Tag Archive | "marginal seats"

All Change

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All Change

Posted on 22 September 2011 by admin

Take care when assessing the impact of boundary changes on the next election, cautions Lewis Baston

When the Boundary Commission for England published its initial proposals earlier this month, there was a lot of information to absorb quickly. Some aficionados and anoraks (including myself) were intrigued by how they approached the task and phenomena like cross-county and ‘tri-borough’ constituencies. MPs were naturally obsessed with local details. But everyone wanted to know what the implications would be for each of the political parties.

Figures estimating the partisan effect of boundary changes should always be taken with a pinch of salt, as there are different methods which all have their advantages and disadvantages, but which can produce different results. There is no absolutely reliable data, and one has to use local election results, with various tweaks and adjustments, to guess. A number of interesting constituencies would be incredibly close on the boundary changes, to the extent that it is pretty much impossible to ‘call’ them reliably – for example, the new Abingdon and Oxford North might or might not have gone Tory rather than Liberal Democrat in 2010 but it is very debatable. The best method for estimating the notional results of new constituencies is that used by the indefatigable Plymouth duo of Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher, but it is arduous, does not produce quick results, and even then is sometimes off-beam.

The Guardian produced some rough workings of the partisan effect of the changes, which ‘feel’ about right looking at the results as a whole: the Conservatives down six seats, Labour down 14, the Liberal Democrats down 10 and the Greens down one seat. This is towards the upper end of what the Conservatives might have hoped for from the process, although Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report has produced some workings which are a bit worse for Labour. Allowing for the other three nations, overall changes would be Conservatives down 10, Labour down 22, Liberal Democrats down 13 and others down five. In terms of the composition of parliament, this would mean 296 Conservatives – just short of an overall majority that would require 301 seats. The changes therefore, if one re-runs the 2010 election, put the Conservatives significantly nearer the winning post but do not carry them over the threshold to a majority.

However, it is important to realise that the next election will not be a re-run of 2010. This point is utterly obvious, but often seems lost in discussions about boundary changes. We are not dealing simply with new boundaries, but with a combination of new boundaries, a new political situation and the responses of individual MPs to the boundary changes. The more interesting question about the boundaries is what happens if there is a modest-sized swing to Labour at the next election. The current polling average of Labour 40 per cent, Conservatives 36 and Liberal Democrats 11, translates into something like a Labour majority of 40-50. Under the new boundaries this would unquestionably be lower, although exactly how much lower will depend on how many Conservative and Liberal Democrat seats are marginal enough for Labour to swing over in the next election. A four-point lead is enough for Labour to scrape a majority, probably, but not enough for a comfortable win like 2005 (when the party’s lead in vote share was three per cent). The Conservatives still need a lead of eight per cent or so to win an overall majority – less than on the previous boundaries but still a considerable margin. Of themselves, the boundary changes still leave another hung parliament looking a fairly likely result in 2015 – although if the Liberal Democrat vote slumps the size of ‘hung parliament territory’ shrinks accordingly, whatever the boundaries.

Boundary changes also pose constituency-level challenges. While adverse changes to marginal Labour seats are worrying for individual incumbents, these are sometimes an (effectively disguised) stroke of good fortune for the party as a whole. Halifax, for instance, is flipped from Labour to Conservative under the new boundaries, but Linda Riordan remains its Labour MP. A good incumbent should be able to get themselves known, campaign hard and attract support in new areas. If there is any national swing to Labour, and if incumbents do the work, then places like Halifax should be Labour ‘gains’ in 2015. In the 2010 election boundary changes made Joan Ryan’s Enfield North seat notionally Tory, but she managed to damp down the swing to 0.7 per cent compared to neighbouring seats with actual Tory MPs which swung by between six and eight per cent.

If there is a national swing to Labour, and if incumbents do half as much better than the national trend as Ryan did in 2010, boundary changes are survivable. Enfield North, incidentally, is probably flipped back to Labour in the latest set of boundary changes but will be harder to win back than the raw figures suggest because it now has a first-term Tory MP.

Another feature of boundary changes is that they will require a broader political and campaigning approach. Areas in ‘hopeless’ seats are often left organisationally derelict, and the same can happen of course in some ‘safe’ areas. When territory is moved from a hopeless area into a marginal, it will need to be brought quickly up to speed in terms of its organisation and campaign readiness. This is a stiff task. Chingford and Woodford Green may be a safe Tory seat, but Chingford and Edmonton is a crucial Labour-Tory marginal. The Chingford wards involved will need to get busy with gaining members, canvassing and persuading electors who may not have heard much from Labour locally before.

The subtleties of boundary changes will be particularly exercising the minds of Liberal Democrats. The party is particularly vulnerable to boundary changes because its majorities are on average smaller than Labour or Tory (12 per cent, rather than 18 to 19 per cent), and because they are usually surrounded by areas that do not vote Liberal Democrat. For instance, their seat in Burnley is shipwrecked because it is split and the larger part is combined with part of Hyndburn, where the Liberal Democrats are so weak that they hardly contest local elections. In the past, Liberal Democrat incumbents have sometimes been amazingly successful at coping with boundary changes, like Sarah Teather in 2010 or David Alton in 1983. This does require high-pressure campaigning, and it has also in the past relied on the fact that very few people would absolutely never consider voting Liberal Democrat, and therefore most people were open to persuasion. They will encounter more resistance when they try this trick in 2015.

The Boundary Commission for England report is far from definitive. There now starts a process of consultation, and some of these initial proposals look almost certain to be revised by the time final proposals emerge. For instance, it is difficult to see the infamous ‘Mersey Banks’ constituency surviving a consultation process. We will not know the definitive picture until 2013. There is also uncertainty over whether the House of Commons will approve whatever new boundaries emerge, although it would be foolish to assume that the changes will not take place. Even if they are approved, the new rules involve ‘permanent revolution’ – a new boundary review is supposed to start after the election and there will be another new set of constituencies for the 2020 election. This second review will be based on December 2015 electorate totals, which may be even more grossly inaccurate than the current ones because registration will become effectively voluntary by then. There is a formidable organisational, legislative and political task facing Labour, and the initial reports are only the first stage.

 Link to original article

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Hung parliament: what happens now? (7 May 2010)

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Hung parliament: what happens now? (7 May 2010)

Posted on 07 May 2010 by admin

The predicted results offer many scenarios for Westminster and the next inhabitant of 10 Downing Street

Election night 2010 was extraordinary, and it is still not really over. As dawn broke on 2 May 1997, there was no doubt that Tony Blair would be heading to Downing Street and leading a majority Labour government; but while it was obvious by breakfast time on 7 May 2010 that there would be a hung parliament with no overall majority, the rest of the story was far from clear.

Doubt over the last few results, which are still trickling in, means it remains to be seen what sort of hung parliament we will get. The difference between the Conservatives having 314 and 306 seats is a crucial one: if their numbers manage to tick up to 314, there is really no prospect of forming a non-Conservative government. The combined forces of Labour and Liberal Democrats would still be outnumbered by the Tories, and the prospect of a deal spanning Labour, Lib Dem, SNP, Plaid Cymru and one or more flavours of Northern Ireland MP lacks credibility. The only option would be for Gordon Brown to resign and David Cameron to form a minority government before parliament meets.

However, if the Conservatives fall short in the remaining marginal seats being counted and end up at around 306, then the combined Labour and Lib Dem benches would outnumber them. Though Labour and the Lib Dems would still be short of an outright majority, they could probably govern if the political will were there. The constitutional position is clear: Gordon Brown is entitled to stay in Downing Street and explore his options, even if the situation appears unpromising and the rightwing press is keen to push him out.

Given the political realities, Brown could also give other Labour figures some time to find common ground with the Lib Dems and smaller parties, a process that seemed to be starting as the results were coming in, with Harriet Harman and Peter Mandelson speaking out about electoral reform and “progressive” politics.

The chance of getting electoral reform may be a distant one, but it is the best on offer.

The surprisingly bad results for the Lib Dems may well discredit Nick Clegg’s confrontational approach towards Labour. But the leader and the party would need to find some loopholes fast in their previous talk of a party with a clear lead in votes and seats having a mandate.

There is no real need to hurry. The Queen’s speech is not until 25 May, and government can continue to tick along in election purdah mode for a couple more weeks. A transition period is perfectly normal practice in most other democracies, and the world will not come to an end if there is no quick outcome.

Whatever the result, there will probably be discreet talks about how to organise the formation of the government to minimise the potential for controversy around the Queen’s role in the process, and probably also to provide reassurance if the markets have serious wobbles (although it is open to the Conservatives to play hardball).

A consideration that will loom rapidly is the possibility of a second election, later in 2010 or in 2011. A minority Conservative government would find this attractive, and probably face no constitutional problem in calling another election. A tenuous Lib-Lab coalition, on the other hand, would want to try to run for longer, to make sure that electoral reform happens.

While British precedents suggest that a second election would probably be won by the Conservatives with an overall majority, there are no certainties, and a minority government would probably be unable to remap the constituencies to its own advantage, as a majority Conservative government would do.

The British constitution gives considerable advantages to an incumbent that should not be given up lightly. While the decision-making work of government is care and maintenance only, the central institutions of No 10 and the Cabinet Office can be used to prepare a Queen’s speech agenda with which to face parliament. And, if necessary, they can work on coalition deals on policy or personnel – just as they would do on an intra-party basis for a re-elected majority government.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/may/07/hung-parliament-what-happens-now

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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

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/16/pollwatch-debate-lib-dems-tories

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Pollwatch: Conservative lead narrowed, but two polls don’t make a trend (14 April 2010)

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Pollwatch: Conservative lead narrowed, but two polls don’t make a trend (14 April 2010)

Posted on 14 April 2010 by admin

The latest findings from Populus and ComRes may be just a statistical quirk

Two polls today, by Populus for the Times and ComRes for ITN and the Independent, narrowed the Conservative lead, dangerously so for David Cameron’s hopes of becoming prime minister. It remains to be seen whether these are the start of a trend or a statistical quirk.

Across the board, the polls barely shifted in the first week of the campaign. The Conservatives remain within a point or two of 38% support, and Labour within a similar distance of 31% in nearly all the polls. Perhaps this is not very surprising, because the first week was not particularly engaging and the big setpiece events of the campaign – the manifesto launches and the leader debates – were all yet to take place.

We can expect more change and volatility if and when the events of the campaign start to excite the public. But if the polls remain constant at this level, the end of the campaign and the result will be pretty exciting stuff, because this is probably on the cusp of what the Conservatives need for an overall majority.

Translating polls and vote shares into who will win how many seats at the election is an imprecise business, and depends on a lot of assumptions. The simplest is “uniform national swing”, which takes the change in each party’s vote since 2005 and then applies that change in every constituency. If voters behaved this way, the Tories would need a lead of about 11 points to win a majority.

But there are good reasons for assuming that swing will not be uniform. In local elections and polls concentrating on marginal seats the Tories seem to be outperforming the national swing by a point or two. Their strategy since 2005 has involved relentless targeting of money, promises, messages and campaigning on the marginal seats to achieve this, and it would seem to be working.

It is also to do with political strategy: Tony Blair’s rapport with swing voters in marginal seats long outlasted his honeymoon with metropolitan liberal opinion. Cameron, as shown in the detail of the Guardian’s latest ICM poll, seems to be going over well with the same voters (in social classes C1 and C2) that Blair targeted so successfully. The swing in the marginals is assisted, although not by as much as could have been expected last week, by people who had previously voted Labour for tactical reasons abandoning the party for the Lib Dems or Greens.

Another factor that seems to be helping the Conservatives is the way changes in voting intention vary by region. According to YouGov’s combined data (reported in PoliticsHome), the swing is strong in several regions that are rich in Labour-held marginals (north-west, west Midlands and east Midlands), adequate to win most of the targets in other regions (south-east) and low in the regions where there is little room for Conservative gains from Labour (Scotland, south-west). However, local sub-samples can be unreliable and there is room for more polling to be done to sample what is going on in the English regions and Wales in particular (polling in Scotland is pretty consistent).

Against these factors that are helping the Conservatives, there are a couple of adjustments that point the other way. Uniform swing assumptions are bad at predicting how the Lib Dems will do, because strong local campaigns and popular incumbents can resist national swings. Uniform swing would see the Conservatives winning large numbers of Lib Dem seats, but this is almost certainly not going to happen.

Then there is turnout. A large part of the electoral system’s bias against the Conservatives stems from the tendency for the Tories to pile up large numbers of votes in their safe seats because turnout is relatively high, and for safe Labour seats to have low turnout. If a close election brings out Tory voters in their droves in the countryside and the suburbs, as it did in 1992, but does not cause Labour turnout in safe seats to rise much, it will not help the Tories win more seats.

All this considered, the lead the Conservatives need falls to around 7% or so, similar to 1992 when a Conservative lead of 7.5% was enough for a majority of 21 seats. However, one cannot be certain. If they are lucky with turnout and varying swing, they might squeak across the winning post with a lead of 5%; if the cards fall badly for them, and Labour grassroots campaigning counteracts the Ashcroft marginal strategy, they could fall just short with a lead of 9%.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2010/apr/14/pollwatch-conservative-lead-narrows

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Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

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Conservatives must not redraw the map (5 Oct 2009)

Posted on 05 October 2009 by admin

Eric Pickles has proposed reducing the number of MPs. But ‘equalising’ the size of constituencies is a deeply flawed policy

In his speech to the Conservative party conference today, Eric Pickles claimed to stand for “fair votes”. He did not mean an end to the first past the post system that gives all the power on the basis of under 40% of the vote and ignores votes cast outside the marginal seats. What he meant was a policy of cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 585 and a promise that “we will make all constituencies equal in voting size”. This would be accomplished in time for the general election after 2010.

Cutting the number of MPs is a bit of easy populism, made even easier by the expenses scandal. It might not necessarily be a bad idea; the number of MPs should be determined by the need of constituents for representation and the needs of parliament to function well as an institution. However, the Conservative rationale is cost-cutting. It is doubtful that cutting the number of MPs will really make much of a saving in terms of public spending – after all, the same amount of constituency casework will just end up being done by fewer MPs. There is also the possibility that unless the number of ministerial jobs is sharply reduced, there will be more executive dominance of parliament than we have already.

The principle that constituencies should be more or less the same size is generally accepted. The issue is how much tolerance for variation from the average constituency size one allows, and how frequently the boundaries are redrawn. Currently, the Boundary Commission allows around 10% either side of the ideal (ie 63,000 to 77,000 electors) with a bigger margin for geographically difficult mountainous or island areas. The Conservatives are talking in terms of a rigid rule not allowing more than 5% either side of the new ideal figure (77,000 after the number of MPs has been cut). To keep within this limit, boundary reviews would have to become more frequent and proceed faster than the current, admittedly ridiculous, system where the boundaries coming into force in 2010 are based on electorate figures from February 2000.

Pickles appears to believe that the major cause of the pro-Labour bias in the electoral system evident in the 2005 election was variation in constituency size. This is factually untrue. Constituency size was a small component of the bias, but most arose from other factors such as low turnout in safe Labour seats. Labour’s vote is efficiently distributed, partly because of tactical voting in 1992 and partly through New Labour’s successful electoral strategy. It is quite possible that less tactical voting, Conservative targeting of marginal seats with Ashcroft money and Cameron’s appeal to “Middle England” could cause a lot of bias to unwind anyway in 2010.

The Conservative boundaries policy would require a rapid boundary review during the next parliament – the shortest recent review (1991-95) took four years, so the Boundary Commissions would have to have extra resources to accelerate the task. The new boundaries could not be subject to the same scrutiny at public inquiries that makes the current process so lengthy – there are simply not enough assistant commissioners (usually barristers) available to run the inquiries.

Inquiries of whatever sort involve taking evidence from political parties, community groups and local councils, and in arguing for the boundaries that suit them, a party needs to be well-organised and professional. By having a quick review after the election, the Conservatives must be hoping to go into the process well-funded and prepared and facing a demoralised and impoverished Labour party before it has regrouped. The Conservatives would also be at their peak in local government, and could use council submissions to back pro-Conservative boundary schemes.

It is unclear to what extent the Conservative policy will address the handful of hard cases that are often used in calls for equalising boundaries – the Western Isles seat, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, has five times fewer electors than the Isle of Wight. It is quite possible that these anomalies would survive under a Tory plan – the number of seats involved is small, and the alternatives (a seat spanning the Solent, for instance, combining bits of Portsmouth with towns on the Isle of Wight?) are geographically absurd.

The effect in other areas is, however, only slightly less ridiculous. The policy is going to face a huge backlash when people realise what it means. Equalising the size of each constituency will mean crossing county and ward boundaries and ripping up what remains of the traditional map of community representation. A bit of Cornwall would end up in a seat based on West Devon or Plymouth, whatever its residents thought about the matter, and angry voices would ring out in every public inquiry. This would be repeated time and again, because there would be frequent changes to keep constituencies within the 5% threshold.

This freedom to cross ward and county boundaries also increases the ability of well-prepared parties to manipulate the process. It is no coincidence that the worst gerrymandering in the developed world is for US Congressional seats, where there is a rigid requirement of arithmetic equality within 1% of the ideal population size within each state. Legislators draw preposterously biased lines on the map which make no sense according to any administrative, social or physical geography, as long as the right number of people are corralled together.

Although apparently fair, “reduce and equalise” is a badly flawed policy. As a supporter of proper electoral reform, I sometimes mischievously think it should go ahead because it might hasten the end of first past the post. That mystical link between MP and single member constituency will be broken up because a large number of MPs will represent constituencies that correspond to no local community identity, and whose boundaries will shift around every few years.

The fundamental problem is that it is impossible to produce one-size-fits-all single member seats while keeping natural communities together. Communities, as any conservative should know, come in different sizes. To achieve numerical equity and community identity requires multi-member seats, as with the flexible single transferable vote (STV) system used in Ireland. STV would enable one to keep community boundaries intact while putting representation on a more equal arithmetical footing. It would be tragic, and ironic, if in the pursuit of arithmetic perfection and a chimerical public spending cut a Conservative government created electoral units that would make the Heath-Walker local government map look popular.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/oct/05/conservative-conference-constituencies

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Poll position (Oct 1 2009)

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Poll position (Oct 1 2009)

Posted on 01 October 2009 by admin

The Tories are doing better in marginal seats than the national polls suggest, warns Lewis Baston

Even now, unbelievably, some Labour people seem to be complacent about the next general election. The argument goes that the Conservatives, because of electoral system bias against them, need to be 11-points clear of Labour in the national share of the vote to have a majority. This is true only if the swing is uniform, ie the same across the country. While uniform national swing is usually the best rule of thumb for translating poll figures into seats in the House of Commons, it is only an assumption, not a rule. For instance, Labour did significantly better in 2001 than uniform swing predicted because Labour MPs first elected in 1997 often boosted their majorities.

The local elections in June 2009 were a test of how far ahead the Tories really need to be to win an election. The ‘national equivalent vote’ of the parties (ie the local results translated into what they would mean in an election across the whole country) was, depending on whose projection you look at, the Conservatives on either 35% or 38% and Labour on 22% or 23%. This means a swing of 8% or 9% from Labour to Conservative, slightly more than the 7% they need to win a majority under the uniform swing assumption. Given that governments rarely repeat their worst mid-term performance in a general election, some people assume that an overall Conservative majority is unlikely.

The results in the key marginal constituencies where there were local elections in June should explode any such complacency. While the national swing appears to have been 8-9%, it is much higher in most of the marginals.

In the constituencies where more or less any swing will switch the seat to the Tories or LibDems, it seems about average – although 8% or 9% is easily enough to do the job. The ominous finding is from the constituencies where the Conservatives need a bit more of a swing to gain from Labour. In these cases the average swing is 13% or thereabouts, which would cut a swathe through Labour’s parliamentary representation. There were 61 Labour-held seats with county elections in June. Only four would have survived an election like the county elections. This is because the Conservatives seem to be getting the big swings where they need them.

In some of the target seats, the Conservatives are simply blowing Labour away – swings of 18% in South Ribble and 17% in Tamworth are extremely large by any comparison, and reflect a particular loss of support in areas where New Labour did particularly well in 1997. In others, Labour’s traditional vote has also melted away, as in Leicestershire North West where the BNP won what had been the safe Labour ward of Coalville, while the Conservatives have stood still or gained slightly. In this set of elections in the new towns, where Labour has done poorly for years in local elections, the swing may not appear quite so bad, but this often reflects the Conservatives losing votes to the right – UKIP, BNP and English Democrats – which might not help in general election conditions. Some coastal areas where Labour prospered in 1997 also have high swings – Dover, Morecambe and Waveney all have swings in the 15-16% bracket.

The Conservatives are not stupid in matters of political strategy, and know that they need either a 7%-plus national swing, or to do better in the marginals. They have focused their energies, campaigning messages and money (from Michael Ashcroft and elsewhere) on the marginals they need, and it seems to be paying dividends.

Local elections, although they are strong evidence, do not automatically reflect what would happen in a general election. People sometimes vote differently in local and national elections, and a different range of parties and candidates stand in each election. Turnout is also a lot lower, and the voters who stay at home in local elections but vote in general elections may not share the views of those who vote in council elections.

Labour needs to do two things in the short term – recover ground in the national polls, and raise its game in the marginal seats. In the longer term, Labour also needs to scrap an electoral system where pouring resources into a tiny number of seats can win party control over the government, and replace it with one where there is a genuine national dialogue.

Lewis Baston is from the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform and author of Politico’s Guide to the General Election. To read the full research see here.

http://www.progressonline.org.uk/articles/article.asp?a=4735

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Should Gordon go for it? (24 September 2007)

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Should Gordon go for it? (24 September 2007)

Posted on 24 September 2007 by admin

Labour 07: The polls look good for Labour, but thanks to the peculiar workings of the British electoral system, that is not necesssarily good enough.

Labour meets at Bournemouth in a slightly giddy state of optimism, inspired by a renewed increase in the party’s opinion poll lead to 6-8 points and other evidence including sensational local authority by-election gains in Worcester and Birmingham last week that the party is in an excellent position. Supposing the polls are right, this would hold out the hope of earning a pro-Labour swing since 2005 and an increase in the Labour majority. However, the one does not necessarily imply the other. One could have both a pro-Labour swing and a reduced majority thanks to the peculiar workings of the British electoral system.

The trouble is that not all votes have the same value. The overall result depends on the votes cast in the marginal seats. Whether Labour has 18,000 or 28,000 votes in Liverpool Riverside is immaterial to the result – the seat elects only one Labour MP no matter how many votes pile up. However, whether Labour has 15,000 or 16,000 votes in Portsmouth North is highly material, as it makes the difference between that seat electing a Labour MP and a Conservative MP. Under Blair, Labour’s share of the vote suffered a severe slump (down from 43 per cent to 35 per cent) but while thousands of votes disappeared in the safe seats, support held up better in the marginals.

The risk Brown faces is that the pattern will reverse. Given that Labour’s majority allowing for boundary changes is 48, there is not much room for slippage if Brown is going to enjoy a manageable full-term parliament. If electors in safe Labour seats who stopped voting between 1997 and 2005 come back to the polls, it will boost Labour’s national share of the vote but not win any extra seats.

There is a strong possibility that Labour could do worse in the key marginals than national opinion trends might suggest. One reason is regional variation. Polls and local elections have seen the Conservatives adding votes in the south of England while doing poorly further north. It so happens that there are a lot of marginal Labour seats in the south and a 3 per cent swing from Labour to Conservative in the region would see 15 seats change hands. A swing of the same size to Labour in the north and midlands would switch only 9 from Conservative to Labour.

Another reason is party organisation and preparation. The Conservatives, in particular Lord Ashcroft, have poured resources into the marginals they want to win and worked hard – they may well now be considerably better than Labour at the campaigning on the ground and this could pay off in winning seats. In the seats Labour should hope to take off the Conservatives, most of them are constituencies Labour lost in 2005.

Newly-established incumbents tend to do better than the national swing in their first election (hence Labour’s nearly undamaged majority in 2001) and a small national or regional swing to Labour would not manage to counteract the incumbents’ bonus. While Kettering is highly marginal, requiring a tiny 0.2 per cent pro-Labour swing on the face of it, in reality it would probably take a national swing of about 2 per cent to fall. Given incumbency and regional variation, it would be quite a risk to go early without a solid poll lead of 8 points or better.

The incumbency factor also applies to Lib Dem MPs – while in principle a post-Blair party should recover ground among the liberal metropolitan electors who deserted in 2005, it may be difficult to dislodge MPs in areas such as Hornsey & Wood Green and Cambridge and Labour will also be exposed to further possible losses for instance in Oxford East and Watford. Labour also has some cause to worry about Wales and Scotland (from the Conservatives and SNP respectively) although the SNP danger has been overstated. There are only three seats which would change hands on a 10 per cent swing from Labour to SNP since 2005, and one is not comparing like with like if one starts from the 2007 Scottish Parliament results.

Before Jim Callaghan decided against an October 1978 election, he took a copy of the Times guide to the House of Commons on holiday with him and tried, seat by seat, to work out what an election result would look like. The best he could do was a hung parliament with Labour narrowly the largest party. Perhaps, somewhere in Downing Street, there is a heavily-thumbed and annotated copy of the last edition of the same volume, pointing to a Labour win by about 30 seats. Whether that is enough, and whether the risk of going now is greater than the risk of leaving the election for another year, is a dilemma Brown must face this week.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/sep/24/labourmeetsatbournemouthin

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