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

Posted on 08 August 2012 by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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


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

There are two broad dimensions to equalising constituencies.

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

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

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

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

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First thoughts on cancelling the boundary changes

Posted on 06 August 2012 by admin

What does the shelving of the boundary review mean for David Cameron’s chances of forming a majority Conservative government at the 2015 election?

We are told that the Conservatives had pinned great hopes on their proposal to change the way in which parliamentary constituency boundaries are drawn; Cameron is said to have told MPs that it was ‘crucial’ to the prospect of a majority in 2015. Assuming the boundary changes are indeed blocked (it is a somewhat complicated parliamentary and legal procedure), has Clegg now killed off the Conservatives’ chances of winning outright?

In order to answer the question properly, one has to take a step back and ask whether the boundary review would have delivered a majority anyway. That is very questionable. On the best available figures for the impact of the proposed changes, the Tories would have been just short of an outright majority in a House of 600 MPs on the basis of the 2010 results. To win outright would still require doing something no full-term government has managed since 1955 (and indeed never managed before then), i.e. substantially increasing the party’s share of the vote. With Labour likely to poll significantly better than its poor showing in 2010, Cameron – new boundaries or not – would need to do the political equivalent of making water flow uphill anyway. Some Conservative analysts, such as Lord Ashcroft and Tim Montgomerie and colleagues at Conservative Home, have already devoted much thought to the problem.

The cancellation of the boundary changes makes the mountain the Tories have to climb for a majority a bit steeper, but if they are not in any condition to climb any sort of mountain that makes no difference. It will make it easier for Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs with small majorities to see off Conservative challenges and stop them making the 20 net gains they need for an outright win.

But some Conservative MPs in marginal seats will also be breathing a secret sigh of relief. Labour’s class of 1997 nearly all survived the 2001 election because when MPs face their first election as an incumbent they tend to do much better than the national average. Boundary changes, by altering the relationship between MP and constituency, interfere with this pattern. While the Conservatives are less likely to win outright, incumbency makes things far from straightforward to Labour on the old boundaries. Fighting the next election on the same boundaries as last time will increase the probability that the election will result in another hung parliament, probably with Labour as the largest single party.

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

Posted on 02 May 2012 by admin


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Posted on 10 April 2012 by admin

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

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

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

Opinion poll ratings at the time of recent local elections

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

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

National equivalent vote share in local elections

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


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

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

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

(From Progress magazine, April 2012)


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Conference Season 2010

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Conference Season 2010

Posted on 19 October 2010 by admin

The 2010 election and its peculiar result lay in the background of all three conferences, and contributed to this season’s strange atmosphere – it was not directly addressed for the most part, but sitting there in the peripheral vision of the parties as they tried to deal with the radically new shape of post-election politics. The discussion about the election was probably the most mainstream and realistic at the Labour conference – there was I think a conscious effort not to forget how bad the result was through relief at escaping with 258 MPs. However, in terms of actual policy the discussions were more fruitful at the other two conferences.

Polling and opinion over the summer

The political context was uncertain, with high initial approval ratings for the government settling down over the summer to a more or less equal balance of satisfied and dissatisfied with the government’s record. In most opinion polling, Labour bounced back rapidly from the high 20s to the mid 30s (as soft left Lib Dems came straight back with the formation of the coalition) and consolidated a little below 40 per cent , fluctuating only slightly week by week. The Conservatives also gained support after the election, and seem to have a steady rating of around 40 per cent. The Liberal Democrats have suffered, their campaign polling ratings of around 30 per cent, and result of 23 per cent, sliding in stages down to the current norm of 12 per cent or so (in polling terms there is a methodological question – Lib Dem support seems to be rather higher than this in non-internet polling). In local authority by-elections, particularly the big elections in Exeter and Norwich, the pattern was of Labour making progress and the Lib Dems making surprisingly strong gains in some elections and humiliating wipe-outs in others.

The conference season did not change any of this, although both Labour and Conservative seem to have had a short lived ‘bounce’ in support from their conferences.

However, one must also note that the dominant discourse in politics, the media and more vaguely in general culture has shifted since the election; there has been a concerted process of ‘softening up’ public opinion for cuts, which seems to have been a successful operation. During the election, most voters favoured Labour’s gradual approach to deficit reduction (as did the Liberal Democrat party) but conventional wisdom has shifted a long way towards the Conservatives’ approach. Defining the agenda and the terms in which issues are discussed is even more important than winning any particular political debate, and this has probably been the most significant political development since the formation of the coalition.

This was a confusing and unsettling conference for the party: I would characterise the dominant mood as being ‘queasiness’ – uncertainty, apprehension, hope and distaste mixed together. It was the feeling of a passenger on a plane, doors locked, taxiing towards the runway of an airport in an obscure ex-Soviet state. They hope they will reach their destination, and think they probably will, but they are conscious of the risk that it might all go horribly wrong and are aware that one of the engines seems to be producing smoke.

Of all the parties, the inquest on the 2010 election was furthest from the surface, and it was only the most sophisticated election professional who had given it hard thought. The party’s campaigning model that worked well for years (‘Rennardism’) failed. The alternative that emerged during the 2010 election of going for broke on the basis of a strong national campaign (‘Cleggmania’) failed too.

In campaigning terms, the party might have been better off had the Conservatives managed to win; the Lib Dems could have concentrated their efforts on the project of displacing Labour as the principal alternative to the Conservatives. This was not where they ended up, and campaign strategy within the coalition is uncharted territory. Past precedent, in which electoral pacts facilitated the absorption of Liberals into the Conservative Party in the 1890s, 1920s, 1930s and almost in the 1950s, is not helpful. The prospect of the government appealing to the electorate in 2015 as a coalition with an electoral agreement between the parties has been floated, rather mischievously, by moderate Tories like Nick Boles and David Hunt, but it has more takers on the Tory side than among Lib Dems because I think at root it is about adding strength to the liberal wing of the Tory party rather than political pluralism.

Another reason for the – as far as I could tell – blanket rejection of an electoral pact was that many in the party are reconciled to the coalition as being, in Clegg’s terms set out in the conference speech, ‘the right government for right now’ – a conditional sort of phrasing that promises nothing beyond 2015. They are also keen to demonstrate that the politics of coalition can work, as it is an important part of their party’s value set. Talk of a lasting realignment of the centre right scares them.
But there was a tangible difference between the ministers and the others; one newspaper columnist perceptively referred to the Lib Dem conference as being ‘like a family reunion’ – an awkward occasion, shared with people with whom one has strong ties but from whom one has moved on. The leadership downplayed the extent to which the coalition really is a joint political enterprise, a new project rather than a temporary arrangement, for their conference.

Being in government with the Tories caused an understandable psychological counter-reaction at the conference, in which the Lib Dems anxiously demonstrated to each other that they remained culturally and by instinct, if not economically, left wing – by stressing their credentials on diversity, tolerance, science and so on, and their belief in elected local government rather than the voluntarism that features in Conservative thinking on ‘localism’. A particular demonstration of this need for leftist reassurance was Vince Cable’s speech in which he criticised capitalism, at least as practiced in the UK, for its short-termism and tendency to destroy competition, and declared that the government was certainly not ‘laissez-faire’. The language was different and sharper from what one would hear from a Conservative, or even Labour, minister, but the substance was the same in essentials – that Britain is basically a free market country but that the government has a role in regulating it and preventing pathologies of capitalism such as monopoly and cartels from developing. This speech, I was told, was cleared by 10 Downing Street; David Cameron seems happy and relaxed for a bit of posturing to take place for Lib Dem audiences to demonstrate that their party is not just a subordinate of the Conservatives. Cameron, perhaps because Conservative leaders have long been accustomed to ‘throwing them a bit of red meat’ (policies or phrases that sound right wing) for their own conference, seems to understand. This sort of thing (unlike perhaps the tuition fees disagreement) represents just a bit of theatre.

The Liberal Democrats pride themselves on their democratic internal culture, and this might be one of the slow casualties of the coalition government, just as internal Labour Party democracy withered as the party exercised power. The party voted by a large margin against the ‘free schools’ programme proposed by Michael Gove, but this will have no real effect on the government or its Liberal Democrat members.

The otherwise very forgettable Clegg leader’s speech had an extraordinary echo of Margaret Thatcher circa 1976, in that he compared the national finances to household finances, which although it has a certain ‘common sense’ appeal is so economically unsophisticated that he must have been using it for a purpose rather than expressing a sincere view (unless Clegg knows less about economics and history than I think he does). It reflects the way in which the Liberal Democrat party for the most part (a few exceptions such as Evan Harris and Charles Kennedy aside) accepted the Conservatives’ arguments and even emotions about the public finances with little reservation. That a leader of what until recently was a centre-left party could make such a rhetorical statement at its conference suggests that on many issues the Lib Dem party is very malleable. One on which it is not is tuition fees for students; this is an essential matter for many of their constituencies and activists and a distinctive political appeal for the party in the 2005 and 2010 elections. The lengths to which Clegg and others made it a pledge in 2010 to oppose raising fees will haunt them, and divide the party, more than anything that happened in Liverpool.

The Labour conference also took place in a strange mood. There were three major pieces of news to absorb, all of which had contradictory aspects.
1. The general election. Labour suffered a poor result, but it was better than seemed likely in 2009 or mid campaign, and to emerge with 258 MPs was at the top of expectations. There were two tendencies of thought – one to rather relax and hope that government unpopularity and the foundation left by the 2010 result would see the party soon return to power, and the other to remind each other that 29 per cent of the vote was awful and that the party had suffered particularly worrying losses among the English working and lower middle class. The second tendency I think prevailed; the mood was serious and despite the emotional temptations of the first tendency the extent of defeat was acknowledged.
2. The coalition. This has terminated a long period in which Labour’s attitude towards the Lib Dems has been dominated by two tendencies – to regard them as wary partners in a progressive political project, or as dangerous and devious opponents for the centre-left political territory. Neither is really sustainable, although some Labour figures have made an effort to keep lines open not just to former Lib Dem voters, but to Lib Dem politicians. In electing Ed rather than David, the party actually chose the candidate who is more interested in a dialogue aimed at reconstituting progressivism. Labour is liberated from the constraints of office, but isolated politically by opposition and not used to the irrelevance of that position.
3. Ed Miliband. EM was not the choice of MPs or individual party members who cast ballots, and this was apparent in the uncertain, slightly shocked and tentative mood on Saturday night and Sunday at the conference. The majority of people there will have probably favoured David Miliband over Ed, and it showed. There were a range of misgivings over the nature of Ed’s victory (that it was won in the trade union section, that it relied on second preference transfers from Ed Balls voters, and some questioned the propriety of standing against his brother). There were misgivings about Ed himself, particularly his lack of experience and the approach he had taken in the campaign which seemed to be ‘pandering’ to different sections of the party.
The leader’s speech avoided political knockabout, despite the usual role such theatre plays in cheering up the faithful at each of the three party conferences. There is nothing so guaranteed to raise a cheer at a Labour gathering or stir up fighting spirit than a scornful attack on Nick Clegg, but even in a speech where EM had a lot to do to unite and inspire Labour, he refrained from making one. Nor was he particularly personally aggressive about David Cameron. While at the time I found this surprising, on reflection it was a wise decision. EM had not just appealed to Liberal Democrat voters to go over to Labour (he may have calculated that most of the ones who ever would will have done so by now), but also left a door open to future co-operation with the party. Given the strong possibility that the next election will also fail to produce an overall majority, this was realistic.
EM also, by keeping the tone moderate and offering co-operation where there was agreement (including on some non-specified future cuts) wanted to keep the right side of the public mood that while highly uncertain and divided about what the government is doing, does at least respond to the weakening of tribalism that the coalition represents.
The most controversial part of the speech, inside and outside the party, was the repudiation of the Iraq invasion (and the sharp exchange between David Miliband and Harriet Harman it provoked). It was a difficult thing for most of those in government at the time to swallow, but the intention was not to re-fight an internal battle but to draw a line under the episode as far as the voters outside were concerned; without it, the process of re-engaging with the liberal elements lost over the war in 2003-05 would be much more difficult. As late as 1992, the Conservatives still found it worthwhile to feature the industrial disputes of 1979 on a party political broadcast, and although it was distasteful to the large proportion of the party who stayed with Blair over Iraq, EM’s statement reduced the chances that anger over Iraq would affect the Labour vote in 2015.
The leadership election results fractured the ‘Blairites’, who were already starting to split between what I would call the ‘ultras’ and the ‘moderates’. Some Blairites supported EM in the leadership campaign – people such as new MPs Rachel Reeves and Luciana Berger (and Simon Henig, leader of County Durham and therefore one of Labour’s most powerful executive politicians now), but most did line up behind DM. Since the election, the middle group has swung behind the leadership. The moderate Blairites like Alan Johnson, Liam Byrne, Tessa Jowell, Douglas Alexander, Jim Murphy, Andy Burnham and Alastair Campbell take a pragmatic position; the leadership election is over, EM is leader, party unity is important, and there is something to be said for moving on and reassessing policy and strategy and taking part in the process.
The ‘ultra’ position (associated with Tim Allan, Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair, Milburn and Byers; EM may have detached Caroline Flint from this tendency) is overtly or covertly in opposition to EM. During the conference there were anonymous briefings about EM ‘torching’ the foundations built by New Labour and going back to how things were previously, which seems to me to be an emotive rather than analytical statement. The clumsiness with which Blair and Mandelson intervened in the last week of the campaign was probably counterproductive to the candidate they supported.
The division of the Blairites reflects an eternal issue with internal reform projects like New Labour (or Gaitskellite revisionism in the 1950s, or Thatcherism). Is the core of the doctrine the ‘revisionist’ approach, which looks at current circumstances and tries to find a new set of techniques to achieve aims that may not change very much, or is it the policy formulation that was created at the start of the project? It seems obvious to me, as a political scientist (and, I should probably concede, a moderate Blairite) that the core is the revisionist approach. A philosophy such as ‘New Labour’ which emerged in 1994-95 is better understood as an approach rather than a set of doctrines from which ‘not one millimetre’ of deviation can be tolerated, and that anyone who claims to be ‘new’ or ‘modernising’ has to concede that 16 years of change, and the steady dissolution of the original electoral coalition, means that fresh thinking is required.
Blair’s intervention in the campaign was not a success, but there are still ultras who can make life difficult for EM in the party and also in the press – David Aaronovitch and John Rentoul were Blairite Iraq hawks who have morphed into EM critics, and have influential public platforms. A frontal attack is unlikely within the party, but there are people waiting for EM to fail and for an opportunity to open up to give David Miliband another shot at the leadership (I doubt whether David himself would directly encourage such thinking, though). EM is also isolated in terms of lacking a sympathetic media, in terms of gaining coverage and getting his ideas and approach taken seriously, possibly even more than Brown (although personalised hatred for EM is a rarer phenomenon than it was for Brown).
Labour’s conference tailed off at the end; the speech of the new leader on Tuesday afternoon was the focal point, and after the Tuesday evening all seemed a bit aimless. The party should think about shortening its conference now it is out of power anyway, but this year there was the particular issue that there were no policies to announce, and the people speaking on particular departmental areas would probably be moving on within a couple of weeks because of the new Shadow Cabinet, yet to be elected.
Parties at the conferences following election defeats first go into internal rethinking, analysing defeat and settling questions like who should be leader and what new approaches should be taken with image and organisation – in this the Labour conference in 2010 was a bit like the Tory conference in 2005. The next stage should be ‘listening mode’ as it was for the Tories in 2006, when ideas are encouraged to flourish and the party suspends judgement about accepting or rejecting them, and the year after should be about drawing together a policy agenda. To complain that Labour had no policies to offer in 2010 is rather missing the point of a conference at this stage in the cycle. Labour is starting to develop a politico-economic analysis, though, of the ‘squeezed middle’ (including some people reasonably high up the scale but pressured by the costs of children and housing), in terms of why the party lost so much support and as a framework to attack the government.
Ed Miliband having first surprised and unsettled the party by winning the leadership election, and then reassured it with his speech, there was simply not a lot left for anyone to say in Manchester. The Wednesday was dominated by speculation and discussion about the intentions of David Miliband, which in the end came down to a highly personal decision.
The important post-Manchester decision was the formation of the Shadow Cabinet, and this was also fairly well handled although the choice of Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor was surprising. Johnson, although not a detail man, represents a gesture of unity to the Blairites (he was one of the first supporters of David’s leadership campaign) and also a slight shift to orthodox finance compared to appointing Balls or Cooper. That Johnson is not an economist is not very relevant (neither is Osborne), but some of the most successful Chancellors have been non-economists with a popular touch like Ken Clarke and Denis Healey. Economists-as-Chancellors tend to do spectacularly well for a time and then see it all go wrong, like Gordon Brown or Nigel Lawson. Johnson seems to have emerged with considerable power in the party (rather surprisingly), for instance having the ability to disagree early with EM over student finance. Johnson is also, like EM, rather on the reforming/ pluralist side of Labour politics, as opposed to the tribal/ centralist perspective shared by the old left and by a lot of New Labour.
EM’s concern for party unity and building a team also showed in his person management – it is unusual to do all the junior shadow appointments in person, but EM did, speaking to each shadow personally. If a criticism can be made of it, it lacks political decisiveness and aggression. There is a historical consciousness about EM’s leadership – he knows as well as anyone that party civil wars after defeats in 1951, 1970 and 1979 hindered the party’s recovery. To construct a ‘new generation’ he has chosen to start with one of the more careful exercises in faction-balancing we have seen since the early stages of the Blair government, at least at the top level – at the junior levels he has rewarded some of his early supporters.
The ‘Red Ed’ tag might have been dreamed up by New Labour ultras (possibly by Peter Mandelson in particular) but the Conservatives adopted it with enthusiasm and this will be something of a reputation to live down. It is, as EM said, rather a silly label. He and David are both mainstream social democrats and there is simply no relation to the leftist candidates who stood in leadership elections in the 1970s and 1980s (a read of Neil Kinnock’s leadership election manifesto in 1983, let alone Foot in 1980, should clarify that). But it is tempting, particularly given the role trade union votes played in his election (although these were votes of members, not the fabled ‘block votes’ or ‘barons’). EM’s first choices on this, in terms of appointing Johnson and also offering support in principle (in the leader’s speech) and specific (disability living allowance) spending cuts, are maybe even a little more cautious moves than David would have done.

The Conservative conference was not really what one would have expected for a party returning to power after a long period of opposition; it was the first since 1996 of the Tories as a governing party, and the first since 1991 probably where the party was reasonably united and confident in government. But there was a shadow over it all. The mood was if anything less happy than it was in 2009, when the party was confident about winning a majority and shadow ministers spoke with the expectation of soon wielding power. The ban on (public) consumption of champagne, in force since the mid-crisis conference in 2008, remained in force. In some ways, 2009 was the first Tory conference at which they started to think and act as a government, and 2010 less of a novelty for that reason.
The Tory conference was probably the most tentative and provisional of them all. Both the Liberal Democrats (by going into coalition in May) and Labour (by electing a new leader) had taken important decisions for the futures of their parties, while the Conservatives were in the limbo between the election and the proper start of the cuts process on 20 October.
Even though the Conservatives were oddly subdued, and the atmosphere was well away from the arrogance (or to put it less unkindly, the comfort with power) that they had as late as the mid 1990s, they were not disunited. There was not much factionalism in Birmingham, and the habit that had developed in the early Cameron conference of subtle shows of dissent through badge-wearing for non-approved causes like withdrawal from the EU had gone away.
One of the notable features of this government is that the European issue has not caused anywhere near the problems that might have been expected, with several technical and budgetary measures of EU integration being waved through in parliament. Part of this is a pragmatic recognition of what coalition means (although the Eurosceptic right was incapable of doing so in the interests of party unity from 1992 to around 2003). Part is less explicable; perhaps a non-rational sense of the right having been completely outflanked by Cameron in May and being too stunned to fight – or even accepting his redefinition of the political realities.
The issues on which the right wing were pushing the boundaries at Birmingham (a visit to the ‘Freedom Zone’ was interesting if one wanted to see some of the edgier organisations and fringe meetings) were less contradictory to the Cameron project. A right winger arguing for much more radically reduced taxation and government spending is, in a way, helping the government by pushing the terms of political debate so that the government’s pretty heavy cuts seem moderate by comparison. The causes that seemed to arouse the Tory grass roots seemed to be, in rough order, a smaller state, a No vote in the referendum on electoral reform, and restoring fox hunting. None of these enthusiasms will cause Cameron any lost sleep. At the more elevated level, the discussions on the fringe seemed to be an indirect dialogue between two policy entrepreneurs of the right, Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and Phillip Blond of ResPublica (the ‘Red Tory’). Both can work with the goal of reducing the size of the state in the medium term, although the emphasis is different – Elliott a more traditional individualist, economistic right winger and Blond a reversion to the 19th Century Toryism of intermediate institutions and a ‘Big Society’.
Cameron’s reputation as a speechmaker is based on one or two triumphs – his education speech at the 2005 conference, his 2007 conference speech and a couple of others, but he is also capable of turning in some less impressive efforts and his 2010 conference speech was one of them. Cameron’s evocation in the speech of Lord Kitchener (your country needs YOU) provoked a predictably flat reaction. Cameron himself – and to be fair to him, every politician at the moment in Britain – lacks the ability to inspire people to go beyond their expectations, a problem since his ‘Big Society’ if it is anything is a project to change people and their underlying attitudes.
The child benefit argument that broke out at the conference was a worrying sign for the Conservatives in several ways, and if repeated will revive concerns that did exist about George Osborne’s judgement and competence. On the face of it, withdrawing it from higher earners was not a bad idea – if one is looking for cuts, then targeting at the benefits that are currently universal and collected by higher earners helps with the idea that it is not just the poor making sacrifices.
The trouble with child benefit, and with a lot else that the government wants to cut, is that it is complicated. There is a reason that Peter Lilley (the very right wing Social Security Secretary in the 1990s) did not do anything about it. Independent taxation of married couples created the problem that taking it from high-earning mothers would actually be regressive, as women in most of the very rich households do not work, and the government’s idea turned out to create several paradoxes and be difficult and costly to administer. It really should have been better thought out by this stage.
The next problems were presentational. Having criticised – and often been accurate in doing so – the Blair administration’s habit of making up policy to satisfy short term media demands and doing so through an informal clique (‘sofa government’), the Conservatives now found themselves accused of doing just these things when Osborne trailed it on breakfast television. The policy also irritated mothers, who have emerged as quite a powerful political voice through the website ‘Mumsnet’ in particular, and caused misgivings among Tory representatives in Birmingham. The bottom end of the high rate tax threshold is well above the national average income, but particularly with the high costs of bringing up children it does not seem very affluent to many people on it, and the affirmation of the policy on the married tax allowance at more or less the same time meant it amounted to a transfer from working single parents to childless couples at only small net benefit to the Treasury.
Then the government hinted that there might be some flexibility and the possibility of changing the details. For a small cut (a little over £1bn) that affected people who did not really need the money all that much anyway, it did not give a strong and decisive impression of a government that would take tough decisions without buckling. It has not seemed to affect the public perceptions much, but this episode signalled a surprising vulnerability and inclarity. The Conservatives really only have themselves to blame for ‘losing’ the conference season.
Conclusion: Winners and losers
Ed Miliband of course had a better season than anyone expected, by winning and then making a better speech than he might have; however, he has to get beyond the problematic nature of his initial narrow victory, keep all but the ultra Blairites on board, keep a distance from the unions and work out a line that will stick on how Labour should decide which cuts should be supported and which opposed – a tough set of tasks. Nick Clegg also won – although his speech was forgettable, he did demonstrate leadership in getting his party to accept coalition and then to applaud a fairly pure statement of Thatcherism, although even now he might be encountering serious resistance on student fees. Liam Fox, through a judicious leaked memo, has been well placed to bolster his support on the traditionalist right of the party, and the darlings of the fringe were Douglas Carswell and Philip Blond.
George Osborne made the principal blunder of the conference season, although he has an opportunity to put it right again before long. The old barons of New Labour, Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair, found their political touch had deserted them, and Gordon Brown (a forgotten man by now…) was wiser to keep silent. David Miliband of course lost the leadership and, for the moment, does not have a political career, a fate which no other defeated leadership contender would have faced because of the (boring) media focus on the ‘psychodrama’ of brother against brother. Vince Cable’s star continued to burn out, with his sceptical speech badly received by business interests and whatever leftist credibility he had won vanished entirely with the student fees decision less than a month later…

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Liberal Democrats could lose twice if AV fails in referendum (13 May 2010)

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Liberal Democrats could lose twice if AV fails in referendum (13 May 2010)

Posted on 13 May 2010 by admin

Favourable boundary changes may mean Conservatives have last laugh in Lib Dems’ campaign for electoral reform

The coalition agreement combines a referendum on the alternative vote (AV) system with reducing the number of MPs and rewriting the rules for drawing constituency boundaries. The parties’ interests point in opposite directions – the Conservatives would prefer a boundary review but no AV, while it would be in the Liberal Democrats‘ interests to have AV but not a boundary review – and it is not clear whether the Tories will get their new boundaries regardless of whether AV passes in the referendum.

If the Tory proposal to cut the number of MPs from 650 to 585 was implemented, the average size of a constituency would rise from 70,000 to 77,000 voters. The Tories have insisted the current rules – where variation around the average is tolerated in the interests of not having constituencies crossing county boundaries, splitting wards or with bad internal communications – would be replaced with a rule allowing only 3%-5% variation.

Wales would lose proportionately the most seats, falling from 40 MPs to about 28, with Scotland and Northern Ireland falling too. All regions of England would be reduced slightly, although the south-east would lose least (three seats out of 84) and the north-east most (four out of 29). New constituencies would be unfamiliar blends of territory, such as a seat crossing the Devon-Cornwall border, one spanning a ferry route to the Isle of Wight, and a vast Highlands and Islands seat in Scotland.

The Conservatives will gain a little from the change. Each boundary change tends to abolish a few Labour seats and create a few Tory ones, as population tends to decline in industrial towns and grow in suburbs and the countryside, although the “depopulated inner-city” constituency’ is a myth: Manchester Central has more than 90,000 electors, for instance.

The smaller seats are in Wales, Glasgow and industrial boroughs such as Wolverhampton (plus the occasional Tory shire seat such as Kenilworth and Southam), while many inner London seats are oversized. The Conservatives are also hoping that local detail will alter boundaries in their favour, because they control the most local authorities.

The coalition also plans to accelerate individual electoral registration (IER), already timetabled by Labour, to be phased in by 2015. IER will make the electorate fluctuate in size more than at present (as it has in Northern Ireland), and risks worsening under-registration of young people and city dwellers. A boundary review using inaccurate numbers that are further skewed during the IER phase-in would face allegations of gerrymandering.

The Tory policy will mean continuous change in boundaries – more than 100 seats will grow or shrink by more than the tolerated variation each parliament. This disruption of the relationship of MP to constituency will undermine the Lib Dems in particular, because they rely on personal votes. If AV fails at the referendum, but we get new boundaries, the Tories will have had the last laugh at the expense of their partners.


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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.


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Pollwatch: Election forecasts hold up but questions remain for analysts (7 May 2010)

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Pollwatch: Election forecasts hold up but questions remain for analysts (7 May 2010)

Posted on 07 May 2010 by admin

Pollsters told us more or less what would happen but have not yet explained local differences or Clegg’s collapse

For the opinion pollsters the 2010 election was neither a humiliation like 1992 nor a routinely efficient performance like 2005, but wayward and difficult to capture accurately. It was at least good for business, in that there was an unprecedented volume of polling commissioned during the campaign. The average error on the eve of poll forecasts was bigger than last time, largely because the Liberal Democrat vote was falling faster than they could measure accurately in the final days. But the rough impression, if not the exact numbers, did convey what was going on.

The last round of opinion polls before election day showed the Conservatives on about 35-37%, Labour somewhere around 29%, and the Lib Dems a bit below that and on a downward trend. The exit poll, organised by broadcasting and polling consortiums, was met with raised eyebrows by the broadcasters and even the occasional journalist and commentator, because it was quite so bearish for the Lib Dems and showed the Tories well short of an overall majority. I recall saying something about eating my hat if the Lib Dems were as low as 59 MPs, but it was the pollsters who had the last laugh. The seats projection was as good as anyone could ask for, even though it was not the story we were expecting.

The pollsters told us more or less what would happen but have not yet really told us why. Labour over-performed in Scotland, picked up with admirable accuracy by the polls, and in inner London, but other than those areas there was no strong regional geography as there has been in most other recent elections.

Despite the debates giving a new shape to the national campaign it was not a case of national factors overcoming regional differences. The wildly varying swing in apparently similar constituencies – Leicestershire North West and Corby, for instance – and the low swing against incumbents despite an alleged anti-incumbent mood in the country indicate that there was something unusual about the way people approached this election. Their responses were very varied and localised.

The other big question for analysts of public opinion is quite what happened to Cleggmania. At one stage 2010 was shaping up to be a Liberal Democrat breakthrough of a kind that had not been seen since 1923: promotion to being taken seriously as one of the three main parties of state was implied in the debate format and seemed a possibility at Westminster, even under the distorting influence of first-past-the-post elections.

But it all collapsed like a cooling soufflé in the final week, leaving the party where it had stood in 2005 in terms of vote share and, to general surprise, exposing sitting Lib Dem MPs to electoral defeat by Tories and Labour alike. Although Clegg’s personality and political stances were going over well in national public opinion, something went very wrong indeed in translating this into votes for candidates who might win. Perhaps the nationalisation of the party’s appeal undercut the local power base of its MPs, who relied on personal support from people who did not particularly “agree with Nick”.

The flipside of the great Clegg deflation was Labour’s resilience. Many commentators expected Gordon Brown’s gaffe in describing a Rochdale voter as a “bigoted woman” to lead to meltdown in the Labour vote, and were surprised that the polls did not budge. Somehow, despite everything, Labour could call on deep reserves of solidarity on the part of a large proportion of voters. The victory of Brown’s candidate in Rochdale, over a sitting Lib Dem MP, was surely a delicious moment for the prime minister. Labour Britain was shaken to near destruction in 2008-09 but the election showed that a surprisingly sturdy fortress was still standing.

Unfortunately the exit pollsters decided to cut back on a number of the questions about attitudes and beliefs that they have asked in previous years. Over the next few months the academic British Election Study will explore this territory. We will then discover more about quite what kept people with Labour, turned them on and then off to the merits of Nick Clegg, and caused enough of them to reject the Conservatives’ remodelled appeal to deprive them of a majority in a recession-year election. Perhaps ultimately, Britain turned out to be too much of a centre-left nation to trust the Tories with untrammelled power.


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A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

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A Familiar Pattern (6 May 2010)

Posted on 06 May 2010 by admin

The polls have shifted no more than usual, but the result may yet be a surprise

One of the many strange things about this volatile campaign is how little it has actually changed most of the fundamentals that held when it started. A modest rise in the polls for the Lib Dems from start to finish is a usual feature of campaigns (up about 4 points) and in 2010 this is what has happened (albeit via a big surge in mid-campaign).

Even looking at the findings about what people think about the party leaders shows a fair amount of continuity despite the first Prime Ministerial debates in a British election. The main change is that more people have a high opinion of Nick Clegg than before, albeit mostly on the softer criteria of ‘charismatic’ (up from 12 per cent to 45 per cent over the campaign) and ‘in touch with ordinary people’ (up from 24 to 37 per cent). Neither Cameron’s nor Brown’s ratings (both pretty poor) moved much, with the biggest change being that more people now consider Brown good in a crisis (up from 18 per cent to 24 per cent). Compared to past movements during campaigns, in favour of Neil Kinnock and John Major, opinion about the Labour and Conservative leaders did not shift.

The post-debate polls, woefully misreported for the most part, confirmed merely that people thought the leader of the party they intended to vote for anyway ‘won’ (whatever ‘won’ means in a debate) but that most people were impressed by Clegg. The debates therefore amplified the usual process of the Lib Dems gaining from equal broadcast time, and compressed it into the few days after the first debate. Despite the media obsession with process, the debates did seem to pique the interest of voters and will have contributed to what seems likely to be a respectable turnout.

The debate polls were an example of how they can be misused, but on a more general level can one trust opinion polls? One of the more foolish objections to opinion polls is that each one only asks about a thousand people for their views. How can that possibly be representative of an electorate of 45 million? The science of statistics has a well established answer. You only need a sample to get the answer right, provided that the sample is representative of the whole. A common analogy is that you can tell how salty a huge vat of soup is by tasting a teaspoonful, provided that the vat has been stirred properly.

However, stirring the soup is an increasingly delicate art. It is remarkable to look back to how opinion polling worked back in the 1960s and 1970s. It was mostly done through face to face interviews, and got the results more or less dead on (with the notable exception of 1970). Despite its unsophisticated methodology, it worked until another surprise election result in 1992 when the polls showed the parties level pegging but the Conservatives were actually clearly ahead when the votes were counted (7.5 per cent). Since then, polling companies have tried ever more sophisticated mechanisms to get representative samples. The obstacles are formidable. Turnout used to be reliably somewhere around 75 per cent, and was also much the same regardless of class or region. Now it varies wildly – 72 per cent in 1997, around 60 per cent in the last couple of elections, and probably higher today. More people vote by post. More people are difficult to reach because they work long hours or live in gated communities. There are more parties in the game. The technology is constantly changing. Pollsters have to re-weight the raw figures to get a representative sample. It is a thing of wonder and beauty that they got it as right as they did in 2005, and that YouGov called the 2008 London election so accurately. But the electorate is a moving target, and at some point the weightings will go wrong. We shall know tomorrow whether the eve-of-election consensus of the polls is right or not.


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Pollwatch: Debate sees Lib Dems’ star rising to set Tory nerves jangling (April 16 2010)

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Pollwatch: Debate sees Lib Dems’ star rising to set Tory nerves jangling (April 16 2010)

Posted on 16 April 2010 by admin

The party in yellow always sees a spike during campiagns due to higher visibility but Conservatives should still be wary

Even if the first reports of the post-debate boost for Nick Clegg were a bit outlandish, it seems that the leadership debates have added to the usual lift that the Lib Dems get from election campaigns.

There have been already been several inconsistent accounts published concerning which of the larger two parties would suffer most from a rise in Lib Dem support. The answer must be, unfortunately, “it depends”. But in terms of the parties’ aims in the election it is more likely that the Conservatives will have most cause to regret Nick Clegg’s equal time and his effective use of it.

Gaining seats from the Lib Dems is an element of the Conservative strategy to get over the winning line of 326 seats in the new House of Commons. Pre-campaign polls with figures like Con 40, Lib Dem 19 implied a 5.5% swing towards the Tories. Based on uniform swing (a particularly rough approximation when it comes to Lib Dems) this would gain 23 seats for the Tories, an important contribution to their target of 116 gains, which allowing for boundary changes would get them to 326.

Even before the debate, there was evidence that the Conservatives were struggling in their efforts to win seats from the Lib Dems. YouGov’s regional trends showed them doing poorly in the south-west, where many of these seats are located, and the Crosby/Textor poll of marginal seats showed no Tory progress at all in the Lib Dem held marginals. The Tories may still pick off a few of the 23, but might also lose one or two to the Lib Dems such as Eastbourne. If there are no net gains from the Lib Dems, the Tories have to find 23 seats from somewhere else. It gets worse – the party is under-performing in Scotland and would be lucky to gain any of the apparently vulnerable SNP seats or more than one or two from Scottish Labour.

There are 24 Lib Dem seats and two SNP among the 116 numerically most vulnerable to the Conservatives. If there were a neat, even swing from all others to the Tories, seat 116 (Waveney in Suffolk) would fall with a 6% swing. Taking Lib Dem and SNP seats, plus the more ambitious targets from Scottish Labour, off the boards means the required swing from Labour alone increases to 8 per cent. An 8-point national swing implies a Conservative lead over Labour of 13 points, although allowing for a 1.5% overperformance in targets from Labour would take it down to the Tories needing a 10-point lead to win. It is still a very tall order.

But what about Labour? A Lib Dem surge harms them as well, but perhaps less than one might think. There are eight Labour seats vulnerable to a 2% swing to the Lib Dems, but a sharp swing of 7% would only net the Lib Dems 10 more seats from Labour. In practice, however, Lib Dems always perform patchily, winning outsized swings to gain seats that did not look at all marginal (like Solihull and Manchester Withington in 2005) while missing some apparently easier targets (like Dorset West and Oxford East in 2005).

A national boost would probably in reality help bring in some long shots. The real danger for Labour is that Lib Dem voters might become unwilling to give tactical votes to vulnerable Labour candidates in marginals where there is a Labour-Conservative fight, and thereby hand the seat to the Tories (as happened in several places in 2005, like Shipley and St Albans). This would in turn make it easier for the Tories to gain the seats they need at Labour’s expense. But there were already widespread conjectures about “tactical unwind” happening.

If the Lib Dem boost is sustained, as it may well be (although not at the fanciful levels suggested in initial reports of the ComRes poll), it poses a clear threat to the Conservatives’ chances of achieving their strategic aim, a parliamentary majority (or a sufficiently predominant position in a hung parliament to run a minority government which could reliably get legislation passed).

It poses less of a threat to Labour, because fewer seats are directly at stake, and Labour’s strategic aims are more nuanced than just the big ask of a parliamentary majority. By brandishing an olive branch at Clegg during the debate, Gordon Brown was bidding for progressive voters for Labour, but also preparing the ground for Labour’s Plan B – a coalition, or minority government with an explicit accommodation with the Lib Dems.

Published 16/4/2010


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