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LOCAL ELECTIONS 2012

Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

The big contest, looming over the rest of the electoral landscape this May, is the election for Mayor of London. The Mayoralty is powerful, London is politically marginal territory, polls so far suggest that the race will be close and as in 2008 Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson are both strong personalities, so there is reason even apart from the media’s metropolitan bias to concentrate on this election. It is very difficult to call, and may come down to events during the London campaign. Johnson is a lot more viable as a candidate in London than a generic Conservative – if it were purely about national party support, Labour would walk the election because they have a 16-point lead over the Tories. Labour’s general strength in London may show through more in the Assembly elections, where Labour should become the largest party for the first time in the Assembly’s history. This has few consequences for policy, because the Mayor decides, but Labour would find it particularly satisfying to knock out Brian Coleman in Barnet & Camden. The BNP won an Assembly seat in 2008 but are unlikely to do so this year; the Greens and Lib Dems should get representation. (Update 4/2012: UKIP also stands a good chance of qualifying for a list seat).

The London contest might attract most of the attention a large proportion of the rest of the country will also have local elections. Every seat in Scotland and Wales (except for the Isle of Anglesey) is up for election, as are a third of the seats in each of the 36 metropolitan boroughs and some unitary and district councils, mostly in the larger urban areas. A few councils will have half or all of their members being elected this year – the English local election calendar is not straightforward.

When assessing gains and losses in local elections, it is important to look at the areas where the elections will happen, and the political climate last time the seats were contested. The seats this time are more urban than in 2011, when Labour did well in the cities but did not make much of an impact in suburban and rural areas. The political climate in 2008 was catastrophic for Labour and it was the peak Conservative performance in any recent set of local elections. Labour should be winning back fairly large numbers of seats.

Opinion poll ratings at the time of recent local elections

% 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012
Con 37 44 40 36 36 36 (33)
Lab 32 26 24 29 41 41 (42)
LD 18 17 18 23 10 12 (8)
Others 14 13 19 12 13 11 (17)

 (2012 column: first numbers March, second YouGov 5 April)

National equivalent vote share in local elections

% 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Con 40 43 35 37 38
Lab 26 24 22 30 37
LD 24 23 25 24 16
Others 19 10 18 10 9

 

Looking at the current opinion polls (March), if there is not a change in public opinion between now and early May, the results overall will be pretty similar to 2011. In councils where there are elections in both years, this will be a useful benchmark for the performance of the parties.  Even a repeat of 2011 means a swing of 9 per cent from Conservative to Labour and 10 per cent from Lib Dem to Labour, and yield a haul of seats and councils controlled. Labour lost 434 seats in 2008. Recovering these means getting back to where Labour was in 2004, which was itself a pretty poor year. Three hundred of them would fall if Labour repeated its 2011 performance in the metropolitan boroughs alone, so Labour sights should be set higher than that – perhaps a net gain of 700 would be ‘par’.

In some places Labour victory is almost inevitable. In Harlow, for instance, the Conservatives have a majority of 1, a legacy from their extraordinary performance in 2008 when they won every single seat in the town (4/2012 correction: while Labour won no seats in 2008, there were two Lib Dems as well as the Conservatives, although one has subsequently died and one has defected to Labour). Even a historically poor Labour showing in 2012, as long as it is even slightly better than 2008, will do to win control. The task is harder than this in several other councils, but Labour should be winning control in Thurrock, Plymouth, Southampton, Exeter, Reading and perhaps Norwich, creating some satisfying red splodges on the map of southern and eastern England. The Southampton election is particularly interesting because it is currently run by a particularly right wing pro-cuts Tory council. Labour gained a swathe of councils in the metropolitan areas of the midlands and north in 2010 and 2011, but a few more low-hanging fruit should fall from the tree in Birmingham, Bradford, Wirral and perhaps Walsall. The hard tests, that would indicate Labour advancing significantly since 2011, are Swindon, Dudley and Cardiff. Swindon and Dudley are two party straight fights with the Conservatives in areas with marginal and volatile parliamentary seats, where the Tory vote held up reasonably well in 2011. Cardiff is more of a contest with the Lib Dems, who should put up more resistance there than one can expect in the northern cities where they are likely to be massacred for a second year.

The local elections in Scotland are different for three reasons. The simplest is that these seats were last contested in 2007, rather than 2008. The electoral system is also different – Scotland has the Single Transferable Vote (STV) proportional system for its local elections. The third reason is the political context, in which the SNP dominates Scottish politics and this set of results will be seen more of a test of the SNP’s aspirations for independence than Labour’s UK-wide performance. A repeat of the SNP landslide in the 2011 Holyrood elections would see the nationalists controlling most councils in Scotland even under PR. This is unlikely, but it seems likely that the SNP will gain ground, principally at the expense of the Lib Dems but also to some extent Labour and Independents. The big battleground is Glasgow, where the SNP will try to demolish the last bastion of the Scottish Labour establishment. Most people seem to think that Labour will lose outright control.

(From Progress magazine, April 2012)

 

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All Change

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All Change

Posted on 22 September 2011 by admin

Take care when assessing the impact of boundary changes on the next election, cautions Lewis Baston

When the Boundary Commission for England published its initial proposals earlier this month, there was a lot of information to absorb quickly. Some aficionados and anoraks (including myself) were intrigued by how they approached the task and phenomena like cross-county and ‘tri-borough’ constituencies. MPs were naturally obsessed with local details. But everyone wanted to know what the implications would be for each of the political parties.

Figures estimating the partisan effect of boundary changes should always be taken with a pinch of salt, as there are different methods which all have their advantages and disadvantages, but which can produce different results. There is no absolutely reliable data, and one has to use local election results, with various tweaks and adjustments, to guess. A number of interesting constituencies would be incredibly close on the boundary changes, to the extent that it is pretty much impossible to ‘call’ them reliably – for example, the new Abingdon and Oxford North might or might not have gone Tory rather than Liberal Democrat in 2010 but it is very debatable. The best method for estimating the notional results of new constituencies is that used by the indefatigable Plymouth duo of Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, but it is arduous, does not produce quick results, and even then is sometimes off-beam.

The Guardian produced some rough workings of the partisan effect of the changes, which ‘feel’ about right looking at the results as a whole: the Conservatives down six seats, Labour down 14, the Liberal Democrats down 10 and the Greens down one seat. This is towards the upper end of what the Conservatives might have hoped for from the process, although Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report has produced some workings which are a bit worse for Labour. Allowing for the other three nations, overall changes would be Conservatives down 10, Labour down 22, Liberal Democrats down 13 and others down five. In terms of the composition of parliament, this would mean 296 Conservatives – just short of an overall majority that would require 301 seats. The changes therefore, if one re-runs the 2010 election, put the Conservatives significantly nearer the winning post but do not carry them over the threshold to a majority.

However, it is important to realise that the next election will not be a re-run of 2010. This point is utterly obvious, but often seems lost in discussions about boundary changes. We are not dealing simply with new boundaries, but with a combination of new boundaries, a new political situation and the responses of individual MPs to the boundary changes. The more interesting question about the boundaries is what happens if there is a modest-sized swing to Labour at the next election. The current polling average of Labour 40 per cent, Conservatives 36 and Liberal Democrats 11, translates into something like a Labour majority of 40-50. Under the new boundaries this would unquestionably be lower, although exactly how much lower will depend on how many Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats are marginal enough for Labour to swing over in the next election. A four-point lead is enough for Labour to scrape a majority, probably, but not enough for a comfortable win like 2005 (when the party’s lead in vote share was three per cent). The Conservatives still need a lead of eight per cent or so to win an overall majority – less than on the previous boundaries but still a considerable margin. Of themselves, the boundary changes still leave another hung parliament looking a fairly likely result in 2015 – although if the Liberal Democrat vote slumps the size of ‘hung parliament territory’ shrinks accordingly, whatever the boundaries.

Boundary changes also pose constituency-level challenges. While adverse changes to marginal Labour seats are worrying for individual incumbents, these are sometimes an (effectively disguised) stroke of good fortune for the party as a whole. Halifax, for instance, is flipped from Labour to Conservative under the new boundaries, but Linda Riordan remains its Labour MP. A good incumbent should be able to get themselves known, campaign hard and attract support in new areas. If there is any national swing to Labour, and if incumbents do the work, then places like Halifax should be Labour ‘gains’ in 2015. In the 2010 election boundary changes made Joan Ryan’s Enfield North seat notionally Tory, but she managed to damp down the swing to 0.7 per cent compared to neighbouring seats with actual Tory MPs which swung by between six and eight per cent.

If there is a national swing to Labour, and if incumbents do half as much better than the national trend as Ryan did in 2010, boundary changes are survivable. Enfield North, incidentally, is probably flipped back to Labour in the latest set of boundary changes but will be harder to win back than the raw figures suggest because it now has a first-term Tory MP.

Another feature of boundary changes is that they will require a broader political and campaigning approach. Areas in ‘hopeless’ seats are often left organisationally derelict, and the same can happen of course in some ‘safe’ areas. When territory is moved from a hopeless area into a marginal, it will need to be brought quickly up to speed in terms of its organisation and campaign readiness. This is a stiff task. Chingford and Woodford Green may be a safe Tory seat, but Chingford and Edmonton is a crucial Labour-Tory marginal. The Chingford wards involved will need to get busy with gaining members, canvassing and persuading electors who may not have heard much from Labour locally before.

The subtleties of boundary changes will be particularly exercising the minds of Liberal Democrats. The party is particularly vulnerable to boundary changes because its majorities are on average smaller than Labour or Tory (12 per cent, rather than 18 to 19 per cent), and because they are usually surrounded by areas that do not vote Liberal Democrat. For instance, their seat in Burnley is shipwrecked because it is split and the larger part is combined with part of Hyndburn, where the Liberal Democrats are so weak that they hardly contest local elections. In the past, Liberal Democrat incumbents have sometimes been amazingly successful at coping with boundary changes, like Sarah Teather in 2010 or David Alton in 1983. This does require high-pressure campaigning, and it has also in the past relied on the fact that very few people would absolutely never consider voting Liberal Democrat, and therefore most people were open to persuasion. They will encounter more resistance when they try this trick in 2015.

The Boundary Commission for England report is far from definitive. There now starts a process of consultation, and some of these initial proposals look almost certain to be revised by the time final proposals emerge. For instance, it is difficult to see the infamous ‘Mersey Banks’ constituency surviving a consultation process. We will not know the definitive picture until 2013. There is also uncertainty over whether the House of Commons will approve whatever new boundaries emerge, although it would be foolish to assume that the changes will not take place. Even if they are approved, the new rules involve ‘permanent revolution’ – a new boundary review is supposed to start after the election and there will be another new set of constituencies for the 2020 election. This second review will be based on December 2015 electorate totals, which may be even more grossly inaccurate than the current ones because registration will become effectively voluntary by then. There is a formidable organisational, legislative and political task facing Labour, and the initial reports are only the first stage.

 Link to original article

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Eastern Promise

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Eastern Promise

Posted on 09 April 2011 by admin

Lewis Baston (far left) with Bob Blizzard and colleagues launching "How the East Was Lost ... And How to Win Again" at the House of Commons March 2011

Labour lost badly in eastern England last May. It need not do so again

Labour’s performance in eastern England in 2010 was disastrous, with Luton the only bright spot. The swing against the party (seven per cent) and the proportion of Labour seats lost (85 per cent) were both the worst in any region. East Anglia is without a Labour MP for the first time since 1938. However, this was merely the culmination of a long trend. Our losses in local elections have also seen us reduced to a low ebb – in 1995 we had around 1,100 councillors, but now there are only 264.

One might be tempted to respond to these depressing facts by writing off the east as being a no-hope Tory region, but this would be wrong. Eastern England is a key region for Labour and we cannot afford it to become our equivalent of the Tory wilderness in Scotland. Of the seats we need to win to gain a workable overall majority, only one region (the northwest) contains more constituencies than the east.

In writing our report, How the East Was Lost … And How to Win Again, we studied the figures and talked to the candidates who had fought seats for Labour in eastern England. Several themes emerged. One was that voters in the east, while not being enthusiastic about David Cameron, did not want Gordon Brown to be prime minister. Another was that there were big concerns about immigration – not usually racism as such, but more often expressing worry about the impact of immigration on jobs, housing and public services. This also tapped into a sense of ‘fairness’, in that Labour was seen as tolerating the selfish abuse of systems that should work in the public interest, be they migration, benefits or banking. Labour lost votes and seats through a ‘hollowing-out’ in core areas, a Conservative vote that was energised by some very strong constituency campaigns, and also direct switchers from Labour to the Conservatives.

What sort of policy agenda can recapture the east for Labour? Most potential Labour voters in the east favour ‘tough-minded’ solutions to issues such as benefits and migration. They know we have caring values, but want to be sure that we are not pushovers. They need to be reassured about Labour’s economic competence and that we understand people’s aspirations – a decent house, a chance to get on, a good education for their children. We need to have some solid things to say about housing and infrastructure in this growing region, too.

In 1997 Labour performed strongly in eastern England, winning the largest swing outside London, but the reversal of fortune was temporary. Despite the strength of the Tories in 2010, there is potential here for Labour simply because the Conservatives’ agenda in government harms the opportunities for housing, work, education and public services that the much-discussed ‘squeezed middle’ want to enjoy, and these voters are thick on the ground in eastern England. But we need a strong policy offer, an authentic local voice of Labour, and a more dynamic party culture, in order to reap the benefits.

Bob Blizzard and Lewis Baston . Bob Blizzard is the former MP for Waveney and Lewis Baston is senior research fellow at Democratic Audit. Their report is available from this website: click here

Photograph Copyright the fantastic Katie Drouhet Photography: website and Facebook

Article originally published at Progress Online 9 April 2011

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Seeking Red Shoots

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Seeking Red Shoots

Posted on 01 April 2011 by admin

Making a comeback in previously Labour-free zones, rather than seizing back control of councils, could be the big story this May, says Lewis Baston

This year will see the fourth set of elections for the Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly which Labour established in 1999. They will be seen as an important early test of Labour’s national recovery, despite the very different contexts of Welsh and Scottish politics. And, of course, this is also the big year of the four-year cycle for English local government elections. Nearly everywhere outside London will have elections, either for every council seat or ‘by thirds’.

In Scotland the aim is not for an overall majority, which is highly improbable because the electoral system is quite proportional, but for a clear lead in seats over the Scottish National party and a mandate to form a government either as a minority or as the clearly dominant force within a coalition. There have been extensive boundary changes for the Scottish parliament constituencies, making it harder to predict what might happen and where the crucial seats are. One is Glasgow Southside, where deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon for the SNP faces Labour councillor Stephen Curran in a seat with an estimated Labour majority in 2007 of 27 votes. Clackmannanshire and Dunblane is also a key Labour-SNP contest. South of Glasgow, boundary changes have made Eastwood a likely Conservative seat, but Labour has made big progress here – Jim Murphy has been the MP since 1997 – and could spring a surprise. The mixed new seat of Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale should be SNP, but has elements of support for all four main parties.

Labour’s target in Wales is a majority in the assembly, which polls indicate is very possible. The party needs five gains on 2007, although more are required if Labour loses list seats in compensation for constituency successes. Carmarthen West and Pembrokeshire South is possibly the most interesting seat, a three-way marginal where the winning Conservative and third-placed Plaid Cymru were separated by only 250 votes. After Nick Smith’s triumph in the Westminster election, Blaenau Gwent‘s assembly seat should return to the fold. The ‘clear red water’ in Wales over tuition fees may help in Cardiff Central, despite a large Liberal Democrat majority in 2007 – it is an ambitious target.

The 2007 elections, when this year’s English local government seats were last fought, were – though pretty bad for Labour – not the humiliating drubbing that the local polls were in 2008 and 2009. It is not until May 2012, when the councillors elected in 2008 will be up for re-election, that Labour will make huge gains in terms of control of authorities that elect by thirds. The story of the 2011 elections in many areas, particularly southern urban councils such as Southampton, Plymouth and Harlow, will be more about putting in solid foundations to take control next year than outright wins this year.

Labour recovered ground in some cities in 2010 (recapturing Liverpool and Coventry, for example), and those gains left the party only just short of overall control in authorities such as Leeds and Warrington – these should fall easily in 2011, as should Nick Clegg’s disaffected home patch, Sheffield. If polling and by-election evidence of a big Liberal Democrat collapse in the northern cities is borne out, Labour should be in the business of taking out its rivals’ northern flagship of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and, following a by-election win in March, seizing Burnley. It would take quite a sweep to win outright control of Hull, but Labour should at least deprive the Liberal Democrats of control there.

Against the Conservatives the potential pickings are slimmer, with the prize of Ipswich (a Liberal Democrat-Conservative coalition) being a hoped-for symbol of Labour recovery in eastern England; Lincoln should be a win as well.

In some ways the most interesting story for Labour will not be in terms of council control but in ‘red shoots’ popping up in areas where the party has been shut out of representation in recent years, an essential step to rebuilding Labour as a national party. Harriet Harman in particular has been tireless in urging Labour candidates to come forward even in difficult areas, and this should produce a scattering of surprising individual victories in hitherto barren territory. In 1996 Labour was running councils like St Edmundsbury and Cherwell. Re-establishing a presence would be a good start, and control is a realistic proposition in several of these councils – Waveney in Suffolk, Stockton-on-Tees and North Warwickshire all cover parliamentary marginals.

Labour should take several urban unitaries including Blackpool, although control in Brighton and Hove is very difficult because the Greens now win several formerly Labour wards. There are few areas where Labour is on the defensive in these elections, but among them is North Lincolnshire where the Conservatives are the main opposition. It would be an extremely good result if Labour were to bounce back from third in Northampton – but expect a few surprises once the polls close on 5 May.

Originally published 1 April 2011 Progress Online

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Eastern Promise?

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Eastern Promise?

Posted on 24 February 2011 by admin

All the talk is of ‘winning back the south’, but Lewis Baston presents the headline findings from his report on why regaining eastern England is a non-negotiable goal for Labour ahead of a dedicated event on this next month.

Photo: Gerry Balding

Labour’s performance in eastern England in 2010 was nothing short of disastrous. The party was reduced to the two Luton seats on the edge of the region. The swing against Labour (seven per cent) and the proportion of Labour seats lost (85 per cent) were both the worst of any region. We came third in several seats that had been Labour as recently as 2001 or 2005, and overall we were third in 38 seats out of 58 (in 2005 there were 15 third places out of 58 allowing for boundary changes). East Anglia is without a Labour MP for the first time since 1938.

Although disastrous, 2010 was merely the culmination of a long trend – the east saw the second-largest anti-Labour swing in 2005, and our losses of seats started here even in 2001. Our cumulative losses in local elections have seen us reduced to a very low ebb – in 1983 there were around 700 Labour councillors in the region, while now there are only 264 – in 1995 we had around 1,100. In 33 of the 42 councils in the region Labour either has no councillors or a rump of one to three members. Many CLPs in rural areas are moribund.

One might be tempted to respond to these depressing facts by writing off the east as being a no-hope Tory region, but this would be wrong. Eastern England is a key region for Labour and we cannot afford it to become our equivalent of the Tory wilderness in Scotland. Of the seats (using current boundaries) we need to win to gain a workable overall majority, only one region (northwest) contains more constituencies than the east. Without the east, Labour will find it incredibly difficult to win a general election in 2015, and even more so in future – the region’s population is growing and its economic base of small and medium sized private sector firms may be the future in other regions.

When Bob Blizzard, MP for Waveney from 1997 to 2010, and I started discussing the politics of the east of England we both felt we needed to do something. The outcome is our report How the east was lost… and how to win again. We studied the figures, which was depressing enough, and talked to the candidates who had won and lost seats for Labour in eastern England. Several themes emerged from our interviews. One was that voters in the east, while not being enthusiastic about David Cameron, had formed a negative view of Gordon Brown’s leadership and did not want him to be prime minister. Another was that there were big concerns about immigration – not usually racism as such, but more often expressing worry about the impact of immigration on jobs, housing and public services. This also tapped into a sense of ‘fairness’, in that Labour was seen as tolerating the selfish abuse of systems that should work in the public interest, be they migration, benefits or banking. Labour lost votes and seats through ‘hollowing-out’ of core areas, a Conservative vote that was energised by some very strong constituency campaigns, and also direct switchers from Labour to the Conservatives. Voters in the east do not seem reluctant to switch to the Tories if they feel that Labour are not performing well; there may be many voters in the northern cities and Scotland who feel that ‘the worst Labour government is better than the best Tory government’ but there are few of them in eastern England.

There are some deep-rooted problems for Labour in the east. Many people we interviewed felt that if one could pick up many eastern towns and deposit them, without changing their demographics, in the north, they would be solidly Labour rather than marginal or Tory. There is a sense that it is a mostly rural region, and when the Conservatives have taken political ownership of the ‘countryside’ identity and Labour is identified with metropolitan areas, this favours the Tories. The east does not have the industrial working class traditions, or – outside a few towns on the western edge of the region such as Luton, Bedford and Peterborough – much by way of BME population. There are only three seats (Norwich South, Cambridge and St Albans) with huge concentrations of liberal professionals. There are no big cities of the sort that even in Labour’s other weak regions like the southwest can generate solid Labour seats – there is no seat in the east which Labour has not lost at some point in the last 20 years.

What sort of policy agenda can recapture the east for Labour? Most potential Labour voters in the east favour ‘tough-minded’ solutions and attitudes to issues such as benefits and migration. They know we have caring values, but want to be sure that we are not pushovers. They also need to be reassured about Labour’s economic competence and that we understand people’s aspirations – a decent house, a chance to get on, a good education for their children. We need to have some solid things to say about housing and infrastructure, which are particularly important in a growing region.

It is too soon to get detailed about policy, but there are a number of political and organisational steps that need to be taken. One of the first is not to think of the eastern region as a single entity when talking to the public – it has the weakest sense of identity of any region, In reality it is three sub-regions comprising East Anglia, south Essex and the northern home counties, and each of these has different priorities – there is little that connects Watford, Southend and Great Yarmouth. Voters are quick to spot inauthentic behaviour in politicians and we need to develop authentic local representatives of Labour who can be the face of the party in the local media and also ensure that the national party does not end up dominated by the regions where we did well in 2010 and forget about the places we need to be gaining in 2015.

It is encouraging that the party is moving towards adopting candidates in key seats early – this approach helped build the credibility of Tory candidates in the run-up to the elections of 2005 and 2010. The embarrassment caused to the party regionally and nationally in 2010 by the behaviour of two candidates in the east should never be repeated – just because a seat has a large Tory majority, there is no excuse for poor quality control in choosing the people who represent the Labour party. The east also suffers, perhaps worse than the south, from a stodgy party culture of boring meetings, a lack of a comradely welcome to new members and sometimes a lack of imagination and ambition on local councils. The influx of members since the 2010 election is a huge opportunity to regrow the party’s grassroots across the region, but we will lose them if the party’s culture does not change to accommodate them.

In 1997 Labour performed particularly strongly in eastern England, winning the largest swing outside London, but the reversal of fortune was unfortunately temporary. Despite the strength of the Tories in 2010, there is potential here for Labour simply because the Conservatives’ agenda in government harms the opportunities for housing, work, education and public services that the much-discussed ‘squeezed middle’ want to enjoy, and these voters are thick on the ground in eastern England. But we need a strong policy offer, an authentic local voice of Labour, and a radically changed party culture, in order to reap the benefits.

Original Post at Progress Online

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Oldham East and Saddleworth

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Oldham East and Saddleworth

Posted on 11 January 2011 by admin

Photo: DebbieAbrahams.org.uk

Lewis Baston gives his rundown of this by-election seat, noting that Debbie Abrahams is likely to win, but that this is ‘not natural Labour territory’ and that there is a strong, historical Liberal tradition going back decades…

Perhaps the first thing one should note about Oldham East and Saddleworth is that it is not ‘natural Labour territory’. Since the constituency was created in 1997, Labour has never achieved more than 42 per cent of the vote. While part of it is as gritty an urban area as you could find, most of the constituency is suburban and rural. It is on the edge of the Greater Manchester conurbation and many of the Saddleworth villages are scenic, attractive places which attract retirees and some wealthy Manchester or Leeds commuters. This is post-industrial countryside, and even in the town centre the air blows fresh and cold and one can feel the moors gradually reclaiming their territory from the depopulating town after 150 years.

The seat divides into four broad areas:
• Oldham inner urban, comprising basically two wards (Alexandra and St Mary’s).
• Oldham eastern suburbs (St James, Waterhead)
• The small town of Shaw to the north of Oldham (Crompton, Shaw)
• Moorlands and valley villages in the Pennine hills east of Oldham (Saddleworth North, Saddleworth South, Saddleworth West and Lees – the last-named ward is a bit more urban)

Politically, two of these elements are heavily Lib Dem with the Conservatives a distant second (at least in local elections) – Saddleworth and Shaw. In the other two it is competitive between Lib Dem and Labour. Crucially, Labour has tended to do better in general elections than local elections – despite the bad relations between the parties, some voters clearly ‘split their ticket’ for Lib Dem locally and Labour nationally.

This is not a particularly Muslim seat, except for the two inner urban wards (particularly St Mary’s, which is 48.7 per cent BME population and over 40 per cent Muslim). The Saddleworth wards are below the English average for ethnic minority population. Muslim campaigners clearly dislike Phil Woolas, although it is far from clear that this reflects his Muslim constituents’ views.

Much of the constituency was previously in the Littleborough and Saddleworth seat which was Conservative from its creation in 1983 until a famous 1995 by-election when for the first time in recent years Labour (candidate Phil Woolas) ran to the right of the Lib Dems, calling their candidate Chris Davies ‘soft on drugs and high on taxes’. The Lib Dems won the by-election with Labour in second place, but Labour won the redrawn constituency of Oldham East & Saddleworth following boundary changes in 1997. Election campaigning in the area since 1995 has been rough, but even before then there was little love lost between Liberal and Labour. Parts of the seat were in Colne Valley before 1983, which was a nearly unique Lib-Lab marginal in the 1960s and which saw one of the first socialist challenges to the Liberals in a 1907 by-election.

All in all, this is a seat where coalition Liberalism can put up a serious challenge to Labour because rightwing Liberalism has local roots and the Conservative party is organisationally weak despite the impressive share of the vote won by their candidate Kashif Ali in May 2010. There seems little doubt that the basic dynamic of the by-election is the Liberal Democrat effort to recruit enough Tories to offset the loss of disillusioned centre-left voters to Labour. Even among the traditionally anti-Labour Lib Dems of the Pennines there has been unease about the national coalition’s policies, which led to a mass defection of seven Lib Dems to Independent which handed Labour minority control of neighbouring Rochdale.

Even though a look at the national poll ratings and the change since May indicates that there has been a large swing from Lib Dem to Labour, it is worth remembering that Labour has never approached a majority of the vote in the seat, and if the Lib Dems can gain the bulk of the centre-right voters in the seat they can win, even if the Labour vote bounces up to 1997-2005 levels. Some of their leaflets are even coloured Tory blue rather than the traditional Lib Dem yellow.

The winter campaign has also been a potential problem for Labour. The Lib Dem strategy is clear from their decision to move the writ for the by-election to take place on 13 January – a breach of a long-standing parliamentary tradition by which the party who previously held the seat sets the date and moves the writ. The early date is mostly about denying campaigning time to Labour’s candidate Debbie Abrahams and keeping the advantage Elwyn Watkins has from name recognition, from his previous campaigning in the seat and publicity over the election court case. However, Oldham has been flooded by astonishing numbers of Labour activists from all over the country, and there can be few voters in the seat who have not been exposed to Labour’s message.

There was a surge in support for the BNP in the 2001 election after riots in Oldham, and the party’s vote at 5.7 per cent was relatively high even in 2010. Because BNP supporters tend to go and vote, there is a chance that their vote share will be higher in a low-turnout, winter by-election.

There are still some imponderable factors about the local response to some of the circumstances. While having had the previous MP thrown out of office for his campaign via the election court is not good news for Labour, being the complainant may not help Watkins much either. In the previous re-run election (Winchester, 1997, on grounds that votes had been wrongly disallowed by the returning officer) the candidate who brought the legal action saw the majority against him go up from two to over 20,000. Some voters have taken the view that Watkins has ‘whinged’ or been a bad loser by going to law.

The form book would suggest a Labour hold with perhaps 40-42 per cent, Lib Dem second with the 32 per cent, or so they seem to get in most elections here, and Conservatives back down to around 18-20 per cent. The two polls by known organisations on the final weekend of the campaign suggested that Labour were riding a bit higher with 44-46 per cent. A certain amount will depend on who has the most efficient postal voting operation, particularly if the weather is bad on Thursday.

If, as the polls suggest, Debbie Abrahams is on course to win comfortably on Thursday, the accomplishment is not to be underestimated. This is not an easy seat for Labour at the best of times, and having the previous MP thrown out by a court does not make this the best of times.

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Poll position (Oct 1 2009)

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Poll position (Oct 1 2009)

Posted on 01 October 2009 by admin

The Tories are doing better in marginal seats than the national polls suggest, warns Lewis Baston

Even now, unbelievably, some Labour people seem to be complacent about the next general election. The argument goes that the Conservatives, because of electoral system bias against them, need to be 11-points clear of Labour in the national share of the vote to have a majority. This is true only if the swing is uniform, ie the same across the country. While uniform national swing is usually the best rule of thumb for translating poll figures into seats in the House of Commons, it is only an assumption, not a rule. For instance, Labour did significantly better in 2001 than uniform swing predicted because Labour MPs first elected in 1997 often boosted their majorities.

The local elections in June 2009 were a test of how far ahead the Tories really need to be to win an election. The ‘national equivalent vote’ of the parties (ie the local results translated into what they would mean in an election across the whole country) was, depending on whose projection you look at, the Conservatives on either 35% or 38% and Labour on 22% or 23%. This means a swing of 8% or 9% from Labour to Conservative, slightly more than the 7% they need to win a majority under the uniform swing assumption. Given that governments rarely repeat their worst mid-term performance in a general election, some people assume that an overall Conservative majority is unlikely.

The results in the key marginal constituencies where there were local elections in June should explode any such complacency. While the national swing appears to have been 8-9%, it is much higher in most of the marginals.

In the constituencies where more or less any swing will switch the seat to the Tories or LibDems, it seems about average – although 8% or 9% is easily enough to do the job. The ominous finding is from the constituencies where the Conservatives need a bit more of a swing to gain from Labour. In these cases the average swing is 13% or thereabouts, which would cut a swathe through Labour’s parliamentary representation. There were 61 Labour-held seats with county elections in June. Only four would have survived an election like the county elections. This is because the Conservatives seem to be getting the big swings where they need them.

In some of the target seats, the Conservatives are simply blowing Labour away – swings of 18% in South Ribble and 17% in Tamworth are extremely large by any comparison, and reflect a particular loss of support in areas where New Labour did particularly well in 1997. In others, Labour’s traditional vote has also melted away, as in Leicestershire North West where the BNP won what had been the safe Labour ward of Coalville, while the Conservatives have stood still or gained slightly. In this set of elections in the new towns, where Labour has done poorly for years in local elections, the swing may not appear quite so bad, but this often reflects the Conservatives losing votes to the right – UKIP, BNP and English Democrats – which might not help in general election conditions. Some coastal areas where Labour prospered in 1997 also have high swings – Dover, Morecambe and Waveney all have swings in the 15-16% bracket.

The Conservatives are not stupid in matters of political strategy, and know that they need either a 7%-plus national swing, or to do better in the marginals. They have focused their energies, campaigning messages and money (from Michael Ashcroft and elsewhere) on the marginals they need, and it seems to be paying dividends.

Local elections, although they are strong evidence, do not automatically reflect what would happen in a general election. People sometimes vote differently in local and national elections, and a different range of parties and candidates stand in each election. Turnout is also a lot lower, and the voters who stay at home in local elections but vote in general elections may not share the views of those who vote in council elections.

Labour needs to do two things in the short term – recover ground in the national polls, and raise its game in the marginal seats. In the longer term, Labour also needs to scrap an electoral system where pouring resources into a tiny number of seats can win party control over the government, and replace it with one where there is a genuine national dialogue.

Lewis Baston is from the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and author of Politico’s Guide to the General Election. To read the full research see here.

http://www.progressonline.org.uk/articles/article.asp?a=4735

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