best hope of a better future in Palestine.

Fatah is a complex entity, a bit like the Sinn Fein of 1916-22 or even the democratic parties in the Weimar Republic which took politics to the streets. It is factionalised and it is operating in a violent political environment. Fatah is yet to have the Peter Mandelson red rose treatment. Its central organisations have rather old-fashioned names and it features crossed semi-automatic weapons on its emblem – although this is a bit reminiscent of the hard-line communist iconography one sees in symbols for pretty tame parties in Italy and France, who would probably not scare our own Liberal Democrats. Phases of its history are not particularly palatable, but one readily accepts ex-Communist parties in Eastern Europe as part of respectable politics, and Israel’s own leaders have in the past been part of unpleasant military actions (Rabin, Sharon) or outright terrorism (Shamir, Begin). Modern Fatah (‘New Fatah’ to continue the Mandelson metaphor) is an embattled social democratic party caught between the violent Islamists of Hamas and the intransigent right wing who currently run Israel. Its leaders seem to me to be regular, problem-solving politicians – in Thatcher’s terms ‘the sort of people I could do business with’ and here is the reason why I support their efforts and why they are having such difficulties. There needs to be a middle ground in which to operate, or a historic compromise between opposites, and it is hard to find either in Israel-Palestine.

I dislike Hamas. That much should be clear to all but the most deliberately obtuse reader already. Their ideology is extreme, violent and against personal freedom and proper social justice, and their tactics are not only counterproductive but morally wrong. Fatah supporters in Palestine think this too, and are all the more aware of it because they face the possibility of living under Hamas government. But making peace, it should be absolutely clear, often involves coming to agreement with people you dislike, and Hamas represents too big a part of Palestinian opinion to ignore. The problem with doing a peace deal with the reasonable people is that as soon as something goes wrong with the deal (and every process will have its difficult moments), the whole situation will unravel. This was the problem with the Sunningdale agreement in Northern Ireland in 1973. It did not include the extremes, i.e. the IRA or, more crucially, the DUP or the Loyalist paramilitaries. Therefore it collapsed. The fact that the DUP and Sinn Fein are running the new Northern Ireland settlement is helpful to its long term prospects. So, although it was frustrating and unpleasant at the time, was the way in which Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness moved slowly, and sometimes said things I did not like, but took nearly all the Republican movement with them, in contrast to previous leaders who had ordered the guns to fall silent and saw violent movements sprout from small seeds, again and again.

Palestinian elections are overdue. I hope Fatah win outright, but if they do not, I would urge people in the west and Israel not to throw up their hands in horror and reject the entire peace process. If there has to be a Grand Coalition between Fatah and Hamas, that has the advantage of binding more people into any agreement. There are parties in the Israeli coalition that are hostile to any idea of a Palestinian state and support loyalty tests and military aggression, but somehow their presence at talks is uncontroversial. It is reasonable to expect Hamas – as it was in the cases of Irish Republicans and indeed the ANC – to suspend violence during talks. But permanent renunciation may need to be left until after there is an agreement.

Hamas, according to the Palestinians I spoke to, is in theory committed to destroying Israel but in practice prepared to accept previous agreements (including Oslo, which recognises Israel). So if a section of Hamas can in practice stop violence and participate in talks it seems foolish or worse to put up barriers about symbols. Pragmatic Israeli Gadi Taub comments: ‘Let’s stop making peace a condition for ending the occupation. When peace is at stake, everyone has demands for ultimate and cosmic justice, so let’s settle on the pragmatic establishment of two states first and hopefully everyone will become more pragmatic about peace.’

It was said in Northern Ireland that the Good Friday Agreement was ‘Sunningdale for slow learners’; how about Oslo and Camp David, or a revised version of the 1947 partition plan,  for slow learners?

A symbol of what Palestine strives for was the square in the government area where the flags of all the countries that have given Palestine international recognition fly proudly. Many of the flags are of Arab and African states which recognised Palestine somewhat abstractly following Yasser Arafat’s declaration of independence in 1988, before the creation of the Palestinian Authority. There has recently been something of a second wave of recognitions, led by Latin American countries, with the result that Brazil gets a street named after it in Ramallah. Latin American recognition is on the basis of the pre-1967 boundaries, and alongside diplomatic recognition of Israel.

The only reason I can think of not to recognise the Palestinian Authority as a state is that it does not have sufficient control over its own territory and it is a structure created by what was intended to be an interim agreement in advance of a proper overall treaty. I am also a little wary that it would cement the idea in place that there is a dispute between equal parties, where the reality is that Israel is dominant. But apparently in international legal terms this is not a valid reason for withholding recognition.

I am tidy-minded, and there should be someone at the UN and internationally to speak for Gaza and the West Bank just as there is for everywhere else. A decent settlement will result in Palestine getting full recognition anyway. And to single the Palestinians out is invidious; the argument is often made in frankly racist terms that deny that Palestinians are entitled to be considered a nation. So recognising Palestine seems pretty sensible; particularly as the diplomatic process is log-jammed, let’s give it a shove.

We visited the Yasser Arafat Mausoleum, near the Presidency building in Ramallah. It is quite an austere and modest modern structure, although the Ramallah tomb is temporary because Arafat as a Jerusalemite wanted to be buried in his home city which Palestinians aspire to have as their national capital.


I felt a measure of diffidence at the Arafat tomb. I was wrong to do so, given how strongly I felt on the Friday paying my respects to his partner in the reluctant handshake of 1993, Yitzhak Rabin (LINK to Herzl). Arafat’s past, his hesitancy, his lenience with extremists, his failures of statesmanship, are all very plain, but life is a learning process and he learned from it, while setting the Palestinian Authority on a course towards international recognition as a state for the Palestinian people. We are close in time to Arafat’s faults, but he is still the founding father (I hope) of a nation’s political institutions, and nations are entitled to airbrush the memories of their founding fathers: Ataturk, Pilsudski, Venizelos, Ben-Gurion, De Valera and even Abraham Lincoln and George Washington were not always resolutely right in judgement and moral in conduct. Arafat is a symbol for the Palestinian people – not just of national self-determination but of national unity – and that is worthy of respect.

Next: Stoned Again: Ramallah Nights


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Street in Al-Amary camp, Ramallah

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‘Administrative detention’ (Wednesday 8 February)

Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

Previous: A tale of two townships

We spent Wednesday mostly in and around Ramallah, in one of the more formal days of the programme, seeing a bit more of the infrastructure of a – perhaps temporary – national capital emerging from a provincial town. Unlike some other new capitals like Chisinau, Bratislava or Tallinn, Ramallah does not inherit imposing state buildings but instead has had to build them in the last 20 years. The result is that the government areas of Ramallah are all marble, plazas and large windows, and look very much of our time. We visited the Al-Amary refugee camp in the morning, which was different from the new areas of Ramallah but perhaps not as different as I had pictured in my mind.

The term ‘refugee camp’ suggests a temporary settlement made of tents, but Al-Amary in Ramallah has long outgrown those roots. In the early 1950s UNRWA built rows of simple single storey structures, but few of these remain. Over the decades they have been built over and upwards and the result is a densely-populated urban neighbourhood based around a maze of alleyways. Some of the houses are shakily built out over the alleyways, and it looks inadvisable to shelter from a storm under them. Most of the residents now were born here, but their families come from Haifa, Lydda and Jaffa originally. It is not a rich place, but it has developed a strong community spirit as Al-Amary, and has one of Palestine’s best football teams. Politically, it is a Fatah stronghold and the local party is outward-looking, having developed links with France in particular.


A fair bit of the programme was with Fatah, but we also met a number of Non-Governmental Organisations working in Palestine, including advocates for prisoners ( in Arabic) children ( Arabic and English) and human rights and legal procedure ( English). Each briefing was in its own way profoundly depressing and enlightening. I won’t trudge through each of them now, but some of the findings are interspersed in other things I’ve written here and it is worth reading what they, and other organisations such as OCHA, have written and researched. There is a mass of evidence, which satisfies many international organisations, that even leaving aside the basic injustice of the occupation there are many things about the way it is being done which are wrongs in themselves.

For instance, it is difficult to get much sympathy for the rights of people in prison, and I must admit that I approached the question of Palestinian prisoners with some scepticism. But it is a serious matter, and criminal justice goes to the heart of the problems of life on the West Bank. People are quite simply not being treated fairly, and that discrimination runs along ethnic-political lines. One must first grasp the meaning of the phrase ‘administrative detention’. Its slight Orwellian ring is probably not an accident, as it is the product of British colonial law enforcement as practiced in the Palestine Mandate and in Burma by police officers including Orwell – a country whose rulers continue to use it against political opponents like Aung San Suu Kyi. ‘Administrative detention’ simply means locking people up without trial. It is usually a matter for the Israeli military, and there seems to be little to stop the six-month detention period being extended time after time. I had naively believed before I came to the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority had full control over at least the urban areas, but there are regular Israeli raids that result in people being arrested and being incarcerated by administrative detention, without their legal advisers having access to evidence.

Detention has very occasionally been used against Israeli citizens, usually for short periods, but it is overwhelmingly a tool of the occupation authorities to lock Palestinians up for indeterminate times. Some of the people locked up will be terrorists, but we do not know because there has not been a transparent legal process to prove it. Many will not be. In most democratic countries that have detention of some sort without trial, it is used as a last resort against a small number of people and hedged around with restriction and monitoring. But it is used on a large scale in the occupied territories, apparently in a routine fashion. In January 2012 there were 309 people in the Israeli prison system under administrative detention ( and an indeterminate number held by the Israeli military. This is the largest number since October 2009. The length of imprisonment can be very long – Israeli NGO B’Tselem recorded in 2009 that 26 people had been locked up for over 2 years, 93 between one and two years and 103 for between six months and a year. When confined in the Israeli prison system family visits are usually impossible – remember that you can’t travel without a permit? There have been several recent hunger strikes by Palestinians who have been subjected to administrative detention, which have occasionally been successful.

B’Tselem makes a powerful and disturbing point in showing that there are parallel legal systems in operation on the West Bank. Settlers – and indeed peace protesters coming over from Israel proper – are subject to Israeli law as if they were in Israel, which gives suspects the sort of rights that one would expect from a democratic country. Getting arrested is a hazard for Israeli leftists who go to demonstrations like Bi’lin, but it is the same sort of risk as one runs by getting involved in civil disobedience in many countries. Settlers tend to be treated even more leniently, even for violent crime. Palestinians are processed under occupation military law with its repressive features like administrative detention, and their lives subject to arbitrary state control. Settlers outside the East Jerusalem ring are also generally heavily armed and some have perpetrated violence and abuse of Palestinians with impunity. Palestinians attack settlers too, of course, but they are much weaker because they are not allowed weapons and they face the full force not just of the appropriate legal sanctions but the unfair application of occupation law.

The effect spreads wider than just the people who have been detained. It creates a climate of fear and uncertainty more generally. Another NGO working in the Palestinian Territories is DCI (Defence of Children International), which has compiled worrying evidence of the way the Israeli army is treating children in Palestine. There seem to be frequent midnight raids, indiscriminately carried out, utterly disproportionate to the offences alleged, and amounting in practice to abduction. I do not wish to minimise the fact that throwing stones is stupid and can hurt people, and parents and other people in the community generally try to discourage it. But the consequences are so grossly out of line with the offence – midnight abduction and perhaps 2 to 10 months in prison, probably deepening childish trouble-making attitudes into deep, hateful militancy in the process.

But it seems strange that people can get so worked up about children – by their nature not very responsible – throwing stones while heavily-armed soldiers firing plastic bullets into a crowd at a demonstration hardly rates a shrug. It does Israel’s defenders no credit at all to reflexively conflate perfectly valid human rights and international legal concerns with anti-Semitic prejudice or wishing the destruction of Israel. That is merely intellectual bullying. It is for true friends of Israel to tell their friend that she should act according her own and universal human values, and that the conduct of the occupation – and the occupation itself – are unacceptable. I know this is not a simple story, and that there is wrong on both sides, but I come back to the fact that there is such a gross imbalance in strength between the two sides and the principle that it is first the place of the stronger party to act with dignity and propriety. I know that Israelis are full of fear as well. But from seeing the other side of the Wall, it feels to many ordinary decent Palestinians that the occupation, in its harshness, arbitrariness and little inhumanities like the ploughing up of olive groves is another image from Orwell: a boot stamping repeatedly on a human face.

Next: Meeting Fatah

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Hillside at Anata

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A Tale of Two Townships (Tuesday 7 February)

Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Monopoly, Jerusalem style

Ma’ale Adummim reminded me of something out of a J.G. Ballard novel. It is a large settlement,  c more the size of a small New Town, built on top of a hill east of Jerusalem, and in many ways it is a nice place. Calling it the Israeli equivalent of Basildon would be an injustice; it is more like an American suburb with its large mall, looping roads and general air of comfort and prosperity. Fountains water the avenues and grass verges of the town and there are several large swimming pools. But, as in any Ballard novel, there are things one sees in the corner of one’s eye that are disturbing and do not fit, something sinister and deliberately blind in the town’s outward calm. The gnarled olive trees by the roundabouts are older the town, hinting at a different sort of place that existed previously. The swimming pools are jarring in the desert landscape – the profligacy with which Ma’ale Adummim uses up scarce water is astonishing. And if you look past the pool and the beautifully engineered highways and connector roads, you can see some small, shabby encampments on the hillsides. These are Bedouin ‘settlements’ of a very different order in the Israeli-controlled Area C of the West Bank; bleak clusters of makeshift dwellings lacking any obvious access to clean water or public services. An Italian NGO donated a school to one of these encampments, thoughtfully built with materials like tyres that can be easily reassembled if the Israeli army bulldozes the area. Before that, there was nothing.

Not far from Ma’ale Adummim there was another shocking contrast, in the form of the Palestinian town of Anata. In the map of the occupation, it is a bit of an anomaly – part in East Jerusalem, part in Area C, and therefore on the dividing line between second-class and third-class status. It is dusty and shabby, its roads bumpy and potholed; there are no swimming pools or fountains here and I would be loath to trust anything coming out of a tap. At one end of town is a small area on top of a hill, one of the most squalid places I have ever been. It was a cold, windy day, and it was utterly desolate.

For some reason – probably because a military base is directly across a valley from it – the place has attracted the repeated attentions of Israeli army bulldozers in the occupation version of planning control. Apparently the houses here are in breach of regulations – even though the aesthetic appeal of Anata is hardly impaired by another few jerry-built houses – and they have been the victims of selective enforcement. The hillside is littered with incongruous fragments of domesticity – a door handle here, a cabinet there – and the flimsy results of weary rebuilding of demolished structures.  Still, the householders were hospitable people and obviously keen to tell their story. Salim had worked abroad as a civil engineer and returned to Palestine only to become entrapped in the demolitions process, not surprisingly becoming an activist with ICAHD as a result.

NEXT: ‘Administrative detention’




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Settler house in Sheikh Jarrah

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Monopoly, Jerusalem style (Tuesday 7 February)

Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Maps and numbers: meeting OCHA

This was the day of the Greater Jerusalem tour. We had two guides, Kifah (from Fatah) and Inbar (from the Israeli peace movement), who undertook their roles in a mild spirit of peaceful rivalry. The tour was organised under the auspices of ICAHD, and anyone travelling to the area would be well advised to get in touch and go on one of their tours. On one level it is a mainstream tourist trip, on another it lifts the veil on some of the uglier realities of life in the Jerusalem metropolitan area.

The whole idea of a ‘Greater Jerusalem’ is a politically contested concept, another example of how municipal, national and international politics all overlap and blend together in Israel-Palestine. There is no such thing here as neutral town planning; everything has political and ethnic dimensions. There are basically six components of ‘Greater Jerusalem’:

  1. Israeli West Jerusalem which is within the 1949 boundaries of Israel. I did not spend a huge amount of time in West Jerusalem, but what I saw of it was a modern, prosperous international business city of office blocks, government institutions, plush hotels, shopping malls and residential suburbs.
  2. The Old City, an ineradicably multi-faith international zone whoever ends up with sovereign control of the place.
  3. ‘Arab East Jerusalem’ – the suburbs and inner city neighbourhoods that were the eastern part of the divided city between 1949 and 1967. There is a startling difference in atmosphere between East and West Jerusalem, despite the efforts of the authorities to eradicate it. Contemporary Palestine begins at the Damascus Gate (or perhaps a little way inside the Gate itself in reality) – the area is so obviously in an Arab city of mosques and churches and a loud, cosy chaos of small shops and market stalls. It is also tattier looking with bumpier roads and gets a worse deal from municipal spending than the prosperous West or the tourist-ridden Old City.
  4. What I might call ‘technical East Jerusalem’. The borders of the city were redrawn extremely widely after 1967, incorporating an arc of sparsely populated hilly territory into the city boundaries and therefore into direct annexation into Israel. This included a number of Palestinian agricultural villages,[1] but the main significance of this is that it created territory for the construction of…
  5. Jewish settlements built in East Jerusalem.
  6. Jerusalem outside the Wall. Some suburbs of East Jerusalem have been placed on the far side of the separation barrier and included for administrative purposes in the West Bank. One such is the town of Abu Dis (which has a strong link with my own London Borough of Camden), which was regarded as a part of greater Jerusalem historically and by the UN in 1948 but has been carved out of the current definition of the city.

All of these parts of the Jerusalem area are zones of conflict, except for West Jerusalem, and in our day with ICAHD we had an insight into all of them. The first thing to absorb about the situation in Jerusalem is that it is complicated. Jerusalem inherently generates complexity – how could it not? – but it also seems to this observer that the Israeli state, or those parts of it interested in extending its control as far as possible, deliberately creates complexity. The legal and administrative position of Palestinians within East Jerusalem is Kafkaesque, but because the situation bears a superficial resemblance to normal municipal processes and it is difficult to understand, it becomes confusing to analyse and pronounce and one runs the risk of getting an arcane detail of law wrong. That might involve me in mild embarrassment. But getting slight details wrong, or failing to prove something that is common knowledge, can lose people in East Jerusalem their houses.

Palestinian life in East Jerusalem is a bit like the losing stages of a game of Monopoly. Your opponent controls the Greens and Dark Blues, and has put hotels on them. You can get round the board but you have to be lucky, and if you are unlucky with a roll of the dice then you are clobbered and you may well have to leave the game. You have a few safe havens, but your hold on Old Kent Road will not protect you for long from the hazards you face as you try to survive.

There is a semblance of a legal process before municipal bulldozers move in and flatten someone’s house in East Jerusalem; there are fewer safeguards in Area C of the West Bank, where the Israeli military is responsible. Structures built without a permit have demolition orders served upon them following a legal process, and further notices before the bulldozers move in.  So far, this sounds a bit like a regular process, like the Dale Farm evictions in Essex. But beneath the veneer of legality there is a more arbitrary exercise of power going on. Because there have been four administrations in the area in the last century (Ottoman, British Mandate, Jordanian, Israeli) and three wars, proving ownership even of old-established structures is sometimes not easy. The documents for older property could be in the archives in Istanbul. You might have the money and connections to search for them, but let’s face it, the chances are you won’t. A building is guilty unless proven innocent. With newer structures, the municipal authority in Jerusalem is very slow to grant building permits (ICAHD estimates 50-100 a year to Palestinians in East Jerusalem), and given the natural increase in population this tends to result in people chancing it and building without a permit.

There are a few more wrinkles here. One is that there is a parallel system of fines for buildings without permits. One might expect that once a fine is paid – they are charged at a pretty high rate of a thousand shekels per square metre – then the illegal status of the building is purged and the landowner then has valid title. Not so. You can still get your house demolished even after paying the fine. Adding insult to injury, householders are charged for the costs of demolitions, leading some people to dismantle their own houses rather than face the municipal machine.

Perhaps the most insidious aspect is that huge numbers (ICAHD estimates 20,000 or so) of demolition orders have been processed and are outstanding in the East Jerusalem area. The threat of demolition therefore hangs over a significant proportion of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem, causing fear and uncertainty to the general population as well as the immediate hardship to people whose houses actually are demolished. The incidence of the bulldozers going in seems entirely arbitrary and unrelated to the length of time since demolition order or to the proposed alternative uses of the site. The photograph (below) shows a building that was demolished seven years ago. The heap of rubble blights the area, and serves as a warning to others not to take their homes for granted.


Another destabilising feature of life in East Jerusalem is the peculiar administrative status of the resident Palestinian population. Despite the proclaimed annexation of the territory, unlike Palestinians living within Israel proper (‘Israeli Arabs’) they are not citizens of Israel but live instead in a kind of stateless twilight. They have residence permits for East Jerusalem (valid only for East Jerusalem) which give them voting rights in municipal but not national elections. The Israeli authorities feel free to revoke residence permits on fairly sketchy grounds, which results in arbitrary deportation. While young Israelis, rather like Australians and Kiwis, can look at an extended period travelling and working around the world as a rite of passage, a Palestinian fortunate enough to do the same is taking a risk with his or her residence permit. As well as municipally approved snoopers, there are private busybodies motivated by ideology or greed looking out for any evidence that your ‘centre of life’ is not in Jerusalem.

Although probably the bulk of semi-plausible cases have been processed, another threat to property ownership emerges from history. In Israel proper including West Jerusalem the state effectively expropriated houses and farms from their owners under the Absent Property Law if those owners had fled in 1948, hence the number of refugees scattered around the Middle East and the powerful symbolism of the key for those Palestinian refugees. In Jerusalem in the panic and bloodshed of 1948-49 there was a ‘population exchange’ with East Jerusalem’s Jews going westwards and West Jerusalem’s non-Jews heading to the east. After 1967, there was an asymmetrical process by which Palestinian claims in the West were still barred but that Jewish claims in the East from the pre-1949 period would be honoured. Settlers have been adept at navigating the legal channels and have seized a number of houses through this mechanism.

A distressing example of this was in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood, a very central area of East Jerusalem. The legal circumstances are complicated but the human consequences are clear and brutal, as I saw personally. The United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (, as part of its analysis of the general situation in East Jerusalem focuses on the situation (see its Special Focus report, March 2011), and so do Palestinian and Israeli activists for justice. In most places, anti-social behaviour by young racist louts would be condemned and punished but in Sheikh Jarrah it has the protection of the authorities. Mrs Al-Kurd, a refugee who was housed in the area by the Jordanians, saw part of her family house previously occupied by her son taken over by settlers. These settlers were not a hard-pressed family, but young ideologues who shout abuse, scrawl obscene graffiti and generally harass an elderly woman who has to go past ‘their’ front door to come and go to her house.

Directly across the road, what should in other circumstances be symbols of Jewish religious observance – something spiritual, noble and dignified – have been turned into emblems of conquest and bullying.


The Old Testament is not an infallible guide to compassion and wisdom. But Deuteronomy 27.17: “Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour’s landmark” does seem appropriate.

NEXT: A Tale of Two Townships

[1] I am no linguist, but there are some words that seem to translate inexactly between Arabic and English, one of which is ‘village’, which does not have the English associations with small size and rural surroundings but can be used to refer to large urban neighbourhoods like Silwan. Another imperfectly translatable word seems to be ‘martyr’.

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CONSCIENCE AND POWER (Monday 6 February)

Posted on 03 April 2012 by admin

PREVIOUS: Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2)

We met councillor Meir Margalit for an early evening coffee back in West Jerusalem, not far from the ICAHD offices and the municipal government buildings. Like many progressive councillors back in the UK, he is having to implement policies he dislikes and run a kind of harm reduction strategy, but under pressures and constraints that few of us can imagine. After a political shake-up in the Jerusalem municipal government in July 2011, his party Meretz, which is on the far left of Israeli politics, has joined the municipal coalition and he has ended up with the responsibility for East Jerusalem. The dilemma of participating in government is to what extent the values of peace, justice and equality can be furthered by doing so; the active consciences of Meretz members ask them every day whether being within the coalition enables them to do good or merely makes them accomplices. Since joining the coalition, Meretz has tried to reform planning policy to make it fairer, more in accordance with the better Israeli traditions of rationality and more humane, rather as it was under the legendary Teddy Kollek, the mayor of Jerusalem before 1991.

Policy on demolitions obviously causes a great deal of pain. Knowing the process from the inside is necessary to rationalise it and allow more opportunity for appeals and legal challenges, but it is a hard thing to live with. Jerusalem, as Meir confirmed, is unequal. East Jerusalem gets much less than its fair share of municipal spending – about 8-9 per cent compared to around 37 per cent of population and a rather higher (we were quoted the figure 43 per cent elsewhere) contribution to the city’s revenues. East Jerusalem Palestinians pay their municipal taxes assiduously, as it is a good way of providing evidence of residency and thereby keeping the bulldozers from one’s door (see MONOPOLY JERUSALEM STYLE). The differential treatment of parts of the city is obvious from a casual inspection of the state of the streets and public services in East (outside the Old City) and West. Priority is given to connecting settlements to clean water and decent roads above any considerations shown to Palestinian neighbourhoods. There is an ideological and political purpose behind this, but it is less successful – says Margalit – than most Palestinians believe – far from driving them down to 22 per cent, the demographic planners seem to think that limiting the Palestinian share to 40 per cent is the maximum achievable restriction.

Meir Margalit’s own story is a revealing one. He grew up in Argentina, the son of Holocaust survivors, and his family wanted him to move to Israel once he had finished school; their fear of persecution had understandably come with them to the Argentina of Peron and the generals. Meir was injured in the October 1973 war and dates his political shift and his conclusion that the price of the Zionist vision was too high to that time, and he has been active with the peace movement and the political left through the 1990s. Peace-making Israelis – Rabin above all – have often come to their position via their deep understanding of the nature and meaning of war, not from armchair idealism. His political relationship with the religious element is interesting; while a secular party Meretz has been able to find some common ground on their scepticism about the Israeli state as it is constituted today, and about social issues. Finding unexpected points of contact with apparently hostile political forces is essential for a creative politician of the Israeli left. The Jerusalem coalition at least has at its head a Mayor, Nir Barkat, who is right-wing in terms of having a private sector business background rather than extreme religious views or a love of the security-industrial complex. He defeated an Orthodox candidate in the 2008 elections. Jerusalem depends on tourism and pilgrimage, and therefore on peace and co-existence, and it is a poorer city than Tel Aviv because of its much larger Palestinian population (with its high unemployment levels) and Orthodox community (because of their non-participation in the labour market and the state).

There is a common interest in peace, development and balancing the budget. Demolishing houses can be expensive, while legalising them is pretty cheap.  Jerusalem’s mayor has more in common with the embattled but creative Palestinian mayor of Hebron  than he may imagine. The linkage between justice for each community, peace and social justice is inescapable in Jerusalem, in a way that may not appear obvious in the less problematic, more superficially liberal city of Tel Aviv. It is also in Israel’s interests. Meir’s parents wanted him to live somewhere he would be safe as a Jew. But, as he says, “the paradox is that the only place where Jews are in danger is here.”

For myself, as a selfish traveller but one with an interest in the welfare of Jerusalem, I thought about the mid-priced hotel market. According to the Palestinian hotel association, the number of Palestinian hotels operating in Jerusalem has halved since 1967, while lavish new international complexes are opened in West Jerusalem. My modest proposal to the city authorities of Jerusalem would be to produce a strategy to develop once more a flourishing East Jerusalem small hotel and tourism sector, get permissive with building and redevelopment permits, and in doing so encourage the growth of an international, pro-peace Palestinian middle class in Jerusalem. Flying to Israel used to be a difficult matter, but now Easyjet go to Tel Aviv from Luton, Jet-2 fly from Manchester and numerous airlines from Eastern Europe also make the trip. Not everyone on cheap flights will just want to go to the beach and the nightclubs of Tel Aviv. How about it?

A complicating element of Jerusalem city politics is that the main Palestinian parties are strongly against participation in city elections, because their view is that it legitimises Israeli control of East Jerusalem and those voting are collaborators with the occupation. I can understand this view, but from my foreign point of view I do not share it. There may yet emerge, in a peaceful and just settlement, a city of Jerusalem authority that has some unique bi-national or international status even if sovereignty over the city is divided. That city government will almost certainly emerge from the existing municipality, so it seems to me that in principle there are grounds for arguing that voting in city elections is not really recognising Israeli control. In terms of raw pragmatism, the argument for voting is that it could make the difference between justice and injustice for the people of East Jerusalem in the short term and between a viable Palestinian state and its failure in the longer term. If people do not vote, then it is hardly surprising that any political system (including the UK’s) does not cater adequately to their interests. Voting would probably make East Jerusalem Palestinians the largest bloc in the city, able to insist on fair treatment in both its municipal and international dimensions. Pluralists only have a narrow majority over their opponents in the city with current voting patterns, and proper political representation for East Jerusalem seems to me would solve a number of problems. And it is an issue which is in the hands of Palestinians to solve, unlike many others where the power of the Israeli state dominates the process.

I confess that I found Meir Margalit extremely likeable, a gentle and wise person with a strong moral code who has been placed in a nearly impossible position. There is still a small space in Israeli politics for people like him, who say that the military-industrial emperor has no clothes. And that, I hope, will be the narrow opening that becomes the gateway to justice and peace.

NEXT: Maps and numbers: meeting OCHA

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