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Pollwatch: Conservative coalition could cost Liberal Democrats dear (12 May 2010)

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Pollwatch: Conservative coalition could cost Liberal Democrats dear (12 May 2010)

Posted on 12 May 2010 by admin

Lib Dem losses are likely at the next election, especially in Scotland, cities and where Labour voters backed them tactically

The decision to go into full coalition with the Conservatives will probably cost the Liberal Democrats dear at the next election. Coming to agreements in hung parliaments has not done them much good in past elections, as it inevitably involves taking tough decisions and alienating many of their supporters.

In 1923-24 they managed to relegate themselves to the fringes of politics by first installing a Labour government and then throwing it out again, and the hung parliament in 1929-31 ended with the Liberals split into three factions. David Steel was lucky to escape relatively unscathed in the 1979 election after the Lib-Lab pact. But they have always lost votes and seats following pacts and peacetime coalitions.

Lib Dem losses are likely to be particularly severe in three categories of seat.

Eleven of their 57 MPs represent Scottish constituencies, and the hostility of Scottish public opinion to anything connected with the Tories remains undiminished. There has been a substantial Labour vote even in quite rural Lib Dem constituencies. The Scottish secretary, Danny Alexander, already looks a candidate for a “Portillo moment” in the next election in his Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey constituency. Labour also came fairly close in several other seats, such as East Dunbartonshire and Edinburgh West.

The Lib Dems have won several seats from Labour in the last three elections in urban areas, intellectual middle-class seats such as Manchester Withington, Leeds North West, Hornsey and Wood Green, and grittier constituencies such as Redcar and Brent Central. There are about 11 constituencies in this category, and they will be lucky to hold any of them.

The third category of likely losses are those seats where there is a substantial latent Labour vote which has been giving tactical support to the Lib Dems to keep out the Tories. Labour-inclined voters are now unlikely to see the point of doing this, and the tactical message of supporting one coalition partner to tame the excesses of the other is a bit more difficult to sell than “keep the Tories out”.

There are around eight seats here, none of which would probably go Labour but where a big withdrawal of tactical support would throw the seat to the Tories or Plaid Cymru. Chris Huhne in Eastleigh would be a likely casualty. In other constituencies, though, the loss of tactical Labour support is probably going to be counteracted by votes gained from the Conservatives and there is less of a threat – Taunton and Eastbourne are examples of this kind of seat.

The Lib Dems have relied on personal votes for incumbents in many seats, and while some of them look safe, holding Berwick without Alan Beith or Bermondsey and Old Southwark without Simon Hughes look tough tasks.

This means that about half the party’s seats are therefore either write-offs or severely vulnerable in a future election. However, this is to assume that the next election will be fought on the same lines as the one just finished. The electoral system might change if the alternative vote (AV) is approved in a referendum. This could save many of the Lib Dem MPs because they would still attract grudging second preferences from Labour voters, and perhaps more enthusiastic ones from Tories.

Another possible change, a Tory shibboleth that the Lib Dems seem to have signed up to, is more ominous for the party. This is the plan to have a radical review of parliamentary boundaries and reduce the number of constituencies. Farewell, then, the undersized seat of Orkney and Shetland, and others.

Personal votes for incumbents will be disrupted by radical boundary reviews, with territory mixed and matched between constituencies in a way that will make it difficult for them to build up personal votes and retain constituencies.

While the referendum may not pass, the “reduce and equalise” plan just needs legislation. The Lib Dems would be wise to make one conditional on the other. But even without being carved up by their coalition partners under “reduce and equalise”, many of their MPs are dead men and women walking unless they get AV.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/12/pollwatch-liberal-democrats-conservatives-coalition

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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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The magic number (13 September 2008)

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The magic number (13 September 2008)

Posted on 13 September 2008 by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Influential Elections (30 Nov 2005)

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Influential Elections (30 Nov 2005)

Posted on 30 November 2005 by admin

The Times has reported the results of a poll of political scientists about which elections since 1945 have been the most important. Nobody asked me, but I would have had to agree with the verdict that the top two were 1945 and 1979. Both set the course for a long period thereafter and shifted things ideologically.

However, it did prompt some less conventional thoughts.

How does one measure how influential and important an election has been? There is some room for saying that 1983 was incredibly influential, because there were three very different options then – a radical Labour government that would have disarmed and pulled out of Europe, a breakthrough by the Alliance, or the Thatcher project being placed on firm foundations. However, there was a sense that 1983 was not important, because it was a foregone conclusion. The same can be said for several other elections – probably 2005 and 1959, and definitely 2001, 1987 (although that election rescued Labour from being a third party), Oct 1974, 1966 and 1955. There have been other elections which although dramatic at the time, gave a sense that what they produced was essentially washed away by the tides of history because broader trends in politics and economics took over – 1970 and February 1974 for instance (although Feb 1974 did break up the Lab-Con duopoly in votes if not seats).

There is an argument that 1950 was a very important election. Labour won, but by a small majority (thanks to anti-Labour bias in the electoral system). Labour’s majority was so small that Attlee called another election, in October 1951, at about the worst possible time for the party, and the Conservatives came back to power. If Labour had won by, say, 40 seats, the party could have survived the rough economic times of 1950-51 and perhaps coasted to victory for the rest of the decade. The result would have been a greatly extended public sector, perhaps an earlier more liberal society – in effect, Britain would be more like Scandinavia than it became. There was a choice of futures and by giving an indecisive verdict in 1950 the electorate (and the electoral system) created the pattern for the next 30 years of the middle way between socialism and liberal capitalism.

1964 is perhaps overrated as a turning point – the Conservatives chose the wrong leader and could have won under Reggie Maudling. The Tories then did have an impressive argument that they could be the party of modernisation. 1964 was perhaps the mirror image of 1992 – what would Labour have looked like by 1969 after a defeat?

I think also that people tend to diminish the significance of 1997 too much. It has been consequential, in that the initial burst of constitutional reform was highly significant and did really change things from the previous government. Culturally it has also had important consequences.

If we had electoral reform, would there be decisive elections in the same way? It would depend on the system. Germany has had elections that mark decisive shifts (1998) or confirm party realignments (1983, 1969). But perhaps it would be harder to discern the consequences of particular elections. This may not be a bad thing, as rapid alternations in government between 1964 and 1979 did not produce particularly good results and those arose from relatively small changes in opinion being magnified by the system. And in any case, some of the great turning points are not actually punctuated by elections at all – like the Labour government’s turn against controls (1947), Suez, decolonisation, Europe, monetarism and Black Wednesday.

http://www.makemyvotecount.org.uk/blog/archives/2005/11/influential_ele.html

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