Local and General

This article first appeared in Progress Online. Every general election is decided in the marginal parliamentary constituencies. The public, and sometimes even political insiders, have the impression that the main parties command armies of campaigners which can be directed with precision. In the imagination, we have Lynton Crosby and Greg Cook playing first world war generals and moving model armies around a table-sized map of the battlefield. The reality is a bit different. There are no vast armies, but a comparatively small number of very motivated, active people volunteering their time for little reward. The most active and politically interested among them will be happy to travel around to marginal seats, and exercises such as the Three Seats Challenge supported by Progress are fun and make a big contribution to Labour’s efforts in marginal seats. It is unfortunate that the electoral system means that the rewards from campaigning are such a postcode lottery, but an extra Labour vote prompted by a doorstep conversation in Kingswood does much more to help the return of a Labour government than an increased majority in neighbouring Bristol East (no matter how much Kerry McCarthy may deserve it). However, most activists prefer to campaign in their local area. It is less demanding on scarce time and also, for many people, political campaigning is a part of being an active citizen in their own community. The tension between the party’s overall interests and the individual’s preferences and interests is particularly acute for councillors and council candidates who will also be facing election on 7 May. For councillors representing areas in marginal seats, there is not much of a conflict of interest – their advocacy for the parliamentary candidate is probably most effective in their own ward. There are some drawbacks occasionally – councillors may try to bargain with wavering voters to split their vote, and sell out their parliamentary running mate, and there were instances of this for Labour in 2010. But in the 2015 election campaigns in crucial seats like Ipswich, Erewash and Blackpool North & Cleveleys will benefit from the Labour councillors elected in 2011 fighting hard to defend their seats and maximise the constituency Labour vote. However, in other areas councillors will want to defend their own patch rather than travel around to the marginal seats, particularly if their own seat is at all endangered. This will also mean that the significant number of people who are involved in party activity through friendship with other local activists and councillors will be reluctant to be moved around the map for reasons of national strategy. For example, Labour councillors and their allies in Derby and Nottingham – Labour cities floating in a sea of...

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Predicting the General Election in Scotland: a fragile landslide?

Predicting the General Election in Scotland: a fragile landslide?

‘Too many moving parts.’ This was the understandable complaint of a political scientist (oh, all right, it was Philip Cowley)  about the complexities of writing about the 2015 election. Back in the day, David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh could get a good deal of the story by trotting from one side of Smith Square to the other, but it has all got complicated now. The most unpredictable of these moving parts is Scotland. In my recent seat by seat analysis for Westbourne Communications, I found it pretty much impossible to speculate sensibly about most Scottish seats from my London vantage point, and just assumed that the SNP would take most of the Lib Dem seats and a fair chunk (10? 15?) from Labour, reflecting a swing back to Labour between now and the election. I have recently spent a few days in Scotland, talking to knowledgeable people from various points on the political spectrum and return, in the words of Reggie Maudling, none the wiser but considerably better informed. The truth about Scotland in the 2015 election is that nobody knows. We can be reasonably confident that most of the 11 Liberal Democrats will be swept away – only two (Alistair Carmichael and Charles Kennedy) are likely winners. West Aberdeenshire & Kincardine, and Michael Moore’s seat in the Borders, are Con/ Lib Dem/ SNP wild cards. We can also regard the sole Tory MP in Scotland, David Mundell, as a likely winner on a split vote in a strongly No voting area. But these are details – what about the other 54 seats where the winner is likely to be SNP or Labour? While the SNP won beyond its dreams in 2011, its more usual experience has been to swagger confidently into an election only to underperform when the votes are counted. The last rites were being read for Labour Glasgow in the run-up to the 2012 local elections, but Labour held on surprisingly well. Estimates of the number of SNP seats I heard ranged from 20-ish to over 40, and I still do not feel able to rule any of those numbers out. The error margins on Scottish electoral predictions are huge because: Scottish public opinion on the centre-left can be very volatile, even during campaigns – there was little sign of the impending SNP landslide in 2011 until late in the campaign, for instance. If the election can be seen as a choice of UK government, Labour has a chance of persuading at least some of its lost voters (and alienated Lib Dems) back into the fold, but if it is seen as standing up for Scotland against an unsympathetic bipartisan austerity regime in London, the SNP will...

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From Parnell to Salmond: Nationalists at Westminster since 1874

From Parnell to Salmond: Nationalists at Westminster since 1874

Imagine a situation where support for the parties of government in the United Kingdom suddenly collapses in part of the UK and is replaced by a single, dominant nationalist party that has no interest in forming part of an administration back in London and votes in Westminster in accordance solely with its perception of the national interest of its particular part of the country. In the light of Lord Ashcroft’s long awaited Scottish constituency polling  this may well be the shape of politics in the United Kingdom for the rest of the life of that particular political construct. That might be a matter of two to five years, or we might have a ‘new normal’ in which the SNP controls a block of 40-50 Scottish seats at Westminster for decades. How would the political system cope? Let us look at some of the precedents, incomplete and inexact as they are. The most recent case of the politics of a component of the UK going off at a tangent is the collapse of mainland politics in Northern Ireland in the February 1974 election with the victory of Unionists opposed to the Conservative government’s power-sharing agreement. Because Northern Ireland’s representation is so small, and it is divided between different parties, it is rarely pivotal in Westminster politics. For this to happen, a government has to be on the threshold of majority status anyway, as in 1974-79 or at some points in 1992-97. And, with the exception of Sinn Féin who do not take their Westminster seats, the Northern Ireland MPs pay less attention to their ultimate ends than to pragmatic deal-making. As Ken Clarke remarked in 2010, “In the end you can always do a deal with an Ulsterman.” Enoch Powell, then sitting as a Unionist MP, mordantly observed that the Callaghan government could have won its confidence vote in 1979 for some material concessions to Ulster: “a whiff of gas or a ha’p’orth of tar.” But now let us jump back a century, to 1874 and the last time a big block of nationalist MPs was injected into Westminster. On the face of it, the 1874 outcome in Ireland was staggering. In the 1868 election the Liberals had won 66 seats out of 103, to 37 Conservatives. But in 1874 the Liberals sank from 66 to 10, with the Conservatives suffering only a small loss (from 37 to 31; two small borough seats were abolished in 1870 for having particularly corrupt elections). The winners were a loosely-organised party standing for Irish Home Rule, which swept 60 Irish seats. The stated causes of this sudden landslide seem curiously inadequate. The secret ballot made intimidations by landlords more difficult; rural Ireland was...

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The Conservative story of support for election reform

The Conservative story of support for election reform

If one assumes that anything regarded as a timeless British tradition was invented at some point during the reign of Queen Victoria, one would not go far wrong. And so it is with our electoral system. It was invented in 1885 in a ruthless piece of practical politics by which the front benches of the Conservative and Liberal parties colluded on a ‘reform’ to cement a two party system in place. Before 1885, most constituencies in Britain (70 per cent) had two MPs and a handful had three – but an1885 Act sliced most of them up into single-member districts, creating subdivisions of boroughs for the first time. After 1885, multi-member constituencies were a rare breed (returning only eight per cent of MPs), and they finally became extinct in 1950. The option not taken then was to retain multi-member seats and build on a limited experiment that had started with Disraeli’s Reform Act of 1867 of providing for minority representation within them – this time on a better thought-out basis through the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system of Proportional Representation (PR). Many of the earlier advocates of PR were Conservatives; the desire for minority representation accorded with Lord Salisbury’s scepticism about majoritarian rule. But the party professionals, then at the height of their power in both the Conservative and Liberal parties, preferred single member seats because they were easier to manage and control, while multi-member seats would make MPs less dependent on the party organisation and more inclined – the horror – to disagree with and compete with MPs in the same party. In 1882, Gilbert and Sullivan proclaimed, in Iolanthe: “That Nature always does contrive/ That every boy and every gal/ That’s born into the world alive/ Is either a little Liberal/ Or else a little Conservative!” But two-party politics was artificial rather than natural, and even in the high days of the Victorian two party system there were challenges and ambiguities. Gilbert’s Law (a much stronger version of Duverger’s Law, whose illustrious author died last month aged 97) certainly did not apply in Ireland, where Home Rule supporters had swept a majority of seats since 1874 and formed an influential nationalist parliamentary bloc that, when the parliamentary arithmetic permitted in 1885-86, could make the larger parties dance to their tune. Then there was Labour. The Liberals had, more or less, caged the Labour Party before 1914: several by-elections had demonstrated that causing three-way contests was a recipe for Labour candidates coming third and often throwing the seat to the Conservatives (see my July piece on this site here). The possibility that Labour might escape the uncomfortable embrace of the Liberal Party led to the consideration of an...

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Carry on polling: can George Osborne keep it up until May?

Carry on polling: can George Osborne keep it up until May?

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. Before Christmas, I wrote a piece for Conservative Home about the polling landscape six months out from the general election and what one can tell about the situation from historical precedents. The findings were not entirely encouraging for Labour: Labour oppositions tend to poll worse in the election than they do in the polls at this stage. Steve Fisher does similar things in a somewhat more rigorous fashion and his last look at the charts in December suggested that the likeliest single outcome is for Labour to be the largest single party in a hung parliament, which is more or less what most of the prognosticating classes seem to expect. Despite frequent warnings about how unpredictable it all is, there is a strong convergence in forecasts of the overall results. Where things get complicated is at the level of individual seats, where we can expect some peculiar variations in behaviour among seats based on region, demographics and relative susceptibility to the appeals of Liberal Democrats, the United Kingdom Independence party, the Green party and the Scottish National party. To strain a scientific metaphor, while all sorts of weirdness might happen at micro level, the macro level national picture will probably not be that far away from the Newtonian world of uniform swing. In this piece, I shall look in more detail at one piece of the national picture – economic optimism. Conventional wisdom is that the ‘feelgood factor’ helps governments win elections, but I am not quite so sure either that it works that way, or the causation is in that direction. Economic optimism is not independent of the political environment. A curious pattern in polling history is the strong link between elections and spikes in economic optimism. Past Conservative governments have seemed able to manufacture big bounces in economic optimism just in time for an election. The only Labour government to have managed this was Tony Blair’s in 2001 – perhaps significantly, the election at which Labour enjoyed its highest support from the press and at which Alastair Campbell was at the height of his powers. Even dead-in-the-water Tory governments like John Major’s in 1997 can manage it. The Conservatives are trying this trick again, but one may note that in the much-mocked new ‘road ahead’ poster, the gap in the dark hills on the horizon was produced by the wonders of Photoshop, not the actual landscape. The optimal time for the Conservatives to have held an election might have been autumn 2013; the change in economic optimism from net -30 in March to net +23 in September was a very rapid turnaround. Usually, the British public usually settles into its...

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