Breaking the southern mould (8 November 2006)

For the first time since the early 1950s the majority party in the House of Representatives will be the minority party in the south. The Democratic majority in the House of Representatives elected in 2006 will be a historic turning point. For the first time since the early 1950s the majority party in the House will be the minority party in the south. In the five deep south states (Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina) the Republicans still dominate with 23 seats to 12 Democrats and two still counting razor’s-edge margins. No seats went from Republican to Democrat, and the two toss-up seats were both defended by Democrat incumbents in Georgia. Taking the south and border states up to Virginia and Missouri, the Republicans still lead 79 to 50, not counting the two Georgia undecided seats. The Democrats have only gained five seats in the extended region, and two of them in rather special circumstances (in TX-22 and FL-16 discredited Republican incumbents Tom DeLay and Mark Foley stayed on the ballot despite being replaced as candidates). There were clear gains only in a heavily Democrat-leaning Florida district (expatriated north-easterners) and one each in Kentucky and North Carolina. The bulk of the Democrats’ gains came in the north-east, where the results in some seats were startling – the party swept both New Hampshire seats, including NH-1 where they had mounted only the most rudimentary campaign. Pennsylvania may well contribute more net gains than the whole of the south. In the process – and some results are still agonisingly close – they have knocked out many of the endangered species that is the Republican moderate, such as Nancy Johnson in Connecticut and Jim Leach – apparently – in Iowa. The 2006 revolution may be the Democrats’ answer to the 1994 election, which completed the south’s Republican realignment. Many of the surviving Republicans in the north-east are defending very narrow majorities and their incumbents may decide to call it a day now that the party is in the minority – opening up more seats for the Democrats in 2008 just as happened in reverse in the south in 1994-96. As in Presidential elections, two solid blocs of Democrat blue in the north-east and Republican red in the south will face each other. The contested areas will be elsewhere, in the Mountain west, the south-west and the upper mid-west. 2006 may therefore be the beginning of the end of the American political world’s obeisance to the south, which after all is only one region among several in the country. It is now, in general, loyal to any Republican no matter how extreme or unsatisfactory (even in borderland Virginia, George Allen is in...

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Farewell new dawns (26 July 2006)

Daytime election counts might make sense but we will miss the surprises and suspense of election night. The elections minister, Bridget Prentice, has announced that election night may be cancelled in future. This is not some dastardly scheme to abolish democracy, but a possible consequence of recent reforms to make postal voting more secure. Much as it pains me to concede the point, it makes a lot of sense. Accuracy is better than speed, and it is important that only valid ballot papers are used to calculate the result – the time taken to verify signatures on postal vote returns is a small sacrifice for greater security. Delaying the count until the next day will also mean that counting staff are fresh and better able to do their job without making mistakes. In a close election, this could prevent some recounts, saving time and money. And yet … there is something very satisfying about the ritual of election night even in a dull election like 2001, and for political excitement a close or surprising election night like 1992 cannot be matched. First come the exit polls, then the straws in the wind that are the early declaring seats, and then the tidal rush of results as the final pattern becomes clear. Election nights are demanding for politicians and broadcasters and the public sometimes sees both at their best and most candid while they react to unfolding events. I fondly recall Cecil Parkinson’s gallows humour in 1997 (on hearing that the results declared were something like 180 Labour to 2 Conservative, he said: “Oh good, now we can have a leadership election”), and Michael Portillo realising that one of the benefits of losing his seat was not having to answer Jeremy Paxman’s questions. While tired and emotional (in the literal and sometimes in the euphemistic sense) the truth sometimes slips out. There is something of the late night about absorbing electoral defeat or victory – it will look very different in the harsh light of early Friday afternoon. That clear, beautiful dawn of May 2 1997, the light gradually spilling over the Royal Festival Hall as Labour’s leaders took in the scale of the triumph, dancing deliriously (and badly) was an essential part of that election. For the observer it will also change. As well as watching the unguarded moments of the politicians, the occasional broadcasting slip-up, and the spectacular computer graphics, election night can be a fine party for the interested but not deeply committed. It will just not be the same watching the results in a little pop-up window on the computer at work, as if it were some sort of desultory Test match. The exit polls will...

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Unhappy numbers (30 June 2006)

The stats from last night’s byelections make miserable reading for both the big parties. Both of last night’s byelections were bad for the Labour party, but Blaenau Gwent was absolutely appalling. Trish Law’s election for the Welsh assembly seat was perhaps to be expected, but Dai Davies ended up winning a surprisingly comfortable majority for the Westminster seat. Labour’s share of the vote had increased only a little (1.7 percentage points in the assembly vote; 4.7 points for Westminster) since Peter Law’s landslide in the 2005 general election. That result can no longer be written off as a flash in the pan caused by the dispute over Labour’s all-women shortlist, or a personal vote for an established incumbent. Labour have occasionally lost safe south Wales seats before in unusual circumstances, like Merthyr Tydfil in 1970 or Islwyn in 1999, but the common thread is that Labour has always won the seat back at the next opportunity. Blaenau Gwent is the first time since 1918 that any of the valleys seats has rejected Labour twice in a row. Blaenau Gwent was a defeat for New Labour rather than Labour values. Dai Davies’s victory speech focused on the four principles of socialism, trade unionism, Christianity and family – he is an unashamed old Labour socialist. His language of socialism and “the people” does not mean, as it might in London, trendy cultural politics or tabloid populism – it reflects a community in which the Labour party was first nurtured and which now feels neglected, even despised, by the government. New Labour no longer commands the loyalty of many of the voters it won over in the 1990s (as the English local elections showed), and it also risks permanently alienating the loyalty of the heartland voters who have stuck with Labour through all the party’s previous bad times. Labour also collapsed in Bromley and Chislehurst, but that was only to be expected in an area where the party had always been weak and lacking in the sort of presence in the community that can sustain a vote. In the later stages of the campaign, as the Liberal Democrats closed in on the Conservatives, tactical votes bled away and Labour came in an undignified fourth, behind UKIP. At least they retained their deposit. For the Conservatives, Bromley was extremely uncomfortable. A slump in the party’s share of the vote from 51% to 40% (and a majority of only 633 votes) is bad news. Conservative chatter at the start of the campaign was about whether they would get to 60% or not, but at the end people were saying things like “a win is a win”. An opposition party on the march should be...

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The mantles of Nye and Mac (28 June 2006)

The voters of Blaenau Gwent and Bromley are feeling neglected. Both Blair and Cameron could be embarrassed by Thursday’s byelections. Voters in two constituencies – Bromley & Chislehurst and Blaenau Gwent – go to the polls on Thursday to fill two seats in the House of Commons and one in the National Assembly for Wales. It is hard to imagine two places with less in common. One is an affluent south-east London suburb, the other a gritty working class south Wales valley. One had a Conservative vote of 51% in 2005, the other a Conservative vote of 2%. When Bromley sent Harold Macmillan to parliament as prime minister, Blaenau Gwent (then called Ebbw Vale) elected Nye Bevan with thumping majorities. But both may have similar messages for the political parties this week. Bromley & Chislehurst is a mixture of suburbs, some of them extremely plush. Birds of paradise can be seen among the trees in Sundridge Park, and Chislehurst Common is genuinely high-class. However, Bromley itself is a fairly standard-issue suburban town, and Bickley are the sort of place that Delboy and Rodney would have ended up if they really did become millionaires. Bromley’s Conservatism, like its late MP Eric Forth, tends to be of the brash, saloon bar variety rather than Cameron-style metropolitan gentility. Perhaps the culture clash explains why the Conservative campaign in Bromley seems to have been accident-prone and unimpressive, a dinosaur compared to a lively and cheeky Liberal Democrat effort that has produced propaganda in the style of supermarket women’s magazines and local tabloid papers. However, the Conservatives start with such a massive majority, and such a hard-core Tory electorate, that it is almost impossible to see them losing – although the majority will probably disappoint their hopes at the start of the campaign. Labour’s strategic objectives in Bromley are to avoid coming fourth, behind Ukip’s Nigel Farage, and to save their deposit – despite coming second with a relatively respectable 22.2% in 2005. The bad national climate, the usual poor government performance in by-elections and a developing squeeze from the Lib Dems all militate against Labour retaining many votes – although they should manage to get their deposit back and are probably likely to come just ahead of Ukip. Blaenau Gwent is a very unorthodox election. After decades of voting solidly Labour (from 1929 to 1992 the MP was either Nye Bevan or Michael Foot) it went Independent in 2005. Peter Law, the sitting Welsh assembly member, stood against the official Labour candidate because of the use of an all-women shortlist and won. This is not the first such electoral tremor in south Wales – in 1970 Merthyr Tydfil overrode the local Labour party’s...

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Cancelled Czechs (23 June 2006)

The republic’s election produced a finally balanced result between right and left, and an innovative form of corruption. This month’s elections in the Czech Republic saw yet another finely balanced result, following similar knife-edge outcomes in the last year in Italy and Germany. A prospective centre-right coalition having 100 seats and opposition parties to the left also having 100 seats. A German style grand coalition seems off the agenda but the outgoing Social Democrats may end up giving tacit support to the new government in exchange for policy concessions. The principal loser in the election was the Communist party. In contrast to most of central and eastern Europe, the Communists are still a significant force – Czechoslovakia’s pre-1948 elections showed that it had a native communist tradition that was not imposed from Moscow, and this still seems to be true. There were some strange undercurrents in this election, including an innovative form of what – by most standards – would count as corruption. Several retailers and a restaurant were offering discounts of as much as 20% on their goods and services for customers who brought in an unused ballot paper marked in favour of the Social Democrats or Communists. One chain of shops, Rock Point, reported that they had collected 5,000 ballot papers. The Prague Post (a right-of-centre English language paper in Prague) reported the scheme without much of a raised eyebrow, and the Czech Interior Ministry did not seem to object. It probably did not dent the left’s vote much, as the most enthusiastic take-up would surely be from apathetic individuals who valued a pair of cheap hiking boots more than their recently-won democratic rights. But at the very least it was offering monetary rewards for scorning the democratic process, and at worst attempting to buy an election. I very much assume it would be illegal in Britain (and indeed, for it would be more likely to be put into practice there, the US). If not, it should be criminalised at the next opportunity....

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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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