Archive | 2006

Breaking the southern mould (8 November 2006)

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Breaking the southern mould (8 November 2006)

Posted on 08 November 2006 by admin

For the first time since the early 1950s the majority party in the House of Representatives will be the minority party in the south.

The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives elected in 2006 will be a historic turning point. For the first time since the early 1950s the majority party in the House will be the minority party in the south.

In the five deep south states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina) the Republicans still dominate with 23 seats to 12 Democrats and two still counting razor’s-edge margins. No seats went from Republican to Democrat, and the two toss-up seats were both defended by Democrat incumbents in Georgia. Taking the south and border states up to Virginia and Missouri, the Republicans still lead 79 to 50, not counting the two Georgia undecided seats. The Democrats have only gained five seats in the extended region, and two of them in rather special circumstances (in TX-22 and FL-16 discredited Republican incumbents Tom DeLay and Mark Foley stayed on the ballot despite being replaced as candidates). There were clear gains only in a heavily Democrat-leaning Florida district (expatriated north-easterners) and one each in Kentucky and North Carolina.

The bulk of the Democrats’ gains came in the north-east, where the results in some seats were startling – the party swept both New Hampshire seats, including NH-1 where they had mounted only the most rudimentary campaign. Pennsylvania may well contribute more net gains than the whole of the south. In the process – and some results are still agonisingly close – they have knocked out many of the endangered species that is the Republican moderate, such as Nancy Johnson in Connecticut and Jim Leach – apparently – in Iowa.

The 2006 revolution may be the Democrats’ answer to the 1994 election, which completed the south’s Republican realignment. Many of the surviving Republicans in the north-east are defending very narrow majorities and their incumbents may decide to call it a day now that the party is in the minority – opening up more seats for the Democrats in 2008 just as happened in reverse in the south in 1994-96. As in Presidential elections, two solid blocs of Democrat blue in the north-east and Republican red in the south will face each other. The contested areas will be elsewhere, in the Mountain west, the south-west and the upper mid-west.

2006 may therefore be the beginning of the end of the American political world’s obeisance to the south, which after all is only one region among several in the country. It is now, in general, loyal to any Republican no matter how extreme or unsatisfactory (even in borderland Virginia, George Allen is in recount territory for the Senate seat). I have never understood why “Massachusetts liberal” seems to be an acceptable term of abuse while “Texas conservative” (which to me summons up an image of cronyism, arrogance and being bought by big business interests) is not. If the new House (and the still-to-be decided Senate) owe the south no favours, that really will be a radical change in the way politics is done.

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Farewell new dawns (26 July 2006)

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Farewell new dawns (26 July 2006)

Posted on 26 July 2006 by admin

Daytime election counts might make sense but we will miss the surprises and suspense of election night.

The elections minister, Bridget Prentice, has announced that election night may be cancelled in future. This is not some dastardly scheme to abolish democracy, but a possible consequence of recent reforms to make postal voting more secure. Much as it pains me to concede the point, it makes a lot of sense. Accuracy is better than speed, and it is important that only valid ballot papers are used to calculate the result – the time taken to verify signatures on postal vote returns is a small sacrifice for greater security. Delaying the count until the next day will also mean that counting staff are fresh and better able to do their job without making mistakes. In a close election, this could prevent some recounts, saving time and money.

And yet … there is something very satisfying about the ritual of election night even in a dull election like 2001, and for political excitement a close or surprising election night like 1992 cannot be matched. First come the exit polls, then the straws in the wind that are the early declaring seats, and then the tidal rush of results as the final pattern becomes clear. Election nights are demanding for politicians and broadcasters and the public sometimes sees both at their best and most candid while they react to unfolding events. I fondly recall Cecil Parkinson’s gallows humour in 1997 (on hearing that the results declared were something like 180 Labour to 2 Conservative, he said: “Oh good, now we can have a leadership election”), and Michael Portillo realising that one of the benefits of losing his seat was not having to answer Jeremy Paxman’s questions.

While tired and emotional (in the literal and sometimes in the euphemistic sense) the truth sometimes slips out. There is something of the late night about absorbing electoral defeat or victory – it will look very different in the harsh light of early Friday afternoon. That clear, beautiful dawn of May 2 1997, the light gradually spilling over the Royal Festival Hall as Labour’s leaders took in the scale of the triumph, dancing deliriously (and badly) was an essential part of that election.

For the observer it will also change. As well as watching the unguarded moments of the politicians, the occasional broadcasting slip-up, and the spectacular computer graphics, election night can be a fine party for the interested but not deeply committed. It will just not be the same watching the results in a little pop-up window on the computer at work, as if it were some sort of desultory Test match. The exit polls will get more important, as they will be all the electorate, and the financial markets, will have for over 12 hours.

Daylight election results can be interesting. In 1950 a lot of results were declared during the day on Friday and crowds in Trafalgar Square followed the “battle of the gap” on screens as the Conservatives whittled down Labour’s overnight lead. That said, 84% of the electorate voted in 1950 compared to only 61% in 2005, and getting people interested in elections is more important than making the results service entertaining. I doubt it will make much difference to voters, but to the candidates in an agonising state of suspense, and to election buffs, daytime counts just wouldn’t be the same. I would certainly miss the Night of the Long Anoraks.

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Unhappy numbers (30 June 2006)

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Unhappy numbers (30 June 2006)

Posted on 30 June 2006 by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The mantles of Nye and Mac (28 June 2006)

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The mantles of Nye and Mac (28 June 2006)

Posted on 28 June 2006 by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cancelled Czechs (23 June 2006)

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Cancelled Czechs (23 June 2006)

Posted on 23 June 2006 by admin

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

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

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

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Post-Blair, but not quite convinced of Cameron (5 May 2006)

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Post-Blair, but not quite convinced of Cameron (5 May 2006)

Posted on 05 May 2006 by admin

The electorate is in volatile mood and even three-party politics is now looking distinctly passé.

It has been so long since the Conservatives had a good election result that it takes a little time to recognise it for what it is. Their total of gains, at 273 seats and counting, is at the upper end of expectations for the party, and they polled quite convincingly in a range of different local elections from Plymouth to Bury as well as in London.

They did well enough to wrest control of a larger haul of councils than they can have hoped for. Conservative satisfaction must be all the greater because of the uncanny symmetry with which their gains mirror Labour’s losses.

In the last few rounds of local elections Labour have tended to slip back, but the spoils have been shared between the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and a variety of minor parties and independents. Labour’s losses are a little less than what I predicted before the elections, mostly because there was much more give and take between Labour and Lib Dem than I had bargained for. For every Labour calamity in, for instance, Lewisham, there was Lambeth to balance it up; and the party also made gains rather than losses vis-à-vis the Lib Dems in the northern cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield.

While in the northern metropolitan boroughs and some of the shire districts Labour were resilient and even improved on their result in 2004, in London the swing went further than merely catching up with what had happened in the rest of the country between 2002 and 2004. Labour’s terrible results in parts of London should be deeply worrying to the party. There is not even the excuse of low turnout, as turnout was significantly up on 2002 and in some areas where Labour took a terrible beating (like Bexley) the increase was above average.

The electoral landscape is starting to look distinctly post-Blair. In the very areas where electors responded so warmly to shiny New Labour in 1997 and 2001, they have turned away in droves in 2006. A scary result for Labour outside London was the runaway success of the Conservatives in the borough elections in Swindon, a town with two close-fought marginal parliamentary seats.

But the London suburbs were the most dramatic illustration of the trend. Harrow has been a close fight in the last couple of borough elections, but the Conservatives won by miles this year. In Ealing, Labour’s most shocking loss, there was a 10 per cent swing to the Conservatives, who regained control of a borough some had privately believed to be beyond them permanently thanks to demographic change.

This was even bigger than the 8.5% swing in the thoroughly anticipated Conservative gain in the gentrifying borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. Ealing topped their four gains from Labour and three from no overall control (for the loss only of Richmond to the Lib Dems) to put the Tories in control of exactly half the London boroughs, not quite where they were in their last good London borough election year in 1982.

Back in the 1980s when Labour’s image was poor in London and the party had trouble winning elections, Labour’s local authorities contributed a lot to the damage. It was not so much the well-advertised and often entirely fictional ‘loony left’ excesses, but the general feeling that Labour was not capable of running a local authority efficiently and in the interests of local residents. High local taxes and poor services were not an attractive mix and the national party leadership was keen to distance itself from the boroughs.

Patricia Hewitt, in her capacity as one of Neil Kinnock’s senior advisers, wrote in 1987 that London local government’s policies “were costing us dear among the pensioners”. This must have raised a bitter smile from a few dispossessed London Labour councillors today. In this campaign, Labour’s borough councils felt rather proud of their record, and were brought low by the sorry display put on by the national government.

While Labour weren’t on course for a triumph before the government fell into disarray, it may well have made the difference between holding on and losing in Merton and possibly Croydon, and dashed any chance of a surprise pick-up in Enfield.

While suburban London politics is reasonably straightforward, the politics of inner city London is contradictory and complex. Voters in some authorities such as Lambeth and Islington seem to be short of patience – in Lambeth Labour felt surprised and rather hurt to lose control in 2002, only for their Lib Dem successors to feel the same now. Camden, and more surprisingly Lewisham, chucked out reasonably successful Labour authorities. One of the small band of Lib Dems previously on the council in Lewisham is Councillor Harry Potter, but Labour had obviously missed a lesson or two in Defence Against the Dark (Electioneering) Arts.

In Tower Hamlets there was a most peculiar result, with Labour (subject to recounts) looking on course to retain control having lost seats to the Conservatives and Respect, and picked them up from the Lib Dems. Results from Hackney are slow in arriving, but it is a borough that has produced more than its share of weird results in the past. The Green Party is becoming established in parts of inner London, particularly Lewisham where Darren Johnson, their only councillor in 2002, is joined by five colleagues. Less obvious is the steady 10 per cent or more of the vote Green candidates polled across boroughs such as Camden and Lambeth.

The Greens are a far more successful minor party than the BNP, but have so far attracted less attention. They fought on a much broader front, while the BNP is a highly localised force that comes and goes. In its stamping grounds of a few years ago, Burnley and Oldham, it has faded away (after considerable anti-fascist campaigning by opponents), while it has flared up in Barking & Dagenham and West Yorkshire more recently. By contrast, the Greens have staying power and have elected effective and durable councillors.

Local elections can provide interesting straws in the wind. The final collapse of the Liberals as a party of government in the first quarter of the 20th Century started in local elections. The continuing decay of the party system is most apparent in some florid examples in local government. The West Yorkshire borough of Kirklees has once again (as it did in 2004) refused to award any party a higher share of the vote than 25 per cent – its politics is a kaleidoscopic mix of Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green and BNP. Its wards have delivered surprise after surprise as the votes have been counted, with hardly any local politician resting securely.

An additional element this time was the success of a “Save Huddersfield NHS” candidate in one ward, making Kirklees a six-party system. Hospital campaigners also got elected in some hitherto safe Conservative wards in Enfield and the appeal of purely local politics seems to be growing.

The Liberal Democrats have carved out a niche in politics as the party par excellence of local government, but the 2006 results put this into question. In previous rounds of local elections they have tended to outperform uniform swing and most people’s expectations before the result, but this time they have fallen short (despite their high share of the vote). They failed to take relatively easy target councils in Portsmouth and Bristol, and where they held power (or had recently held power) they tended to do badly. With the Conservatives apparently restored to acceptability as an alternative for voters cross with Labour, the Lib Dems must show more dynamism and strategic vision.

The 2006 elections hint at a revival of an older political geography, with the Conservatives gaining in their suburban areas of former strength and Labour holding up better in its most traditional areas of support. It is perhaps not surprising that a civilised west London liberal Tory like Cameron struck a chord in a swathe of metropolitan suburbia, but did little for his party in earthier parts of England like Gosport or Thurrock.

Perhaps the 2009 election will resemble the patterns of 1992 or 1974 more than it does the rather classless electoral landscape of 2001. But despite the Conservatives’ promising results last night, there is no sign that the electorate has any nostalgia for two party politics, and even three party politics now seems distinctly passé. The electorate seems volatile, grumpy and unconvinced, but has given Cameron more cause for encouragement than it ever did for his three luckless predecessors.

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How low can they go? (2 May 2006)

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How low can they go? (2 May 2006)

Posted on 02 May 2006 by admin

A Labour rout on Thursday may owe more to the disillusion of its voters than a surge to the opposition. The thing to watch for is turnout.

Labour councillors nervously anticipating Thursday’s local elections must wonder how much harder the government could work to mess things up for them. One probably has to look back to 1968 to find a parallel. Devaluation, financial crisis, tax rises, spending cuts, Cabinet resignations and lurid press coverage of immigration and Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood were bad enough, but just before polling day the government put up NHS charges (despite having promised not to). The result was a massacre at the polls, with nearly 800 losses in London alone and many cities including Birmingham where Labour won not a single seat.

Local election results tend to go consistently against the party nationally in power, particularly when the government is a Labour government. Even during the honeymoon period of the 1998 local elections, the Labour lead was lower than in the 1997 general election or in the national polls. There is always a turnout differential that makes it difficult to get Labour supporters to the local polls while Labour hold office nationally even at the best of times. These are self-evidently not the best of times. Labour must expect a bad result, but how bad?

Assessing what is a reasonable benchmark for success or disaster is difficult and bedevilled both by the complexities of local elections and the expectations management practised by all the parties. Election night will see spin in its purest form, as each party claims to have out-performed what could reasonably be expected of it. Those with long memories will recall 1990, when Conservative success in Wandsworth and Westminster distracted attention from poor national results, and 1996 when the Tory disaster wasn’t quite as complete as the year before.

The most consequential measure of performance is in terms of council control. This matters because it gives (or takes away) a party’s ability to put policies into practice at a local level. Because every seat in London is up for election, this is where the most dramatic changes will take place. Labour did well from the electoral system in 2002 (the last time the seats were fought), winning 15 boroughs (including 4 where the party actually polled fewer votes than the Conservatives). Even before last week, their chances of holding Bexley and Hammersmith & Fulham looked vanishingly small, and it would be no surprise if Croydon and Merton also flipped to the Conservatives. Labour’s vote has eroded both in ethnically mixed areas and liberal middle class areas to the Lib Dems and others, and the loss of at least Brent (and quite possibly Hounslow, Camden and Tower Hamlets) is likely. If any of these boroughs survive under Labour control, it is a tribute to the local councillors’ management of services rather than an endorsement of the government’s recent record. It would be a less expected, and very serious, blow if any of Haringey, Ealing or Lewisham fell.

The Conservatives will be hoping to pick up the four boroughs from Labour, and also take another three where they didn’t quite make it in 2002 (Harrow, Havering and Hillingdon). There is also an interesting confrontation with the Lib Dems in three middle class south-west London boroughs – Kingston and Sutton are run by the Lib Dems and Richmond by the Conservatives, but there is a lively contest in all three. If the Lib Dems carry off Richmond and defend the other two, they will gain in confidence about repelling the electoral challenge of David Cameron’s liberal conservatism.

Outside London, fewer changes are likely – Labour did so badly in 2004 that even unexpectedly good results would not be enough to recapture power in cities such as Newcastle, Leeds and Birmingham. Labour control of Derby and Newcastle-under-Lyme hangs by a thread, but it would take a real meltdown to lose Manchester.

The measure of party performance that will probably attract most attention is the net Labour loss of seats over the night. In assessing what this might be, it is important to disentangle the different starting points. If Labour were to do pretty much as badly as in 2004, which was a rotten local election year for the party, the party would lose something of the order of 350 seats. This would be composed of no change in the metropolitan boroughs (because these seats were last contested in 2004) and substantial losses in the areas last fought in 2002. There was a swing of 5 or 6% away from Labour in the metropolitan boroughs between 2002 and 2004, and if all that happens is that the London boroughs catch up with this movement London alone would produce a loss of about 200 Labour seats. Adding in the seats in the district and unitary authorities which Labour are defending from 2002 and comparison with results in 2004 is possible, Labour would lose 131 more seats. Labour losses of 300-350 seats would therefore signal an overall result on a par with 2004.

Although 2004 was a bad result for Labour, the party went on to win a general election with a perfectly adequate majority only 11 months later. In the current circumstances, a similar result should be the occasion for a certain amount of relief and it certainly wouldn’t count as “meltdown”. Given the recent hellish run of bad publicity for the government, something a little worse than 2004 should be expected – perhaps total losses around the 420 mark. Anything much over that would be a sign that Labour’s position is a lot worse than in any other set of local elections under this government, and put its future into question.

The gains are unlikely to all be in one direction – the Conservatives will have to share the spoils with the Lib Dems and a host of others – Greens, Ukip, the BNP, independents and a variety of local and single-issue parties. If the Conservatives are more than 250 up, they will have done well.

The better measure of how well or badly the parties are doing nationally is their share of the vote. One indicator of this is the national equivalent vote share projection that the broadcasters will do on election night, but that is at best approximate and trends may be distorted by the dominance of London and other urban areas in this round of elections. Labour came third in this measure in 2004 and must be braced to do so again.

However, the detailed voting numbers are more interesting and reliable. In every election in London since 1994 – for parliament, boroughs, mayor, Europe and Assembly – the Conservatives have been more or less flatlining on around 30% and have varied only between 27% (2004 Euro election) and 34% (2002 London boroughs). If the Conservatives break out of this range into the high 30s, they can claim to be making real progress in the capital, and if they get over 40% in London they are entitled to savour a triumph. Labour’s vote, on the other hand, has fluctuated wildly – although third place, or anything under 25%, would be bad news.

Although the metropolitan boroughs are unlikely to see much drama in terms of seats and councils changing hands, the share of the vote will be interesting. The Conservative share has been incredibly stable in these elections, holding steady at 26% in every set of borough elections since 1998 with the exception of William Hague’s best year, 2000, when they won 31%. If the Conservatives are still stuck on 26%, this would be a disappointing result for Cameron, but anything above 30% would be pretty good, as would overtaking Labour. It is also possible, but a long shot, that the Lib Dems could win the largest share of the vote in the metropolitan authorities this year – the results in 2004 had Labour on only 33% and both Lib Dems and Conservatives on 26%.

There are several notes of caution to enter about interpreting local elections. One is that local issues do matter, and seem to be increasing in importance in recent years. Some councils (such as Conservative Wandsworth) have a good relationship with their electorates and seem insulated from national trends. Others fall foul of local issues and suffer the consequences, as the Plymouth Conservatives did in 2003 when they lost badly despite a favourable national trend.

The decay of the traditional system is more advanced locally than nationally. The Lib Dems have long capitalised on local issues and done better than expected in local elections, even in areas such as Southampton that tend to be Lab-Con fights at general elections. Smaller parties and independents can also expect to do well. In some areas local politics has become bewilderingly plural, for instance in Kirklees in Yorkshire where no party won more than 25% of the vote in 2004.

Variations in local election turnout can be important. A Labour rout on Thursday may owe more to the disillusion and alienation of Labour voters than any great surge to the opposition. If turnout drops significantly from the 33% reached in urban areas in 2002, it is questionable how significant the gains of the other parties will turn out to be. If, however, turnout is in the high 30s and Labour are trounced, then the government should be seriously worried about a real voter revolt.

The multi-party nature of modern politics will save Labour from a 1968-style wipe-out even if the party’s vote is just as low. Back then, voters who turned against Labour went by default to the Conservatives, but now there is more choice for the disaffected and local elections are rarely as uniform. There may be a few crumbs of comfort for Labour in the actual results – but, ironically, the party has probably got the national spin wrong. As noted in the Guardian today: “If Mr Blair loses more than 200 seats nationally he will be in serious trouble.” If he loses only 200, he’s probably actually in better shape with the voters than he was two years ago.

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The politics of spectacle (11 April 2006)

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The politics of spectacle (11 April 2006)

Posted on 11 April 2006 by admin

Will this Italian election really be the final stake through Berlusconi’s heart?

Italy has gone backwards in the last 2,000 years. It used to be a cynical motto of Roman Senate elections that bread and circuses were what determined the outcome. In 2006, Berlusconi managed to get 49 per cent on circuses alone – his management has made Italy Europe’s basket-case economy, but hey, the man could put on a show.

It is said that Italy values beauty over truth, and it is possible to see the election in that light. Romano Prodi – serious, intelligent, technocratic – represented truth. The left’s last time in power in 1996-2001 was dourly faithful to orthodox finance (by Italian standards) and managed to pass the economic tests to get into the euro. While not exactly beautiful, Berlusconi offered the politics of spectacle. His outbursts of vulgar abuse, his campaign rallies featuring attractive women in revealing costumes (the Mussolini flags fluttering among the crowd), all distracted from his failure in government and his grotesque conflicts of interest.

While Italian democracy has long been a strange creature, in which the surface display disguises subtle movements within the elite and a conspiratorial undertow to public life, this election may just show that Italy is just a more advanced case of the decomposition of democracy than its neighbours.

Italy’s post-democratic politics share something with the politics of the United States. In both countries the formal mechanisms of democracy remain in place, but there is a vast imbalance between one side and the other. The Republicans and Berlusconi control the apparatus of state and steadily extend their control over the media and the terms of public debate. The other side are allowed a shot at power every four or five years, but the odds are skewed not only by the power of money and the media but by shameless gerrymandering. And if the other side win, they face a subtle web of power operating against them – the courts, damaging leaks from the civil service, the assumptions about the way business is done.

Berlusconi’s career is like that of a vampire in a horror film – he rises again after damage that would kill an ordinary mortal, and this election does not look like the final stake through the heart. There are parallels in eastern and central Europe, where parties are weak and dependent on strong personalities and financial backing, and sometimes cruder forms of influence. Post-democracy in the west is a subtler business than post-dictatorship in the east, but is there really a clear divide between Berlusconi’s contempt for due process and the manipulated “democracy” in places like Belarus and pre-revolution Ukraine?

Even in Britain there have been signs of the mood that leads to the rise of a chancer like Berlusconi. His political career was born in 1994, when he emerged from the shadowy world of the P-2 Masonic lodge, and what passes for free enterprise in Italy. The existing party system had collapsed under the weight of its own corruption and public disgust for politics as usual, but this revolt did not produce honest government. Berlusconi, who had profited so handsomely from the corrupt old order, used his billions to form his own party, Forza Italia, and has dominated politics since. Without strong political parties, politics is prone to ambitious plutocrats. James Goldsmith’s venture failed in Britain in 1997 – but with weaker parties and a cynical electorate who is to say that someone is not going to emerge as Britain’s Berlusconi in the future? To misquote GK Chesterton, when people stop believing in party politics, they don’t believe in nothing – they believe in anything.

Political cynicism and disaffection cannot produce a better society. All it does is abandon the public sphere to the well-organised, self-interested and loud-mouthed. Without vigorous party politics, there are more dirty deals done in the shadows, not fewer. If lazy cynicism takes over among the electorate, why should anyone in public life bother to do the right thing? In the current fashionable disparagement of politics and the parties, Britain risks losing a vital part of what it means to be a proper democracy.

Ill-directed, universal cynicism among the electorate is what the truly self-interested and ruthless political operator like Berlusconi loves. If all politicians are all as bad as each other, why not vote for the most interesting one, the one who puts on a show with dancing girls and crude talk? Why bother to listen to the argument when you can make your mind up on the visuals, the “personality”, as if you were voting for a Big Brother eviction? And Berlusconi, and his ilk, laugh all the way to the bank.

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Democracy island (28 March 2006)

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Democracy island (28 March 2006)

Posted on 28 March 2006 by admin

More than any of its neighbours, Hungary has a robust system of political parties with strong popular roots.

Elections in Britain have become increasingly invisible. The tradition of putting posters in windows seems to be dying, and the parties are less inclined to spend money on advertising hoardings than before. It would have been quite possible for a moderately observant person to have visited Britain in April 2005 and not to have noticed that an election was under way.

In Hungary, on the other hand, elections are in your face. I was there at the end of last week on a flying visit, unaware until I arrived that the poll was in full swing. This state of ignorance did not last: Budapest is plastered with hoardings favouring the causes of FIDESZ and the MSZP, the two main parties. Viktor Orban, the leader of the Fidesz opposition party, looks down sardonically from thousands of bright orange billboards, wearing the expression of a man who has just been told a joke he did not consider very funny. Ferenc Gyurcsany, the prime minister and MSZP (Socialist party) leader, is just as omnipresent, although he presents a kinder visage, looking like an academic who is worried that his seminar group’s attention has wandered away from his presentation.

The most striking political advertisement in Hungary covered the entire side of a building in one of the main squares of Budapest with a massive image of Gyurcsany – a piece of political gigantism even the communists did not manage.

But campaigning in Hungary does not seem to be a competition just of advertising budgets (the ubiquity of political billboards suggests either that the two main parties are awash with funds or advertising is very cheap in Hungary). There is the occasional splash of campaigning activity in the streets, with young MSZP and Fidesz supporters giving out bags of political goodies at underground stations, and- a joy for election nostalgia buffs, if nobody else – loudspeaker vans in the streets.

An MSZP candidate in Buda was giving out pocket-sized brochures containing useful telephone numbers and even local public transport timetables. This technique might not catch on in Britain, where public transport timetables are even more unreliable than most political promises.

Another original feature of the Hungarian electoral system is that it is illegal for parties to keep databases of electors with information on how they intend to vote, rendering British-style direct marketing and telephone canvassing impossible. Any Hungarian politician making claims about what their canvassing returns suggest would face a police investigation and would be exonerated only if those claims turned out to be false. Perhaps seasoned Liberal Democrat campaigners could take this up for use in Britain?

Such charming oddities aside, Hungarian election campaigning is slick and modern. The MSZP goodie bag contained something that any politically aware Briton would recognise as an exact equivalent of a Labour party pledge card, down to the five statistics-laden bullet points on one side and the leader’s face on the other.

When not promoting Orban or his team, Fidesz advertising has very US-style images of women and families, in contrast to the more political content of MSZP material. There have been allegations in the campaign that Fidesz has used the technique, well honed by the Republicans in the 2004 US presidential election, of outsourcing negative campaigning to surrogates.

In contrast to much of central and eastern Europe, Hungary seems to have developed a robust system of political parties, which have put down genuine roots in the electorate. In some other countries, parties are little more than personality cults or vehicles for ambition, and come and go with each election (Poland seems particularly prone to this sort of instability) or dissolve into splinter groups; in Hungary, public opinion seems to be consolidating around Fidesz and the MSZP, with their combined share increasing from 40% in 1994 to 84% in 2002 and possibly even more in 2006. Turnout is respectable by most comparisons, with 73.5% making it to the polls in 2002 (although only 56.7% made it in 1998).

Hungary has an intriguing party system, with a post-communist party that seems to have entirely mutated into a New Labour (but Europhile) organisation, which the European Tribune characterised as being composed of politically connected entrepreneurs, technocrats and a few naive old socialists.

The MSZP is in coalition with the SZDSZ, who are something like the pro-business, pro-Europe Free Democrats of Germany. The centre-right Fidesz opposition is the descendant of a youthful liberal dissident organisation from the late 1980s that has moved steadily to the right. Its party colour was orange before events in Ukraine in 2004, but the subliminal associations are no doubt helpful. Fidesza has absorbed a lot of the vote that went to the conservative nationalists of the MDF (who won the first election in 1990) and a big chunk of the SZDSZ vote when that party first teamed up with the socialists in 1994. There are several small parties that may or may not get parliamentary representation, including the remnants of the MDF and a far-right party with the (to English ears) more ridiculous than sinister acronym of MIEP-JOBBIK. This party, whose emblem bears the outline of Hungary’s pre-1920 borders (including large chunks of what is now Romania, Croatia and Slovakia), aims to force itself into coalition with a reluctant Fidesz.

The electoral system, however, is distinctly strange. British journalists habitually describe anything more sophisticated than scrawling a big X on a piece of paper as “a complex system of proportional representation”, but in Hungary there really is a complex PR system. It has a set of overlapping regional and local electoral districts, candidate and list votes, thresholds and a two-round election.

Despite this, Hungarians seem to manage, and contrary to many assertions about list-based PR, there is vigorous local campaigning centred around individual candidates. It has also, so far, produced clear choices of government in all the elections since the end of communism.

The first round of the 2006 election is on April 9 and the second round on April 23. Opinion polls until recently showed Fidesz having a clear lead, but the MSZP seems to have climbed back to a level position, with the fortunes of the small parties uncertain. The main hope of the MSZP is to excite a high turnout: the elections it has won, in 1994 and 2002, have had higher turnout than the ones it lost, in 1990 and 1998.

Hungary has always been a bit of an unusual case in its history, language and customs; it now seems to be an island of flourishing two-party politics in a Europe (“old” and “new”) awash with disenchantment and the breakdown of old political loyalties. And how odd is that?

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