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Should Gordon go for it? (24 September 2007)

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Should Gordon go for it? (24 September 2007)

Posted on 24 September 2007 by admin

Labour 07: The polls look good for Labour, but thanks to the peculiar workings of the British electoral system, that is not necesssarily good enough.

Labour meets at Bournemouth in a slightly giddy state of optimism, inspired by a renewed increase in the party’s opinion poll lead to 6-8 points and other evidence including sensational local authority by-election gains in Worcester and Birmingham last week that the party is in an excellent position. Supposing the polls are right, this would hold out the hope of earning a pro-Labour swing since 2005 and an increase in the Labour majority. However, the one does not necessarily imply the other. One could have both a pro-Labour swing and a reduced majority thanks to the peculiar workings of the British electoral system.

The trouble is that not all votes have the same value. The overall result depends on the votes cast in the marginal seats. Whether Labour has 18,000 or 28,000 votes in Liverpool Riverside is immaterial to the result – the seat elects only one Labour MP no matter how many votes pile up. However, whether Labour has 15,000 or 16,000 votes in Portsmouth North is highly material, as it makes the difference between that seat electing a Labour MP and a Conservative MP. Under Blair, Labour’s share of the vote suffered a severe slump (down from 43 per cent to 35 per cent) but while thousands of votes disappeared in the safe seats, support held up better in the marginals.

The risk Brown faces is that the pattern will reverse. Given that Labour’s majority allowing for boundary changes is 48, there is not much room for slippage if Brown is going to enjoy a manageable full-term parliament. If electors in safe Labour seats who stopped voting between 1997 and 2005 come back to the polls, it will boost Labour’s national share of the vote but not win any extra seats.

There is a strong possibility that Labour could do worse in the key marginals than national opinion trends might suggest. One reason is regional variation. Polls and local elections have seen the Conservatives adding votes in the south of England while doing poorly further north. It so happens that there are a lot of marginal Labour seats in the south and a 3 per cent swing from Labour to Conservative in the region would see 15 seats change hands. A swing of the same size to Labour in the north and midlands would switch only 9 from Conservative to Labour.

Another reason is party organisation and preparation. The Conservatives, in particular Lord Ashcroft, have poured resources into the marginals they want to win and worked hard – they may well now be considerably better than Labour at the campaigning on the ground and this could pay off in winning seats. In the seats Labour should hope to take off the Conservatives, most of them are constituencies Labour lost in 2005.

Newly-established incumbents tend to do better than the national swing in their first election (hence Labour’s nearly undamaged majority in 2001) and a small national or regional swing to Labour would not manage to counteract the incumbents’ bonus. While Kettering is highly marginal, requiring a tiny 0.2 per cent pro-Labour swing on the face of it, in reality it would probably take a national swing of about 2 per cent to fall. Given incumbency and regional variation, it would be quite a risk to go early without a solid poll lead of 8 points or better.

The incumbency factor also applies to Lib Dem MPs – while in principle a post-Blair party should recover ground among the liberal metropolitan electors who deserted in 2005, it may be difficult to dislodge MPs in areas such as Hornsey & Wood Green and Cambridge and Labour will also be exposed to further possible losses for instance in Oxford East and Watford. Labour also has some cause to worry about Wales and Scotland (from the Conservatives and SNP respectively) although the SNP danger has been overstated. There are only three seats which would change hands on a 10 per cent swing from Labour to SNP since 2005, and one is not comparing like with like if one starts from the 2007 Scottish Parliament results.

Before Jim Callaghan decided against an October 1978 election, he took a copy of the Times guide to the House of Commons on holiday with him and tried, seat by seat, to work out what an election result would look like. The best he could do was a hung parliament with Labour narrowly the largest party. Perhaps, somewhere in Downing Street, there is a heavily-thumbed and annotated copy of the last edition of the same volume, pointing to a Labour win by about 30 seats. Whether that is enough, and whether the risk of going now is greater than the risk of leaving the election for another year, is a dilemma Brown must face this week.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/24/labourmeetsatbournemouthin

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Who won? What next? (6 May 2005)

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Who won? What next? (6 May 2005)

Posted on 06 May 2005 by admin

Not since 1974 has it been less clear who has most reason to be pleased with an election result.

The Conservatives are clearly back in business as an opposition, have chalked up some impressive if patchy gains and improved their organisation in many key seats. But they are still almost certainly the wrong side of Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour low-water mark of 209 seats, and their ability to follow through to victory in a future election must be regarded as doubtful. Their vote share, in the third successive election, is in the low 30s.

Labour have another term in power, albeit with a dismally low national share of the vote of around 36%. Never has a government been elected with such limited support from the voters. From the heights reached in 1997, their vote share has slid most of the way back to where it was in 1992, before “New Labour” came in.

But perhaps this masks some structural strengths. This was not an easy time to have an election, and the government was boxed in to calling it for May 5th. Labour did not feel particularly popular and the Prime Minister was the focus for a lot of complaints – even aggression – from the electorate. Labour lost a lot of “natural” supporters in this election. Next time Blair will not be leader and the Iraq war will be several more years in the past. These voters need not be lost for good.

This is the Lib Dems’ dilemma. They shed some rural seats to the Conservatives (but also, to be fair, picked up a few new ones in return as well). But they cut deep into Labour’s vote across the country, and gained some massive victories in some of the most intellectual and academic Labour seats such as Manchester Withington, Cambridge and Bristol West, and claimed second place in swathes of urban England.

Their fear is the other side of Labour’s hope – that these are temporary protest votes that will return home next time. If so, and if the Lib Dems continue to hare after liberal-left votes, they are setting themselves up for future disaster in their traditional rural seats. They will eventually have to make choices that will alienate one substantial element of their current appeal.

The minor parties and odds and ends did well, a sign that there is discontent with the three-party system, let alone the two-party system. Labour rebel Peter Law won in Blaenau Gwent; George Galloway was elected under the Respect banner in Bethnal Green and Bow; and the amiable Richard Taylor held Wyre Forest quite easily. The Greens polled well without winning in Brighton Pavilion. And, worryingly, the BNP racked up considerable votes in several constituencies. The failures among the minor parties were UKIP, sidelined after last year’s Euro election success, and Veritas, as Robert Kilroy-Silk went down the plughole in Erewash and his colleagues polled derisory votes.

The campaign in 2005 may have been dull, but election night was thrilling. We live in political times again, after the strange lull between the 1997 election and the Iraq war. It’s going to be a turbulent parliament, a fascinating, rough ride for everyone. I can’t wait for the next election. Place your orders now for the Politico’s Guide to the General Election 2009…

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/election2005blog/2005/may/06/whowonwhatne

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