Sunday, 28 February 2010

Bully Brown Cuts Lead to Two Points

At first glance the title is quite counter intuitive. After a week of supposedly damaging stories about the Prime Minister's behaviour Labour are within 2% of the Conservatives in the latest YouGov poll. Of course, this is only one poll and the 4% jump from Friday could be entirely due to sampling error. But alarm bells should be ringing for the Conservative leadership.

How reliable this poll is almost irrelevant from a strategy point of view as it's been quite clear all week that pushing 'Brown the Bully' simply isn't working. All week the polls have flat lined and it's not just because their source has been largely discredited in the wake of this 'scandal'. The Conservative's mistake is simply trying to define Gordon Brown. They are not the only guilty party. Labour themselves wheeled the Prime Minister in front of Piers Morgan a few weeks ago to 'open up' to the British public. The fact is Gordon Brown has been Prime Minister for almost 3 years, was Chancellor for 10 and has been in the public eye for almost two decades. I think it's fair to say most people have made their mind up about him; one way or another.

I assume the thinking behind the Conservative's attack were that this is so shocking it would change some people's perception of Brown after all these years. But if anything it's had the opposite effect to what the Tories exepected. Janet Street Porter excluded, most people realise the realities of politics. Mainly because they've seen much worse in their own lives and imagine running the country is probably more stressful than running a restaurant. So the only 'news' this story contains is that Gordon Brown has a bit of fight left in him. Many will respect that. It wouldn't be enough on its own but as the opposition are not exactly covering themselves in glory it certainly helps.

Cameron's biggest problem with all this may well be yet to come. In utterly miscalculating, the next Prime Minister (one poll isn't going to change my view on that) is doing a good job of turning a 50 plus seat majority into single figures. The former is no doubt less stressful than the latter. So imagine the headlines if Cameron, after getting off the phone to another Tory backbencher playing hardball on the latest flagship initiative, punches the back of a car seat…?!*


*This would never happen. Throwing a bike helmet is more like it!

What would a Hung Parliament look like?

The opinion polls have been narrowing lately (IPSOS-MORI's latest poll shows the Tories only five points ahead of Labour). So as such much talk surrounds the possibility of a hung parliament, a parliament where no one party holds a majority, so an important question worth redressing (and one I am constantly asked when I suggest that a hung parliament is likely) is "What would happen under a hung parliament?" For a fuller discussion of this issue I suggest Charter 2010, a blog which is dedicated to "Planning for a Hung Parliament", but for a briefer analysis, look no further.

What happens in a hung parliament largely depends upon a variety of factors. Public opinion, the electoral composition of the parliament, and the strategies of the various parties are all important factors. So what are the major possibilities?

The 'February 1974' option. In February 1974 Britain went to the polls. The electorate voted on the most fractious lines it had since World War II. The SNP secured its best ever result, the Liberals almost doubled their seats and the Tories and Labour were separated by only 0.5% of the population vote. This is the only hung parliament to have resulted from a post-World War II election. Unfortunately the fractious nature of the parliament meant that a government couldn't be formed and after months of instability a new election was held in October (only the second time in the 20th century that two elections were held in the same year). This is a possibility with possible electoral breakthroughs for the Greens, UKIPs and independents in the wake of the expenses scandal. However, my view is that this group is unlikely to achieve enough seats to be decisive. What's more the Liberals of 1974 had only 13 seats. The Liberal Democrats of 2010 will probably have at least 4 times that, giving them much more potential capability to negotiate.

The Lib Dems as Kingmaker option. Most assumptions about a hung parliament tend to see the Lib Dems as 'Kingmakers' capable of deciding between the Labour and the Tories. This is somewhat unlikely as between the eighteen seats reserved for Northern Ireland, the seats for the SNP and Plaid Cymru, and the other seats held by independents and third parties it is unlikely that the Lib Dems will be in quite this role. That said this is a possibility. In this situation the Lib Dems would have a gigantic degree of negotiating power, far beyond their size. The Lib Dems may decide a preference for a coalition or a minority government. In the former the Lib Dems would hold ministries in the cabinet (for example Nick Clegg as Deputy PM and Vince Cable as Chancellor or Treasury Minister?) and would form joint policy with the governing party, in the latter the Lib Dems would support a single party government in budget and confidence bills to prevent the government from falling but would otherwise pursue a unique position, but legislation would probably be negotiated on a bill by bill basis. In exchange for either of these options the Lib Dems would probably demand electoral reform, as well as other party priorities such as higher education funding and tax reform. More likely however is that the Lib Dems will be able to guarantee a majority to only one party, which will weaken their negotiating power. There are also questions around the politics of supporting each party. The Conservatives are less likely to give into Lib Dem demands, but if the Lib Dems support a Labour government, an unpopular, discredited government the argument could be made by the Tories that a 'vote for the Lib Dems is a vote for Labour', and as, to a large extent, a protest party, joining the establishment could rock the Liberal Democrat's support. Therefore the Liberal Democrats have a difficult tight rope to walk in a hung parliament.

The other parties option. If a party gets close to, but does not get a majority it may be able to get backing from another party besides the Lib Dems. A smaller party would have a weaker negotiating capability than the Lib Dems, advantaging the larger one. The Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland would qualify well, as would the nationalists in Scotland and Wales. Both would probably demand extra spending for their region, or possibly extra powers, which would be easier pills for either the Labour or the Tories to swallow than demands for electoral reform for example.

The Canadian Approach. Canada has a very similar political system to our own, with a House of Commons elected by First Past The Post, an appointed Senate, and so on and so forth. Since the 2004 election Canadian political parties have repeatedly demonstrated themselves incapable of winning majorities, for reasons that do not need going into here. Since 2006 the Conservative Party of Canada has been the largest party in the Canadian House of Commons, and they have governed Canada as a minority government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper's strategy has been to govern Canada as if he had a majority. What this means is that Harper uses the powers attributed to the cabinet as much as possible to his advantage, Harper likes to attach confidence motions to bills so that if they fail the government falls (forcing opposition parties to choose between passing Conservative legislation or a fresh election). This is an option particularly for the Conservatives if they are close to a majority, but it depends as well on opinion polls. A fresh election will seem far less threatening to the other political parties if it appears they will gain seats.

All in all I think it is worth remembering several things. Firstly that the situation in a hung parliament is potentially unpredictable and flexible, this is not necessarily a bad thing (indeed the argument can be made that the need for parties to negotiate will provide heightened accountability for government). Secondly, as votes for the Conservatives and Labour decline more fragmented parliaments are inevitable, and the likelihood of hung parliaments increases. Polls show that a majority of Brits would prefer a single party majority government, but with the two main parties continually losing seats and votes they may find that hung parliaments increasingly become the norm.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

So, What About the Lib Dems?

As numerous national polls are showing the gap between the Conservatives and Labour is well within Hung Parliament territory. The Liberal Democrats, however, are being squeezed out of the news cycle. If the Tories aren't getting their decimal places wrong whilst travelling first class the Prime Minister is being labelled a bully. Even UKIP have managed to make more of a noise in the past week than Nick Clegg's party, although not all publicity is good publicity!

The Lib Dems have struggled to break through 20% in the polls this year but considering their numbers under Sir Menzies Campbell the high teens is a vast improvement. The UK Polling Report's rolling average puts the third party on 19% which is 4% down on their 2005 result. 23% of the vote represented their best General Election performance for over twenty years and was certainly helped by the party's stance on the Iraq War and Tuition Fees. Without a similar cause célèbre this year it could be assumed that Clegg will struggle to match Charles Kennedy's result five years ago. But as this shows the Liberal Democrats are actually polling similar numbers now than they were in February 2005. When the real campaign starts the MSM will have to give all parties air time and when this happens I expect to see the Lib Dems rise in the polls.

The Liberal Democrats have also demonstrated an increasing ability to concentrate their vote in target seats to get the most out of an electoral system which is bias against them. In 1983 the Liberal/SDP Alliance polled 25.4% but that only translated into 23 seats (or 3.5%). In 2005 Kennedy led a Parliamentary party of 62 members despite gaining 2% less of the vote than the Alliance 22 years earlier. It's this trend that leads Lib Dem members to be quietly confident of holding their numbers this year, which will be no small feat considering the amount of seats they are defending against a resurgent Conservative party.

But there is one piece of bad polling news for the Liberal Democrats. This Angus Reid poll of marginal constituencies shows a larger LD>CON swing in seats held by the Lib Dems than the national swing. Taking the UKPR average the national swing is 4.5% but in the marginals this rises to 5.5%. Although this is not good news for Nick Clegg's party it could be worse. This polling result could be down to their lack of media coverage as opposed to a widespread desire for a Tory majority secured by voting for them in LD/CON marginals. It could even be down to margin of error.

Furthermore, if we look at the seats in Cornwall and Devon (and East Devon) on a universal 4.5% swing the Conservatives would pick up St. Austell & Newquay and Torbay. At 5.5% only Newton Abbot is added to that list with North Devon teetering on the edge. Of Course politics isn't that simple! St. Austell & Newquay's notional majority is not clear cut and I'd say if the Conservatives pick up only one Cornish seat it's more likely to be the more rural Cornwall South East (on a 6.6% swing). Also, no matter what majority Richard Ross-Younger is defending in Newton Abbot his expenses woes are far more likely to end is Parliamentary career than an extra percent on the swing from his party. Essentially the Lib Dems need to concentrate on continuing their local efforts, which will be a far greater factor in their victories than national swings. But I'm sure they know that anyway!

Friday, 26 February 2010

Liberal Democrats Hope One Becomes Two

Matthew Taylor’s (LD) constituency Truro & St. Austell has been split into two by the boundary commission. Terrye Teverson and Stephen Gilbert are hoping they can secure both these new seats for the Liberal Democrats in an area that has returned a Liberal MP every election since 1974. Gilbert is running in St. Austell & Newquay and he’s encouraged by the recent Council election results in the area.

“We did very well in the unitary elections in June electing 10 Lib Dem Cornwall Councillors to 7 Conservatives. Towards the end of the year we also won by-elections in Newquay and in St Austell. Labour had no candidate in the Newquay by-election and in St Austell polled less than 5% of the vote - clearly the Labour Party is out of the race. Overall, the St Austell by-election took the Cornwall Councillor numbers to 11 Lib Dems, 6 Conservatives (plus 5 independents and 1 MK).”

Gilbert’s notional majority is very awkward to calculate due to the success of independent candidates in the local elections. Figures range from 600 to 6000 votes making any prediction on the seat extremely difficult. Gilbert, naturally, disagrees with my inclining that the Conservatives will pick up this seat but that is based on the assumption that the Tories would strongly target this seat. This contest is one of the most intriguing in the local area and is we’ll certainly be keeping a close eye on it. As the Lib Dem PPC states himself, “I have no doubt that the St Austell & Newquay seat will be a keenly fought contest”.

A bit further west Terrye Teverson is contesting Truro & Falmouth. She is also confident of winning and feels that her ties to the local area and the tradition of Liberal MPs in Cornwall will see her elected to Parliament.

“I have an excellent chance of winning Truro and Falmouth and am tipped to win. My 20 years of personal campaigning in Cornwall will also help. The Liberal Democrats have a strong following in the SW due to the MP’s that are elected working hard all year round. Even David Cameron acknowledged that Liberal Democrats made ‘good local MP’s’”

I’d have to admit I wouldn’t bet against the Lib Dems taking both these seats which would be an excellent result for the third party. Regardless of what the polling figures are currently 2010 is going to be a Conservative year and so if the Liberal Democrats to hold many of their rural seats in this environment they are sure to play a significant role in the next Parliament.

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Conservatives Aware of UKIP Challenge

In 2009 European Elections UKIP beat both Labour and the Liberal Democrats to second place, securing two MEPs in the process. It’s often assumed that UKIP voters are Conservatives unhappy with their party’s stance on Europe and so their strength in the region is cause for concern to local Tory candidates. Given the national situation between the main parties it’s not surprising that the Conservative candidate George Eustice is confident of becoming the next MP for Camborne and Redruth. But as a former UKIP candidate himself Eusitce is aware of the need to win these voters over

Eustice feels that a vote for him is the sensible choice for euro-sceptics at a General Election. “My sense is that many people who voted UKIP in the euro elections will support me in the General Election because to support UKIP is to reward the very Lib Dem MP who refused to vote in favour of a referendum on the EU constitution when it was debated in parliament.”

In fact, all Liberal Democrat MPs in Cornwall followed their leadership’s direction to abstain from the referendum vote. With the EU such a contentious issue in this part of the country it will be interesting to see if this will have any affect two years on. Derek Thomas, the Conservative candidate in St. Ives, shares Eustice’s view that euro-sceptics should vote Tory.

“UKIP voters will need to choose their own priorities, a change in Government at a time when our finances are in disarray or an isolated position on Europe from a place where they can not possible change things.” Thomas feels other issues, such as housing and transport, will be more important to the voters in St. Ives and intends to focus on these rather than Europe.

The EU is unlikely to become a major national issue as David Cameron does not want the ideological splits within the party to be on display during the campaign. Locally, however, they may need to win over UKIP voters in order to secure victory in these close contests and how the Conservatives deal with this could be the difference between success and failure.

Labour Candidate Optimistic

Despite Labour's current plight nationally Jude Robinson feels she has a good chance of winning back the Camborne and Redruth seat they lost at the last General Election. Although many seeing her challenge as a long shot, Ladbrokes are offering 33/1 on a Labour win here, Robinson believes there are many reasons to be optimistic. Labour do not have much of a foothold in the South West and this constituency represents their best chance of a gaining a seat in the region.

Robinson describes the seat as "a genuine 3 way marginal seat, one of very few in the country and it is also the area of Cornwall with a strong Labour core vote". She feels the boundary changes and the actions of the incumbent Lib Dem MP are to her advantage. "The anti Tory vote in Hayle went to Andrew George from 1997 onwards and he has a strong personal vote there, rather than a Lib Dem loyalty. Julia Goldsworthy is one of the MPs whose behaviour over expenses has appeared greedy and self serving."

The Liberal Democrats have been the main party in Cornwall during the last decade and had control of the County Council up until last year. But the Lib Dems were instrumental in the recent restructuring of the local government which has proved unpopular and Robinson feels this will harm them in the General Election.

"The Lib Dems hold all the seats in Cornwall and promised much in 2005, which they have not delivered. There is a mood on the doorstep that is quite fed up of their incompetence, lack of responsibility and accountability - particularly over the Unitary process and transition."

Although the Conservatives were the main beneficiaries in the 2009 local elections the demographics of this constituency may well aid a Labour challenge. There is enough in this part of Cornwall to suggest it's not a lost cause for Robinson but it will be seen as some achievement if she manages to gain a seat for Labour in this election.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Local Candidates have been asking local PPCs how they view their chances in the forthcoming General Election. Naturally they are busy people and so we are thankful for those who spared the time to get back to us. As Parliament is still sitting the incumbent MP’s were unable to respond but we hope to try again when the election is called. In the meantime we’ll be running with what we’ve got starting with the candidates in Cornwall tomorrow.