Lewis Baston previews the English Local Elections and discusses some of issues likely to be guiding the electorate’s choices.
Posted on 15 April 2011 by admin
Lewis Baston previews the English Local Elections and discusses some of issues likely to be guiding the electorate’s choices.
Posted on 25 February 2011 by admin
An unflinching look at the bad results Labour suffered in the
East, and ideas for how Labour can change its policies and the
way it does business, to reclaim the ground it has lost.
Lewis Baston and Bob Blizzard January 2011
Posted on 04 May 2010 by admin
A slight difference in seats won can drastically change the long-term outcome of government, prompting divisions and even a second election.
In principle, it is simple to determine whether a party has a majority in the House of Commons or not. There will be 650 seats in the new parliament, so to obtain the smallest overall majority requires 326 seats, giving a majority of two.
However, it is rather more complicated in practice, because of the complexities of the devolved British constitution and party politics. In 1964 the Speaker was the only MP unaffiliated to the three largest British parties. In 2005 there were 31 of them, and the number could well increase this time, and the disposition of these “fourth parties” affects where we can place the winning post.
There are some election outcomes which, while technically being a hung parliament, would allow the Commons to be run by the largest single party without the need for Cameron or Brown to consult the Liberal Democrats.
The Speaker customarily does not vote except to resolve ties, so a party with 325 seats will have an effective majority of one (assuming that John Bercow holds Buckingham and is re-elected to the Speaker’s chair in the new parliament). Sinn Féin MPs do not recognise the sovereignty of Westminster and therefore do not take their seats or vote, so the Commons will probably be around five MPs short. So 323 MPs is a working majority of two.
Staying with Northern Ireland, the Conservatives can rely on any MPs elected from their Ulster Unionist party alliance (a couple, perhaps) and Labour has a rather looser bond with the Social Democratic and Labour party and the independent (ex-UUP) Sylvia Hermon, which will account for two to four MPs. The two big British parties can therefore regard the winning post as being around 321 seats. The first Queen’s speech in the new parliament, on 25 May, will come before the postponed election in Thirsk and Malton (27 May), so 320 will be enough for a short period.
Even a bit below the 320-seat mark, there will not be much uncertainty about a party’s ability to get a Queen’s speech and other key votes through the Commons, even without Lib Dem acquiescence. The Democratic Unionist party (around eight MPs), even if it dislikes a government’s agenda, would be unlikely to precipitate another election by voting against it, and the Westminster representatives of the SNP and Plaid Cymru (10-12 seats probably) would probably feel similarly.
Taking these 20 MPs out, a government could win a Queen’s speech vote without giving more than the most minor concessions to smaller parties, in the face of opposition from the other two main parties, if it has around 310 MPs. If the largest party is much below 310, we are in proper hung parliament territory and the opinions of the Lib Dems would count. However, they would be likely to give a free pass in terms of “confidence and supply” to a party that gets over the psychological barrier of 300 seats, so most of the interesting possibilities start below that point.
Winning the key votes is one thing; day-to-day survival in the division lobbies is a bit different. A minority government with fewer than 320 MPs might have to take a relaxed view of Commons defeats on legislation (ministers often need to be away on government business), although it will be bolstered by the SNP and Plaid Cymru’s self-denying ordinance not to vote on what they consider “England only” matters. But the committee stages may be the problem, as the government would be vulnerable to defeat if the composition of committees reflected the lack of an overall majority in the house. It might have particular difficulty overturning Lords amendments and dealing with any backbench rebellions (although in the circumstances backbenchers would be less inclined to rebel than usual).
The position is not symmetrical. If the Conservatives are the minority government, they may face a poor attendance record from Labour MPs whose morale will be low and who will be busy tending to their constituencies. The opposition in general would not want to push its luck against a new minority Tory government, for fear of triggering a new election, while a minority Labour government would seek to avoid a second election and be more inclined to explicit co-operation with smaller parties to avoid being brought down by a “one more heave” front of Tories, Lib Dems and others.
A more nuanced idea of where the winning post is on election night is therefore 326 for a technical majority, 320 for an effective majority, 310 for a single party government without agreements with other parties, and around 300 for an undisputed, if provisional, right to govern.
A perhaps odd conclusion about this is that there is a set of outcomes that would lead directly to a second election later this year or in the first half of 2011, covering the ground between the Tories winning around 300 and 340 seats (the stresses of governing with a tiny majority are as great, if not greater, than those of governing without one). A minority Conservative government with fewer than 300 seats, existing by permission of Nick Clegg, would also be looking to have another election as soon as it could. But a full Tory-Lib Dem coalition, or any stable arrangement featuring Labour, would almost certainly try to govern for a full term.
A government with a long-term perspective is therefore most likely to emerge from either an election that produces a working majority, or a proper hung parliament in which parties have to reach agreement on a programme from the start – and not from the shadowlands of 300-340 in which a government has its eye on a second election and day-to-day survival in the division lobbies.
Published 4 May 2010
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.
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.
Posted on 30 April 2007 by admin
The 2007 elections will mark a milestone in the deterioration of the Labour party as an organisation with a nationwide presence, writes Lewis Baston
For nearly all of England outside London, Thursday will be local election day.
The number of seats being contested is the largest in the complicated four-year cycle of local elections, and, although these elections will be overshadowed by those in Scotland and Wales, they are still important, both for local services and as an indicator of how the political parties are faring in England.
There are elections for 312 English councils, from big cities like Birmingham and Leeds to pocket-sized district councils like Teesdale and Maldon.
For the big provincial metropolitan areas the parties will be defending the seats they won in 2004, but in most of the rest of England the seats were last fought in 2003.
Neither 2003 nor 2004 was a particularly good year for the Labour party in the English local elections.
The 2003 elections followed shortly after the Iraq war and, although Labour still led in the polls, the party’s support was slipping rapidly.
The Conservatives did relatively well in this set of elections, although there was still a shadow over the party’s prospects and direction, and its leader, Iain Duncan Smith, was not faring well.
For the Liberal Democrats it was a good year, with gains from Labour in urban areas and a solid performance against the Conservatives in some rural and suburban areas.
The metropolitan boroughs and some of the unitary authorities were last contested in 2004, the only year in recent times when Labour has come third in the national vote share in the local elections (see table above).
Labour tends to do worse and the Conservatives and Lib Dems a little better than their national poll rating in local elections, in large part because of differential turnout.
If April’s poll figures are a guide for May’s results, the Conservatives are doing considerably better than in 2003 or 2004 and Labour worse.
The implied swing from Labour to Conservative since 2003 is 6%, according to these very rough and dubious calculations, but since 2004 only 3%.
Labour is in a similar position vis-a-vis the Lib Dems as in 2004, but a fraction worse off than in 2003.
The Conservatives also look as if they should make some progress against the Lib Dems, with a 4.5% swing since 2003 and 3.5% since 2004.
The relationship of these rough national swings and the territory being contested is interesting.
The swing to the Conservatives may be even larger in some of the shire districts last fought in 2003, particularly those in southern England where David Cameron seems to have gained most ground.
The 2006 swings in Crawley, for instance, were massive, and it is possible that similar results could take place in 2007.
In much of rural and suburban southern England, and the smaller towns of the Midlands, this could be an extremely good year for the Conservatives.
It is possible that Labour could be left with only two councils, outside London, south of a line from the Severn to the Wash, namely Reading and Stevenage.
The 2007 elections will be a further milestone in the deterioration of the Labour party as an organisation with a nationwide presence.
These losses will hurt because they are in places where the party needs to defend marginal parliamentary seats.
The Conservatives’ heavy local election losses in 1993-96 helped wreck the party’s organisation and make recovery from their 1997 defeat all the more difficult.
Labour is now undergoing a similar destructive retreat.
However, the swing from 2004 to 2007 is smaller. It will also probably be least evident in the metropolitan boroughs of the north and Midlands where the Conservatives did not perform well in 2006 and where Mr Cameron is less popular.
The pattern of gains and losses of votes and seats in 2007 is therefore likely to be very regionally skewed with Labour suffering massive damage in the south and its remaining outposts in rural and suburban England, but a lot less in the northern cities.
Labour might even make net progress against the Lib Dems in some areas (Luton, Leicester, Bradford) where Muslim voters turned against the party in 2003 and 2004 but have since swung back a bit.
The total of seats changing hands will exaggerate Labour’s defeat, as the smaller authorities electing all-out tend to have smaller wards; Labour’s worst performances will be in places where the number of seats lost looks bad, while holding steadier in the large urban wards where only one seat in three is at stake.
The Conservatives will hope to strike some blows against the Lib Dems and seize back authorities like rural Uttlesford in Essex which the Lib Dems won in 2003.
The Conservatives may do well against the Liberal Democrats, but it is likely that the British National party will also be able to boast some victories, both in its established areas in Lancashire, West Yorkshire and the West Midlands, and sporadically in some suburban and rural areas where it has previously not seemed much of a threat.
Not invariably, but often, it is neglected party heartlands that provide the BNP with most potential, coupled with a local political culture of xenophobic social conservatism with which Cameron cannot really connect.
Where the BNP is active, it has been able to scoop up a lot of discontented voters who feel ignored by the other parties, as in West Yorkshire towns such as Dewsbury and Batley.
The United Kingdom Independence party is also contesting a lot of seats, in what may be a last ditch attempt to prevent the BNP gaining primacy on the nationalist right of British politics.
The Conservatives should be able to claim an overall majority if the voting patterns are repeated in a general election, something they have not managed since 1992.
They are also likely to emerge the clear winners in the media’s favourite (but highly misleading) measure of success, the tally of the net number of seats won and lost, and will be appearing to do well in contrast to both Labour and Liberal Democrats.
A national vote share equivalent of more than 41%, or net gains of more than 600 seats, would be good news for the Conservatives.
Look on election night for what happens in the traditional party conference resorts.
The Conservatives currently control none out of Blackpool, Bournemouth and Brighton but if they win all three they will be doing very well.
All they can ask of Manchester, Labour’s 2006 conference venue, is to gain their first seat in years on the city council.
The Conservatives may be doing well, but they are a long way short of the national sweep that Labour managed in Blair’s first set of local elections all the way back in 1995.
Posted on 30 June 2006 by admin
The stats from last night’s byelections make miserable reading for both the big parties.
Both of last night’s byelections were bad for the Labour party, but Blaenau Gwent was absolutely appalling. Trish Law’s election for the Welsh assembly seat was perhaps to be expected, but Dai Davies ended up winning a surprisingly comfortable majority for the Westminster seat. Labour’s share of the vote had increased only a little (1.7 percentage points in the assembly vote; 4.7 points for Westminster) since Peter Law’s landslide in the 2005 general election. That result can no longer be written off as a flash in the pan caused by the dispute over Labour’s all-women shortlist, or a personal vote for an established incumbent. Labour have occasionally lost safe south Wales seats before in unusual circumstances, like Merthyr Tydfil in 1970 or Islwyn in 1999, but the common thread is that Labour has always won the seat back at the next opportunity. Blaenau Gwent is the first time since 1918 that any of the valleys seats has rejected Labour twice in a row.
Blaenau Gwent was a defeat for New Labour rather than Labour values. Dai Davies’s victory speech focused on the four principles of socialism, trade unionism, Christianity and family – he is an unashamed old Labour socialist. His language of socialism and “the people” does not mean, as it might in London, trendy cultural politics or tabloid populism – it reflects a community in which the Labour party was first nurtured and which now feels neglected, even despised, by the government. New Labour no longer commands the loyalty of many of the voters it won over in the 1990s (as the English local elections showed), and it also risks permanently alienating the loyalty of the heartland voters who have stuck with Labour through all the party’s previous bad times.
Labour also collapsed in Bromley and Chislehurst, but that was only to be expected in an area where the party had always been weak and lacking in the sort of presence in the community that can sustain a vote. In the later stages of the campaign, as the Liberal Democrats closed in on the Conservatives, tactical votes bled away and Labour came in an undignified fourth, behind UKIP. At least they retained their deposit.
For the Conservatives, Bromley was extremely uncomfortable. A slump in the party’s share of the vote from 51% to 40% (and a majority of only 633 votes) is bad news. Conservative chatter at the start of the campaign was about whether they would get to 60% or not, but at the end people were saying things like “a win is a win”. An opposition party on the march should be getting better results than this in their core area. The Conservative share of the vote increased in every seat they defended between 1974 and 1979, the last time they went from opposition to government.
The Tories, including their candidate Bob Neill, have been extremely bitter about the Liberal Democrats’ campaign, which was sometimes pretty strong and personal. Over 10 years ago a bruising byelection in Littleborough and Saddleworth in which Labour used rough tactics against the Lib Dems threatened to strain relations between those two parties. Bromley may well set back the cause of Conservative-Lib Dem rapprochement by increasing the level of bitterness (and, let’s face it, justified fear) that Conservative members and activists feel about the other party. It would be most ironic if the lasting legacy of Bromley was that it made it more difficult for the opposition parties to combine and displace Labour if the next election results in a hung parliament.
Posted on 09 December 2005 by admin
The Wales White Paper announces the government’s intention to end what is known as dual candidacy for the Welsh Assembly. Dual candidacy is an issue that comes up when you have two different routes into the legislature, as in MMP (AMS) systems. Should, or should not, people be allowed to stand as candidates in both a single member district and on the party’s list?
The populist argument says no – that candidates who failed at constituency level should not have a ‘back door’ into parliament. In Wales it has become known as the ‘Clwyd West question’ because in that constituency three of the four defeated candidates popped up as Assembly Members because they were also on the lists.
Peter Hain, in his capacity as Secretary of State for Wales, agrees. (The link takes you to the uncorrected transcript of evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons, scroll down to Q241 and following.)
Hain has often been a constructive thinker on electoral issues, and has done much to promote discussion of the electoral system within the Labour Party. But on this occasion he is wrong, some of his arguments to the Committee were extremely weak and his remarks were marred by rudeness.
The least defensible part of Hain’s evidence was his rude response to the work of two academics who had researched the use of MMP abroad, which was personally discourteous and also inaccurate.
Peter Hain was presented with the finding from two academics that the only system similar to the one he proposed had been used in pre-Orange revolution Ukraine, and why that was the most appropriate model for Wales. Hain replied:
It is not, and indeed the two academics are wrong because I researched this very carefully. The issue of dual candidacy is one that has proved controversial in many other jurisdictions that have introduced additional member systems, and there are not many that have. This is a fairly unusual system. For example, it was considered by New Zealand’s independent commission on electoral systems and two Canadian Provinces that are planning to introduce the additional member systems and are committed to banning dual candidacy. I draw from that that in those British-type parliamentary systems, New Zealand and specifically in Canada, they are committed to doing this. The somewhat gratuitous reference to Ukraine is wrong, and I suggest the academics get better researchers in the future, similar to the ones I have got.
The reference to New Zealand is flat-out wrong. In 2001 their Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry (yes, a government that held an open review into their electoral system!) in New Zealand was very firm about dual candidacy – in support of the idea.
The committee was unanimous in its view that dual candidacies should continue. Members saw the placement of candidates as an issue for parties to determine. Committee members also considered the alternative would impact unreasonably on small parties who may not be able to field candidates in all electorates. Committee members agreed that parties must have the flexibility to decide where and how members will be placed as either electorate candidates, or on the list, or both. There may be very good reasons for a party’s decision in this regard. The committee also considered that the impact of a prohibition on dual candidacies on smaller parties would be unacceptable. This could be seen as restricting their ability to participate in the democratic process.
There was much more concern in the early years of MMP in New Zealand about the position of MPs elected on party lists who subsequently defect from the party. This led to legislation in 2001 banning party-jumping by list MPs. I might return to the issue of party-jumping among list MPs in due course. The committee’s recommendation on dual candidacy was wholeheartedly endorsed by the New Zealand government, who agreed that a ban would interfere in the proper functions of parties in candidate selection and be an unreasonable imposition on small parties.
While it is true that recent Canadian proposals have included bans on dual candidacy, it is not generally regarded as a problem in most countries – the Canadian debate on MMP may have been influenced by the entirely artificial fuss about the system in Wales. AMS is far from an unusual system, either. It has been used since the 1940s in Germany, and was adopted by several countries in the 1990s (there are fashions in electoral systems as in other things) such as Italy, Japan, Hungary (in a complex variant) and New Zealand.
Dual candidacy is just one of the wrinkles and anomalies with AMS systems – STV is a lot tidier in that there is only one route in. Some countries seem to manage just fine with AMS – presumably because, unlike in Wales and Scotland, some thought has gone into the role and purpose of the list members. Another issue is the partisan split. In other countries (including Scotland) all parties have some list representatives, while in Wales a Labour executive draws its support exclusively from Labour constituency members. This then leads to a temptation, into which Hain has unfortunately fallen, to delegitimise the opposition members (mainly from the lists).
It is certainly not an abuse for candidates to stand in both list and constituencies – it is often a lifeline for smaller parties. Peter Hain would do well to read the New Zealand committee’s conclusions properly, and not use his position to take gratuitous shots at people who do research whose conclusions he doesn’t like.