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Eastern Promise

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Eastern Promise

Posted on 09 April 2011 by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photograph Copyright the fantastic Katie Drouhet Photography: website and Facebook

Article originally published at Progress Online 9 April 2011

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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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We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

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We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

Posted on 29 September 2009 by admin

Gordon Brown’s manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote is too little, too late for electoral reformers

Labour retains some shreds of its constitutional reform programme that was part of its appeal in 1997, and Gordon Brown’s speech at conference on Tuesday featured three significant promises on reform. We have the most detail on the longstanding policy of ending the absurdity of hereditary peers and introducing an elected second chamber. Another, the ability of electors to “recall” erring MPs by forcing an election, has also been trailed but is a minor and possibly dangerous concession to populism.

The other announcement is a genuine surprise. The 2010 Labour manifesto will contain a promise to have a referendum early in the next parliament on one form of electoral reform, the Alternative Vote (AV). This is welcome, but can only be greeted by constitutional reformers with the very thinnest of smiles. AV is a weak reform, and the promise at this stage of something in the Labour manifesto reminds one of Hunter Thompson’s cruel simile of a candidate making promises “like a farmer with terminal cancer bargaining for a loan on next year’s crop”. Even if Labour’s malaise enters spontaneous remission and Brown is still Prime Minister a year from now, this is pretty mild fare.

The Alternative Vote (AV), which Gordon Brown has come to support, is a simple reform. The current system asks voters to mark an X by a single candidate (implicitly saying that the voter opposes the other candidates in equal measure). Under AV, voters choose their favourite candidate with a 1, next favourite with 2 and so on. If no candidate gets a majority of 1 votes, the 2 votes for the lowest-placed candidate are taken into account, and so on until someone gets to 50%. Nothing else changes – constituencies will be exactly the same.

AV is simply an accommodation of the present system to circumstances where two thirds of MPs are there despite a majority of their local voters having voted against them. The electorate clearly no longer believes that a choice of two parties is adequate. AV broadens political choice a bit, makes tactical voting much less significant, and encourages a more honest and pluralistic relationship between large and small parties. To win marginal seats under AV, a party will need to build bridges with supporters of local minority parties and not pretend to have all the answers.

Additionally, AV is probably the most extremist-proof electoral system ever devised, as – other than people who support the party – most voters will make sure the BNP is ranked last on their ballot.

AV is not perfect by any means. By the same token, it is still poor at including minority points of view (Australia has AV and a very rigid two-party system) and means almost as many safe seats as first past the post (FPTP). But overall, as I have argued elsewhere, the Alternative Vote is better than FPTP, and introducing it would be a big step forward.

A promise to legislate for AV would have been solid progress. A referendum on AV is a different, and much worse, proposition.

In principle, a referendum should offer a choice between two fundamentally different options. AV is another, rather better, species of majoritarian system that preserves safe seats and the monopoly on local representation enjoyed by each MP. It is only worth going to the people with a real choice – between a majoritarian system and one based on the idea of proportional representation and extending electoral choice.

This is, after all, what Labour offered in 1997 and what the Jenkins Commission came up with in 1998. In itself, the change from voting with an X to voting by ranking candidates 1, 2, 3 is a very small shift; and voters could be forgiven for asking why it’s necessary bother with a referendum.

Perhaps worse, the practical difficulties of winning an AV referendum look prohibitive. It is an arithmetical fact that to win a referendum needs 50% plus one vote. Under our current ridiculous system, a party only needs around 35% of the vote to form a majority government. Even in 1997, Labour did not have anything approaching 50%.

The party, in good pluralist fashion, realised that compromise was necessary to build referendum-winning alliances for devolution in Scotland and Wales. Where might the Labour party – or that part of it which likes the policy – find allies to win a referendum for AV in the face of predictable vitriol from the Conservatives and most of the media?

The Liberal Democrats will probably end up recommending a “Yes” vote, but will tick the “no publicity” box and avoid appearing on platforms with Labour ministers; the Greens and electoral reform campaigners will be dismissive, and civil society groups will not help. It could be made to seem like a Labour fix without actually helping the party much – a perverse outcome if ever there was one.

UKIP might be on-side, but they may be the only allies out there. “Vote yes, because Gordon Brown and Nigel Farage want you to” is not a compelling slogan. The risk is that, even if Labour scrape back in again, an AV referendum will fail, and take down with it any alternative to Tory hegemony that might be based on the support of only one potential elector in five.

There is still an opportunity to get something better. A referendum bill will need to go through parliament. The Liberal Democrats, if there were to be a hung parliament, would be in a position to press for a better outcome than AV – either adopting a proportional system, or handing the job of design of the system to a democratic Citizens’ Assembly rather than keeping it in Whitehall.

By calling for an AV referendum, Brown has at last gestured in the direction of a new politics and that is welcome, both for Labour and for reformers. It is more than the Conservatives will ever do and does establish a clear difference between the two big parties on democratising Westminster. But Brown would have better to offer a radical reform straight away and gain the credit for bold leadership and pluralism, rather than a messy compromise or a half-measure. The more radical option is also more likely to mobilise broad support and win the referendum. An AV referendum may smell like a win for constitutional reformers, but victory itself is still a long way further on from here.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/29/gordon-brown-electoral-reform

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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?”

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2009/jun/08/european-election-results-analysis

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A little local difficulty (3 November 2008)

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A little local difficulty (3 November 2008)

Posted on 03 November 2008 by admin

Labour could win Glenrothes. Even defeat won’t see a nail in Brown’s political coffin

Anyone with a retentive political memory will recall that the Glenrothes byelection is supposed to be the killing blow to Gordon Brown’s ailing premiership, following Labour’s humiliation at the hands of the SNP in Glasgow East and the leadership speculation in July. The financial crisis and the conference season have removed this possibility from the agenda. Even another defeat, in this more serious and less frothy political climate, will not lead to Brown’s departure, and in reality it is doubtful that anything short of a truly awful result like a five-figure SNP majority, or third place, would have done so. The constituency is peculiarly unsuitable for a role as a national barometer.

The Glenrothes constituency is on the edge of one of the sharpest social and political divides of any rural area in Britain. Just to the east lies the soft agricultural, almost southern English-looking countryside of North East Fife, and towns such as academic St Andrews and the attractive fishing harbour of Anstruther. Glenrothes is where the rough, scarred landscape of the ex-coalfield of Central/West Fife begins. In East Fife, Menzies Campbell’s constituency, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are the main parties, with the SNP and Labour hardly relevant to the outcome and weak even at local government level. In Glenrothes the positions are reversed, with Labour and SNP dominant and the Lib Dems and Conservatives irrelevant (although they are fighting their own Lilliputian battle for third place). The tough mining towns and villages of Fife have a fierce collective, class-conscious tradition, typified by the Communist MP for West Fife from 1935 to 1950, Willie Gallacher. This area is now divided between the Westminster seats of Glenrothes and the Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath seat of the prime minister.

Glenrothes itself is a new town, designed around a short-lived coal mine but reinvented as a centre for communities that would otherwise have died with the exhaustion of the Fife coal seams, a replacement source of employment (in manufacturing and the council’s headquarters) and better housing. In recent years some of the pit villages and new housing around Markinch have attracted Edinburgh commuters, rather as the English new towns have grown into new upmarket suburbs.

New town politics can be volatile and peculiar. Places like Basildon, Stevenage and Harlow started off as Labour, swung wildly to the Tories in Thatcher’s elections (home ownership and tax cuts were a potent appeal for predominantly skilled white working class communities) and then to Blair in 1997. Since then they have drifted back to the Tories, thanks in part to the new commuter estates, and in part to the long term trend Blair interrupted. In Scotland it is different, because no matter how enthusiastically the tenants bought their houses, the Conservative party was simply beyond the pale.

The Scottish new towns like Cumbernauld and Glenrothes have been fertile ground for the SNP when the party has been on an upward trend, although that vote slumps rapidly when the tide ebbs. There seems to be something about moving to a new town that encourages people to reassess traditional loyalties and think about politics in terms of consumer options and aspiration, although in Glenrothes this exists alongside a continuing broad attachment to socialism absent in England, except for Peterlee in the former Durham coalfield.

Constituencies like Glenrothes produce two sorts of result. One is typified by the 2005 Westminster election, a low point in the recent history of the SNP, in which Labour held Glenrothes with an apparently mountainous majority. The other sort happens when the SNP is surging: the Nationalists won the corresponding Fife Central seat in the 2007 Scottish Parliament election. Given that Labour, even though some ground has been made up since summer, are still not exactly popular, one should probably expect Glenrothes to be in one of its SNP moods. The SNP, in any case, are good at campaigning in by-elections, and their activists have flooded into Glenrothes fuelled by confidence and optimism. In the past, the SNP has achieved high swings against Labour even when Labour has been popular, as in Monklands East in 1994 and Hamilton South in 1999, and of course only a few months ago they won their triumph in Glasgow East.

Even so, nobody is quite taking an SNP victory for granted in Glenrothes. Unlike Glasgow East, the area is used to electoral competition and the local Labour party has not grown complacent on a monopoly of representation. The electors are more familiar with the good and bad points of both main parties and their arguments, and probably more resistant to the sort of collapse that took place in Glasgow. For the first time, the SNP has to defend a record in power. While at Holyrood where they are still fairly popular, the collapse of HBOS has left the party looking less relevant to the big issues. While the UK government could organise a massive bailout that (somewhat) stabilised the markets, the nagging thought that an independent Scotland could have been next behind Iceland in the queue at the door of the IMF must have occurred to voters.

However, Alex Salmond’s government is not the main focus for those looking for criticisms of the SNP, this honour instead goes to Fife council whose leader Peter Grant is the candidate. Council leaders have their strengths and weaknesses as by-election candidates. While they are often experienced local politicians who can avoid campaign blunders, they are also responsible for what the council does, a lot of which is inherently unpopular. If electors are looking to cast a protest vote, they have a choice of whom to protest against. Labour’s candidate, Lindsay Roy, is far from a professional politician, coming to the contest from his position as head of Kirkcaldy High School. In Fife, educators and education are traditionally treated with a respect that exceeds that given by most other communities. As in Glasgow East, it is a contest between two strong candidates.

There will be a large swing to the SNP compared with the baseline of 2005, of that there is no doubt. Until the financial crisis broke, it looked as if it was going to be easily big enough to swamp Labour, and informed comment suggested that if Glenrothes got close enough for a recount, that would be a pretty good showing for Labour. Now it does not seem impossible that Labour could cling on. If you had asked people at the start of 2008 which Scottish seats Labour would hate to defend in a by-election, Glenrothes would rank high on the list, while any assessment of the irreducible hard core of Labour constituencies would have included Glasgow East. As the American maxim goes, “All politics is local”, and one does not have to look much further than Fife to prove that.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/nov/03/glenrothes-labour

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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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It could be worse (20 September 2008)

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It could be worse (20 September 2008)

Posted on 20 September 2008 by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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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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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/may/04/coldcomfort1

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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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