Archive | 2005

Election Night 2005 (5-6 May 2005)

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Election Night 2005 (5-6 May 2005)

Posted on 06 May 2005 by admin

The pitfalls of Sunderland South

In the last couple of elections, commentators have been caught unawares by the Sunderland result because has meant Labour’s total vote has been below expectations thanks to poor turnout. There are some more traps for the unwary in Sunderland this time.

If the Lib Dems pull into second here, it is not necessarily good news – that would be consistent with them adding votes where it does not help them win seats. Neither would an increase in Chris Mullin’s vote (19,921 last time) necessarily be good for Labour, as it would suggest that the party is doing well in its safe seats but perhaps not so well in the marginals.

Are the Lib Dems stalled?

The exit poll has found that the Lib Dems have not made much progress in terms of seats, and have seen less of a bounce in share of the vote than some of the more optimistic expectations for them made late in the campaign.

This is intriguing. It is quite possible that their share of the vote has gone up most where it can do them the least good, namely in seats with massive Labour majorities. Their national increase of four points might mask rises of 10 points in some places and a slippage of two in other places.

With Labour’s vote slipping, the most probable scenario is that gains in seats such as Cardiff Central and Bristol West have been cancelled out by Conservative gains in rural seats such as Devon West and Torridge.

This would be a logical result of the recent strategy of outflanking Labour to the left, but it would also mean that the party faces ab dilemma. Should it consolidate its recent gains from Labour (and write off some rural seats to the Tories), or would it be a mistake to read too much into a temporary reaction against Blair and Iraq which would be reversed in the next election?

The Lib Dem’s 52 seats in 2001 was a good result that strengthened Charles Kennedy’s leadership. 54 seats in 2005 would be very worrying, and pose all sorts of questions about strategy – and even leadership.

Sunderland South – now the facts

A swing of 4 per cent to the Conservatives is a pretty reasonable result for them here, although the surprise is that a swing this size has appeared in a safe Labour seat. This suggests two possibilities – maybe the exit poll has underestimated the swing, or perhaps the Conservatives are not overperforming in marginals as much as they might have done.

BBC commentators have referred to rumours that both Peterborough and Hornchurch are “too close to call”. They shouldn’t be; the Conservatives should win both seats easily for local reasons – in Peterborough, because of the weakness of the incumbant, in Hornchurch because it’s part of Essex.

Either someone’s spinning (surely not!) or the pattern of swings is not only uneven, but also falling in a most unexpected direction.

Three down, 643 to go

Three results from the fast-counting City of Sunderland.

Sunderland South’s Labour drop was a little less severe than in North (8%) or in Houghton and Washington East (9%); the vote fragmented all over the place except in Houghton where the Lib Dems picked up well.

If we see many more drops of this order, the exit poll looks optimistic for Labour. While a majority of 66 or so is manageable, 30 or less looks very dicey. Back in the 1970s, Labour governments with tiny or non-existent majorities had to negotiate with the (then radical) Tribune group almost as a separate party. Perhaps those days are here again?

They’re stereotypes because they’re true…

The BBC have reported a real, not metaphorical, fight between two candidates at a count. Guess where? Romford.

Swing, explained

Some people are puzzled about what election commentators mean when they talk about “swing”. Why do we say that there has been a swing of 4-5% from Labour to Conservative when the main movement so far has been from Labour to Lib Dem?

The answer is that “swing” is just a simple way of describing the net effect of all sorts of complex movements between the parties. It was devised in an era of two-party politics, when over 90% of people voted Labour or Conservatives and there were lots of “straight fights”.

Swing can be defined as the average of the percentage point loss for any party and the percentage point gain for another. The main movement may be between Lab and Lib Dem – but that is of interest only in determining a few seats. We tend to think about swing between Labour and Conservative because that determines the parliamentary majority.

My election bets

I’ve got a few interests to declare before stuff gets too busy. I’ve placed two sorts of bet this election – constituencies where I am pretty confident of the result, and some “insurance” bets that pay off on eventualities that I don’t really want to happen.

Most of the bets, even the insurance ones, are looking healthy:

Con win: Basingstoke, Boston & Skegness, Braintree, Devon West & Torridge, Enfield North, Forest of Dean, Guildford, Haltemprice & Howden, Hammersmith & Fulham, Harrow West, Isle of Wight, Monmouth, Northampton South, Peterborough, Selby, Wells and Wimbledon.

LD win: Birmingham Yardley, Bristol West, Cardiff Central, Leeds NW, Watford.

Lab win: Ynys Mon.

The insurance bets were a hung parliament (8/1), Con largest number of seats (10/1), Con 210+ seats (7/4), Con 23-25 seats in London (9/2) and Con 26+ seats (10/1). The last two are of course inconsistent with each other, so I can’t win them all, but it sounds like a majority will come off. How are other people’s flutters going?

Putney – a sign of things to come?

Most commentators had anticipated a pretty good result for the Conservatives in suburban London, and the first declaration suggests that this is happening. The Conservatives gained Putney with a 6% swing (a 4% increase in their vote and a steep drop in the Labour vote) – the first confirmed change of the night.

If Putney is typical, Labour’s majority has vanished. But it is something of an odd place, prepared to vote Conservative massively in elections for Wandsworth Council but share its favours with Labour at a national level for a while. The same goes for neighbouring Battersea – which should also declare soon.

Labour hold a marginal!

BBC have declared a Labour hold in Vale of Clwyd, Conservative target number 151, requiring a swing of nearly 9 per cent. The Conservatives also seem to have missed a very easy-looking SNP target, Angus. But this should be only a temporary blip to a pretty good night for the Conservatives.

Weirdness in Torbay

There’s at least one constituency where Labour’s vote is up – the Devon riviera town of Torbay. The rise came at the expense of the Lib Dems, who held the seat with a reduced majority over the Conservatives.

This is an unexpected variant on “tactical unwind”. In 1997 the Lib Dem candidate Adrian Sanders won by only 12 votes and put a merciless squeeze on the Labour vote in 2001 to boost his majority to 6,708. My guess is that it was harder to make the tactical argument when his majority looked so healthy.

The Conservative share, despite a high-profile campaign from Marcus Wood, was up only a shade. It’s hard to tell from this, because of the anomalous Labour vote, what the broader picture in the Con/Lib Dem marginals looks like.

Peterborough and Dudley – compare and contrast

This one sneaked through when we were all distracted by Peterborough (congratulations to Stewart Jackson, the new Conservative MP). The swing of 7% to the Conservatives was large, but this was one seat where it was expected because of Helen Clark’s controversial record and the strong Conservative organisation.

Labour held Dudley North with a swing of only 2.5% to the Conservatives, despite some Conservative efforts to talk up their chances in Dudley. The BNP got nearly 10 per cent. It just goes to show that this is a strange election that will keep analysts guessing.

Newbury and Cheadle – compare and contrast

The Conservatives have gained Newbury from the Lib Dems on a swing of 6%, a much more ominous result for the Lib Dems than Torbay. The Lib Dem majority had been eroding ever since David Rendell’s victory in the 1993 by-election.

In suburban Cheadle, Patsy Calton’s majority of 33 was hoisted to comfortable levels on a swing of 5% from the Conservatives. In 2001 a number of first-time incumbents scored good results, and it looks as if this should happen in 2005 as well.

2am: state of play

Everyone has been fighting very shy of making projections of the result, but Peter Snow bravely stepped up and said that the projection on the real results showed a Labour majority of 68.

This seems really odd, given quite what large swings have taken place in some of the Con-Lab marginal seats. I’d be more inclined to say Labour by 30, possibly even less, and a Labour majority of 46 would be a relief for the party.

Perhaps the reason is the abject failure so far of any kind of regional swing to the Conservatives in their designated battleground of the West Midlands. There was a low swing in Dudley North, a low swing in Birmingham Edgbaston, and even a low swing in Birmingham Northfield, the ground zero of the Longbridge collapse.

There seems to be a high swing in London, as predicted, but the Conservatives just missed a much-predicted gain in trendy Hove, despite a slippage of Labour votes to the Lib Dems. Further regional variations could well complicate the picture even more.

The swing to the Lib Dems in some of their battles with Labour is truly enormous – especially Dunbartonshire East, and the landmark gain of Hornsey and Wood Green, where Lynne Featherstone’s enormous investment of time and money has been rewarded.

Moment of smugness

All my constituency bets I’ve seen announced so far have come good – Cardiff Central, Birmingham Yardley, Peterborough, Wimbledon and Ynys Mon.

I’m posting this up now in case I’m imminently proved wrong somewhere else…

Barking – you said it

Margaret Hodge held the seat against a fragmented opposition. The most surprising fact is that the BNP fell only 28 votes short of taking second place from the Conservatives.

Explaining Labour’s London disaster

Labour have done disastrously in London, with Conservative gains in Putney, Wimbledon and Ilford North, now followed by a painful loss in the iconic seat of Enfield Southgate (scene of Stephen Twigg’s triumph over Michael Portillo in 1997) and likely also Bethnal Green and Bow, yet to announce.

With these going, it is hard to see some other seats such as Hornchurch, Bexleyheath, Enfield North, Finchley, Croydon Central, Hammersmith and Fulham being safe. Hornsey and Wood Green has gone, and Battersea hung by a thread.

But in the West Midlands Labour have held on extremely well in the often-volatile Black Country, and in West Yorkshire some marginals that often turn grumpy for Labour have stayed with them, Ann Cryer even managing a swing in her favour in Keighley.

Labour’s London disaster probably has several causes. It was already apparent in the 2002 local elections that there was a swing to the Conservatives in the outer suburbs such as Barnet. Why? There has probably been a pincer movement – some people responding to the Conservative message on crime and immigration, some people voting with their liberal consciences against Iraq.

New projection as Labour rallies

In the last hour or so as well as some stinging defeats like Enfield Southgate there have been some surprising Labour holds coming through such as Stourbridge (confirming Labour’s Black Country sweep), Brighton Kemptown and Dover. Labour also, astonishingly, won the crucial contest in Dumfries and Galloway where two sitting MPs fought it out after boundary changes.

I would now guess the Labour majority at over 50.

Conservatives doing well against Lib Dems

There are now a number of seats where the Conservatives have defeated Liberal Democrat incumbents – Weston-super-Mare, Newbury, Guildford and apparently Ludlow. They have also seen off challenges in Orpington, Surrey South West and Eastbourne. David Davis and Theresa May have both easily evaded “decapitation”.

I can now declare a Conservative victory in the battlefront against the Lib Dems. The seats the Lib Dems have done well against Conservative challenges have been ones they first gained in 2001 (Teignbridge, Dorset Mid and Poole North, Cheadle) where a first-time incumbent has received a personal boost. At the start of the campaign I had expected this battlefront to end honours even, but the Conservatives are clearly winning.

However, the Lib Dems should still increase their representation because of some astonishing gains against Labour, none more amazing than Manchester Withington where there was a 27% swing. The Lib Dem parliamentary party will now be more urban, and possibly more radical, than its predecessor.

Rare breeds

Wolves have been reintroduced in the Scottish Highlands, and another rare breed survives near the English border.

As in 2001, there will be a single Scottish Conservative MP. While Peter Duncan lost his seat at Dumfries and Galloway, David Mundell won the newly created and stupidly named seat of Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale.

Close shaves

Labour held the Kent seat of Sittingbourne and Sheppey with a majority of 79, despite the sitting MP Derek Wyatt having given up earlier in the evening.

This seat is the successor to the Faversham seat, which Labour held with incredibly narrow majorities throughout the Tory 1950s. From memory it was three majorities of under 1,000 in a row, and one of them was below 100. Good to see local traditions being maintained.

The new ultra-marginal is Somerton and Frome, where Lib Dem MP David Heath has enjoyed (if that be the word) three majorities of under 1,000 since his first victory in 1997.

Broken bellwether

Gravesham in Kent has voted with the winning party in every election since 1918, except for three. The first two exceptions are 1929 and 1951, when the winning party actually had fewer votes than the main opposition.

The third exception is 2005. The Conservative gain breaks Gravesham’s tradition of voting for the winner, although it might be said that Labour’s victory is a bit freakish because their share of the vote was so low. But it leaves us political commentators looking for a new seat to serve as a microcosm of Britain.

A new political map

As the night has gone on, every now and then there has been a constituency result that has made me splutter with surprise.

Who would have thought that Tim Collins in Westmorland and Lonsdale would be the only “decapitation” target to come off?

What odds could you have got on Labour holding Dorset South with an increased majority? (Although, to be fair, there wasn’t much room for a smaller majority).

Even those predicting a bad Labour showing in London would – wrongly – have said that Stephen Twigg would be fine in Enfield Southgate, but – just as wrongly – that the MPs in the Enfield North and Finchley and Golders Green seats would be toast.

How come Labour held Thanet South, and Stroud, but lost apparently safer seats elsewhere?

What has determined which rural seats the Lib Dems have held and lost in the battle with the Tories?

Most of my constituency bets have won: Basingstoke, Yardley, Boston, Braintree, Bristol West, Cardiff Central, Devon West, Guildford, Haltemprice, Hammersmith, Isle of Wight, Leeds North West, Monmouth, Northampton South, Peterborough, Wells, Wimbledon and Ynys Mon.

The losers are: Enfield North, Harrow West and Watford (just).

Forest of Dean and Selby still to come.

There is sufficient material to keep election analysts guessing for weeks and months. The results are incredibly diverse and complicated, and although the aggregate result is fairly close to what one might have expected, the detail allows no tidy explanation. There’s a lot of work to do before we can describe the new political map of Britain. I’m looking forward to it.

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Exit Poll Thoughts (5 May 2005)

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Exit Poll Thoughts (5 May 2005)

Posted on 05 May 2005 by admin

A Labour majority of 66 is a bit less than most commentators have predicted (although I have gone for 46 in an office sweepstake). Labour people throughout the day have been incredibly jittery about some seats which had rather large majorities in 2001. A national share of 37% to 33% for the Conservatives implies a swing of 2.5% but the BBC’s seat projection suggests a much higher swing to the Tories in the marginals – perhaps 3.5 or 4 per cent.

The Liberal Democrats will be a bit disappointed to see their national share at 22 per cent with a net gain of only a couple of seats, but their vote is likely to be even more variable and difficult to predict than the share for the two main parties. The projection suggests one of two things has happened – either that the much anticipated strong swing to the Lib Dems in intellectual middle class constituencies (more to follow on this later) has not happened, or that it has been cancelled out by significant Conservative gains from the Lib Dems.

Of course, the 10pm figures might not be final – people keep voting until 10pm, and the late votes might tweak the figures up or down a bit.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/election2005blog/2005/may/05/exitpoll

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A print-out-and-keep guide to election night (May 4 2005)

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A print-out-and-keep guide to election night (May 4 2005)

Posted on 04 May 2005 by admin

Lewis Baston talks you through the key results to watch out for from the moment the polls close into late Friday afternoon.

Thursday, 10pm

Polling stations around the country close. The broadcasters reveal the results of their exit polls and offer their projections of the national result. Exit polls are very expensive and sophisticated and – at least in 1997 and 2001 – have been pretty reliable. However, their forecast of a hung parliament in 1992 proved to be wide of the mark. Don’t go to bed yet, even if the forecasts are for a large Labour majority – at one stage the BBC’s computer projected a Labour majority of 144 in October 1974 and the actual result was a majority of 3.

10.45pm

After 45 minutes of pretending not to respond to the exit polls, politicians will be desperate for something else to talk about on the election night television coverage. Help is at hand. Sunderland City Council takes pride in announcing the first election result in the country, to the extent of employing teams of counters and (in 2001) rigging traffic lights to ensure that the vans carrying the ballot boxes reached the count centre as quickly as possible. Sunderland South was announced at 10.46pm last time. Labour’s Chris Mullin should win again, but the swing and the turnout should be a hint as to how the national battle is going. Turnout here in 2001 was only 48.3%, 11 points lower than the national rate of 59.4% (the gap was 12 points in 1997). If Mullin’s vote is under 17,000 (it was 19,921 in 2001 and 27,174 in 1997), either Labour is not doing well or turnout has slumped again – or both.

11.30pm

The other Sunderland counts should also be over and reveal predictable Labour majorities. A few other seats, none of them exciting, will have declared, and for those who are less than committed to election night television it is quite safe to go to the pub and get back home at about this time. You will not have missed much.

11.45pm

The first interesting declaration should be made at Torbay. Lib Dem Adrian Sanders gained the self-styled Riviera seat by only 12 votes over the Conservatives in 1997, but held it with a resounding margin of 6,708 in 2001. If the Conservative contender Marcus Wood has won, or got close, this would signify a bad defeat for the Lib Dems in the south-western marginals, and a good night for the Conservatives.

Friday, midnight

Another clutch of Labour holds should be announced at around midnight, including Alan Milburn at Darlington. If the Conservatives have gained Derbyshire South or Halifax from Labour, they are heading for an astonishing surprise victory and possibly even an overall majority in parliament. A more feasible target is Birmingham Edgbaston, Labour’s first televised gain in 1997, where Gisela Stuart defends a 4,698 majority against Conservative candidate Deirdre Alder. A Conservative win here, in their 102nd target seat, would point towards a Labour performance poor enough to lose the overall majority in parliament.

12.30am

The flow of constituency results will have started to quicken. Along with some more Labour holds, there are some key marginals coming out at around this time, including the hotly contested south-west London seats of Battersea and Putney, both Labour gains in 1997. If Labour hold both, there will probably be a reasonable Labour majority in the new parliament; if either or both go blue the Conservatives’ hoped-for London revival will have arrived, after dismal defeats in the capital in 1997 and 2001. In marginal Wolverhampton South West, currently held by Labour’s Rob Marris, Sandip Verma is challenging for the Conservatives – if elected, she will be rather different from previous MPs Enoch Powell and Nicholas Budgen. Hull East is not a marginal by any definition, but John Prescott’s victory speech should be worth watching.

12.45am

Two key constituencies to be announced are Birmingham Yardley, where the Lib Dems are very confident of gaining the seat from Labour, and the Kent seaside marginal of Thanet South. If Labour has held on in Thanet South, or lost by under 1,000, Tony Blair will be surprised and delighted – Labour would be on course for another landslide win.

1am

Results are now coming in thick and fast. In 1997 there was a succession of astonishing Labour gains which could only be briefly noted by a red bar at the bottom of the TV screen. One of the few conceivable Labour gains of 2005 will come out at around this time, namely Brent East, where Lib Dem Sarah Teather defends her byelection gain of 2003. There is further Lib Dem interest in Bournemouth East, a long-shot for a gain from the Conservatives which, if it happens, may presage a broad Lib Dem advance; and Cheadle, where Lib Dem Patsy Calton will be looking to build on her majority of 33 votes, the smallest in the country in 2001. There are some more conventional marginals announced at this time as well, such as Calder Valley, Derby North, Portsmouth North, Ilford North, and Peterborough – Labour holds in all five would show a third landslide, although the party can afford to lose the last two of these seats and still be comfortably ahead. Several senior Labour figures should also see their results announced, including Robin Cook (Livingston), Ruth Kelly (Bolton West) and Jack Straw (Blackburn); if either Kelly or Straw have lost it would be very wounding for Labour.

1.15am

Tony Blair’s own count at Sedgefield should be completed. Defeat for the prime minister is extremely unlikely, despite an impassioned anti-war challenge from Reg Keys, whose son was killed in Iraq. By the time he steps up to the podium to speak, he will have a pretty good idea of how the national contest will have gone – whether he still has a majority in the Commons and if so how large it is, to within about 10 seats either way.

1.30am

Basildon will declare about now – it would be an even greater shock for Labour to lose out than it was in 1992. The Conservatives have targeted Dudley North and Dudley South despite their large Labour majorities –if either or both fall, Labour’s majority will have disappeared and the Tories may even be the largest party in the new parliament. The two Swindon constituencies are similar – apparently comfortably Labour held but volatile seats. The BNP leader Nick Griffin is standing in marginal Keighley but the main battle is still between Labour and the Conservatives. The interesting three-way marginal of Leeds North West may see the Lib Dems vault from third to first, in a seat with thousands of student voters – it might coincide with their London target Hornsey and Wood Green. These two results should indicate what success the Lib Dems have enjoyed in capitalising on liberal-left dissatisfaction with Labour. David Blunkett (Sheffield Brightside) and Lembit Opik (Montgomeryshire) should be back in parliament, but Theresa May (Maidenhead) might not – this is the first to declare of the Lib Dem “decapitation” targets on members of the Tory front bench.

2am

The flow of results is probably at its peak. In the grudge match between Oona King and George Galloway in Bethnal Green and Bow, the Conservatives also have some hopes of slipping through the middle. The count could be lively. The marginal seat of Gravesham in Kent has been won by the party that has gone on to form the government in 23 of the 25 elections since 1918; we will see about now whether it can still claim to be Britain’s most reliable bellwether. There are some potentially fascinating and odd constituency results due. In Harwich, Labour will hope that a strong Ukip vote will stymie the Conservatives yet again in this naturally right-of-centre seat; the Conservatives in Hove and Wimbledon will be hoping that a trend in favour of Greens and Lib Dems hands them these naturally left-of-centre seats. David Davis defends Haltemprice and Howden; if the Conservatives do very badly, he loses the seat, but if the Conservatives do slightly less badly than that, he stands to gain the Conservative leadership.

2.30am

While the national picture should be very clear by now, there are still some intriguing oddball results to be declared. If the Green Party were to win any seat in Britain, it would be Brighton Pavilion; if the BNP were to win anywhere it would probably be in Dewsbury, a town with a reputation for poor race relations where the two main party candidates are both from ethnic minorities. Birmingham Sparkbrook and Small Heath is the most Muslim constituency in Britain; while Labour’s majority is mountainous the Lib Dems may have some momentum, particularly after the election fraud case. Wyre Forest’s Independent MP, Dr Richard Taylor, whose triumph was one of the eye-catching results in 2001, defends his seat.

3am

Two more three-way marginals declare, at Bristol West and Watford. Alistair Darling should win the new seat of Edinburgh South West, but if Labour are having a Scottish disaster he might be threatened. Stephen Twigg also defends Enfield Southgate, and Tim Collins should fight off the Lib Dems in Westmorland and Lonsdale.

3.30am

The result should come in from Oliver Letwin’s constituency of Dorset West, the veritable Place de la Concorde among the Lib Dems’ “decapitation” targets. The shadow chancellor has worked himself to the bone defending this marginal against Justine McGuinness, and will now know whether he has survived.

3.45am

Charles Kennedy’s rural acres of Ross, Skye and Lochaber will surely give him another term, as it has since 1983, half Kennedy’s lifetime ago. The Liberal Democrat leader will know by now whether his party has made significant advances or not.

4am

Conservative leader Michael Howard learns what the electorate of his own constituency, Folkestone and Hythe, thinks of him. Despite some Lib Dem hopes to the contrary, locally he should win comfortably whatever happens nationally. If the Conservatives have won a surprise national victory, expect cheering hordes of Tories to have descended on Folkestone. There are not too many other seats left at this stage, although there are a couple of interesting Lib Dem v Labour fights in Cambridge and Islington South and Finsbury. Labour defend their narrowest majority (153 votes) at Dorset South, against amateur photo-editor Ed Matts, and Boris Johnson should emerge dishevelled, weary and triumphant at Henley. 4.30am

There are a few marginals left to be scraped from the barrel, but unless Labour have enjoyed another national landslide Conservative gains can be more or less taken for granted at Lancaster and Wyre and Kettering.

6am

Only the real die-hards, and people with a personal stake in the matter, will still be watching when two safe Conservative seats, Wealden and Penrith and the Border, wearily declare their results as Friday dawns.

Friday, daytime

No results from Northern Ireland will be declared overnight; the count here starts on Friday morning. Several of the counts will be very fraught affairs, including Upper Bann, where the UUP leader, David Trimble, will hear if he has fought off the challenge of the DUP. Sinn Féin won the hard-fought four way marginal of Fermanagh and South Tyrone in 2001 by a disputed 53-vote margin, and politics there is always tense.

There used to be several hundred mainland results declared on the Friday, but now there are a handful, mostly in rural areas which are safe for the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats. The last British marginal to declare is expected to be Harlow in Essex, where Oliver Letwin’s chief of staff, Robert Halfon, takes on Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell. But Harlow might not be the end of it. There is a statistical likelihood of a very close (50 votes or fewer) result somewhere in the country, and that would probably mean a series of recounts. The count in Winchester in 1997 was not completed until Friday evening, when Lib Dem Mark Oaten was declared elected by 2 votes.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/may/04/election2005.uk

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Who Governs? (4 April 2005)

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Who Governs? (4 April 2005)

Posted on 04 April 2005 by admin

Lewis Baston describes one of the most turbulent years in British politics, which saw two closely-fought elections delivering a blow from which the two-party system has never recovered. Originally published 4th April 2005

1974 was arguably the most dramatic year in modern British politics. As well as two elections there was the three-day week, corruption scandals, shadowy plots against the prime minister, a financial crisis, IRA bombings in England and a general strike in Northern Ireland. It began with a strike by the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, whose bargaining position had become even stronger because of the steep rise in the oil price; in order to preserve fuel supplies the Conservative government of Edward Heath imposed a three-day working week. After some hesitation (many Conservatives believe that they could have won an election in early February), Heath called an election for February 28 with the intention of strengthening his hand against the unions. ‘Who Governs?’ asked the Conservatives, a question whose implications were more ambiguous than they intended.

The Conservatives found it impossible to sustain the focus on the ‘Who Governs?’ issue throughout the campaign. Harold Wilson, working closely with pollster Bob Worcester of Mori, fought an astutely negative campaign, stressing the Heath government’s poor record on inflation, housing and pensions. At the start of the campaign the Conservatives seemed well ahead but the gap narrowed and the luck of the campaign was against them. Trade figures many times worse than those of 1970 were published. Their industrial relations policy was undermined by the director of the CBI and new evidence on miners’ pay. The worst blow was when Enoch Powell advised voters to support Labour and announced that he had cast his own vote for the party because of its commitment to a referendum on Europe. It seems that many voters in the West Midlands followed his advice, as the pro-Labour swing there was particularly strong.

The election results were complex. Turnout (78.7%) was the highest since 1959 and has not been bettered since. The votes for both the Conservatives and Labour slumped while the Liberals, Scottish National party, Plaid Cymru and even Independents did well (winning Lincoln and Blyth). The combined Tory and Labour share of the vote fell from 89.4% in 1970 to 75% in 1974; in votes at least, the two-party system suffered a blow from which it has not recovered. Despite this, the smaller parties received few seats, with only 14 Liberals elected on 19.3% of the vote. Proportional representation was much discussed after the elections of 1974.

The February election was a disaster in Northern Ireland. The unionist opponents of the power-sharing executive that governed under the Sunningdale agreement won 11 out of the 12 parliamentary seats, although with only 51% of the vote. They regarded this as legitimising the overthrow of Sunningdale, which took place with a general strike in May 1974. It took another 24 years to restore devolved government in the province.

The February 1974 election produced the first (and so far only) “hung parliament” since 1929. It was not clear until late on in the count that Labour were just ahead with 301 seats to 297 for the Tories (who had actually polled rather more votes). Edward Heath stayed in Downing Street over the weekend and attempted to come to an agreement with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe, but the negotiations were not successful and on Monday evening Heath resigned and Wilson formed a minority government.

The February parliament could not last for long, and there was a short and turbulent sitting of parliament (among other business, the Register of Members’ Interests was established by a resolution of May 1974). The Labour government published a succession of white papers, essentially advertising the policies it hoped to implement once it had a majority. It was no surprise when Wilson announced in September 1974 that parliament would be dissolved and there would be a second election.

The October election was, like many sequels, rather disappointing. The extended campaign was much less interesting than February’s short burst, and was enlivened mainly by Thorpe’s hovercraft trip along the south coast in search of votes in marginal seaside resorts. But the wind and the rain spoiled the photo opportunities and grounded Thorpe’s hovercraft. It was an irresistible metaphor for the deflation of Liberal hopes after the excitement of February. Labour stressed the competence of their leadership and the “social contract” with the trade unions, while the Conservatives struck a new note by offering to create a “government of national unity” even if they had an overall majority.

The result was also disappointing for almost everyone. Only the Scottish Nationalists had cause for much celebration, their 11 seats and 30.4% of the Scottish vote being their high water mark. However, Labour’s U-turn on devolution between the two elections was enough to protect most of the Labour heartland in the central belt from Nationalist incursions. The devolution project used up inordinate amounts of parliamentary time in the late 1970s but came to nothing with the referendums in March 1979. The Liberals ended up winning one more seat but losing two. Labour had won their overall majority, but by a tiny margin of three seats and with less than 40% of the vote. The Conservatives managed to cling on in many of their vulnerable marginals such as Northampton South: a uniform swing in England and Wales would have given Wilson a majority of perhaps 25. Heath’s achievement in minimising Tory losses won him little thanks. He was ousted from the leadership four months later. His 277-strong Tory parliamentary delegation was the platform his successor, Margaret Thatcher, used to bring down the Labour government in the March 1979 confidence vote.

Labour’s narrow victory and the turbulent economic circumstances meant that it was impossible to implement the radical manifesto, even if Wilson had wanted to. This was seen by many on the left as betrayal, and there were bitter recriminations that tore the party apart until Neil Kinnock imposed peace after 1983. Perhaps 1974 was, in hindsight, a good election for the Conservatives to lose and an unlucky victory for Labour. However, the most lasting legacy of the 1974 elections has been the eclipse of the two-party system; since then, voters disenchanted with either of the major parties do not necessarily flock to the arms of the principal opposition.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/apr/04/electionspast.past9

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