Tag Archives: elections

Why Gordon Brown will wait for a May 2008 General Election (UPDATED)

I could be proven wrong here, but I’ve been coming to the conclusion that there is no way Gordon Brown will call a snap poll. What’s more, it has increasingly come to my mind that he might have a rather devious plan up his sleeve.

First of all, he won’t do it for several reasons. Labour’s skint and the unions are being finnicky at the moment. Labour is also lazy – more so than either of their main opponents. They’re activists need more signposting than the competition before they’ll get off their arses. A snap poll is tough to manage in the most ideal of circumstances, and this will not be the most ideal of circumstances.

We should also remember that British Summer Time ends on 28 October after this point, it will be getting dark in late afternoons. That makes campaigning tough and getting the vote out even tougher. Differential turnout will be key, and Tory supporters are notoriously better at coming out than the others.

He could, of course, call it for 25 October which was widely speculated on during the summer. Personally speaking that would be disastrous as it would be on my birthday, but I somehow doubt that Gordon will consider my social calendar to be a factor either way. He is however likely to be wary of calling it a week after the start of the IGC in Lisbon to finalise the EU Reform Treaty. That would mean 4-5 days in which the EU will be in the headlines and a whole weekend in which he’ll be out of circulation at a crucial time. It would be completely unpredictable – it might go well, it might end up a total disaster. It would be a total gamble, and a reckless one at that.

On the other hand, Brown has to neutralise the Treaty issue in such a way that makes it a non-issue for the voters and (preferably for him) seriously distracts the Tories.

If I was in his position, this is what I’d do. I’d come back from Lisbon proclaiming that I’d negotiated a couple more token concessions. I’d reassert that it was for Parliament to ratify the treaty but that in the interests of having a wider nationwide debate I will declare that the ratification won’t happen immediately. Instead, there’ll be a period of reflection of, say 7 months. Promise lots more citizens’ juries.

This will of course send the rightwing media into a tizzy. Cue months and months of them denouncing the treaty and calling for a referendum. This will of course bore the vast majority of the public to tears. The exception will be the hardcore UKIP/Tory supporters who will get extremely agitated. Cameron will come under sustained pressure to do a Hague, something he will resist at all costs but this will disappoint a lot of donors and activists whose support he can ill afford to lose. UKIP by contrast will be on a roll.

Then in April 2008, when most of the public are one Sun front page comparing Jose Manuel Barroso to an unfortunately shaped vegetable away from fetching the rusty razor blades and running a warm bath, Brown will call the election. He will declare at the start that he will seek a mandate to ratify the treaty but other than that will spend the entire time going on about bread and butter issues. Cameron will be torn between pissing off his core support and alienating everyone else. Another disaster for them awaits.

That’s my theory. Anyone want to tell me what I’m missing?

UPDATE: I forgot to mention another reason why I don’t expect him to declare the election this week. On the second day of his Premiership, Gordon Brown announced plans to invest the Royal Prerogative power to declare an election in Parliament. It would be absurd for him to then bypass Parliament completely. Still, on the other hand, I could just be being naive here. We’ll know in 48 hours.

Remembering ’97

Today was a family day, but I still managed to catch most of the key moments of the 1997 General Election results on BBC Parliament. I was having problem with our set top box but I just managed to tune in in time for David Mellor.

It was weird watching it – on the night itself I watched the coverage with about 500 other people in the Main Debating Hall at the University of Manchester Students Union. The film society, which I was also an active member of, was projecting the coverage on its big screen (I understand that the union has managed to kick MUFS out of the building now, which is a crying shame).

The Mellor bit I recall quite vividly, right down to Dimblebum making a wild prediction during it that the Lib Dems were set to win 61 seats (in fact it took us another 8 years to get to that point). His rant about Goldsmith failing to buy the election was much mocked at the time, but he had a point: millionaires should not presume to buy elections out of personal vanity. Goldsmith, having largely failed in his mission, was dead within weeks.

Neil Hamilton was as ungracious in defeat as I remembered (I’d forgotten about the Miss Moneypenny Party, with their candidate towering over the returning officer), Michael Portillo very much the opposite. Two points about the Enfield Southgate announcement. Firstly, Jeremy Browne was the Lib Dem candidate. Secondly, the BBC commentary was by Lance Price, who quite soon afterwards of course jumped into a job at Number 10.

The Enfield Southgate declaration was swiftly followed by the Stevenage one. I remember seeing Alex Wilcock standing on stage with his partner Richard (these were pre-millennial times, otherwise, I suspect a certain elephant would have been there as well) – at the time he was one of the few people I knew who was actually a candidate.

All the Lib Dems being interviewed kept talking about the Lib-Lab constitutional deal. Of course, a large amount of that was indeed delivered – it seems odd to hear people talking about creating a Scottish Parliament, Freedom of Information Act and Human Rights Act as these are all very much part of our daily politics now. Shirley Williams prediction that this was the last – or at worst last-but-one election to be fought under first past the post however proved to be somewhat wide of the mark.

Blair looked close to tears when he spoke at the Sedgefield Labour Club, and shockingly young. Various other faces popped up as well, such as Nicola Sturgeon, then 27, at the Glasgow Govan declaration (with black hair!). Peter Snow’s graphics were fantastic, particularly the animation where they flew over the UK showing Labour/Lib Dem target seats exploding and transforming from blue to red/gold (it reminded me of a cross between the post-2004 BBC weather map and the Death Star trench battle at the end of Star Wars).

If we’d known then how it would all turn out, very few of us would have cheered as loudly as we did, but nonetheless it was a fantastic evening. With the Tories now back on the rise and Labour in long term decline, it is just conceivable that we might have a similarly momentous General Election next time around, or maybe the next-but-one. Can the Tories make the bulk of non-Labour, non-Tory supporters as happy for them as we were for Labour winning 10 years ago? I suspect the answer is no, and I suspect that lies at the heart of Cameron’s problems.

I should explain that last sentence better. As the coverage today repeatedly reminded us, Labour’s vote share in 1997 wasn’t actually that high. What did it for them was the degree of tactical voting, with people voting for anyone but the Tories. Fewer and fewer people are prepared to vote in such a way, but the Tories only really have a shot if the public becomes so sick of Labour that they start to vote tactically against them. I don’t see that happening, not in the numbers that it did in 1997. People are open to Cameron, but the Tory brand remains toxic.

A difficult choice for French liberals

Rightwing bloggers Andy Mayer and Tom Papworth have been picking fights with their own party, accusing large numbers of us of being guilty by association of being unreconstructed socialists. Andy cites the fact that UDF supporters were split 50/50 in the Sarko/Sego playoff, while even more incredibly Tom bases his argument on an online poll of 40 visitors to his blog in which 53% supported Sego.

Personally, I have no idea how I would have voted, but the idea that this is simply a left/right divide is completely flawed. Simplistically, the French were given the choice between a rightwing leader of a centrist party and a centrist leader of a leftwing party. Policy-wise, and leaving immigration to one side, I am probably closer to Sarkozy than Royal. However, it was a presidential election not a parliamentary one, so personality counts for a lot.

A vote for Sarkozy was a vote for a politician who makes David Blunkett look tactful and libertarian. I remain doubtful about his ability to operate on the world stage or even domestically without causing far more heat than light, a point on which Iain Dale of all people appears to agree. Segolene Royal had a point when she suggested that a vote for him could provoke riots.

Is Sarkozy capable of creating a consensus about the need to reform, or will his combative personality result in deadlock? That is what the French ultimately had to decide yesterday. The Papworth-Mayer slur rests on the calculation that anyone who voted for Royal was simply in favour of the status quo. For that to be true, France would have to have an elective dictatorship. In point of fact, the French President has less power than its US counterpart.

If you think that France wakes up to a bright new morning with reforming zeal in its heart, you are about to be sorely disappointed.

(Speaking of Lib Dem bloggers picking fights, anyone understand why Jeremy Hargreaves is making wild allegations of a Huhnista-putsch going on inside the party, his only evidence being a few critical comments about Ming by someone who supported Simon Hughes in the leadership election? Colour me confused)

Lies, damned lies, and election results

Iain Dale points me to two differing accounts of the local election results, one by Sean Fear and the other by Mark Pack. Dale hails the former and dismisses the latter as “desperate post election spin” but I know who I’d rather have on my psephological team.

Sean peddles the increasingly desperate-sounding myth that these results show that the Tories are back in business in the North, but his own statistics give lie to the real situation:

The Conservatives gained more than 110 seats across Yorkshire, the North West and the North East.

That would sound quite good, were it not for the fact that total Tory gains were just south of 900. Those regions represent just over a third of the population of England, yet only an eighth of Tory gains were in them. Meanwhile, Tory gains stacked up in areas where they already hold seats. In the most densely populated part of Yorkshire, the West, Sean admits that they actually went backwards. They couldn’t go backwards in many other parts of the North, because they have already been wiped out.

True, they have made a small step forward, and no doubt the Tories will be pinning their hopes on a handful of Northern seats in the next General Election. But a handful does not suggest a comeback.

Meanwhile, Mark points out that, essentially, that where the Lib Dems did badly we did very badly, but elsewhere we held our own. Iain might want to dismiss this as spin, but it is actually a very important point for a party serious about what the implications of last Thursday actually are. As has already been pointed out, the Lib Dems did well in held or target parliamentary seats – overall, they suggest that we are likely to move forward in the next General Election. Meanwhile, I haven’t done the analysis, but I suspect you will find that the Tory gains are concentrated in relatively few areas, suggesting that while they too should move forward in the next General Election, it will not be by as much as they seem to currently think they will.

A caveat to all this, before I get too carried away. I’ve been looking at these results through a Parliamentary prism. From a local government point of view, they are undeniably bad. From a longer term perspective, they are similarly bad news as they suggest a decline in a whole slew of areas that we will struggle to recover from. Jonathan Calder’s suggestion that we perhaps ought to be wanting rather more than just yet another small step forwards next time round also should be considered.

Tristan Mills makes the following point in a comment to one of my posts:

I also think that we need to look at our local politics – reasses whether we are actually practicing community politics or populist pavement politics and also use the Focuses to promote liberalism by framing the debate in liberal terms not populist terms.

I think that is very pertinent. I suspect the genuine community politicians managed to hold out against the Tory horde better than the pavement politicians. The ones who had made great gains in the past due to tactical populism will have struggled as soon as the shoe was on the other foot.

Ed Davey promised a big campaign to promote Community Politics within the party last autumn, but thus far we have seen very little sign of it. Hopefully this set of results will encourage the party to get moving on this.

One thing I do agree with Sean Fear on is the importance of local councillors to keep parties going in areas where there is no immediate prospect of parliamentary representation. The problem we have as a party is that we are terribly good at the tactical business of winning elections but not terribly good at the strategic business of developing a local party over the longer term. There are places where we are better at this than others, but how do we spread best practice, and how do we ensure there we dedicate resources to training and development without harming our target seat operation? These are questions that need to be tackled.

Chicken Entrail Psephology

One of the things about elections is that after them there is no shortage of people talking absolute nonsense about what the results ‘mean’.

Take Alex Salmond, who has been quick to claim that Labour has lost the “moral authority to govern”. Leaving a philosophical argument about what morality actually means in this context to one side, the fact is that no single party got a majority – thus no single party on their own has the authority to govern, moral or otherwise. Labour didn’t in 1999 or 2003 either. But, given that the difference between Labour and the SNP was just 0.5% in the constituency vote and 1.8% in the regional vote, is he really suggesting that a mere 20,000-30,000 people are the moral arbiters for the whole nation?

Then Salmond’s mini-me Nicola Sturgeon pipes up with:

“There will be an independence referendum if there is an SNP government.”

That’s for Parliament to decide, not a political party with less than a third of the popular vote. Is she seriously suggesting that the SNP will take its bat and ball home if it can’t secure a referendum? If it’s an all or nothing thing then that would suggest that the largest single unionist party has rather more moral authority than her boss would have us believe.

Scotland decides, er, what?

Okay, I admit: the Scottish results have got me stumped.

It was the list results that did it. My expectation was, and the polls appeared to back me up, that the Greens were on course to get about the same share of the vote that they had before. Instead, they were wiped out. The Tories were down on list seats as well. So, of course, were the Lib Dems. What stopped the Lib Dems from making no losses was a whopping 4% dip in the West of Scotland, which apparently cost us an MSP.

Why was this? It was already being mooted that the new ballot paper design would harm the smaller parties as people might think they had to vote for “Alex Salmond” AND “SNP” rather than split their ticket. This may well have been a large factor, and the Greens (and other) may need to reconsider their strategy of only fielding list candidates. But in an election with 100,000 spoilt papers, one can’t help but suspect that they were robbed.

The final scores on the doors at least means that the Lib Dems have been spared one particularly nasty decision: the combined SNP/Lib Dem vote is 3 short of a majority. Even if the Greens threw their lot in, that would mean a majority of 1, which isn’t exactly a delicious prospect. Adding Margo Macdonald to the mix might help, but her price would no doubt be pretty high. I could be proven wrong, but I can’t see Nicol Stephen wanting to join such a precarious executive. That doesn’t however mean the SNP wouldn’t be able to negotiate a multi-option referendum, which if they want an independence vote is pretty much their only option now.

I can’t see them getting a majority in favour of Local Income Tax either, unless they come up with some kind of compromise. Imaginative municipal finance reformers might want to consider a package that includes the localisation of a proportion of the existing income tax combined with a land value tax to keep the Greens happy. But maybe that is me disappearing into a Georgist Wonderland.

I suspect the promise to scrap the Graduate Endowment has rather more chance of getting through, which is a shame because I happen to think the Scots don’t know when they are onto a good thing here.

In short, compared to what was widely predicted, it is Labour that seem to come out as the unlikely winners of the Scottish election. Going from 50 seats to 46 is nothing in the grand scheme of things. They can now spend 4 years in opposition making life as difficult for Salmond as possible. Either way, every single decision made by the Scottish Executive will be subject to a degree of scrutiny that we are simply not used to in the UK. That can only be a good thing.

Those election results: hmmm…

Notwithstanding the understandable effervescence emanating from the party’s results service, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that, overall, the elections yesterday were not very good for the Lib Dems.

With over a hundred councils still to declare (at least according to the BBC), it is hard to conclude anything much from them yet, especially when one recalls that last year’s results had us losing seats all day until we eventually ended up making a net gain of, erm, one. Nonetheless however, it is hard to see how we are going to recover to such an extent. At the moment (2pm), the BBC has us just a bit ahead of Labour in terms of net losses of councillors.

The positive side of that story is that where the Tories seem to be makiing the most impact, it is in areas where they are already strong. There is very little evidence of a Tory revival in the North (Gideon Osbourne breezily claimed on Today this morning that their gains in Birmingham was evidence of a Northern revival – one wonders if he has any idea of where his Tatton constituency actually is) – where they have been making gains, it is in the few places they weren’t wiped out a decade ago. Where they have been having landslide victories, they tend to already have an MP. Once again, national swing is only telling part of the story.

Partly because we are at the mercy of the electoral system, the Lib Dems have a sad history of failing to live up to our ever declining ambitions in Assembly elections, and once again we have failed to break our duck of 6 AMs. Back in 1999, I remember being confidently told by the then-Lib Dem Chief Exec that we would get 11-12 AMs. In 2003, at least one person predicted we’d get up to around 10. This year, people were talking of 7-9 AMs being a sure thing. The worst thing of it all is that, on paper, they should have been right. Because the system is only semi-proportional (2/3rds FPTP, 1/3rd list), each region has 4 top ups and we are the fourth party, we need to make fairly modest gains in each region to significantly increase our number of assembly members. In South Wales Central, we only needed an increase of 1% to double our Assembly Members. The fact that we have failed to do this twice now ought to be setting off alarm bells about how we fight the Welsh air war.

This was echoed by my own experience. I spent the last week being a footsoldier in a non-target constituency in Wales. We got a disappointing result, but our vote held up in our target polling districts. The national campaign didn’t just fail to boost us in the polls, it failed even to cushion the work we were doing locally.

Initial thoughts? All those ‘cheeky’ references in the media didn’t exactly help, however Lembit might like to dress it up. In and of themselves, I doubt they cost us votes, but they did make it tougher to get a coherent message across. They were an unnecessary distraction.

After three campaigns at the helm, Mike German can’t avoid responsibility. His performances on TV failed to impress. True, none of the Welsh Party leaders exactly set the world alight, but as the longest-serving leader, Mike really should have stood out.

The Scottish results are coming agonisingly slowly now. One thing everyone must surely now agree on is that Scotland must now either adopt a single electoral system for both locals and Parliamentary elections (Ken Ritchie of the ERS reported on News 24 that people seemed to cope with STV better than with AMS judging by the numbers of spoilt ballots, which is ironic given that STV is always presented by its critics as a ‘complicated’ system), or they should have each set of elections on a different year (a la Wales), or preferably both.

Like Wales, the Scottish results that have been coming in are static for the Lib Dems. However, the Scot Lib Dems have the mitigating factors of a) the SNP bandwagon and b) the fact that it is a more authentically proportional system than Wales, which makes it tougher to gain seats. Nonetheless, our failure to win seats such as Edinburgh Central and Strathkelvin & Bearsden was very disappointing.

But, behind closed doors of course, I doubt the SNP are exactly delighted with the result. It remains unclear whether they will win the plurality – at the moment it looks as if they haven’t – and even if they do, it will be by the smallest of margins and in the context of a clearly unionist majority in the Parliament. This isn’t the result that the SNP were confidently predicting last week. Support for their key policy has plummeted during the election campaign.

If Labour manage to form a coalition, this is the last hurrah for the SNP; if the SNP manage to form a coalition, it may well prove just as fatal in the longer term. Simply put, I remain doubtful that they will be capable of managing the transition from repository of protest votes to a party of government. I’m aware that people say that about the Lib Dems all the time, but we’ve now run Scotland for 8 years and not been punished by the electorate. Meanwhile, I am struck by the number of SNP policies that are merely lifted from the Lib Dems (and some, like local income tax, I don’t think are particularly well thought out). The real problem the SNP have is that they are a one-man band. What happens if the sheen of Salmond starts to get tarnished, if he goes under a bus, or if he simply gets bored? A power vacuum may yet emerge in Scotland, and that is a real opportunity for the Lib Dems, if they have the initiative and dynamism to take it.

Finally, there is the Ming Question. I think it is unfair to put too much blame at Ming’s door for this set of unimpressive results. After all, for all my frustrations, I’m accutely aware that our results in Scotland and Wales are almost identical to 2003, and the same questions were not being asked about Charles Kennedy at the time. Perhaps, in retrospect, they should have been, given that the Tories and the nationalists were in a much greater slump back then, and we failed to capitalise on the fact. I haven’t seen anything about Ming’s performance that gives me cause for concern; equally, I’ve seen a number of positive developments which haven’t yet had time to bed down. But the main lesson from this campaign seems to be that we need to work on our air war – there’s only so much we can do on the ground when the national party messages are not coming across and being drowned out by our opponents’.

Harehills Labour? Again?

I realise I’m coming to this very late, but I’ve been busy. My first reaction when I heard that Labour had been allegedly caught out fixing postal votes in the Gipton and Harehills Ward in Leeds was “Harehills? Again?”. I’m amazed they’ve apparently been caught out doing this in a ward where their political rivals already consider them to have form. As well as being criminal, it would be surprisingly stupid.

In 2000-2002 I was campaign organiser for the Leeds Lib Dems. One of my abiding memories of that period were the increasingly bizarre stories coming out of the then-Harehills Ward. Maybe I’ll dig up the scan I have knocking about of the leaflet they were putting out in white areas about our Asian candidate at some point.

What shocked me most about the whole affair was how blase Leeds Labour were about it all. I remember in particular that the reaction from the Labour students was particularly complacent.

The most interesting thing about the Times sting for me therefore is the fact that Labour was apparently using students to do their dirty work. It makes me wonder if this is a new tactic, or whether its been standard practice for years. If the latter, then quite a lot of people, some of whom have gone on to do bigger and better things in the Labour Party, are now implicated.

It would be very interesting to see what those Labour students who reacted with a ‘so what?’ in 2002 have to say about this latest development.

(Probably) final thoughts on Scottish Independence

This will probably be the last thing I write on Scottish Independence this side of polling day as I’m off to Cardiff tomorrow.

Firstly, a group of 60 Scottish scientists have hit out at the SNP. We should remember that the Scottish Enlightenment was very much a product of the Union. A generation of outward looking Scots revolutionised everything from philosophy and economics through to engineering and architecture. It is this rich history that the SNP are so dismissive off.

Secondly, going back to my ponderings about what Scottish Independence would mean for the Welsh and Northern Irish, I wonder what the implications for Gibraltar would be? The Spanish are already challenging the UK’s occupation of Gibraltar – would they use the break up of the UK as an opportunity to press the issue once more? Would Gibraltar revert to the remaining UK (as someone pointed out to me the other day, we could no longer be the “United” Kingdom and instead would have to be called the Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, or KEWNI), to Scotland, or to both? Would the Spanish have a case for claiming that the Treaty of Utrecht needs to be renegotiated given that one of its main signatories no longer existed?

Indeed, what is the SNP’s policy on all the other colonies as well?

Of course, this only affects a few tens of thousands of individuals scattered around the world. The SNP might consider their plight to be irrelevant. But I do wish they would at least acknowledge such issues instead of presenting independence as an opportunity for Scotland to have a completely fresh start. We have a rich, entangled shared history together which the SNP would like to turn their backs on but which, if they get enough votes next week, they will quickly find they cannot afford to.

Fortunately, it does appear as if the Scots have basically come to realise that, with the gap between the SNP and Labour closing by the day. At the outset of the campaign, support for Scottish independence was running at over 50%; despite outspending their rivals, the SNP have seen support for their flagship policy plummet by over 30%, down to the low 20s now. If any other party had presided over such a disaster, the media would be having a field day.

The best they can now offer the Scottish electorate is that they are ‘not Labour’ – but there are lots of parties that fit the bill. It may well be enough to win a plurality, but something tells it will be a pretty hollow victory for them. We shall see.

Darlo Dunce and Metrosexual Maude (UPDATED)

I wasn’t going to comment about this story, but I’m afraid Francis Maude has got me riled up:

There can be no excuse for a mainstream political party promoting extremism and racism. The evidence is there for all to see. Menzies Campbell must get off the fence and sack Steve Jones. He must send a clear message to the rest of his Party that racism will not be tolerated by expelling this councillor from the Liberal Democrats. It’s also alarming that, of the three main political parties, the Liberal Democrats have the worst record in local elections of fielding candidates against the BNP. It is time that they woke up to the danger posed by this extremist party.

Bottom line, the Tories are in no position to start smearing about the BNP and they know it.

You don’t need an elephantine memory to recall that the Tory links with the BNP go right to the top with Nick Griffin’s father who Iain Duncan Smith made a Vice President of his leadership campaign. Only last week, Iain Dale was hailing a frankly bigoted post by Nadine Dorries MP about travellers in which she condemned gypsies and travellers for not ‘settling down’ while simultaneously saying they shouldn’t be allowed to (her blog has been designed by a gibbon and you don’t appear to be able to link to specific posts – scroll down to the post titled ‘She was born in the wagon of a travellin’ show’). Here’s the deal Francis: expel her from the party, and then let’s start talking about which party has the biggest problem with racism and the extreme right.

It’s clear that Stephen Jones has been a bit of an idiot, but it is equally clear that the first person this has undermined is himself, by nominating someone to stand against himself. It isn’t as cut and dried as, say, the situation a few months ago in Burnley where the local Lib Dems really were flirting with the BNP in a way that I find unacceptable.

Francis Maude’s comments will come back to haunt him because as night follows day another Tory is always just days away from getting into a race row. In the ward neighbouring mine here in Barnet, a local councillor – whose idea of fun is to black up and impersonate Nelson Mandela – appears to believe that we should stop immigration to stop Britain from becoming the ‘dustbin of the world‘. Throw a stone anywhere in this country and you have a pretty good chance of hitting a racist Tory.

I’m not saying the Tories are fundamentally racist. I’m not saying the Lib Dems, like all parties, don’t have their own problems with racist elements from time to time. I am saying that if they want to start playing this zero-sum game, they can’t possibly win. Bring it on Francis, bring it on. If you want to drag political discourse down into the gutter, you are going a textbook way about doing so.

You would have thought that Maude would have rather more sympathy for Stephen Jones’ situation given that, less than 24 hours ago, he was mistakenly nominating a Lib Dem to be the Tory candidate for London Mayor. We all make mistakes, but Maude has made bigger ones than most. Perhaps it’s time Cameron came off the fence and sacked him?

UPDATE: I’ve been asked to link to this story about Tory candidate Luke MacKenzie who Francis Maude has mysteriously failed to disown. Happy to oblige.