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Pollwatch: How the general election scores could change by 6 May (6 April 2010)

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Pollwatch: How the general election scores could change by 6 May (6 April 2010)

Posted on 06 April 2010 by admin

The polls published yesterday may have appeared to be all over the place – but were more consistent than they looked

The polls published just before the election was called may have appeared to be all over the place, but were more consistent than they looked. Conservative support stands at around 38-39%, and Labour somewhere around 31%. The Lib Dems stand firmly on 20% of the vote.

The Saturday and Tuesday ICM polls for the Guardian appeared rather different, as Labour’s rating was a below-average 29 points in the first poll and 33 points in the second. If this is a trend, Labour has reason for confidence, but it may just be sampling variation around a constant figure of 31.

However, polls measure how things stand now. Will the campaign change this, or will the next month of hectic campaigning, saturation media coverage and frenetic expenditure just confirm opinions held already?

Fortunately for my trade, campaigns make a difference. Of the last 10 elections, the only one in which there was no change between the polls at the start and the end of the campaign was October 1974. Every other election has seen significant movement in the polls during the campaign (although in 1970 it was self-cancelling and brought the final polls back to where they started).

Some elections, particularly 1992 and 1970, have seen significant differences between the final polls and the outcome, either because of late swing or methodological faults in the polls. However, the final polls were nearly spot on in 2005.

Comparing poll averages at the start and finish of the campaign in elections gives us some clues as to how things may change between now and 6 May.

If there is a general rule, it is that the Liberal Democrats (and their predecessors) gain support during the weeks just before polling day. In some elections this has been dramatic (eight-point gains in February 1974 and 1983) but a three-four point gain, as in the last four elections, is the least that can be expected. The only major exception was the disastrous Alliance effort in 1987, when Labour’s strong campaign and the increasingly obvious differences between the “Two Davids” (Steel and Owen) led to a five-point fall. In October 1974 an over-hyped Liberal campaign, featuring a campaign hovercraft, ran aground and left the Liberals a little behind where they started.

The main explanation for Lib Dem growth during campaigns is in the broadcasters’ adoption of stricter balance rules, so that Lib Dems are included in panel discussions. This campaign will have more potential to boost the Lib Dems than most, provided Nick Clegg makes a decent showing in the leaders’ debates.

The other reason is that voters become more aware of the tactical situation in their constituencies as the campaign progresses, and in constituencies where the Lib Dems are a presence this tends to build their support. For this reason, one should discount any constituency polls early in the campaign showing the Lib Dems way down, and their third place rival looking as if they will overtake them from where they were in 2005.

The other fairly consistent trend is that the party that starts the campaign season ahead will tend to drop in the polls by election day. If the party’s recorded support is particularly high, it will drop by more than average (as for Labour in 1997 and 2001, and the Conservatives in 1979, all of whom dropped five points). However, Labour managed to defy this pattern in 2005, with a small but crucial increase and a larger Conservative decline during the campaign. There is no consistent pattern of incumbent governments doing better or worse in the final polls than the first polls of the campaign.

How does all this apply to 2010? With fewer people, year by year, expressing strong attachment to one or other of the parties, more choice of parties, and lower turnout, there is certainly the potential for a campaign to shake things up, particularly given the unknown effect of the first leaders’ debates in a British election. There must be the possibility of something dramatic happening.

However, assuming this is an “average” campaign and using my two rough rules for changes during the campaign, the final polls would end up something like Con 37, Lab 31, Lib Dem 24. Allowing for a larger pro-Tory swing in the marginals, this is probably enough for a Conservative minority government in a hung parliament. As several sessions at last week’s Political Studies Association conference in Edinburgh demonstrated, this is where most academic experts’ rules of thumb and statistical models end up pointing; but we are all aware that these rules can suddenly stop working. Even so, prepare for a bumpy ride.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/06/labour-conservatives-polls-general-election

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In much of the south, Labour is a fringe party (5 June 2009)

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In much of the south, Labour is a fringe party (5 June 2009)

Posted on 05 June 2009 by admin

Even through the dark days of the 80s there were still active branches and elected councillors even in small towns, but no longer, reports Lewis Baston

The Conservatives have done extremely well in terms of seats in the county council results. It was almost a foregone conclusion that they would hold on to what they had, and sweep Labour out of the remaining county councils in the Midlands, but they seem to have done rather better.

They were not just beneficiaries of a Labour collapse, but also made considerable progress against the Liberal Democrats, notably gaining control of Somerset. So far the Tories even look as if they are doing well in the new Cornwall unitary council, winning Redruth Central – a town where the party scraped barely 10% of the vote in the 2005 county elections. It seems possible that they will manage a clean sweep of all the county councils, a feat at the most optimistic end of their hopes.

For Labour the results are utterly miserable, with extremely few exceptions (the party strangely gained a couple of seats in Nelson, Lancashire, despite the general collapse, and nearly held firm in Hastings). Across a lot of southern England, Labour is running in fourth, fifth or even sixth place in the county elections behind candidates of more or less any other party that fancies its chances – Greens, Ukip, English Democrats …

In much of the south, Labour is in effect a fringe party. It has been practically eradicated as a force in politics in these areas and may well never recover. Even through the dark days of the 80s there were still active branches and elected councillors even in small towns, but no longer. There have also been some spectacular collapses in northern England – in Burnley Rural ward, which Labour was defending, the party came fourth and lost the seat to the Lib Dems.

The county elections reveal an English electorate attracted by populist rightwing parties, a predictable expression of the widespread indiscriminate cynicism about mainstream politics. The BNP has polled at the upper end of expectations, getting 7% even in some areas (such as Chelmsford and the Clacton area) outside its traditional stamping grounds.

The far-right party has so far won seats in Lancashire and Leicestershire, albeit only on 27%-31% of the vote through fractured opposition. If David Cameron objects to electoral systems that let in extremists, is he now going to condemn first past the post in local elections?

Aside from the BNP, the rightwing mood is apparent in the high votes for Ukip where it has stood in local elections, small rightwing parties and perhaps the surprise package of the lot, the English Democrats, who won the demolition derby that was the Doncaster mayoral election.

They have also achieved some quite impressive shares of the vote in county elections – Essex, for instance – despite the lack of knowledge of the party among the media.

The total vote for these parties plus the Conservatives could make the 2009 European election the most rightwing expression of opinion the British have made collectively since 1931.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2009/jun/05/local-elections-labour-lewis-baston

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A little local difficulty (3 November 2008)

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A little local difficulty (3 November 2008)

Posted on 03 November 2008 by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The magic number (13 September 2008)

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The magic number (13 September 2008)

Posted on 13 September 2008 by admin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The message from Henley is clear: the Tories are on the march (27 June 2008)

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The message from Henley is clear: the Tories are on the march (27 June 2008)

Posted on 27 June 2008 by admin

Labour’s trouncing in Oxfordshire, and the less-reported loss in Blackpool, is a definite indication of a Conservative future

Henley was never going to be a good result for Labour, but the outcome was horrific beyond imagination. The lost deposit was perhaps predictable, but the embarrassment of coming behind the Greens was not, and the abject humiliation of limping in behind the BNP in this affluent home counties seat was an entirely unexpected blow. At least, at 3.1%, Labour’s share of the vote in Henley was not the worst ever – the Isle of Wight (1983), Newbury (1993) and Winchester (1997) have all seen Labour sink lower.

In previous byelections in safe Conservative seats there has often been a swing to the Liberal Democrats. In 2006, Bromley & Chislehurst came within 633 votes of an astonishing upset, with a 14% swing to the Lib Dems, and in 2000 the Tories lost Romsey. One might have expected a significant swing to the Lib Dems in Henley and a reduced Conservative majority, but there was actually a small net swing from Lib Dem to Conservative. The turnout was relatively high for a safe seat by-election at 50% (10 points higher than in Bromley). The pro-Tory swing and robust turnout are, if anything, more remarkable and worrying for Labour than the crash in the party’s own vote. It shows that the Conservative vote is more solid and committed than it has been for many years. This should worry Labour greatly, and also send a shiver of alarm through the many vulnerable Lib Dem MPs in the south of England.

There was another less conspicuous byelection last night, in the Park ward of Blackpool, where the Conservatives scored a gain from Labour on a big swing even since the May 2007 elections when Labour polled very poorly in the town. This ward forms part of the marginal Blackpool North and Cleveleys seat, number 80 on the Conservative target list, and is generally one of Labour’s better areas of the constituency. Yesterday’s byelection confirmed the message of Henley that the Tories are on the march.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/jun/27/henley.conservatives

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A reversal of midterm fortunes (20 July 2007)

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A reversal of midterm fortunes (20 July 2007)

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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/jul/20/areversalofmidtermfortunes

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Welsh electoral system may produce surprise result (1 May 2007)

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Welsh electoral system may produce surprise result (1 May 2007)

Posted on 01 May 2007 by admin

Which parties get to form a government in Wales may depend more on who comes second than on how many seats Labour gets, writes Lewis Baston

The electoral system in Wales is significantly less proportional than the one used in Scotland.

In an assembly of 60 members, 40 are elected from single-member constituencies and only 20 from compensatory regional lists (Wales is divided into five regions, each with four regional seats).

This 33% element is not enough to produce the high level of proportionality achieved in Scottish elections and it sets a higher threshold for the election of smaller parties.

Coalition was always going to happen in Scotland, but not necessarily in Wales, and in a good year Labour could obtain a comfortable majority.

But in the last two elections Labour fell short, with 28 seats out of 60 in 1999 and 30 in 2003, when they were able to form a precarious executive without the Liberal Democrats.

The backdrop in 2007 is so unfavourable that the chances of Rhodri Morgan and his fellow assembly members winning another majority in Wales are remote at best, but there is still no doubt that Labour will emerge the largest single party.

The questions of the election are how far short of a majority Labour will fall, and who will come second?

Labour looks likely to lose constituency seats to the Conservatives such as Preseli Pembrokeshire and Clwyd West (both Tory gains in the 2005 Westminster election) and suburban Cardiff North, and the Tories have other, sketchier hopes elsewhere.

Plaid Cymru will hope to pick up Llanelli, and both they and the Conservatives are trying for the redrawn seat of Aberconwy in the north west.

This would take Labour down to 25 seats, although the party would probably pick up a compensatory list seat to make 26.

Most expectations are for Labour to have 24-26 AMs. This is probably not enough to run a minority government, and a coalition would need to be formed.

Labour has two potential coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats (with whom Labour worked well between 2000 and 2003) and Plaid Cymru.

Another tantalising option is the “rainbow” coalition of Conservative, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrats.

While this alliance between nationalist left and unionist centre-right may seem incongruous, it could work; the Welsh Conservatives are much more thoroughgoing modernisers even than Cameron supporters in England.

Strangely, the Conservatives’ chances of going into government would be enhanced by coming third rather than second in the election.

It would be easier for them to work under a Plaid Cymru First Minister than vice versa. The Conservatives coming second would also make Plaid Cymru a more attractive coalition partner for Labour.

Which government is formed may depend more on who comes second than on how many seats Labour gets.

The elections in Scotland, Wales and for Scottish local authorities are all in their way fascinating demonstrations of how much Britain has changed since 1997.

For someone so often lambasted as a control freak, Tony Blair has presided over a huge devolution of power, the consequences of which – local government electoral reform, a possible Plaid-Conservative government, even possible Scottish independence – spiral ever-further from his original intentions.

It is ironic, and perhaps sad, that the Labour party itself looks like getting buried in the rubble of this constitutional and political construction site.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2007/may/01/wales.devolution

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Local elections explained (30 April 2007)

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Local elections explained (30 April 2007)

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.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2007/apr/30/localgovernment.localgovernment

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Exit Poll Thoughts (5 May 2005)

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Exit Poll Thoughts (5 May 2005)

Posted on 05 May 2005 by admin

A Labour majority of 66 is a bit less than most commentators have predicted (although I have gone for 46 in an office sweepstake). Labour people throughout the day have been incredibly jittery about some seats which had rather large majorities in 2001. A national share of 37% to 33% for the Conservatives implies a swing of 2.5% but the BBC’s seat projection suggests a much higher swing to the Tories in the marginals – perhaps 3.5 or 4 per cent.

The Liberal Democrats will be a bit disappointed to see their national share at 22 per cent with a net gain of only a couple of seats, but their vote is likely to be even more variable and difficult to predict than the share for the two main parties. The projection suggests one of two things has happened – either that the much anticipated strong swing to the Lib Dems in intellectual middle class constituencies (more to follow on this later) has not happened, or that it has been cancelled out by significant Conservative gains from the Lib Dems.

Of course, the 10pm figures might not be final – people keep voting until 10pm, and the late votes might tweak the figures up or down a bit.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/election2005blog/2005/may/05/exitpoll

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