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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 broken rule of thumb in Glasgow (25 July 2008)

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A broken rule of thumb in Glasgow (25 July 2008)

Posted on 25 July 2008 by admin

With a high turnout and a dramatic result, the byelection was a disaster for Labour, but what does it mean for the other parties?

Glasgow East was an astonishing result. The SNP win in this seat, however squeaky the majority, was remarkable not just for its high swing, but for the relatively good turnout, the strong Labour candidate, and the previously intractable nature of Labour support in Glasgow’s east end. It seemed a solid Labour firewall, but in east Glasgow it is far from unknown for solid-looking structures to “go on fire”.

Scottish byelections in apparently safe Labour seats have often seen large swings from Labour to the SNP – 22% in Hamilton South in 1999, 19% in John Smith’s old seat of Monklands East in 1994, and 11% in Paisley South in 1997. In each of these years, Labour had a comfortable lead in the national polls. The scale of the swing often reflects the first serious campaigning in such a seat, and this must surely be the case in a seat that was considered as safe as Glasgow East. While all of these near misses faded rapidly, so too did the victories in Hamilton and Govan.

The 42% turnout in the byelection is pretty impressive. A loss of only six points since the 2005 general election suggests that the first serious campaign for a seat in the east end of Glasgow in the last 50 years has motivated voters. The low turnout in byelections between 1997 and 2001 presaged the steep fall in 2001. Following the small drop in Crewe and Nantwich, it is clear that byelections have started to bring voters to the polls and this suggests that turnout will rise at the general election.

A previous rule of thumb in west of Scotland byelections was that the Catholic Labour vote was more solid than the party’s support in “Protestant” seats like Govan and Monklands East (ie Airdrie). But Glasgow East rather disproves this. Labour’s nightmare must be that the Catholic Labour vote is going the way of the Protestant working-class Tory vote that used to be so strong in the west of Scotland before it collapsed between about 1960 and 1980.

I never shared the view that John Mason was an unconvincing candidate – people in a large chunk of the constituency, Baillieston ward, knew him and obviously liked him as he obtained an enormous personal vote in the 2007 council elections. Glasgow East was quite blessed with some good candidates – Mason and Margaret Curran obviously, and the also-ran Conservative and Lib Dem candidates Davena Rankin and Ian Robertson were worthy of notice and perhaps something better in future.

The Conservatives’ relatively good result in Glasgow East, unlike their wins in Crewe and Henley, should not be taken too seriously. If you are a Tory in Glasgow East, you are accustomed to adversity and the vote, although small, is very solid and remained so (on the slightly lower turnout) in the byelection. But the result is mildly encouraging. The Lib Dem vote proved, in the absence of much local organisation, squeezable.

Among the effects of Glasgow East will be to achieve something scarcely possible in politics – to make Alex Salmond even more self-satisfied. He took something of a risk in predicting victory in this byelection, and while he has the admirable quality of being able to brazen out over-optimistic remarks, triumph is not good for his political style. First minister’s questions is a preening, posturing spectacle that even a hardened observer of Westminster may find difficult to take. Sooner or later, the elastic will snap, as it has in the past for confident Scottish heroes such as Ally McLeod, who found adulation turned rapidly into – equally overdone – rejection in 1978.

The obvious point is that Glasgow East was a truly shocking result for Labour, a sign that the party is very deep in the trough, like the Major government from 1992 to 1997 and the Wilson government in 1967-69. Perhaps, like severe government defeats such as Dudley (both in 1968 and 1994) and Staffordshire South East (1996) it is a sign that the some sort of realignment is happening. The Tories flirted with disaster between 1993 and 2003, in that even some of their southern English strongholds were crumbling. Now, in Glasgow East, a Labour fortress has fallen.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jul/25/glasgoweast.snp

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