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A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

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A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

Posted on 06 May 2010 by admin

The polls have shifted no more than usual, but the result may yet be a surprise

One of the many strange things about this volatile campaign is how little it has actually changed most of the fundamentals that held when it started. A modest rise in the polls for the Lib Dems from start to finish is a usual feature of campaigns (up about 4 points) and in 2010 this is what has happened (albeit via a big surge in mid-campaign).

Even looking at the findings about what people think about the party leaders shows a fair amount of continuity despite the first Prime Ministerial debates in a British election. The main change is that more people have a high opinion of Nick Clegg than before, albeit mostly on the softer criteria of ‘charismatic’ (up from 12 per cent to 45 per cent over the campaign) and ‘in touch with ordinary people’ (up from 24 to 37 per cent). Neither Cameron’s nor Brown’s ratings (both pretty poor) moved much, with the biggest change being that more people now consider Brown good in a crisis (up from 18 per cent to 24 per cent). Compared to past movements during campaigns, in favour of Neil Kinnock and John Major, opinion about the Labour and Conservative leaders did not shift.

The post-debate polls, woefully misreported for the most part, confirmed merely that people thought the leader of the party they intended to vote for anyway ‘won’ (whatever ‘won’ means in a debate) but that most people were impressed by Clegg. The debates therefore amplified the usual process of the Lib Dems gaining from equal broadcast time, and compressed it into the few days after the first debate. Despite the media obsession with process, the debates did seem to pique the interest of voters and will have contributed to what seems likely to be a respectable turnout.

The debate polls were an example of how they can be misused, but on a more general level can one trust opinion polls? One of the more foolish objections to opinion polls is that each one only asks about a thousand people for their views. How can that possibly be representative of an electorate of 45 million? The science of statistics has a well established answer. You only need a sample to get the answer right, provided that the sample is representative of the whole. A common analogy is that you can tell how salty a huge vat of soup is by tasting a teaspoonful, provided that the vat has been stirred properly.

However, stirring the soup is an increasingly delicate art. It is remarkable to look back to how opinion polling worked back in the 1960s and 1970s. It was mostly done through face to face interviews, and got the results more or less dead on (with the notable exception of 1970). Despite its unsophisticated methodology, it worked until another surprise election result in 1992 when the polls showed the parties level pegging but the Conservatives were actually clearly ahead when the votes were counted (7.5 per cent). Since then, polling companies have tried ever more sophisticated mechanisms to get representative samples. The obstacles are formidable. Turnout used to be reliably somewhere around 75 per cent, and was also much the same regardless of class or region. Now it varies wildly – 72 per cent in 1997, around 60 per cent in the last couple of elections, and probably higher today. More people vote by post. More people are difficult to reach because they work long hours or live in gated communities. There are more parties in the game. The technology is constantly changing. Pollsters have to re-weight the raw figures to get a representative sample. It is a thing of wonder and beauty that they got it as right as they did in 2005, and that YouGov called the 2008 London election so accurately. But the electorate is a moving target, and at some point the weightings will go wrong. We shall know tomorrow whether the eve-of-election consensus of the polls is right or not.

http://critical-reaction.co.uk/2600/06-05-2010-a-familiar-pattern

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It could be worse (20 September 2008)

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It could be worse (20 September 2008)

Posted on 20 September 2008 by admin

However unpleasant it might be for Labour in Manchester, at least it won’t be as bad as Blackpool in 1976

The conference season in 2008 will be the first conference season in 20 years in which the psychology of politicians and the media is based on the fairly confident expectation that the next government will be a Conservative one.

Labour comes to Manchester against an awful background, the worst for a party of government since the Conservatives convened in 1996. John Major’s government from 1992 to 1997 was a tedious procession of failed relaunch attempts and stabs at defining a narrative of what the Conservatives were for, and so far at least the Brown government seems to be following in these footsteps. The conference is a – slim – chance to start getting it right. However, sometimes in the past a good conference has set a troubled government on the path to recovery, as with the Conservatives in 1986 and Labour in 1969.

Brown government’s relationship with public opinion falls into three phases, and ministers fervently hope that the conference will start a fourth, of recovery. The first was the honeymoon phase, lasting over the summer of 2007 and rising to a peak in mid to late September, until it was abruptly ended by the “non-election” at the start of October. This led to a sharp switch in public opinion about Brown, and this (and a successful Tory conference) led to a revival in Conservative voting intention and Cameron’s personal ratings which took them back to where they had been for most of the late Blair period.

Public opinion stayed fairly stable through this second phase which lasted until the end of February 2008. The third phase, of acute crisis for Labour and a large Conservative poll lead, has been in place since March, although June saw the slump that had taken place from March until the local and Crewe elections in May, bottom out. The polls are still bad and Gordon Brown’s personal rating at abysmal levels. There was perhaps a slight change of mood during August, as might be expected, as the holiday season calmed politics following the fevered days of July, but September has seen another frightening downturn with the banking crisis and the Conservatives hitting new highs in the opinion polls.

Since March the Labour Party has been in fatalistic mood. This is, I think, partly a matter of political generations. Few among younger Labour people will have experience of a government facing deep unpopularity other than this, and the Major government which went down to overwhelming defeat in 1997. But before this, in 1990, 1985, 1981, 1977, 1971, 1968, 1963, 1957… governments dipped to alarmingly low levels of popularity and came back from them, sometimes by enough to win. In an article for Progress, I quote a comment from Richard Crossman, a minister in Wilson’s government, reflecting on the apparent hopelessness of Labour’s position in December 1968. Yet only a year and a half later, the party was the favourite to win a general election.

The fatalism that has gripped Labour is a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it generates the “every person for themselves” attitude – saving one’s personal position – that undermines party unity and in turn creates worse problems. The best hope for the party is to make a proper decision about whether or not to get rid of its leader, and stick to it. There will also have to be a turnaround at least in economic expectations – the collapse in confidence in people’s thinking about future economic conditions took Labour down to its current low ebb. Labour also needs a tough, brutal campaign modelled on the Conservatives’ in 1992 attacking an inexperienced and risky opposition party that has arguably not changed enough. But the party currently lacks the money, the self-confidence and the receptive ear from the public to carry it off, and needs to start pulling itself together.

Although a leadership coup is possible it is unlikely. More likely is that a consensus will start to form on whether Brown should stay, go later, or be given an ultimatum to shape up. Although there need not be action at Manchester, the strategic decision needs to be contemplated and no doubt it will. Before the conference, it seems that an ultimatum is the most likely route, with a showdown in spring 2009 if there has been no improvement by then in the polls. But moods can change, and movements form, rapidly at conference – one only has to return to Labour’s growing sense of euphoria at last year’s gathering in Bournemouth to demonstrate that.

Labour will also have to hope for not too many “noises off” so that the desired message comes across. The Lib Dems in Bournemouth lost out on coverage because of the more dramatic developments in the financial markets. The last thing Labour needs is for a re-run of 1976, when a run on the pound caused Chancellor Denis Healey to turn back at Heathrow Airport and return to Labour conference and try to calm the financial markets. Healey was heckled, delegates called upon him to resign, and the government had to go to the IMF anyway. Back in those days, Labour conferences were brutal festivals of blood sports as far-left delegates openly baited and denounced their own government’s ministers and the language of treachery was on everyone’s lips. However unpleasant it might be in Manchester, at least it won’t be as bad as Blackpool in 1976.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/20/labour.labourconference


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The magic number (13 September 2008)

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The magic number (13 September 2008)

Posted on 13 September 2008 by admin

As the conference season gets under way there are three simple steps the Lib Dems can take to get the public’s attention

When they convene at Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats will be queasily aware that they have spent a year treading water. Their poll ratings have more or less flatlined since their last conference. They have been stuck at 16% (give or take a point or two for sampling error), around 6 points down on where they stood in 2005, and about 5 points down on their rating at the equivalent stage of the 2001-05 parliament.

This showing is disappointing to the Lib Dems, as have been the election results in mid-term elections since autumn 2007. They did catastrophically in London and not brilliantly elsewhere. They were also squeezed by the Conservatives in Crewe and Nantwich, and even more ominously had a swing against them in Henley, the sort of seat where they would have previously expected to have a big swing in their favour.

The poor electoral results have added to a sense of drift at the centre of the party. Nick Clegg has not captured the public imagination since he became leader in December 2007. The Lib Dems have had a difficult time of it as the political scene has been polarised between the Conservatives and an increasingly troubled Labour government. They have had trouble in projecting a distinct image or any specific policies, and Clegg has been overshadowed by Cameron. They have also had problems and soul-searching in Wales and Scotland.

The Lib Dems have three basic tasks this season, the first of which is familiar from previous conferences:

1) Assert their continuing relevance. This is a perennial objective, and one that in the last couple of conference seasons has proved difficult as politics has centred on the presidential contrast of Cameron with Blair (then Brown). It will be difficult again this year. Coming first does the Lib Dems no favour in terms of gaining attention from the media and the public (for whom the first half of September still has something of a holiday feel).

2) Present attractive coherent policies. The Make it Happen document being referred to conference was intended to serve as a pre-manifesto, but given that no election is expected in 2009 it has been restyled as a “visions and values” document. The party needs a decent narrative, and some eye-catching policies. The party’s tax policy, of emphasising cuts for lower and middle income households (paid for by closing tax loopholes further up the scale) is part of this, although whether it bears scrutiny and commands support in the party are both questionable. Council tax abolition, lower and middle-end tax cuts, localism in public service and criminal justice, clean energy and an energy windfall tax will be some headline policies.

3) Build Nick Clegg up as a strong leader. Clegg needs to dispel the perception that he is not a political heavyweight and is more conservative than his party – “too light and too right” perhaps. Clegg’s speech needs to come over strongly to the party in the hall and the elements of the electorate that will be paying attention. Lacking an inspiring personal narrative (Ashdown and Campbell both had interesting backstories before they became politicians), he will have to surprise. One option is the Blair 1994 strategy of confronting his party with hard truths, and forcing it to do something against its instincts in the interests of modernisation. Another is to go against type – a rallying cry for social justice coming from someone who has seemed to belong to the right of the party. In any case, he needs to start defining himself before the public and this is as good an opportunity as he will get before the election campaign.

In terms of electoral strategy, the party is talking of targeting 50 Labour seats, which is a tall order and what Sir Humphrey Appleby might have described as “brave”. I hope to return to this question in another post. Clegg’s leadership has involved a further repositioning of the party. Broadly, the Lib Dems were “equidistance”‘ between Labour and the Conservatives until around 1992, when Paddy Ashdown proclaimed that position as having come to an end (although in practice it was, for Labour, benevolent neutrality, particularly after 1989). From 1992 until about 2001 the Lib Dems were part of a loose progressive front with Labour. From 2001 until roughly 2007, they formed a left opposition to Labour. Now they seem to be back at equidistance. But Clegg’s tone implies that this equidistance could be evolving into benevolent neutrality towards the Conservatives.

The party’s grass roots are for the most part situated on the anti-Conservative left, although with a dislike of the Labour party’s culture because it seems too establishment and collectivist. The prospect of a deal with the Conservatives, or loose participation in a pincer movement aimed at securing not just defeat but humiliation for Labour, will have consequences that most Lib Dems would find unappetising. On the other hand, anti-Labour posturing has the effect of raising the price of cooperation with a minority Labour government.

The Lib Dems face the essential dilemmas of positioning, electoral strategy and simply how to get their message heard in a two-party climate where the pros and cons of the Conservative alternative and the Labour government are dominating the scene.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/13/libdemconference.nickclegg

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