Tag Archive | "conservatives"

Pollwatch: Conservative lead narrowed, but two polls don’t make a trend (14 April 2010)

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Pollwatch: Conservative lead narrowed, but two polls don’t make a trend (14 April 2010)

Posted on 14 April 2010 by admin

The latest findings from Populus and ComRes may be just a statistical quirk

Two polls today, by Populus for the Times and ComRes for ITN and the Independent, narrowed the Conservative lead, dangerously so for David Cameron’s hopes of becoming prime minister. It remains to be seen whether these are the start of a trend or a statistical quirk.

Across the board, the polls barely shifted in the first week of the campaign. The Conservatives remain within a point or two of 38% support, and Labour within a similar distance of 31% in nearly all the polls. Perhaps this is not very surprising, because the first week was not particularly engaging and the big setpiece events of the campaign – the manifesto launches and the leader debates – were all yet to take place.

We can expect more change and volatility if and when the events of the campaign start to excite the public. But if the polls remain constant at this level, the end of the campaign and the result will be pretty exciting stuff, because this is probably on the cusp of what the Conservatives need for an overall majority.

Translating polls and vote shares into who will win how many seats at the election is an imprecise business, and depends on a lot of assumptions. The simplest is “uniform national swing”, which takes the change in each party’s vote since 2005 and then applies that change in every constituency. If voters behaved this way, the Tories would need a lead of about 11 points to win a majority.

But there are good reasons for assuming that swing will not be uniform. In local elections and polls concentrating on marginal seats the Tories seem to be outperforming the national swing by a point or two. Their strategy since 2005 has involved relentless targeting of money, promises, messages and campaigning on the marginal seats to achieve this, and it would seem to be working.

It is also to do with political strategy: Tony Blair’s rapport with swing voters in marginal seats long outlasted his honeymoon with metropolitan liberal opinion. Cameron, as shown in the detail of the Guardian’s latest ICM poll, seems to be going over well with the same voters (in social classes C1 and C2) that Blair targeted so successfully. The swing in the marginals is assisted, although not by as much as could have been expected last week, by people who had previously voted Labour for tactical reasons abandoning the party for the Lib Dems or Greens.

Another factor that seems to be helping the Conservatives is the way changes in voting intention vary by region. According to YouGov’s combined data (reported in PoliticsHome), the swing is strong in several regions that are rich in Labour-held marginals (north-west, west Midlands and east Midlands), adequate to win most of the targets in other regions (south-east) and low in the regions where there is little room for Conservative gains from Labour (Scotland, south-west). However, local sub-samples can be unreliable and there is room for more polling to be done to sample what is going on in the English regions and Wales in particular (polling in Scotland is pretty consistent).

Against these factors that are helping the Conservatives, there are a couple of adjustments that point the other way. Uniform swing assumptions are bad at predicting how the Lib Dems will do, because strong local campaigns and popular incumbents can resist national swings. Uniform swing would see the Conservatives winning large numbers of Lib Dem seats, but this is almost certainly not going to happen.

Then there is turnout. A large part of the electoral system’s bias against the Conservatives stems from the tendency for the Tories to pile up large numbers of votes in their safe seats because turnout is relatively high, and for safe Labour seats to have low turnout. If a close election brings out Tory voters in their droves in the countryside and the suburbs, as it did in 1992, but does not cause Labour turnout in safe seats to rise much, it will not help the Tories win more seats.

All this considered, the lead the Conservatives need falls to around 7% or so, similar to 1992 when a Conservative lead of 7.5% was enough for a majority of 21 seats. However, one cannot be certain. If they are lucky with turnout and varying swing, they might squeak across the winning post with a lead of 5%; if the cards fall badly for them, and Labour grassroots campaigning counteracts the Ashcroft marginal strategy, they could fall just short with a lead of 9%.


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Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

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Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

Posted on 05 October 2009 by admin

Eric Pickles has proposed reducing the number of MPs. But ‘equalising’ the size of constituencies is a deeply flawed policy

In his speech to the Conservative party conference today, Eric Pickles claimed to stand for “fair votes”. He did not mean an end to the first past the post system that gives all the power on the basis of under 40% of the vote and ignores votes cast outside the marginal seats. What he meant was a policy of cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 585 and a promise that “we will make all constituencies equal in voting size”. This would be accomplished in time for the general election after 2010.

Cutting the number of MPs is a bit of easy populism, made even easier by the expenses scandal. It might not necessarily be a bad idea; the number of MPs should be determined by the need of constituents for representation and the needs of parliament to function well as an institution. However, the Conservative rationale is cost-cutting. It is doubtful that cutting the number of MPs will really make much of a saving in terms of public spending – after all, the same amount of constituency casework will just end up being done by fewer MPs. There is also the possibility that unless the number of ministerial jobs is sharply reduced, there will be more executive dominance of parliament than we have already.

The principle that constituencies should be more or less the same size is generally accepted. The issue is how much tolerance for variation from the average constituency size one allows, and how frequently the boundaries are redrawn. Currently, the Boundary Commission allows around 10% either side of the ideal (ie 63,000 to 77,000 electors) with a bigger margin for geographically difficult mountainous or island areas. The Conservatives are talking in terms of a rigid rule not allowing more than 5% either side of the new ideal figure (77,000 after the number of MPs has been cut). To keep within this limit, boundary reviews would have to become more frequent and proceed faster than the current, admittedly ridiculous, system where the boundaries coming into force in 2010 are based on electorate figures from February 2000.

Pickles appears to believe that the major cause of the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system evident in the 2005 election was variation in constituency size. This is factually untrue. Constituency size was a small component of the bias, but most arose from other factors such as low turnout in safe Labour seats. Labour’s vote is efficiently distributed, partly because of tactical voting in 1992 and partly through New Labour’s successful electoral strategy. It is quite possible that less tactical voting, Conservative targeting of marginal seats with Ashcroft money and Cameron’s appeal to “Middle England” could cause a lot of bias to unwind anyway in 2010.

The Conservative boundaries policy would require a rapid boundary review during the next parliament – the shortest recent review (1991-95) took four years, so the Boundary Commissions would have to have extra resources to accelerate the task. The new boundaries could not be subject to the same scrutiny at public inquiries that makes the current process so lengthy – there are simply not enough assistant commissioners (usually barristers) available to run the inquiries.

Inquiries of whatever sort involve taking evidence from political parties, community groups and local councils, and in arguing for the boundaries that suit them, a party needs to be well-organised and professional. By having a quick review after the election, the Conservatives must be hoping to go into the process well-funded and prepared and facing a demoralised and impoverished Labour party before it has regrouped. The Conservatives would also be at their peak in local government, and could use council submissions to back pro-Conservative boundary schemes.

It is unclear to what extent the Conservative policy will address the handful of hard cases that are often used in calls for equalising boundaries – the Western Isles seat, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, has five times fewer electors than the Isle of Wight. It is quite possible that these anomalies would survive under a Tory plan – the number of seats involved is small, and the alternatives (a seat spanning the Solent, for instance, combining bits of Portsmouth with towns on the Isle of Wight?) are geographically absurd.

The effect in other areas is, however, only slightly less ridiculous. The policy is going to face a huge backlash when people realise what it means. Equalising the size of each constituency will mean crossing county and ward boundaries and ripping up what remains of the traditional map of community representation. A bit of Cornwall would end up in a seat based on West Devon or Plymouth, whatever its residents thought about the matter, and angry voices would ring out in every public inquiry. This would be repeated time and again, because there would be frequent changes to keep constituencies within the 5% threshold.

This freedom to cross ward and county boundaries also increases the ability of well-prepared parties to manipulate the process. It is no coincidence that the worst gerrymandering in the developed world is for US Congressional seats, where there is a rigid requirement of arithmetic equality within 1% of the ideal population size within each state. Legislators draw preposterously biased lines on the map which make no sense according to any administrative, social or physical geography, as long as the right number of people are corralled together.

Although apparently fair, “reduce and equalise” is a badly flawed policy. As a supporter of proper electoral reform, I sometimes mischievously think it should go ahead because it might hasten the end of first past the post. That mystical link between MP and single member constituency will be broken up because a large number of MPs will represent constituencies that correspond to no local community identity, and whose boundaries will shift around every few years.

The fundamental problem is that it is impossible to produce one-size-fits-all single member seats while keeping natural communities together. Communities, as any conservative should know, come in different sizes. To achieve numerical equity and community identity requires multi-member seats, as with the flexible single transferable vote (STV) system used in Ireland. STV would enable one to keep community boundaries intact while putting representation on a more equal arithmetical footing. It would be tragic, and ironic, if in the pursuit of arithmetic perfection and a chimerical public spending cut a Conservative government created electoral units that would make the Heath-Walker local government map look popular.


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A right romp (8 June 2009)

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A right romp (8 June 2009)

Posted on 08 June 2009 by admin

Lewis Baston on the winners and loses in the European elections

Gordon Brown surveys a landscape of ruins this morning. Labour’s 15% of the vote in the European elections is absolutely abysmal, the worst ever for the party by a considerable margin. The ignominious details pile up – behind the Conservatives in Wales, far behind the SNP in Scotland, fifth and without enough votes to qualify for a seat in south-west England.

It is a disaster without recent precedent or parallel. At least in the 1931 general election there was still a solid 30% working class vote for Labour. One might have to look back to 1924 and the end of the Liberals as a party of government. It might have been even worse, had voters in urban areas without county elections not turned out in unexpected strength – hence the smaller slide in the Labour vote in London and the strange bright spot of Leicester. Many of these determined voters were hoping to stop the BNP.

Much has and will be written, a lot of it valid, about how mainstream politics has created the conditions of alienation and anger that led to the BNP vote – and the parties will try to bid for support by “understanding” the feelings of those voters. Less will probably be written on the need, to quote John Major, to “condemn a little more, understand a little less”. With the array of protest parties contesting the elections, nobody can claim not to have had enough choice of political spittoons to expectorate into, but a large number of people chose that particular one. Before the election, there was some hope that the BNP’s reputation for racism and thuggery would cause voters to think twice about supporting them, no matter how cross they were with the Westminster parties. But while some BNP voters may not themselves be racist, indulging a temper tantrum with the system was more important to them than the rights and dignity of their fellow citizens from ethnic minorities.

The Green party has reason to be disappointed with the election. It was untainted by any expenses problems and has a programme of political reforms, so it could have hoped for more than to displace Labour as the fourth party in southern England. But the politics of recession tends to be difficult for Greens, who find that voters anxious about their jobs are less concerned about the long term.

The Liberal Democrats also fared indifferently. Euro elections are always difficult for them because their pro-EU stand is unfashionable and their campaigning techniques centre around candidates’ personalities. The protest vote headed instead towards the right, with Ukip polling at levels that seemed inconceivable a few months ago. It is ironic indeed that the expenses saga seems to have driven people towards a party whose MEP group elected in 2004 contained a benefit fraudster and another currently under investigation for expenses fraud. A deeper irony is that Ukip fetishises precisely the Westminster parliament that people are supposedly disgusted by and want to reform.

The Conservatives did well in the circumstances, considering their own deep involvement in the Westminster expenses scandal and their own spot of bother in the European arliament that led to one MEP being expelled from the group and their then-leader Giles Chichester stepping down over a “whoops-a-daisy” breach of the rules over his own expenses. Chichester returned to Brussels and Strasbourg in triumph at the head of the south-west Conservative list that won half the region’s seats.

With the exception perhaps of those in Scotland, the European elections saw the British voter in a sour and unpleasant mood, vulnerable to the blandishments of an assortment of rightwing populists. Other countries have had elections a bit like this where the normal rules do not apply, as with the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in 1980s France, or the Lega Nord in 1990s Italy, or the Pim Fortuyn election in the Netherlands in 2002. Sometimes these episodes prove short lived. Let us hope that when the 2014 European elections begin, we look at the 2009 results and wonder: “What on earth were people thinking?”


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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.


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Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)

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Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)

Posted on 16 September 2008 by admin

Some Lib Dems are tempted to tack rightwards to win back votes from the Tories. But it’s an extremely risky strategy

The Lib Dems are not in such a dire polling position as Labour. But the party is facing a big dilemma of electoral strategy – which, in turn, poses ideological issues that are surfacing in Bournemouth this year.

The problem stems from the step change in Lib Dem parliamentary representation came in 1997, when the party gained a swathe of rural and suburban seats from the Conservatives. In 2001 and 2005 the Tory vote was also at a low ebb, but if – as seems likely – it revives significantly in 2010, a lot of Lib Dem seats are at risk. History suggests that Conservative revivals are generally bad for the Liberals – in 1924, 1951, 1970 and to a lesser extent 1979 the party fell back as the Conservatives swept up a lot of the anti-Labour vote. What strategy would be most effective in holding onto the ex-Tory marginals, and can this be combined with gaining ground from Labour?

The new right-of-centre Lib Dem pressure group Liberal Vision thinks it has an answer: to embrace an agenda of tax cuts and social libertarianism that will appeal to right of centre voters. The group, as was surely intended, caused a splash with its list of Lib Dem MPs threatened by the Conservative revival – some MPs on the high risk list such as Adrian Sanders of Torbay were apoplectic with fury about it. But its identification of the seats at risk was broadly accurate. If the Conservative vote generally is going up, places such as Romsey, Carshalton and Hereford look extremely tricky. But is a move to the right actually going to protect their vulnerable incumbents from a Tory tide?

The argument is pretty unconvincing. While polling demonstrates that there is an appetite for a small state among a lot of voters, whether the Lib Dems can appeal to this feeling is questionable, because (even though its current policies are very cautious) the Conservatives have such a strong brand image as a party of tax cuts. The Lib Dem right also seems to forget that although many of the seats it holds are affluent and suburban and vulnerable to the Tories, they depend on the votes of people with left of centre values in those areas – their wins often come courtesy of tactical voting or outright conversion of Labour-inclined people. Too much rightwing posturing will alienate these voters.

But what about winning seats from Labour? The Lib Dems have talked, rather unbelievably, about shifting resources to the top 50 Lib Dem targets from Labour. To achieve anything like that assumes a complete meltdown of the Labour vote. It is not completely impossible that Labour will follow the economic markets downhill in a collapse of epic proportions. But this is at the outer end of the range of possibilities, and more worthy of a bit of contingency planning than a large commitment of scarce resources.

Rightwing liberalism will not help win seats from Labour. Their leftwing profile in 2005 helped the Lib Dems build strong votes among a particular category of seat: academic, professional suburbs and college towns. The easiest seats to gain from Labour (other than Rochdale, which already has a Lib Dem incumbent but becomes theoretically Labour under new boundaries) tend to be in the same sort of places that swung strongly in 2005. Oxford East, Edinburgh South, Hampstead & Kilburn, Islington South & Finsbury, Aberdeen South, Edinburgh North & Leith, Durham City and Norwich South are the logical successors to the seats that went Lib Dem in 2005 like Cambridge and Bristol West. While many of these seats were Conservative at one time, their electors are often liberal, environmentally minded people who were permanently turned off the Tories by Thatcherism and may desert the Lib Dems for the Greens or even Labour if the party sounds too rightwing.

Further down the target list there are a few seats that could plausibly pack a surprise, such as Swansea West, Burnley and Sheffield Central and probably a couple of seats that look safe from the 2005 numbers. But picking off a serious number of these is unlikely without a massive Labour meltdown (and even the current polls indicate only around a 3% national swing from Labour to Lib Dem). In seats where the Conservatives are still in contention (except maybe Watford, with its local scandal) it will be difficult for the Lib Dems to persuade floating voters not to join a national Tory tide. After all, seats such as Hastings & Rye followed the national trend in 1997 and elected Labour MPs despite the party running third in 1992, and it is reasonable to expect Conservatives in seats like Hampstead & Kilburn and Ealing Central & Acton to fancy their chances of winning. In some Scottish seats, the rise of the SNP (who polled poorly in 2005 but can expect much better at the next Westminster election) will interfere with Lib Dem chances, making places such as Edinburgh North & Leith and Glasgow North more difficult than they look on paper. Overall, again barring that meltdown, potential Lib Dem gains from Labour look more like 10-15 than 50.

Electorally, therefore, the Liberal Vision approach looks dubious. There is probably little mileage in going any further right than Clegg has already steered the party. The tax cuts approved at conference yesterday can be plausibly presented as being about fairness to low and middle income families, and therefore compatible with the liberal consciences of people who voted for them on the basis of their opposition to the Iraq war and tuition fees. A slide to the right would risk this core Lib Dem vote for uncertain reward. The Liberal Democrats should perhaps ask themselves why Cameron has found talking like a social liberal to be a route to electoral success, and fight him on their turf rather than charging into Tory territory.


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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.


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Cold comfort (4 May 2008)

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Cold comfort (4 May 2008)

Posted on 04 May 2008 by admin

Local elections 08: Just how bad were these local election results for Labour? Very. Gordon Brown may survive until 2010, but his party is in real danger

Outside London, in urban England, the election results for Labour were an utter disaster. The dimensions of this defeat have so far escaped much analysis because of the impact of Johnson’s victory. In 2006 and 2007 Labour were getting hammered in the south and the suburbs, but the vote was holding up in the cities and working class towns in the north, and even recovering noticeably from the Iraq-blighted elections of 2004. Those local results looked like a post-New Labour political geography. Elections seemed to be reverting to the previous Two Nations pattern of the Thatcher years. The 2008 elections, however, are different.

The regional differences were less apparent, with a few scattered examples of Labour holding or gaining ground in the south, such as in Hastings and Slough, and some epic collapses in the north. Some of the local detail is almost unbelievably bad for Labour. What is one to say when the Conservatives pull ahead in Rother Valley, of all places? The Tories showed considerable strength in smaller working class towns around Manchester. While their gain in ever-marginal Bury attracted some attention, the rise in their share of the vote in places such as Failsworth, Swinton and Eccles was up since their relatively good results in 2007. This was not a feat of targeting, picking off a couple of vulnerable northern councils as in 2007, but a broad increase in popularity in places where the Conservatives have been nearly absent for decades.

On the face of it, the core cities looked exempt from the trend, with no Conservatives on the councils of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle, although even in these dead zones the Conservative vote improved noticeably on last year.

Local elections, while basically determined by the national trend, do have local variations and in some areas there were movements of opinion in 2008 that compensated for unusual electoral behaviour four years ago. For instance, the Conservatives won Coventry a bit ahead of the curve in 2003, and lost ground this time as their local administration grew stale. But in other places, like Reading and Wolverhampton, the Labour vote that had been resilient in 2004 collapsed in 2008. The Conservatives were 13 points clear of Labour in the heavily working class Wolverhampton North East constituency, a seat that the Tories have only ever won once, in 1987. The Tories even won Heath Town ward, a poor, troubled and much-redeveloped area of the city.

Labour can find very little consolation in these elections, except – oddly – at the scene of the most painful defeat, London. Ken Livingstone gave Labour voters something to fight for, and the party’s vote stood up reasonably well in inner London. Labour even won an extra seat on the London Assembly. But this is cold comfort indeed.

Comparisons have already been made between these local elections and the wipeout Labour suffered in 1968. In some ways, Labour’s defeat in 2008 was worse because the party’s share of the vote was lower, but in other ways it was less drastic. In 1968 anti-Labour voters lined up behind the Conservatives, with the result that the Tories won nearly everything that year. In 2008 multi-party politics is a reality in many local authorities, and Labour retained seats even with a low share of the vote because of split opposition. The Conservatives are nowhere near as dominant in local government as they were in the late 1960s or even the late 1970s, when they had a majority in Merseyside. Their national share of the vote, and lead over Labour, are smaller than in 1968, but to win around 44% in a multi party system is still an impressive accomplishment, reminiscent of Labour’s sweeping triumphs in 1995 and 1996.

Historical comparisons naturally lead to speculation about what the 2008 elections might mean for the general election, due before mid-2010. In 1968, 1977 and 1995, the governing party at the wrong end of the landslide went on to lose the general election. However, in 1968-70 and 1977-79, if not in 1995-97, the defeat was not a foregone conclusion and there were times when re-election even looked likely.

Another point of comparison is the position of the prime minister. Traumatic defeats in 1968 and 1995 led to bouts of speculation and conspiracy aimed against Harold Wilson and John Major respectively, although both survived. Jim Callaghan came out of his 1977 drubbing almost unscathed because he was personally popular, and could both hold the Labour party together and retain the confidence of the Liberals in a finely balanced House of Commons.

Parties, and prime ministers, can ride out local election landslides, but the long term effects are insidious. Parties become demoralised and organisation decays. The emergence of a new political landscape confuses election planning. In 1970 and 1979 Labour lost seats that had previously been considered safe, and the same thing happened on an even greater scale in 1997 to the Conservatives. The logic of general election campaigning insists that Labour prioritise seats where the party’s presence has been reduced almost to vanishing point in local elections, such as Portsmouth North and Harlow – but in such circumstances, how is effective local campaigning possible?

The risk, as the Conservatives discovered, is that one misdirects resources by defending lost causes (like Mitcham and Morden, which some Tories convinced themselves even on the election night of 1997 had been held), while suffering enormous swings and losing seats in areas that had not seemed to be in much danger. This year’s local elections saw a dam break. When that happens, the floods can reach the most unexpected corners, and may never recede to their previous levels.


Comments Off on Cold comfort (4 May 2008)

The scale of the swing bodes ill for Labour (2 May 2008)

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The scale of the swing bodes ill for Labour (2 May 2008)

Posted on 02 May 2008 by admin

Despite some isolated disappointments, the Conservatives have scored staggering successes, writes Lewis Baston

Local election results always produce a mixed picture; there will be councils where local factors produce swings that go against the national pattern.

The Conservatives should have regained Worcester, which they only lost last year in a byelection that took place at the brief high tide of enthusiasm for Brown’s Labour last autumn, but they did not.

They might lose Coventry. But these seem likely to be only small, isolated disappointments in a generally very strong Conservative performance.

They are also balanced up by some staggering local Tory successes. Their gains in Harlow were so stunning that they took overall control of the council for the first time ever, and Labour did not win a single ward in what had been until recently an old Labour (in every sense) municipal stronghold.

But the most bizarre result so far seems to have taken place in Southampton, which was at the furthest edge of possibility for the Tories. They made eight gains and took control in a bitter and unpleasant election campaign, following the formation of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition at the budget vote in the spring.

The city will now have two years of Tory control and will be an experiment in hard-right populism. We shall see whether the tide goes out as quickly as it came in.

In most of the country the pattern seems to be modest Conservative advance from the 2004 baseline, which is a highly creditable overall performance.

They should have little difficulty in passing the benchmark of 200 net gains by the time the final result comes in tomorrow afternoon.

Labour can forget about claiming much comfort, let alone satisfaction, from the English local elections, and the scale of the swing bodes ill for London.

If net losses go much below 200 seats, and Livingstone loses London, that is a recipe for a normal-sized post-election panic.

But the horrific detail in places like Harlow and Southampton almost pales besides the near-disaster in County Durham.

Labour looks like having squeezed out a small majority in this council, which has been a fortress since 1919 – with 62 Labour seats, 52 opposition seats and 12 still to declare. When Durham trembles on the brink, it is a real disaster.


Comments Off on The scale of the swing bodes ill for Labour (2 May 2008)

GLA Constituency Profiles (8 February 2008)

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GLA Constituency Profiles (8 February 2008)

Posted on 08 February 2008 by admin

Barnet and Camden

Held by: Conservatives

The Barnet and Camden constituency stretches from the very centre of London around Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Holborn all the way out to the rural fringes of Arkley and Chipping Barnet. Most GLA constituencies are large and diverse, but Barnet and Camden is perhaps more so than any. Labour’s core areas in past elections have been the urban wards along the east of Camden, from Highgate down to Covent Garden, while the Conservatives are dominant in the suburbs of Chipping Barnet and Edgware. However, there are Labour votes to be found in Finchley and Hendon, and Conservative ones in Hampstead. The Lib Dems have areas of local strength in West Hampstead in particular, and must be hoping that they can improve their showing after good local elections for them in Camden in 2006.

In the two GLA elections so far, the Conservatives have come out on top here. This is partly because suburban Barnet is so much larger than inner-city Camden and turnout there a bit higher, making up 64% of the constituency’s votes in 2004. It is competitive, however, as Labour had a 40% to 35% lead in the 2005 general election.

The constituency is a closely fought marginal and perhaps the seat Labour would most like to see change hands. Since his election in 2000, Brian Coleman has been an outspoken and controversial incumbent, coming into frequent conflict with Ken Livingstone and also attracting some notice for the size of his taxi expenses claims. Labour’s Nicky Gavron, currently deputy mayor, is giving up a list seat on the assembly to fight the constituency. Both the Labour and the Conservative campaigns are well financed and organised. The contest for Barnet and Camden will be the one to watch when the GLA election results are declared, and is probably second in interest only to the mayoral contest itself.


2004 election
Con – 47,640 – 35.3%
Lab – 36,121 – 26.7%
LD – 23,603 – 17.5%
Green – 11,921 – 8.8%
Ukip – 8,685 – 6.4%
Respect – 5,150 – 3.8%
CPA – 1,914 – 1.4%
Turnout – 38.4%

2000 election
Con – 41,583 – 32.9%
Lab – 41,032 – 32.5%
LD – 22,295 – 17.6%
Green – 14,768 – 11.7%
Ukip – 2,115 – 1.7%
Respect – 3,488 – 2.8%
Other – 1,081 – 0.9%
Turnout – 37.5%

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

Bexley and Bromley

Held by: Conservatives

Bexley and Bromley is the safest Conservative seat on the London assembly. It comprises two suburban boroughs in the south-east of the capital, many of whose inhabitants would regard themselves as being in Kent rather than London. The only substantial Labour area is the Thames estuary frontage around Thamesmead and Erith in the north of Bexley. The Liberal Democrats are strongest around Orpington, and there is a non-Tory element at Crystal Palace and Penge, but on the whole this is deeply Conservative suburban territory. In the 2006 council elections the Tories won landslide victories in both boroughs, ending a surprising four years of Labour control in Bexley.

While Ukip did exceptionally well in 2004 when the London and European elections were held at the same time, they can expect their vote to fall back in 2008, and the Lib Dems will hope that their strong showing in the Bromley and Chislehurst byelection in 2006 will boost them into second place. That byelection saw the incumbent Conservative assembly member, Bob Neill, gain another public appointment, as MP, but he decided to serve out his term as an assembly member. James Cleverly, who fought the Lewisham East seat for the Conservatives in 2005, and the Lewisham mayoral election in 2006, is on an easier wicket here. Cleverly made the “a-list” of parliamentary candidates and is well-regarded among his young London Conservative colleagues. He will hope to make a mark early in his term on the assembly.


2004 election
Con – 64,246 – 40.4%
Lab – 24,848 – 15.6%
LD – 29,992 – 18.9%
Green – 8,069 – 5.1%
Ukip – 26,703 – 16.8%
Respect – 1,673 – 1.1%
CPA – 3,397 – 2.1%
Turnout – 41.5%

2000 election
Con – 64,879 – 47.2%
Lab – 30,320 – 22.1%
LD – 29,710 – 21.6%
Green – 11,124 – 8.1%
*Respect – 1,403 – 1%
Turnout – 37.9%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

Brent and Harrow

Held by: Conservatives

Brent and Harrow was the only assembly constituency seat that changed hands at the last election in 2004, when the former Conservative leader of Brent council, Robert Blackman, defeated Labour’s Toby Harris. The result was a blow for Labour, as Harris was one of the party’s senior GLA members (and the first person to be declared a member of the authority back in 2000).

It was also somewhat surprising as Labour has all but one parliamentary seat in the area and the one exception, Brent East, was lost to the LibDems in a by-election in 2003.

Even in 2004, Labour led in nearly all of Brent South and Brent East, with a significant outpost around central Harrow. The suburbs of Brent North and the north side of Harrow were all Conservative.

Differential turnout was a strong influence on the result in 2004, with Harrow, despite having a smaller electorate, casting 52% of the votes in the constituency.

In the 2005 general election, Labour had a massive lead in this constituency, outpolling the Conservatives 47% to 29%.

But the local government results in the area in 2006 were bleak for Labour, with a Conservative majority running Harrow and a Conservative-Lib Dem alliance in charge in Brent, leaving Labour candidate Shafi Khan with a lot of work to do to overhaul the Conservatives’ initial advantage.


2004 election
Con – 39,900 – 34.0%
Lab – 35,214 – 30.0%
LD – 20,782 – 17.7%
Green – 6,975 – 5.9%
Ukip – 7,199 – 6.1%
Respect – 4,586 – 3.9%
CPA – 2,734 – 2.3%
Turnout – 38.0%

2000 election
Con – 32,295 – 33.1%
Lab – 36,675 – 37.6%
LD – 17,161 – 17.6%
Green – 8,756 – 9.0%
*Respect – 2,546 – 2.6%
Turnout – 33.2%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

City and East

Held by: Labour

The City and East constituency is another radial slice of London, starting near the centre at Fleet Street but stretching out as far as Chadwell Heath in the north of Dagenham. In parliamentary terms, the City of London is paired with parts of Westminster, but for the GLA its representation is shared with the boroughs to the east. Its immediate neighbour is Tower Hamlets, which combines a heavily Bangladeshi area, the traditional East End and the new developments in Docklands. The borough of Newham, around Stratford, West Ham and East Ham, is working class with a high proportion of ethnic minority residents (both black and Asian) and it is also the centre of the London Olympics development.

Barking and Dagenham, the easternmost borough and as much Essex as London in some respects, is mainly white and working class but parts around Barking are changing as multi-ethnic London ripples outwards.

City and East is not as monolithically Labour as it might superficially appear, as shown by the very low winning share of the vote for John Biggs in 2004. However, Labour’s position is bolstered by the chronic divisions in the opposition forces. There was a four-way pile-up between Conservatives, Lib Dems, Ukip and Respect for second in 2004. The Conservatives polled quite well in Tower Hamlets (coming astonishingly close to being the largest party, running only 35 votes behind Labour) and among the few voters who live in the City. Respect did well in Tower Hamlets and Newham, while Ukip came a close second in Barking & Dagenham and the Lib Dems had some votes everywhere.

Labour will no doubt be hoping that some of the Muslim voters in Tower Hamlets and Newham who defected from the party in 2004 will return this time, and that hope will be encouraged by the split in Respect. It seems likely that the BNP will contest the constituency seat, emboldened by its election successes in Barking and Dagenham in 2006, and probably sweep up a lot of the former Ukip vote.

Labour led with 46% in 2005, with Respect and the Conservatives tied for second on 17%. While a Labour hold is the likeliest outcome in City & East in 2008, it remains a volatile and complicated constituency.


2004 election
Con – 23,749 -18.1%
Lab – 38,085 – 29.1%
LD – 18,255 -13.9%
Green – 8,687 – 6.6%
Ukip – 17,997 – 13.7%
Respect – 19,675 – 15%
CPA – 4,461 – 3.4%
Turnout – 33.4%

2000 election
Con – 19,266 – 19.5%
Lab – 45,387 – 45.9%
LD – 18,300 – 18.5%
Green – 11,939 – 12.1%
*Respect – 3,908 – 4.0%
Turnout – 29.4%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

Croydon and Sutton

Held by: Conservatives

Croydon and Sutton is a safe Conservative seat on the London assembly, not so much because it is overwhelmingly Tory but because the party is strong in both suburban boroughs.

Croydon is a battle between Labour and the Conservatives, with Labour dominant in the ethnically diverse wards in the north of the borough and the Tories enjoying popularity in the suburban south around Purley. The Lib Dems hardly figure. But Sutton is a two-party battle between the Lib Dems and Conservatives, with Labour nowhere. The north tends to vote Lib Dem, and the south Conservative.

Because of the near-impossibility of getting Sutton to vote Labour, or north Croydon to vote Lib Dem, the Conservatives win almost by default by having a reasonably strong vote in most areas of the constituency. Even at the 2005 election, they lead the combined seats with 39% to 30% for Labour and 28% for the Lib Dems. Tory chances are enhanced by good results in the 2006 borough elections, winning control of Croydon and narrowing the Lib Dem majority in Sutton.

The incumbent Conservative, Andrew Pelling, is standing down, having been elected MP for Croydon Central in 2005 – although he is also standing down from Westminster. Pelling’s successor, Steve O’Connell, has been deputy leader of Croydon council since 2006.


2004 election
Con – 52,330 – 38.6%
Lab – 25,861 – 19.1%
LD – 28,636 -21.1%
Green – 6,175 – 4.6%
Ukip – 15,203 – 11.2%
Respect – 3,108 – 2.3%
CPA – 4,234 – 3.1%
Turnout – 37.8%

2000 election
Con – 48,421 – 40.6%
Lab – 29,514 – 24.7%
LD – 30,614 – 25.7%
Green – 8,884 – 7.4%
*Respect – 1,823 – 1.5%
Turnout – 35.5%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

Ealing and Hillingdon

Held by: Conservatives

The Ealing and Hillingdon constituency covers most of suburban west London, stretching from Acton all the way out to Heathrow, Uxbridge and Northwood. When this assembly constituency was created in 2000, Labour was widely expected to win, but both elections so far have taken place at a relatively poor time for the party, and the Conservative candidate Richard Barnes has prevailed twice by relatively substantial majorities.

In 2004 the Conservatives outpolled Labour across most of the constituency, winning every single ward in two of the parliamentary constituencies (Uxbridge and Ruislip Northwood) that make up Hillingdon, and polling well in Acton. Labour was reduced to its core strongholds in Southall and Hayes, despite the Ealing North seat being won by Labour with a sizeable Westminster majority. The Liberal Democrats are not expected to make up too much ground in the area.

The chances of Labour unseating Richard Barnes in 2008 look remote at best. The borough elections in 2006 saw the Conservatives gaining strongly in both Ealing and Hillingdon. While their win in Hillingdon was expected, their triumph in Ealing was a surprise to most observers. The controversial proposal for a tram along the Uxbridge Road from Shepherd’s Bush to Ealing, a London-wide matter discussed in the Assembly, is thought to have harmed Labour in the borough elections and this factor could linger in 2008.


2004 election
Con – 45,230 – 32.4%
Lab – 34,214 – 24.5%
LD – 23,440 – 16.8%
Green – 9,395 – 6.7%
Ukip – 14,698 – 10.5%
Respect – 4,229 3.0%
CPA – 3,024 – 2.2%
Ind – 5,285 – 3.8%
Turnout – 37.3%

2000 election
Con – 44,850 – 37.4%
Lab – 38,038 – 31.7%
LD – 22,177 – 18.5%
Green – 11,788 – 9.8%
*Respect – 2,977 – 2.5%
Turnout – 33.5%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

Enfield and Haringey

Held by: Labour

Enfield and Haringey is the most marginal assembly constituency, with Joanne McCartney having a narrow 1,574 majority for Labour. It is a starkly divided chunk of north London in terms of its voting patterns. There is a Lib Dem redoubt in the western half of Haringey, in the parliamentary seat of Hornsey and Wood Green that they gained in 2005, while Tottenham, in eastern Haringey, is solidly Labour. Enfield is just as divided, with a strongly Labour area in the south-eastern corner at Edmonton and steadily safer Conservative territory as one moves north and west.

Labour were probably saved in 2004 by some good fortune among the minor party nominations. Ukip ate a bit into the Conservative vote, particularly in Enfield, and some who had voted for an independent pro-Livingstone candidate in 2000 returned to Labour. The result was that the swing against Labour was very small and the Tories were disappointed in 2004.

The Conservatives will be hoping that it is third time lucky in 2008. Elections since 2004 have been mixed. While the Conservatives picked up the Enfield Southgate seat on a high swing in 2005 they missed out on Enfield North. Labour led with 46% of the vote to 28% Conservative and 20% Lib Dem, in the constituencies in the two boroughs in 2005. Labour can find more grounds for optimism from the 2006 borough elections in this seat than most others, having fought off a determined Lib Dem challenge in Haringey and seen an unusual pro-Labour swing in Enfield. The Lib Dems have a solid base in western Haringey but not much support elsewhere. It will be an interesting election.


2004 election
Con – 32,381 – 27.9%
Lab – 33,955 – 29.2%
LD – 19,720 – 17%
Green – 10,310 – 8.9%
Ukip – 10,652 – 9.2%
Respect – 6,855 – 5.9%
CPA – 2,365 – 2%
Turnout – 36.1%

2000 election
Con – 31,207 – 29.2%
Lab – 34,509 – 32.2%
LD – 14,319 – 13.4%
Green – 10,761 – 10.1%
*Respect – 3,671 – 3.4%
Other – 12,581 – 11.8%
Turnout – 34.3%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

Greenwich and Lewisham

Held by: Labour

Greenwich and Lewisham in south-east London form the basis for what should be a safe Labour assembly constituency, which the party has had no trouble holding even in bad years like 2000 and 2004.

Lewisham has three safe Labour seats, and Greenwich comprises one-and-a-half safe Labour seats, plus a marginal seat in Eltham. Although a loss seems unlikely, Labour needs to watch Greenwich and Lewisham a little more closely in 2008, particularly if the Conservatives manage to reclaim support lost to Ukip in 2004.

Having been a model Labour authority, Lewisham fell to divided control in 2006, electing a Labour Mayor but depriving the party of a majority on the council. The peculiarity of Lewisham is that, even for London, its politics is variegated.

It has the largest Green group on any London borough (six councillors including list assembly member Darren Johnson), enclaves of socialist and Conservative support and a fair scattering of Lib Dems.

Greenwich stayed Labour, but the Conservatives polled well in the Eltham section of the borough and it is a more straightforward two party authority.

Greenwich and Lewisham in 2008 may, like North East in 2004, end up seeing a comfortable Labour win despite the party’s share of the vote falling below 30%, as four other parties will be scrapping to pick up support.


2004 election
Con – 22,168 – 20.4%
Lab – 36,251 – 33.3%
LD – 19,183 – 17.6%
Green – 11,271 – 10.4%
Ukip – 13,454 – 12.4%
Respect – 2,825 – 2.6%
CPA – 3,619 – 3.3%
Turnout – 35.1%

2000 election
Con – 22,401 – 23.6%
Lab – 40,386 – 42.6%
LD – 16,290 – 17.2%
Green – 11,839 – 12.5%
*Respect – 3,981 – 4.2%
Turnout – 32.2%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

Havering and Redbridge

Held by: Conservatives

Havering and Redbridge are the two outer eastern boroughs of London, based around Romford, Ilford and Woodford. The postal address for nearly all the area is Essex rather than London, and culturally rather than administratively much of it is white, lower middle-class south Essex rather than east London. This ambivalence towards London is reflected in its election results. Ken Livingstone won only one ward in Havering in the 2004 mayoral election, the smallest haul of any borough in London, with the rest all voting for Steve Norris. Redbridge is rather more mixed, with Ilford South being unusual in its pro-Labour voting patterns and its large ethnic minority population, but it is a minority element in this mainly white and right-of-centre assembly constituency.

The Conservatives have steadily recovered ground here in general and local elections, picking up Romford and Upminster in 2001, and Hornchurch and Ilford North in 2005. Ilford South (with the Wanstead part of the Leyton and Wanstead constituency) is the only area with a Labour MP. The Conservatives also gained Redbridge borough in 2002 and Havering in 2006. The BNP has significant support in parts of each borough, particularly Havering. Havering local politics is also complicated by a strong Residents’ Association. However, Conservative assembly member Roger Evans is overwhelmingly likely to win the election.


2004 election
Con – 44,723 – 34.6%
Lab – 28,017 – 21.7%
LD – 13,646 – 10.5%
Green – 6,009 – 4.6%
Ukip – 18,297 – 14.1%
Respect – 5,185 – 4%
CPA – 2,917 – 2.3%
Res Ass – 6,925 – 5.4%
Other – 2,031 – 1.6%
Ind – 1,597 – 1.2%
Turnout – 39%

2000 election
Con – 40,919 – 37.5%
Lab – 32,650 – 30%
LD – 14,028 – 12.8%
Green – 6,803 – 6.2%
*Respect – 1,744 – 1.6%
Res Ass – 12,831 – 11.8%
Turnout – 33.5%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

Lambeth and Southwark

Held by: Labour

Lambeth and Southwark are inner-city south London boroughs, stretching from the South Bank opposite Westminster and the City down through Brixton, Camberwell and Dulwich to the borders of suburbia at Streatham and Norwood. The parliamentary constituencies in the area are perhaps not a very interesting lot, with four out of five safe for Labour and the other, Southwark North and Bermondsey, safe for Simon Hughes and the Lib Dems. Local government politics in the two boroughs, however, has been interesting and explosive. The GLA results have come in something between the two, with Labour having a comfortable margin in 2000 but fighting off a strong Lib Dem challenge in 2004.

Labour should be able to win again – it would be a disaster indeed if this seat were to fall. The Lib Dem challenge here in 2004 was boosted by Hughes’s presence at the top of the ticket as mayoral candidate, a factor which will not be present in 2008. Lib Dem support in 2004 was quite localised, with strongholds in north Southwark and to a lesser extent in Streatham. The results in 2005 suggest a basically strong Labour position, with 48% of the vote to 29% for the Lib Dems and 16% for the Conservatives. Labour will also be encouraged by the 2006 borough elections, in which Lambeth was their only gain in the country in that bleak year for the party and there was also a pro-Labour movement in Southwark. Valerie Shawcross, the former leader of Croydon council, stands again for Labour.


2004 election
Con – 17,379 – 15.2%
Lab – 36,280 – 31.7%
LD – 30,805 – 26.9%
Green – 11,900 – 10.4%
Ukip – 8,776 – 7.7%
Respect – 4,930 – 4.3%
CPA – 3,655 – 3.2%
Ind – 608 – 0.5%
Turnout – 33.4%

2000 election
Con – 19,238 – 19.1%
Lab – 37,985 – 37.6%
LD – 22,492 – 22.3%
Green – 13,242 – 13.1%
*Respect – 6,231 – 6.2%
Others – 1,797 – 1.7%
Turnout – 32%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

Merton and Wandsworth

Held by: Conservatives

Merton and Wandsworth constituency covers a stretch of south-west London. Its innermost corner is at the New Covent Garden market at Nine Elms, and it stretches outwards as far as Putney Heath, Wimbledon Common, Mitcham and Morden.

Its political geography is rather unusual, in that the outer borough of Merton is better for Labour than the inner borough, Wandsworth. In 2004 Labour was ahead in a solid clutch of wards in Mitcham and Morden, and immediately across the border in the south Tooting wards of Wandsworth. The Conservatives led everywhere else, except one ward in Battersea. Merton and Wandsworth also saw a big gap between voting patterns for the assembly and mayor, with Ken Livingstone sweeping all but a few wards, even in Tory strongholds like riverside Putney and suburban Wimbledon.

It appears that voters in Wandsworth in particular, who often split their ticket between Labour for government and the local Conservative council, make distinctions at GLA level as well. In the 2005 general election, despite gaining Putney and Wimbledon and narrowly missing Battersea, the Conservatives still lagged 43-36 behind Labour, although this does not mean much for the 2008 assembly contest.

The Conservatives have won both assembly constituency elections in Merton and Wandsworth and should have little difficulty in adding a third. Their incumbent, Elizabeth Howlett, stands down and is replaced by Richard Tracey, the former MP for Surbiton who lost his seat in 1997.


2004 election

Con – 48,295 – 38.8%
Lab – 31,417 – 25.3%
LD – 17,864 – 14.4%
Green – 10,163 – 8.2%
Ukip – 8,327 – 6.7%
Respect – 4,291 – 3.4%
CPA – 2,782 – 2.2%
Ind – 1,240 – 1%
Turnout – 38.5%

2000 election
Con – 45,308 – 39.5%
Lab – 32,438 – 28.3%
LD – 12,496 – 10.9%
Green – 8,491 – 7.4%
*Respect – 1,450 – 1.3%
Other – 14,432 – 12.6%
Turnout – 36.4%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

North East

Held by: Labour

North East comprises the boroughs of Islington, Hackney and Waltham Forest. Like many assembly constituencies, it is a radial slice of London stretching from the heart of the metropolis at Clerkenwell all the way to the green spaces of Epping Forest. In North East the inner-city elements predominate, with Chingford being the only real piece of Tory suburbia included. North East, particularly in the central band of the seat from north Islington through Hackney to Walthamstow, is extremely culturally and ethnically diverse.

The two Labour victories in 2000 and 2004 do not mean that North East is an entirely safe and uninteresting seat, even though Labour did lead in the vast majority of areas included in it. The Liberal Democrats are the main electoral competition to Labour in most of North East in parliamentary and local elections, having a firm base in Leyton and Walthamstow within the Waltham Forest borough, and running Islington council. However, in 2004 they were only slightly ahead of the Conservatives. North East is also the strongest constituency for the Green party in first-past-the-post elections, with support highest in north Islington and parts of Hackney. With fairly significant Respect and Ukip votes in 2004, the voting pattern was very fragmented.

The prospects for 2008 suggest that a third Labour victory is the most likely outcome. Labour did reasonably well in the elections for the three borough councils in the area in 2006, and the Lib Dems fell back in their Islington heartland. Without a clearly defined challenger and a very diverse electorate, Labour could prevail again on a rather low share of the vote.


2004 election
Con – 23,264 – 18.1%
Lab – 37,380 – 29.1% ns
LD – 24,042 – 18.7%
Green – 16,739 – 13%
Ukip – 11,459 – 8.9%
Respect – 11,184 – 8.7%
CPA – 3,219 – 2.5%
Comm – 1,378 – 1.1%
Turnout – 33.9%

2000 election
Con – 20,975 – 17.8%
Lab – 42,459 – 36.1%
LD – 24,856 – 21.1%
Green – 18,382 – 15.6%
*Respect – 8,269 – 7%
Others – 2,645 – 2.3%
Turnout – 33%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

South West

Held by: Conservatives

South West comprises the boroughs of Hounslow, Richmond and Kingston. It is a curious constituency in that it has elected a Conservative assembly member twice but still does not have any Conservative parliamentary constituencies within its borders. It straddles the Thames and also the political divide between the south-western suburbs and west London. In 2004, each of the component boroughs was very close, with Labour 505 votes ahead of the Conservatives in Hounslow, and Lib Dem leads over the Conservatives in Richmond of 226 and in Kingston a comparatively handsome 531 votes.

Labour’s best areas were Heston and Brentford, the Lib Dems polled best in Surbiton and Twickenham, and the Conservatives had some votes everywhere but were ahead in Chiswick, Barnes, west Feltham and north Kingston.

South West remains a Lib Dem target in 2008, although the task of beating the Conservatives in Richmond and Kingston while minimising their deficit in Hounslow, and appealing to Labour tactical voters, looks difficult. In the 2005 general election they were ahead, with 39% of the vote compared to 33% for the Conservatives and 23% for Labour, but this was with the help of personal and tactical votes for two well-established MPs. The 2006 borough elections were a confused picture, with the Lib Dems gaining Richmond from the Conservatives while the Conservatives did relatively well in Kingston and Hounslow. Stephen Knight, the deputy leader of Richmond council, will see if it is third time lucky for the Lib Dems in South West.


2004 election
Con – 48,858 – 33%
Lab – 25,225 – 17%
LD – 44,791 – 30.3%
Green – 9,866 – 6.7%
Ukip – 12,477 – 8.4%
Respect – 3,785 – 2.6%
CPA – 3,008 – 2%
Turnout – 40.3%

2000 election
Con – 48,248 – 35.4%
Lab – 31,065 – 22.8%
LD – 41,189 – 30.2%
Green – 13,426 – 9.9%
*Respect – 2,319 – 1.7%
Turnout – 38.2%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under “Respect”

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

West Central

Held by: Conservatives

The West Central assembly seat comprises the boroughs of Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster. Most of the electorate in the latter two boroughs consists of extremely affluent residents of central London, with wards in Chelsea and Belgravia racking up 70% or higher Conservative shares of the vote. In recent decades Fulham has swung strongly to the Conservatives, and some Fulham wards can rival the more established wealthy areas for monolithic Conservative voting. There is something of a north-south divide in the seat, with the north-west corner of Westminster, North Kensington and Shepherd’s Bush being Labour’s better areas.

While Labour polled the most votes in the 1997 general election in the area, it was always going to be one of the Conservatives’ better bets to elect a constituency member and so it proved in 2000 and 2004 by a considerable margin. The incumbent member, Angie Bray, is stepping down to concentrate on campaigning for the new marginal parliamentary seat of Ealing Central and Acton. Conservatives won the Hammersmith and Fulham constituency in 2005 and the borough council in 2006. Kit Malthouse, a former Westminster councillor, inherits a safe assembly seat.


2004 election
Con – 51,884 – 44.7%
Lab – 21,940 – 18.9%
LD – 17,478 – 15.1%
Green – 10,762 – 9.3%
Ukip – 7,219 – 6.2%
Respect – 4,825 – 4.2%
CPA – 1,993 – 1.7%
Turnout – 35.3%

2000 election
Con – 47,117 – 44.2%
Lab – 28,838 – 27.1%
LD – 14,071 – 13.2%
Green – 12,254 – 11.5%
*Respect – 2,720 – 2.6%
Other – 1,600 – 1.5%
Turnout – 34.2%

*London Socialist Alliance vote given under Respect

Source: The House of Commons Library Research Paper 04/48

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A mountain to climb (29 September 2007)

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A mountain to climb (29 September 2007)

Posted on 29 September 2007 by admin

Conservatives 07: If they are to stand any chance of success, the Tories must recapture the Cameron Highlands.

Labour has had a “Brown bounce”, but another feature of the electoral scene this summer has been the descent from what might be called the Cameron Highlands (after a resort area in Malaysia – a place with considerably more to commend it to the visitor than Blackpool).

As a feature of the political landscape, the Cameron Highlands were the period between December 2005 and June 2007 when David Cameron was leader of the opposition to Tony Blair.

During this period, the Conservatives were scoring consistently around 38%-39% in voting intention in opinion polls and, equally steadily, leading Labour in voting intention and the head-to-head contrast of party leaders.

Although this sort of poll rating was less than ecstatic approval from the public, and not enough to win outright, it was a marked contrast with recent Conservative history.

Other than in some particularly bleak periods of John Major’s last government and the Blair honeymoon, in which the party’s ratings fell into the twenties, the Conservatives have flatlined in the polls since 1993, never escaping the prison of 31%-34% support except during the briefest of blips.

However, since Gordon Brown became prime minister, the Conservative rating has fallen back once more to the 33%-34% range. The variations in Labour’s lead recorded in recent opinion polls are mostly to do with how the non-Conservative two-thirds of the country is saying it will divide its favours, with the highest Labour leads being generated by unrealistically low levels of Lib Dem support.

The Conservatives’ ejection from the Highlands was in part a result of a strategic error, namely underestimating Gordon Brown. The Conservatives started to believe their own propaganda about Brown and extrapolate their poor personal relationships with him to imagine that the electorate would feel the same way on exposure to him.

Some of them started to expect a boring, aggressive, mechanical, far-left Brown who would be a gift to the opposition. They were not ready for the reality.

Brown’s poor showing against Cameron in hypothetical match-up polls before June was also given too much importance, because the change of prime minister – entirely predictably – was not the same as the anticipation, and the change itself caused the electorate to re-evaluate Brown in a new context.

This was the worst strategic error. But there has also been muddle about squaring the circle between being the modernising “heir to Blair” and aiming to capitalise on public disregard for Blair’s style of leadership.

Worryingly, some pre-Highlands polling phenomena have re-emerged, including the perception that the Conservatives are divided, not under Cameron’s control and too far to the right compared with the public.

The issue of Cameron not being seen as being “in charge of his party” is serious because public opinion places the Labour party much closer to the centre than the Conservatives. And while there is a belief that Cameron is moderate, he needs to be seen as fully in charge before this leads people to vote for his party.

Cameron’s personal ratings have also sagged alarmingly since June. The public perception of the Tories as a divided rabble, current since 1992, faded during Michael Howard’s leadership during 2004 and seemingly shaken off in 2006, is back.

Strategically, the Conservatives need to recapture the Cameron Highlands if they are to stand a chance of beating Brown. They can hope that conference publicity will help – they clawed back a little ground in August but disappeared from view as Brown and Labour have dominated the media in September.

To an extent, all publicity is good publicity, but there are serious dangers at Blackpool. Stories of splits and indiscipline will feed the reviving perception of the party as being incompetent. The Highlands were captured in the first place by Cameron’s fresh, progressive approach, but the party seems to be distancing itself from some of the environmental ideas it has been considering and going for the more traditional Tory fare at Blackpool of immigration and crime. Labour will no doubt point to a “lurch to the right”.

Going back to basics – if this phrase has yet been rehabilitated in Conservative discourse – may shore up the 33%-34% vote but leaves a lot of political territory in Labour’s hands, as in 2001 when the Tories aimed the campaign at their core vote and lost badly.

There is no alternative – to quote another resonant phrase – to Cameron and modernisation if they are serious about recovering from their last three dismal election performances.

To win support, the newer messages need to be presented in a balanced way with traditional Conservative thinking, in a way that tells a story about what a Conservative government would be like. The danger is that the mixture looks like an incoherent and opportunistic response to short-term pressures.

Tactically, the Conservatives have some advantages. The party’s organisation is in better condition than it has been for years, and although it has failed to attract large numbers of new members, it has once again managed to receive significant donations.

The Conservatives are now probably better than Labour at advanced electioneering, such as compiling information about the electors and funding activity in the marginal seats.

But the Conservatives cannot win an election with this alone. They need a good conference to remind the electorate why they greeted Cameron so warmly in 2005. And – if they can – they need to find a clear, resonant way of telling people why they should vote for his party. At the very least, they need to do well enough to deter Gordon Brown from calling an election.


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