Volatile voters get a glimpse of the post-Blair landscape (6 May 2006)

It has been so long since the Conservatives had a good election result that it takes a little time to recognise it for what it is. Their total of gains, at 273 seats and counting, is at the upper end of expectations for the party, and they polled quite convincingly in a range of local elections from Plymouth to Bury, as well as in London. Labour’s losses are a little less than I had predicted, mostly because there was much more give and take between Labour and Lib Dem than I had bargained for. For every Labour calamity in, for instance, Lewisham, there was Lambeth to balance it up; and the party also made gains rather than losses vis-a-vis the Lib Dems in Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield. While in the northern metropolitan boroughs and some of the shire districts Labour were resilient and even improved on their result in 2004, in London the swing went further than merely catching up with what had happened in the rest of the country between 2002 and 2004. Labour’s terrible results in parts of London should be deeply worrying to the party. There is not even the excuse of low turnout, as turnout was significantly up on 2002. The electoral landscape is starting to look distinctly post-Blair. In the very areas where electors responded so warmly to shiny New Labour in 1997 and 2001, they have turned away in droves in 2006. The Greens are a far more successful minor party than the BNP, but have so far attracted less attention. They fought on a much broader front, while the BNP is a highly localised force that comes and goes. By contrast, the Greens have staying power and have elected effective and durable councillors. Local elections can provide interesting straws in the wind. The West Yorkshire borough of Kirklees has once again – as it did in 2004 – refused to award any party a higher share of the vote than 25% and its politics are a kaleidoscopic mix of Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green and BNP. An additional element this time was the success of a “Save Huddersfield NHS” candidate. The appeal of purely local politics seems to be growing. The Lib Dems have carved a niche in politics as the party of local government, but these results put this into question. They failed to take relatively easy target councils in Portsmouth and Bristol, and where they held power, or had recently held power, they tended to do badly. The 2006 elections hint at a revival of an older political geography, with the Tories gaining in suburban areas of former strength and Labour holding up better in its traditional areas. It is...

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Post-Blair, but not quite convinced of Cameron (5 May 2006)

The electorate is in volatile mood and even three-party politics is now looking distinctly passé. It has been so long since the Conservatives had a good election result that it takes a little time to recognise it for what it is. Their total of gains, at 273 seats and counting, is at the upper end of expectations for the party, and they polled quite convincingly in a range of different local elections from Plymouth to Bury as well as in London. They did well enough to wrest control of a larger haul of councils than they can have hoped for. Conservative satisfaction must be all the greater because of the uncanny symmetry with which their gains mirror Labour’s losses. In the last few rounds of local elections Labour have tended to slip back, but the spoils have been shared between the Conservatives, the Lib Dems and a variety of minor parties and independents. Labour’s losses are a little less than what I predicted before the elections, mostly because there was much more give and take between Labour and Lib Dem than I had bargained for. For every Labour calamity in, for instance, Lewisham, there was Lambeth to balance it up; and the party also made gains rather than losses vis-à-vis the Lib Dems in the northern cities of Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield. While in the northern metropolitan boroughs and some of the shire districts Labour were resilient and even improved on their result in 2004, in London the swing went further than merely catching up with what had happened in the rest of the country between 2002 and 2004. Labour’s terrible results in parts of London should be deeply worrying to the party. There is not even the excuse of low turnout, as turnout was significantly up on 2002 and in some areas where Labour took a terrible beating (like Bexley) the increase was above average. The electoral landscape is starting to look distinctly post-Blair. In the very areas where electors responded so warmly to shiny New Labour in 1997 and 2001, they have turned away in droves in 2006. A scary result for Labour outside London was the runaway success of the Conservatives in the borough elections in Swindon, a town with two close-fought marginal parliamentary seats. But the London suburbs were the most dramatic illustration of the trend. Harrow has been a close fight in the last couple of borough elections, but the Conservatives won by miles this year. In Ealing, Labour’s most shocking loss, there was a 10 per cent swing to the Conservatives, who regained control of a borough some had privately believed to be beyond them permanently thanks to demographic change. This was even...

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How low can they go? (2 May 2006)

A Labour rout on Thursday may owe more to the disillusion of its voters than a surge to the opposition. The thing to watch for is turnout. Labour councillors nervously anticipating Thursday’s local elections must wonder how much harder the government could work to mess things up for them. One probably has to look back to 1968 to find a parallel. Devaluation, financial crisis, tax rises, spending cuts, Cabinet resignations and lurid press coverage of immigration and Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood were bad enough, but just before polling day the government put up NHS charges (despite having promised not to). The result was a massacre at the polls, with nearly 800 losses in London alone and many cities including Birmingham where Labour won not a single seat. Local election results tend to go consistently against the party nationally in power, particularly when the government is a Labour government. Even during the honeymoon period of the 1998 local elections, the Labour lead was lower than in the 1997 general election or in the national polls. There is always a turnout differential that makes it difficult to get Labour supporters to the local polls while Labour hold office nationally even at the best of times. These are self-evidently not the best of times. Labour must expect a bad result, but how bad? Assessing what is a reasonable benchmark for success or disaster is difficult and bedevilled both by the complexities of local elections and the expectations management practised by all the parties. Election night will see spin in its purest form, as each party claims to have out-performed what could reasonably be expected of it. Those with long memories will recall 1990, when Conservative success in Wandsworth and Westminster distracted attention from poor national results, and 1996 when the Tory disaster wasn’t quite as complete as the year before. The most consequential measure of performance is in terms of council control. This matters because it gives (or takes away) a party’s ability to put policies into practice at a local level. Because every seat in London is up for election, this is where the most dramatic changes will take place. Labour did well from the electoral system in 2002 (the last time the seats were fought), winning 15 boroughs (including 4 where the party actually polled fewer votes than the Conservatives). Even before last week, their chances of holding Bexley and Hammersmith & Fulham looked vanishingly small, and it would be no surprise if Croydon and Merton also flipped to the Conservatives. Labour’s vote has eroded both in ethnically mixed areas and liberal middle class areas to the Lib Dems and others, and the loss of at least Brent (and...

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The politics of spectacle (11 April 2006)

Will this Italian election really be the final stake through Berlusconi’s heart? Italy has gone backwards in the last 2,000 years. It used to be a cynical motto of Roman Senate elections that bread and circuses were what determined the outcome. In 2006, Berlusconi managed to get 49 per cent on circuses alone – his management has made Italy Europe’s basket-case economy, but hey, the man could put on a show. It is said that Italy values beauty over truth, and it is possible to see the election in that light. Romano Prodi – serious, intelligent, technocratic – represented truth. The left’s last time in power in 1996-2001 was dourly faithful to orthodox finance (by Italian standards) and managed to pass the economic tests to get into the euro. While not exactly beautiful, Berlusconi offered the politics of spectacle. His outbursts of vulgar abuse, his campaign rallies featuring attractive women in revealing costumes (the Mussolini flags fluttering among the crowd), all distracted from his failure in government and his grotesque conflicts of interest. While Italian democracy has long been a strange creature, in which the surface display disguises subtle movements within the elite and a conspiratorial undertow to public life, this election may just show that Italy is just a more advanced case of the decomposition of democracy than its neighbours. Italy’s post-democratic politics share something with the politics of the United States. In both countries the formal mechanisms of democracy remain in place, but there is a vast imbalance between one side and the other. The Republicans and Berlusconi control the apparatus of state and steadily extend their control over the media and the terms of public debate. The other side are allowed a shot at power every four or five years, but the odds are skewed not only by the power of money and the media but by shameless gerrymandering. And if the other side win, they face a subtle web of power operating against them – the courts, damaging leaks from the civil service, the assumptions about the way business is done. Berlusconi’s career is like that of a vampire in a horror film – he rises again after damage that would kill an ordinary mortal, and this election does not look like the final stake through the heart. There are parallels in eastern and central Europe, where parties are weak and dependent on strong personalities and financial backing, and sometimes cruder forms of influence. Post-democracy in the west is a subtler business than post-dictatorship in the east, but is there really a clear divide between Berlusconi’s contempt for due process and the manipulated “democracy” in places like Belarus and pre-revolution Ukraine? Even in Britain there...

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Democracy island (28 March 2006)

More than any of its neighbours, Hungary has a robust system of political parties with strong popular roots. Elections in Britain have become increasingly invisible. The tradition of putting posters in windows seems to be dying, and the parties are less inclined to spend money on advertising hoardings than before. It would have been quite possible for a moderately observant person to have visited Britain in April 2005 and not to have noticed that an election was under way. In Hungary, on the other hand, elections are in your face. I was there at the end of last week on a flying visit, unaware until I arrived that the poll was in full swing. This state of ignorance did not last: Budapest is plastered with hoardings favouring the causes of FIDESZ and the MSZP, the two main parties. Viktor Orban, the leader of the Fidesz opposition party, looks down sardonically from thousands of bright orange billboards, wearing the expression of a man who has just been told a joke he did not consider very funny. Ferenc Gyurcsany, the prime minister and MSZP (Socialist party) leader, is just as omnipresent, although he presents a kinder visage, looking like an academic who is worried that his seminar group’s attention has wandered away from his presentation. The most striking political advertisement in Hungary covered the entire side of a building in one of the main squares of Budapest with a massive image of Gyurcsany – a piece of political gigantism even the communists did not manage. But campaigning in Hungary does not seem to be a competition just of advertising budgets (the ubiquity of political billboards suggests either that the two main parties are awash with funds or advertising is very cheap in Hungary). There is the occasional splash of campaigning activity in the streets, with young MSZP and Fidesz supporters giving out bags of political goodies at underground stations, and- a joy for election nostalgia buffs, if nobody else – loudspeaker vans in the streets. An MSZP candidate in Buda was giving out pocket-sized brochures containing useful telephone numbers and even local public transport timetables. This technique might not catch on in Britain, where public transport timetables are even more unreliable than most political promises. Another original feature of the Hungarian electoral system is that it is illegal for parties to keep databases of electors with information on how they intend to vote, rendering British-style direct marketing and telephone canvassing impossible. Any Hungarian politician making claims about what their canvassing returns suggest would face a police investigation and would be exonerated only if those claims turned out to be false. Perhaps seasoned Liberal Democrat campaigners could take this up for use...

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