Tag Archive | "david cameron"

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Why the Chartists wouldn’t support David Cameron’s boundary changes

Posted on 08 August 2012 by admin

David Cameron has once again cheekily invoked the Chartist democracy movement from the 1830s and 1840s as a justification for his government’s boundary changes. The Chartists did indeed demand equal constituencies, but there was no banner at Kennington in 1848 reading ‘Equal constituencies for all! No variation of more than 5 per cent in registered electorate (with the exceptions of the Isle of Wight, Orkney & Shetland and Na h-Eileanan An Iar)’. Even after the Great Reform Act of 1832 there were still differences in constituency electorate of the order of 100:1, and huge systematic differences between industrial areas and market towns. It is insulting to compare the previous work of the Boundary Commissions, which has produced more-or-less equal constituencies, with the grotesque differences that existed at the time of the Chartists.

When the Chartists complained about unequal-sized constituencies, they were thinking about gross injustices like the 243 electors of Andover in Hampshire having two MPs between them in 1847, the same representation as the 23,630 electors of Lancashire (Southern). A few odd cases like the Isle of Wight and Orkney & Shetland are hardly in the same league. The ‘Chartist’ argument also ignores the differences between adult population and the number of people on the electoral register. This was, of course, enormous in 1847 – but more or less a match by the 1970s. Since then, particularly since 2000, there have been increasing numbers of people left off the electoral registers – this time not through deliberate legal disqualification but because the machinery cannot keep pace with the speed at which some people move house, and the alienation of young people in particular from any official channels. Cameron’s intentions have very little to do with progressive political reform.

The problem of the difference between registered electors and the real number of people in a locality entitled to vote is acute. The worst-affected are the young, the poor and socially marginal; already in 2010 the average Labour constituency in England probably had more people qualified to be on the register than the average Tory seat. This is likely to get worse, because a more complicated and expensive system of individual electoral registration is being introduced from 2014. The government’s new law on boundaries requires a disruptive boundary review every parliament, and the next one may take place in 2015 on the basis of particularly inaccurate electoral registers.

It is worth recapitulating what the new boundaries mean, and how it compares internationally. Other than in a few exceptions granted for islands, constituencies will now have to be within 5 per cent of the UK average size, i.e. between 72,810 and 80,473 electors on the register in December 2010. This may sound reasonable, but it is the most extreme implementation of ‘equal size’ in a national legislature that uses single-member districts.

Table: Variation in constituency size in democracies using single member seats

  Date Basis Variability in seat size Smallest seat (as % of average) Largest seat (as % of average) % of seats within 5% national limit % of seats within 10% national limit
UK proposed 2015 (2010) Electorate 2.2

(approx.)

29.3 (approx.) 105.0 (approx.) 99.3 (approx.) 99.5 (approx.)
USA 2012 (2010) Population - 74.2 (approx.) 139.9 85.7 (approx.) 96.8 (approx.)
USA 2002 (2000) Population 4.4 76.5 139.7 89.7 96.3
England 2010 (2000) Electorate 8.6 76.5 152.9 44.1 79.2
Australia

 

2010 Electorate 9.1 63.8 132.4 66.7 87.3
UK 2010 (2000) Electorate 11.1 31.7 156.7 36.6 69.1
Canada 2008 (2006) Population 21.3 25.7 166.0 22.1 39.9
Jamaica

 

2007 Electorate 24.8 65.0 154.0 3.3 25.0
France 2007 (1986) Population* - 6.5 162.7 - -

 

The first date given is the relevant figure at the time of the most recent election, or in the cases of the US and UK following the current reallocations. Where a second date is given, this is the date at which the census or other count of relevant population took place. ‘Variation in seat size’ is the standard deviation of the size of constituencies, with the national relevant population divided by the total number of constituencies being given the value of 100 to allow comparable results. For France, although districting was done on a population basis in 1986 the figures given are for electorate in 2007.

There are two broad dimensions to equalising constituencies.

  • What to do with the anomalies – islands and national minorities – and how many particularly small or large constituencies should be tolerated because they are special cases.
  • The level of uniformity imposed on the majority of ‘normal’ cases.

The different measures in the table capture different dimensions of equality – how far out of line the anomalous cases are, and how unequal the system is as a whole. It also shows the proportion of seats that meet two criteria that have featured in debate in the UK, namely being 5 per cent or 10 per cent away from the national quota. The government’s bill requires that over 99 per cent of constituencies are within 5 per cent of the national quota (the exceptions being two Scottish island seats and perhaps one in the Highlands). No other comparable legislature hits 90 per cent. In terms of the overall deviation from the standard size, the government’s proposal is twice as ‘equalised’ as the US House of Representatives.

It is worth asking why, despite legal and constitutional rules about equality, Australia and the United States fail to equalise their constituencies.

The answer is that both countries respect the boundaries of their component states and territories when drawing national legislative districts. Australia divides its 150 House seats into 8 states and territories, and the US House of 435 is divided into 50 state delegations. Some states in each country are small – 7 American states have single seats, and 5 more an allocation of two seats. The result is that Montana comprises a single Congressional district of 994,416 people, while the slightly bigger state of Rhode Island has two small districts with around 527,623 people in each. Ten voters in Rhode Island have the same voting power as 18 Montanans – a bigger variation than the divergence Nick Clegg called ‘deeply damaging to our democracy’ back in 2010. I am pleased that he seems to have changed his mind.

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Local elections 2012: what will the gains and losses figures mean?

Posted on 02 May 2012 by admin

 

 How should we assess the local election results when we have a sense of things on Friday morning? The gains/ losses figures are the most popular measure as far as the media is concerned, because perhaps the best and most comparable measure – National Equivalent Vote share – is complex to calculate and can be worked out in more ways than one.

Benchmarks for local election gains and losses vary year by year because:

  • Different numbers of seats are available each year; for instance there were 4,104 seats in the 2008 locals (the baseline for 2012) and over 10,000 in the big year for English local elections that is the 2007/11 year of the cycle. 2012 is a fairly small year for seat numbers, so that massive gains and losses like Labour’s haul of around 2000 gains in 1995 are impossible.
  • Different sorts of area are contested in different years – Scotland and Wales this year, other years England only, and in general terms rural England in 2011 and 2013, and urban England in 2011 and 2012.
  • Different starting points. This year’s starting point (except in Scotland) is 2008, which was a very good local election year for the Conservatives. Labour therefore have to win a biggish number of seats to be respectable, and the Conservatives can afford to shed a number of seats won at their high water mark.
  • Electoral system  – the seats up in 2011 (and 2014 in London boroughs) will tend to magnify changes, because the multi-member first past the post system often involves large turnovers of seats if there is a swing. The STV PR system used in Scotland will produce smaller changes for a given swing.
  • Expectation management. This works in a couple of ways. The most obvious is that parties will try to under-claim their expected gains or exaggerate potential losses, to make the results on the day look ‘better than expected’. The more subtle is that they are affected by opinion polls and the general climate. A party that is, say, 10 points ahead in the national polls but whose local results are in line with a 5-point lead may be said to have had a ‘disappointing’ set of results, even though they are ‘objectively’ better than those of a party that is level in the polls but gets a two point lead on the local result and claims a triumph.

Figures for gains and losses are fuzzy around the edges, for several reasons.

They are affected by a few or more councils each year having boundary changes and therefore not being comparable with past years (this year: Hartlepool, Rugby, Daventry, Broxbourne) and affecting the overall party numbers.

Another factor is by-elections; some of the changes, particularly in a cycle like 2008/12 when there has been a big change in political climate, will have been discounted because the seats have already changed hands in by-elections. Take Walsall, for instance, where two wards that were Conservative in 2008 have already been won by Labour in by-elections. There are also defections, which tend to pattern wider political trends and can be important in some individual authorities – for instance the collapse of the Liberal Democrats in Rochdale or the Conservative split in Sefton. In some such cases a party can make apparent ‘gains’ by just recapturing seats from defectors. Another complication is sometimes that by-elections run concurrently with the local elections. In Bolton for instance there is a triple vacancy in a safe Conservative area, Bradshaw, giving the Conservatives an apparent extra 2 seats.

Seat totals are also skewed against urban England. The number of electors in each seat is much smaller in rural and suburban authorities, and seats are particularly small in the most rural areas. In terms of seats coming up in 2012, Claverdon ward (Stratford on Avon DC, Warwickshire) with fewer than 2,000 electors is weighted the same as over 20,000 in some Birmingham wards. A party doing differentially well in big cities and poorly in smaller towns and rural areas (as Labour did in 2011) will find its seat gains looking unflattering.

With all these warnings, the starting point needs to be the previous set of local elections in England and Wales in 2008. This was a very good Conservative year and a Labour disaster (national equivalent vote Conservative 43 per cent, Labour 24 per cent and Lib Dem 23 per cent). The Conservatives gained 300 seats and Labour lost 434. Reversing these figures would more or less restore the position that existed in 2004. Allowing for the fact that there are fewer seats available (large councils in Cheshire and Durham were contested in 2008), by-elections, and a possible slippage in Scotland, a Labour gain overall of around 400 would be something like a repeat of 2004. Now this would be a poor result. The local elections in 2004 were not a good year for Labour, with urban voters in particular giving the party a ‘kicking’ over the Iraq war and general ennui, and the Tories picking up in a number of marginals like Tamworth and Swindon. It was not a drubbing like 2008, but it was still a defeat. Translated into a national vote share, the Conservatives were ahead with 37 per cent, Lib Dems on 27 per cent and Labour on 26 per cent.

So, a net Labour gain of fewer than 400 seats is bad, particularly as a repeat of the 2011 local elections would mean a net gain of over 250 seats in the 36 metropolitan boroughs alone, another 70 in the 16 comparable unitary authorities, and about another 130 (very approximately) in comparable district councils. Fewer than 400 net gains in England would suggest slippage from 2011 (Labour can expect to make more gains in Wales than losses suffered in Scotland).

A ‘par’ result for Labour would involve doing a bit better than 2011 in urban England, consistent with a clear (but not landslide) lead over the Conservatives in national vote share, and picking up considerably in Wales while slipping a bit in Scotland. Perhaps about 100 gains in Wales, 500 in England, and 30 losses in Scotland, gives us a net gain of 570. (Having examined the local detail, I have revised this down a bit).

Translating recent trends in by-elections and polls, the leading experts in local elections, Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher of Plymouth University, project about 700 Labour gains which feels a bit high. Anything from 550 to 700 should probably be regarded as more or less par.

Over 700 is therefore extremely good for Labour. The party cannot exceed this total much, because its ability to win seats is already ‘maxed out’ in many areas on the basis of the 2011 results (e.g. Manchester) or would be on a modest swing from 2011, and there are simply not all that many seats available. Also bear in mind the caveats about seats that have already switched in by-elections.

The Conservative picture is a mirror image of Labour’s. They must expect losses to Labour, and unlike in 2011 there will not be many places where they can make compensating gains from Liberal Democrats and Independents.

A repeat of 2011 in England would involve net Conservative losses of the order of 180-200 seats. They should hold reasonably steady in Scotland, and lose a bit in Wales – perhaps 30 seats? A net loss of 200 must be accounted a success for the Conservatives if they manage it, given the poor context for the 2012 elections.

A par result would be a bit worse than this (300 odd), and a genuinely bad result would be something like 400 down.

The Liberal Democrats must expect to lose, possibly very severely. A repeat of 2011 would involve around 280 losses in England, perhaps 30 in Wales and something of a caning in Scotland, losing around half of their 166 seats from 2007. This adds up to a little short of 500 for the expected level of losses, assuming that they are pretty much where they were in May 2011. If they have recovered a bit since then, though local activism or a hint of recovery in the national position, they will do better. Because a repeat of 2011 would put them at rock bottom in many areas (the reverse phenomenon to Labour being maxed out in the big cities), there is not a lot of downside risk for the Lib Dems – the main forecast is pretty brutal. Much worse than this and they are still losing support compared to 2011.

 

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LOCAL ELECTIONS 2012

Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

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

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

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

Opinion poll ratings at the time of recent local elections

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

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

National equivalent vote share in local elections

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

 

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

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

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

(From Progress magazine, April 2012)

 

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Hung parliament: what happens now? (7 May 2010)

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Hung parliament: what happens now? (7 May 2010)

Posted on 07 May 2010 by admin

The predicted results offer many scenarios for Westminster and the next inhabitant of 10 Downing Street

Election night 2010 was extraordinary, and it is still not really over. As dawn broke on 2 May 1997, there was no doubt that Tony Blair would be heading to Downing Street and leading a majority Labour government; but while it was obvious by breakfast time on 7 May 2010 that there would be a hung parliament with no overall majority, the rest of the story was far from clear.

Doubt over the last few results, which are still trickling in, means it remains to be seen what sort of hung parliament we will get. The difference between the Conservatives having 314 and 306 seats is a crucial one: if their numbers manage to tick up to 314, there is really no prospect of forming a non-Conservative government. The combined forces of Labour and Liberal Democrats would still be outnumbered by the Tories, and the prospect of a deal spanning Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Plaid Cymru and one or more flavours of Northern Ireland MP lacks credibility. The only option would be for Gordon Brown to resign and David Cameron to form a minority government before parliament meets.

However, if the Conservatives fall short in the remaining marginal seats being counted and end up at around 306, then the combined Labour and Lib Dem benches would outnumber them. Though Labour and the Lib Dems would still be short of an outright majority, they could probably govern if the political will were there. The constitutional position is clear: Gordon Brown is entitled to stay in Downing Street and explore his options, even if the situation appears unpromising and the rightwing press is keen to push him out.

Given the political realities, Brown could also give other Labour figures some time to find common ground with the Lib Dems and smaller parties, a process that seemed to be starting as the results were coming in, with Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson speaking out about electoral reform and “progressive” politics.

The chance of getting electoral reform may be a distant one, but it is the best on offer.

The surprisingly bad results for the Lib Dems may well discredit Nick Clegg’s confrontational approach towards Labour. But the leader and the party would need to find some loopholes fast in their previous talk of a party with a clear lead in votes and seats having a mandate.

There is no real need to hurry. The Queen’s speech is not until 25 May, and government can continue to tick along in election purdah mode for a couple more weeks. A transition period is perfectly normal practice in most other democracies, and the world will not come to an end if there is no quick outcome.

Whatever the result, there will probably be discreet talks about how to organise the formation of the government to minimise the potential for controversy around the Queen’s role in the process, and probably also to provide reassurance if the markets have serious wobbles (although it is open to the Conservatives to play hardball).

A consideration that will loom rapidly is the possibility of a second election, later in 2010 or in 2011. A minority Conservative government would find this attractive, and probably face no constitutional problem in calling another election. A tenuous Lib-Lab coalition, on the other hand, would want to try to run for longer, to make sure that electoral reform happens.

While British precedents suggest that a second election would probably be won by the Conservatives with an overall majority, there are no certainties, and a minority government would probably be unable to remap the constituencies to its own advantage, as a majority Conservative government would do.

The British constitution gives considerable advantages to an incumbent that should not be given up lightly. While the decision-making work of government is care and maintenance only, the central institutions of No 10 and the Cabinet Office can be used to prepare a Queen’s speech agenda with which to face parliament. And, if necessary, they can work on coalition deals on policy or personnel – just as they would do on an intra-party basis for a re-elected majority government.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/07/hung-parliament-what-happens-now

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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%.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/14/pollwatch-conservative-lead-narrows

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The perks of bonuses (16 February 2009)

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The perks of bonuses (16 February 2009)

Posted on 16 February 2009 by admin

Attacking bonuses earned by bankers is counterproductive: they need and deserve incentives to save the UK economy

Bonuses are supposed to be paid on the basis of the performance of the company (or in this instance, bank) and the employee in the previous year. This simple fact seems to escape the attention of a lot of people who talk about City pay. I know a little bit about it because, to coin a phrase, some of my best friends are bankers; take this declaration of interest into account by all means, but do not dismiss the argument for that reason.

Bonuses are convenient for employers because they do not create open-ended commitments or affect other payments such as, for instance, redundancy. Banks employ many people who are neither tellers at branches nor the executives who made all the errors, but whose trading and sales expertise can make a large difference to the fortunes of the institution. For most of these people, bonuses were neither windfalls nor tips, but actually served their purpose as incentives to work hard. Any fool can make money in a rising market, but it takes skill and commitment to make money when the going gets tough, and over-performing in a bad market is probably one of the most bonus-worthy achievements there is.

The semi-nationalised Lloyds Banking Group, created in January 2009 from Lloyds TSB and Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS) is in a particularly strange position. Shortly after the merger was announced, samizdat images started circulating around the City. Howard, star of Halifax’s television commercials, was depicted doing something unmentionable to the black horse of Lloyds. Lloyds is the one institution that did not fail itself but been dragged down by helping the whole sector, and the government, out of a tight spot by taking over HBOS, Lloyds TSB generated about £1.3bn in profits in 2008, compared to losses of £8.4bn at HBOS.

David Cameron declares that Lloyds staff should be restricted to a figure, £2,000 (which, after 41% ends up with the exchequer, amounts to £1,180), which he has plucked from the air. Cameron can probably afford to tip the waiter £2,000 after dinner, thanks to his inherited family wealth, estimated by the Sunday Times Rich List at over £30m. It seems perverse that regardless of individual performance, City workers should have their pay dictated by a preposterous political auction about who can be harshest to the wicked bankers. Meanwhile, taxation of inherited wealth appears to be on the way out.

I would not mind so much if this were a shift from market capitalism to egalitarian socialism – but this is more like a regression to feudalism. Politicians of all parties boasted for years until 2008 about the financial sector, and often led the calls for further deregulation, and now cover their own errors by lambasting the banks. Things went too far with excessive and guaranteed bonuses, but the tone of public discussion about the City has now become indiscriminate and nasty. If and when the bits are put back together we shall still need the City and its employees to put their skills to generating, rather than dissipating, earnings for Britain.

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Beware hubris (28 September 2008)

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Beware hubris (28 September 2008)

Posted on 28 September 2008 by admin

The Tories’ basic ideology is, if not bankrupt, trading under Chapter 11. Cameron may be safe, but his policies look vulnerable

The Conservatives have had a wonderful year since their last conference, when they deterred Gordon Brown from calling an election in November. Apart from the wobble of the past week – which is probably attributable to Labour’s usual post-conference bounce – the Tory vote has been hitting a stable and high level in the mid-40s since spring 2008. That’s well ahead of anything they’ve managed since 1988, and an election-winning position. David Cameron’s personal approval ratings are more variable, but on this measure as well there is no cause for complaint. Their local and London elections in May demonstrated real electoral progress. The party has also recorded its first byelection gain since 1982 in Crewe and Nantwich and seen off a Liberal Democrat challenge in Henley.

So what could possibly go wrong at Birmingham? Now the prospect of a Tory government is being taken so seriously, the Conservatives can expect a greater degree of scrutiny from the broadsheets. Another risk will be bandwagon-jumping from interest groups and lobbyists who wish to become on better terms with the potential next government. Conference will have a busier, more glossy and hectic feel than in the past, which will fuel the feeling that the Conservatives are on their way. The risk is of premature hubris.

Winning is a considerable benefit in the struggle for party unity. The 2006 conference, which was at the softest and most listening phase of Cameronism, saw some subtle displays of different priorities: tote bags bearing tax-cutting and anti-EU slogans were carried around conference. Last year’s conference became a festival of unity, despite sub-surface misgivings within the party, because of the pressure generated by the mishandling of the election announcement by Number 10. An imminent election concentrates minds. In 2008, the sense that they are on the way and the Cameron strategy is working will mean that there will not be much by way of public dissent. The party’s self-presentation has also shifted a bit to the right, with recent pronouncements on obesity and other issues rooted in a traditional Conservative emphasis on personal responsibility. The party has also rowed back from some previous proposals for reform or consensus, such as the composition of a revised Lords. This suggests confidence in their ability before long to implement an undiluted Conservative agenda.

However, there are still a few tensions. One is quite how far it is permissible to go in painting a negative picture of the state of Britain. Oppositions always have to judge whether they will be hurt by the allegation that they are “running down Britain”. Cameron’s frequent references to a “broken society”, while striking a responsive chord with mid-market newspapers, seems hyperbolic to many other commentators: it does not match up with the reality of life as it is mostly lived. The phrase was criticised by none other than the principal Conservative executive politician, Boris Johnson, who called it “piffle“, but it remains a Conservative campaign theme and no doubt we will hear it from Birmingham. The Cameron team has essentially absorbed the particular definition of “social justice” promoted by Iain Duncan Smith since 2003.

The Tories’ plans and policies are at a late but nowhere near final stage of evolution. They have, however, a more pithy overall narrative than the other two parties. Policy areas have been grouped into three “agendas”: giving people more opportunity and power over their lives; making families stronger and society more responsible; making Britain safer and greener. It is not a bad narrative, but the detail is lacking and where it is spelt out (as, ironically enough, over the promotion of apprenticeships) it is sometimes not that different from Labour’s. Like a lot of political rhetoric, the Tory slogans are banal. Who would say they were for giving people less opportunity and power over their lives, weaker families and a more irresponsible society, and a more dangerous and dirty Britain?

While the economic downturn has helped the Conservatives to achieve their current position of dominance, it also risks undermining their policies. The likely recession’s effect on public finances may make the sums cease to add up (if indeed they did to start with), and the priorities of the public shift during recessions (as Labour found when its policies, conceived in the boom of 1988-89, looked less appropriate in recessionary 1992). The oil price spike has also exposed some contradictions between different strands of Conservatism, with potentially different free market, environmentalist and populist responses. The Conservatives have gone for the populist “hard pressed motorist” line – a possible sign that Cameron’s initial emphasis on the environment has shallow roots.

Indeed, in some ways the financial crisis undermines non-interventionist ideology that has driven the party. They still have little coherent to say about how the key institutions of capitalism should work. Gordon Brown last week at least had the start of a narrative of how to respond to the crisis. The Tories’ basic ideology is, if not bankrupt, at least trading under Chapter 11, and they are vulnerable because of their inexperience.

However, while policy is somewhat difficult, Cameron’s position is extremely strong and he can stamp his authority on the party at this conference. Emerging from the conference season with polling numbers back in the mid-40s and their poll lead recovered would be enough to rally the party’s confidence.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/28/toryconference.creditcrunch

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Labour’s problems run deep (19 August 2008)

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Labour’s problems run deep (19 August 2008)

Posted on 19 August 2008 by admin

If a change of leadership can’t help Labour, as today’s poll suggests, there is little the party can do to regain public support

Whenever you ask someone what they would do in a hypothetical situation, you should not be surprised if the reality turns out differently when it comes to the crunch. The same is true about the things people tell pollsters.

In the run-up to the 1992 election polls regularly found that Labour’s narrow lead under Neil Kinnock became a larger lead when voters were asked how they would behave if John Smith were leader. Just after the election, a Gallup study found that, according to voters, replacing Kinnock with Smith would have been worth about five points to Labour’s share of the vote. In that relatively close election, it would have been enough to make Labour the largest single party in a hung parliament, perhaps not far short of an overall majority.

However, while voters (contrary to myth) rarely lie to pollsters, they quite often lie to themselves. Saying they would have supported a Smith-led Labour party in 1992 was a way of reducing cognitive dissonance for people who were not going to vote Labour at all, but felt as if they should. This in turn stored up a massive potential for buyer’s remorse during the 1992-97 parliament.

In early 2007 polls started to show that a hypothetical match-up between Gordon Brown and David Cameron would produce a worse result for Labour than under Tony Blair. These polls were tapping into a sense of public weariness with Brown, and uncertainty about the economy, and can be seen as a prelude to the government’s current trough. But perceptions changed, twice in fairly rapid succession in summer and autumn 2007 as Brown first built a good reputation for competence and then destroyed it.

Polls about hypothetical situations are not very good at predicting what actually happens when that situation comes to pass, but they can give an insight into how people are thinking about the current state of affairs.

The hypothetical question about a David Miliband leadership in this morning’s Guardian-ICM poll indicates it would make very little difference. This suggests that there are not that many people who are put off Labour specifically by Brown’s leadership, and that the problems lie deeper – with the state of the economy and the spread of a “time for a change” feeling. It suggests that there is relatively little that Labour can do or say in the present circumstances to recapture public support.

If Miliband did seem to make a difference, then that would indicate not so much that there was decisive public support for him to replace Brown, but a sign that there was still something Labour could do to retrieve the situation, rather than sit tight and hope for better economic news. Public feelings about Miliband are, for the most part, only weakly formed and there are a lot of “don’t know” responses – but in most questions measuring Brown against Miliband more people thought “neither” was particularly good. This is frightening indeed for Labour – a lot of people seem to have given up on the party. To repair the damage done by the botched Brown honeymoon of 2007 would require a formidable display of political skills on the part of the prime minister – whoever that may be.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/aug/19/polls.gordonbrown

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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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/29/amountaintoclimb

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A reversal of midterm fortunes (20 July 2007)

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A reversal of midterm fortunes (20 July 2007)

Posted on 20 July 2007 by admin

The byelection results are great for Labour, but David Cameron can expect renewed grumbling in his ranks, while the Lib Dems were caught napping.

Last night’s byelections were unambiguous good news for Gordon Brown and proof that the “Brown bounce” in Labour’s fortunes picked up in opinion polls is based on reality. Not only did Labour hold both seats with comfortable majorities, but the detail of the results is also encouraging for the new prime minister.

It is normal for a government party to shed some votes in seats it has to defend in byelections, but the recent record of the Labour party has been woeful. In three byelections in the 2001-05 parliament the party’s vote share fell by more than 25 percentage points, and the result in Dunfermline in 2006 (down 17.4%) was almost as bad. In Sedgefield Phil Wilson’s vote share dropped by 14.1% compared with Tony Blair‘s impressive result in 2005, which while a considerable drop was easily absorbed in such a safe seat. But the real triumph was Ealing Southall, where Virendra Sharma‘s vote share was only 7.3% down on what Labour won in 2005. This was the smallest drop in any seat Labour has defended in a byelection since Tony Blair came to power in 1997.

Another aspect of the results that will please Gordon Brown is the lack of anti-Labour tactical momentum in the byelections. Voters did not line up behind the candidate best placed to defeat Labour and although the Liberal Democrats came second and increased their vote in both seats, they did not succeed in squeezing the Tory vote even in Sedgefield.

Part of the reason for the mediocre Lib Dem results in both seats was the speed with which the byelections were called. Labour’s calculation, which was vindicated, was that the longer the seat remained vacant the more chance the famous Lib Dem byelection machine would have to swamp the constituency with leaflets and establish a clear Lib Dem v Labour dynamic. By calling them quickly, Labour prevented the Lib Dems from building up momentum. In Sedgefield, a predictable byelection given that Tony Blair’s career plans after Downing Street could have been anticipated, the Lib Dems were caught napping by failing to stand a full slate of candidates to work the seat in the local government elections in May. Some of the disaffected protest vote ended up with the BNP, whose candidate Andrew Spence had led the direct action campaign against fuel taxation in 2000 and found a natural home in the party.

The Southall result in particular was a blow to David Cameron, who had staked a lot on the result. He was prominent in the campaign, even appearing on the ballot paper (Tony Lit was the candidate of “David Cameron’s Conservatives”). Southall was an experiment in the Conservatives’ strategy of trying to appeal to previously barren areas in multicultural urban England, with a candidate who made up for in style what he lacked in experience. Cameron hoped to demonstrate that his inclusive, moderate and glitzy approach was paying off. In all this, the Conservatives failed and Cameron can expect a renewed round of grumbling in his ranks. Brown, meanwhile, can start the summer with the satisfaction of having reversed what looked like a serious tailspin in Labour’s midterm election fortunes.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/jul/20/areversalofmidtermfortunes

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