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Cold comfort (4 May 2008)

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Cold comfort (4 May 2008)

Posted on 04 May 2008 by admin

Local elections 08: Just how bad were these local election results for Labour? Very. Gordon Brown may survive until 2010, but his party is in real danger

Outside London, in urban England, the election results for Labour were an utter disaster. The dimensions of this defeat have so far escaped much analysis because of the impact of Johnson’s victory. In 2006 and 2007 Labour were getting hammered in the south and the suburbs, but the vote was holding up in the cities and working class towns in the north, and even recovering noticeably from the Iraq-blighted elections of 2004. Those local results looked like a post-New Labour political geography. Elections seemed to be reverting to the previous Two Nations pattern of the Thatcher years. The 2008 elections, however, are different.

The regional differences were less apparent, with a few scattered examples of Labour holding or gaining ground in the south, such as in Hastings and Slough, and some epic collapses in the north. Some of the local detail is almost unbelievably bad for Labour. What is one to say when the Conservatives pull ahead in Rother Valley, of all places? The Tories showed considerable strength in smaller working class towns around Manchester. While their gain in ever-marginal Bury attracted some attention, the rise in their share of the vote in places such as Failsworth, Swinton and Eccles was up since their relatively good results in 2007. This was not a feat of targeting, picking off a couple of vulnerable northern councils as in 2007, but a broad increase in popularity in places where the Conservatives have been nearly absent for decades.

On the face of it, the core cities looked exempt from the trend, with no Conservatives on the councils of Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield or Newcastle, although even in these dead zones the Conservative vote improved noticeably on last year.

Local elections, while basically determined by the national trend, do have local variations and in some areas there were movements of opinion in 2008 that compensated for unusual electoral behaviour four years ago. For instance, the Conservatives won Coventry a bit ahead of the curve in 2003, and lost ground this time as their local administration grew stale. But in other places, like Reading and Wolverhampton, the Labour vote that had been resilient in 2004 collapsed in 2008. The Conservatives were 13 points clear of Labour in the heavily working class Wolverhampton North East constituency, a seat that the Tories have only ever won once, in 1987. The Tories even won Heath Town ward, a poor, troubled and much-redeveloped area of the city.

Labour can find very little consolation in these elections, except – oddly – at the scene of the most painful defeat, London. Ken Livingstone gave Labour voters something to fight for, and the party’s vote stood up reasonably well in inner London. Labour even won an extra seat on the London Assembly. But this is cold comfort indeed.

Comparisons have already been made between these local elections and the wipeout Labour suffered in 1968. In some ways, Labour’s defeat in 2008 was worse because the party’s share of the vote was lower, but in other ways it was less drastic. In 1968 anti-Labour voters lined up behind the Conservatives, with the result that the Tories won nearly everything that year. In 2008 multi-party politics is a reality in many local authorities, and Labour retained seats even with a low share of the vote because of split opposition. The Conservatives are nowhere near as dominant in local government as they were in the late 1960s or even the late 1970s, when they had a majority in Merseyside. Their national share of the vote, and lead over Labour, are smaller than in 1968, but to win around 44% in a multi party system is still an impressive accomplishment, reminiscent of Labour’s sweeping triumphs in 1995 and 1996.

Historical comparisons naturally lead to speculation about what the 2008 elections might mean for the general election, due before mid-2010. In 1968, 1977 and 1995, the governing party at the wrong end of the landslide went on to lose the general election. However, in 1968-70 and 1977-79, if not in 1995-97, the defeat was not a foregone conclusion and there were times when re-election even looked likely.

Another point of comparison is the position of the prime minister. Traumatic defeats in 1968 and 1995 led to bouts of speculation and conspiracy aimed against Harold Wilson and John Major respectively, although both survived. Jim Callaghan came out of his 1977 drubbing almost unscathed because he was personally popular, and could both hold the Labour party together and retain the confidence of the Liberals in a finely balanced House of Commons.

Parties, and prime ministers, can ride out local election landslides, but the long term effects are insidious. Parties become demoralised and organisation decays. The emergence of a new political landscape confuses election planning. In 1970 and 1979 Labour lost seats that had previously been considered safe, and the same thing happened on an even greater scale in 1997 to the Conservatives. The logic of general election campaigning insists that Labour prioritise seats where the party’s presence has been reduced almost to vanishing point in local elections, such as Portsmouth North and Harlow – but in such circumstances, how is effective local campaigning possible?

The risk, as the Conservatives discovered, is that one misdirects resources by defending lost causes (like Mitcham and Morden, which some Tories convinced themselves even on the election night of 1997 had been held), while suffering enormous swings and losing seats in areas that had not seemed to be in much danger. This year’s local elections saw a dam break. When that happens, the floods can reach the most unexpected corners, and may never recede to their previous levels.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/may/04/coldcomfort1

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Influential Elections (30 Nov 2005)

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Influential Elections (30 Nov 2005)

Posted on 30 November 2005 by admin

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

However, it did prompt some less conventional thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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