Fixed terms? No thanks (10 October 2007)

They are not the answer – we need to start from proportional representation in order to move towards constitutional reform. I don’t believe in fixed-term parliaments. I don’t believe in Father Christmas either. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I think they are intrinsically bad ideas – either of them – but that I don’t believe they exist. In reality there is a spectrum of possibilities between the present system that is in effect at the personal discretion of the prime minister, and the fully fixed terms that govern the electoral cycles for the US president and Congress. In the United States, the mandate for the executive is personal to the president and there are constitutionally defined rules of succession that govern those very rare mid-term changes in president. Congress is separately elected and cannot – short of impeachment – overthrow the executive. The problem in Britain is that in a parliamentary system the executive is formed from the legislature and depends on its confidence for the continuance of government. It would be difficult, and not conducive to good government, if a parliament such as the one elected in February 1974 (in which even a combination of the Liberals with either Conservative or Labour would not have produced a majority) had been required to stay in office for four years at the mercy of Ulster unionists and Scottish nationalists. Sometimes things change during a parliament, with byelections, defections and radically different issues emerging mid-parliament that throw up new political alignments. While perhaps not a huge issue, a rigid timetable such as the one proposed by Sir Menzies Campbell would sometimes require elections to be held in inappropriate circumstances. I can well remember 2001, when a May election (after precisely four years) was planned but postponed for one month because of the foot and mouth outbreak – this would be impossible under the Liberal Democrat proposition. Therefore there has to be some sort of escape clause to dissolve parliaments before the full term is up. Once one has conceded the principle of an escape clause, the difference between fixed-term parliaments and the current position is then merely a matter of degree and technique. It is very doubtful to what extent fixed terms can really be entrenched in UK law – short of writing a constitution it would be open to any future parliament to reverse a law or resolution for fixed terms or abolish any external structures set up to try to entrench a fixed-term rule. As we have seen in the last few weeks, being ready to fight an early election is a matter of political machismo, and for an opposition to try to deny the government the ability...

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A mountain to climb (29 September 2007)

Conservatives 07: If they are to stand any chance of success, the Tories must recapture the Cameron Highlands. Labour has had a “Brown bounce”, but another feature of the electoral scene this summer has been the descent from what might be called the Cameron Highlands (after a resort area in Malaysia – a place with considerably more to commend it to the visitor than Blackpool). As a feature of the political landscape, the Cameron Highlands were the period between December 2005 and June 2007 when David Cameron was leader of the opposition to Tony Blair. During this period, the Conservatives were scoring consistently around 38%-39% in voting intention in opinion polls and, equally steadily, leading Labour in voting intention and the head-to-head contrast of party leaders. Although this sort of poll rating was less than ecstatic approval from the public, and not enough to win outright, it was a marked contrast with recent Conservative history. Other than in some particularly bleak periods of John Major’s last government and the Blair honeymoon, in which the party’s ratings fell into the twenties, the Conservatives have flatlined in the polls since 1993, never escaping the prison of 31%-34% support except during the briefest of blips. However, since Gordon Brown became prime minister, the Conservative rating has fallen back once more to the 33%-34% range. The variations in Labour’s lead recorded in recent opinion polls are mostly to do with how the non-Conservative two-thirds of the country is saying it will divide its favours, with the highest Labour leads being generated by unrealistically low levels of Lib Dem support. The Conservatives’ ejection from the Highlands was in part a result of a strategic error, namely underestimating Gordon Brown. The Conservatives started to believe their own propaganda about Brown and extrapolate their poor personal relationships with him to imagine that the electorate would feel the same way on exposure to him. Some of them started to expect a boring, aggressive, mechanical, far-left Brown who would be a gift to the opposition. They were not ready for the reality. Brown’s poor showing against Cameron in hypothetical match-up polls before June was also given too much importance, because the change of prime minister – entirely predictably – was not the same as the anticipation, and the change itself caused the electorate to re-evaluate Brown in a new context. This was the worst strategic error. But there has also been muddle about squaring the circle between being the modernising “heir to Blair” and aiming to capitalise on public disregard for Blair’s style of leadership. Worryingly, some pre-Highlands polling phenomena have re-emerged, including the perception that the Conservatives are divided, not under Cameron’s control and too far to...

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Should Gordon go for it? (24 September 2007)

Labour 07: The polls look good for Labour, but thanks to the peculiar workings of the British electoral system, that is not necesssarily good enough. Labour meets at Bournemouth in a slightly giddy state of optimism, inspired by a renewed increase in the party’s opinion poll lead to 6-8 points and other evidence including sensational local authority by-election gains in Worcester and Birmingham last week that the party is in an excellent position. Supposing the polls are right, this would hold out the hope of earning a pro-Labour swing since 2005 and an increase in the Labour majority. However, the one does not necessarily imply the other. One could have both a pro-Labour swing and a reduced majority thanks to the peculiar workings of the British electoral system. The trouble is that not all votes have the same value. The overall result depends on the votes cast in the marginal seats. Whether Labour has 18,000 or 28,000 votes in Liverpool Riverside is immaterial to the result – the seat elects only one Labour MP no matter how many votes pile up. However, whether Labour has 15,000 or 16,000 votes in Portsmouth North is highly material, as it makes the difference between that seat electing a Labour MP and a Conservative MP. Under Blair, Labour’s share of the vote suffered a severe slump (down from 43 per cent to 35 per cent) but while thousands of votes disappeared in the safe seats, support held up better in the marginals. The risk Brown faces is that the pattern will reverse. Given that Labour’s majority allowing for boundary changes is 48, there is not much room for slippage if Brown is going to enjoy a manageable full-term parliament. If electors in safe Labour seats who stopped voting between 1997 and 2005 come back to the polls, it will boost Labour’s national share of the vote but not win any extra seats. There is a strong possibility that Labour could do worse in the key marginals than national opinion trends might suggest. One reason is regional variation. Polls and local elections have seen the Conservatives adding votes in the south of England while doing poorly further north. It so happens that there are a lot of marginal Labour seats in the south and a 3 per cent swing from Labour to Conservative in the region would see 15 seats change hands. A swing of the same size to Labour in the north and midlands would switch only 9 from Conservative to Labour. Another reason is party organisation and preparation. The Conservatives, in particular Lord Ashcroft, have poured resources into the marginals they want to win and worked hard – they may well now...

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Could Ming bounce? (14 September 2007)

Lib Dems 07: The Lib Dems need an urgent rethink after a bad year when they’ve been pushed to the political margins. The Liberal Democrats assemble in Brighton after a bad year. More perhaps than the other parties, their morale is sensitive to performance in mid-term elections and the May 2007 elections were pretty poor. In the Scottish and Welsh elections in May, the Conservatives penetrated some historically Lib Dem territory areas. While both constituencies voted in Lib Dem assembly members, the party list vote in both the historic fiefdom of Montgomeryshire (where the Lib Dems have lost only once in the last century in general elections) and Brecon and Radnorshire went to the Conservatives. The farcical Lib Dem participation in Welsh coalition talks, in which the party managed to get nothing despite its good bargaining position, cannot have improved their standing. There was a similar tale in Scotland, where the Conservatives were ahead in the Borders. The English local elections were a bit more variable; with some good results in seats the Lib Dems need to defend against the Conservatives such as Eastleigh, Taunton and Teignbridge, but defeats in others, like North Devon and Torbay. Losses were worse in areas where the Lib Dems might have hoped to build on local success to win future contests, such as in South Norfolk and Bournemouth where they were virtually wiped out. ICM polling data this summer suggests more severe problems than in the local elections. The Lib Dems are apparently down a massive nine percentage points in the south and seven points in London (and five points in Scotland and Wales combined). In the north and Midlands, where the party has been historically weaker and has fewer seats at stake, its existing support has held up better. However, the exposure to losses in the south and the London suburbs should terrify the party. On a 9% swing to the Conservatives across the south, few Lib Dem seats east of St Ives would survive the deluge. With southern losses on this scale, and with possible losses in Wales and Scotland, they could be talking about as few as 35 MPs. Nick Clegg, sitting on a secure majority in the intellectual Yorkshire suburbia of Sheffield Hallam, might end up leader more or less by default. Such a collapse is unlikely, as Lib Dem MPs are good at insulating themselves against the tide through personal votes and hard campaigning, but the Lib Dems are currently facing the prospect of serious losses to the Conservatives and a wounding retreat from their 2005 foothold in Labour territory. While the anti-Labour wave of 2006-07 has subsided, so it seems has the immediate honeymoon of the Brown...

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A reversal of midterm fortunes (20 July 2007)

The byelection results are great for Labour, but David Cameron can expect renewed grumbling in his ranks, while the Lib Dems were caught napping. Last night’s byelections were unambiguous good news for Gordon Brown and proof that the “Brown bounce” in Labour’s fortunes picked up in opinion polls is based on reality. Not only did Labour hold both seats with comfortable majorities, but the detail of the results is also encouraging for the new prime minister. It is normal for a government party to shed some votes in seats it has to defend in byelections, but the recent record of the Labour party has been woeful. In three byelections in the 2001-05 parliament the party’s vote share fell by more than 25 percentage points, and the result in Dunfermline in 2006 (down 17.4%) was almost as bad. In Sedgefield Phil Wilson’s vote share dropped by 14.1% compared with Tony Blair‘s impressive result in 2005, which while a considerable drop was easily absorbed in such a safe seat. But the real triumph was Ealing Southall, where Virendra Sharma‘s vote share was only 7.3% down on what Labour won in 2005. This was the smallest drop in any seat Labour has defended in a byelection since Tony Blair came to power in 1997. Another aspect of the results that will please Gordon Brown is the lack of anti-Labour tactical momentum in the byelections. Voters did not line up behind the candidate best placed to defeat Labour and although the Liberal Democrats came second and increased their vote in both seats, they did not succeed in squeezing the Tory vote even in Sedgefield. Part of the reason for the mediocre Lib Dem results in both seats was the speed with which the byelections were called. Labour’s calculation, which was vindicated, was that the longer the seat remained vacant the more chance the famous Lib Dem byelection machine would have to swamp the constituency with leaflets and establish a clear Lib Dem v Labour dynamic. By calling them quickly, Labour prevented the Lib Dems from building up momentum. In Sedgefield, a predictable byelection given that Tony Blair’s career plans after Downing Street could have been anticipated, the Lib Dems were caught napping by failing to stand a full slate of candidates to work the seat in the local government elections in May. Some of the disaffected protest vote ended up with the BNP, whose candidate Andrew Spence had led the direct action campaign against fuel taxation in 2000 and found a natural home in the party. The Southall result in particular was a blow to David Cameron, who had staked a lot on the result. He was prominent in the campaign, even appearing...

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