It could be worse (20 September 2008)

However unpleasant it might be for Labour in Manchester, at least it won’t be as bad as Blackpool in 1976 The conference season in 2008 will be the first conference season in 20 years in which the psychology of politicians and the media is based on the fairly confident expectation that the next government will be a Conservative one. Labour comes to Manchester against an awful background, the worst for a party of government since the Conservatives convened in 1996. John Major’s government from 1992 to 1997 was a tedious procession of failed relaunch attempts and stabs at defining a narrative of what the Conservatives were for, and so far at least the Brown government seems to be following in these footsteps. The conference is a – slim – chance to start getting it right. However, sometimes in the past a good conference has set a troubled government on the path to recovery, as with the Conservatives in 1986 and Labour in 1969. Brown government’s relationship with public opinion falls into three phases, and ministers fervently hope that the conference will start a fourth, of recovery. The first was the honeymoon phase, lasting over the summer of 2007 and rising to a peak in mid to late September, until it was abruptly ended by the “non-election” at the start of October. This led to a sharp switch in public opinion about Brown, and this (and a successful Tory conference) led to a revival in Conservative voting intention and Cameron’s personal ratings which took them back to where they had been for most of the late Blair period. Public opinion stayed fairly stable through this second phase which lasted until the end of February 2008. The third phase, of acute crisis for Labour and a large Conservative poll lead, has been in place since March, although June saw the slump that had taken place from March until the local and Crewe elections in May, bottom out. The polls are still bad and Gordon Brown’s personal rating at abysmal levels. There was perhaps a slight change of mood during August, as might be expected, as the holiday season calmed politics following the fevered days of July, but September has seen another frightening downturn with the banking crisis and the Conservatives hitting new highs in the opinion polls. Since March the Labour Party has been in fatalistic mood. This is, I think, partly a matter of political generations. Few among younger Labour people will have experience of a government facing deep unpopularity other than this, and the Major government which went down to overwhelming defeat in 1997. But before this, in 1990, 1985, 1981, 1977, 1971, 1968, 1963, 1957… governments dipped to...

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Don’t turn right (16 September 2008)

Some Lib Dems are tempted to tack rightwards to win back votes from the Tories. But it’s an extremely risky strategy The Lib Dems are not in such a dire polling position as Labour. But the party is facing a big dilemma of electoral strategy – which, in turn, poses ideological issues that are surfacing in Bournemouth this year. The problem stems from the step change in Lib Dem parliamentary representation came in 1997, when the party gained a swathe of rural and suburban seats from the Conservatives. In 2001 and 2005 the Tory vote was also at a low ebb, but if – as seems likely – it revives significantly in 2010, a lot of Lib Dem seats are at risk. History suggests that Conservative revivals are generally bad for the Liberals – in 1924, 1951, 1970 and to a lesser extent 1979 the party fell back as the Conservatives swept up a lot of the anti-Labour vote. What strategy would be most effective in holding onto the ex-Tory marginals, and can this be combined with gaining ground from Labour? The new right-of-centre Lib Dem pressure group Liberal Vision thinks it has an answer: to embrace an agenda of tax cuts and social libertarianism that will appeal to right of centre voters. The group, as was surely intended, caused a splash with its list of Lib Dem MPs threatened by the Conservative revival – some MPs on the high risk list such as Adrian Sanders of Torbay were apoplectic with fury about it. But its identification of the seats at risk was broadly accurate. If the Conservative vote generally is going up, places such as Romsey, Carshalton and Hereford look extremely tricky. But is a move to the right actually going to protect their vulnerable incumbents from a Tory tide? The argument is pretty unconvincing. While polling demonstrates that there is an appetite for a small state among a lot of voters, whether the Lib Dems can appeal to this feeling is questionable, because (even though its current policies are very cautious) the Conservatives have such a strong brand image as a party of tax cuts. The Lib Dem right also seems to forget that although many of the seats it holds are affluent and suburban and vulnerable to the Tories, they depend on the votes of people with left of centre values in those areas – their wins often come courtesy of tactical voting or outright conversion of Labour-inclined people. Too much rightwing posturing will alienate these voters. But what about winning seats from Labour? The Lib Dems have talked, rather unbelievably, about shifting resources to the top 50 Lib Dem targets from Labour. To achieve anything...

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How liberal is too liberal? (16 September 2008)

A provocative index ranks Lib Dem MPs by their liberality. But is repealing the smoking ban really a vote-winner? Liberalism has always been tugged between two conflicting ideological traditions, libertarianism and social reform. The Liberal party almost from its foundation until its nadir in the 1950s suffered splits, breakaways and defections from its economic liberals to the Conservatives and its radicals and reformers to Labour. None of these actually resolved the problem, and even in the 1950s the old conflicts were being played out in Lilliputian form. A new pressure group, Liberal Vision, is interested in restarting the debate and has done it in the provocative form of an index of how liberal or not the 63 Lib Dem MPs are on various “lifestyle freedoms”, measuring their votes on measures concerning the smoking ban, gambling and licensing, and who signed which Early Day Motion on various subjects. The index was launched at a lively fringe meeting in Bournemouth, at which one of the speakers was Gavin Webb, a rebellious libertarian Lib Dem councillor from Stoke-on-Trent. Webb was introduced as having liberal views on drugs, prostitution, handguns and drink driving (hopefully not all at the same time). There are no out-and-out libertarians like Webb in the parliamentary party, but the liberal index is still quite intriguing and revealing. The top and bottom scoring MPs for liberality on lifestyle issues illustrate a curious fact of political life. Lembit Öpik is the most “liberal” of the lot, but represents Montgomeryshire in mid Wales. The constituency has been one of the most consistently Liberal in the land, with only one Tory lapse (in 1979) in the last century. Despite a small influx of downsizing professionals and pot-smoking self-sufficient types, Montgomeryshire embodies the chapel-going, rural traditional heritage of the party. Other seats that consistently vote for the most liberal of the three main parties are also among the most conservative in their own social mores, such as Orkney and Shetland, the Highlands and Aberdeenshire, and to some extent Cornwall. The second and third most liberal, David Laws and Paul Keetch, represent Yeovil and Hereford, provincial towns not usually associated with letting it all hang out. Only at fourth place, with David Howarth of Cambridge, do we have a stereotypical liberal constituency. The lowest score in the liberal index went to John Leech, who represents Manchester Withington. Withington is a classic example of a liberal, academic suburb. I would not be surprised if, despite Leech favouring a higher classification for the substance, Withington has a higher than average cannabis intake, and probably fair trade, organically grown cannabis at that. MPs’ views, perhaps particularly on these lifestyle liberal issues, are quirky, personal and often incongruous with...

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The magic number (13 September 2008)

As the conference season gets under way there are three simple steps the Lib Dems can take to get the public’s attention When they convene at Bournemouth, the Liberal Democrats will be queasily aware that they have spent a year treading water. Their poll ratings have more or less flatlined since their last conference. They have been stuck at 16% (give or take a point or two for sampling error), around 6 points down on where they stood in 2005, and about 5 points down on their rating at the equivalent stage of the 2001-05 parliament. This showing is disappointing to the Lib Dems, as have been the election results in mid-term elections since autumn 2007. They did catastrophically in London and not brilliantly elsewhere. They were also squeezed by the Conservatives in Crewe and Nantwich, and even more ominously had a swing against them in Henley, the sort of seat where they would have previously expected to have a big swing in their favour. The poor electoral results have added to a sense of drift at the centre of the party. Nick Clegg has not captured the public imagination since he became leader in December 2007. The Lib Dems have had a difficult time of it as the political scene has been polarised between the Conservatives and an increasingly troubled Labour government. They have had trouble in projecting a distinct image or any specific policies, and Clegg has been overshadowed by Cameron. They have also had problems and soul-searching in Wales and Scotland. The Lib Dems have three basic tasks this season, the first of which is familiar from previous conferences: 1) Assert their continuing relevance. This is a perennial objective, and one that in the last couple of conference seasons has proved difficult as politics has centred on the presidential contrast of Cameron with Blair (then Brown). It will be difficult again this year. Coming first does the Lib Dems no favour in terms of gaining attention from the media and the public (for whom the first half of September still has something of a holiday feel). 2) Present attractive coherent policies. The Make it Happen document being referred to conference was intended to serve as a pre-manifesto, but given that no election is expected in 2009 it has been restyled as a “visions and values” document. The party needs a decent narrative, and some eye-catching policies. The party’s tax policy, of emphasising cuts for lower and middle income households (paid for by closing tax loopholes further up the scale) is part of this, although whether it bears scrutiny and commands support in the party are both questionable. Council tax abolition, lower and middle-end tax cuts, localism...

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The secret life of a party conference devotee (12 September 2008)

The delegates love conference season. But, as the parties get ready for a month of political jamborees, Lewis Baston recounts the experiences of the hundreds of others who travel to Brighton, Birmingham, Blackpool or Bournemouth to meet and greet the political elite each year For the normal political activist – if that is not a contradiction in terms – a party conference is an infrequent treat, a brief and wonderful trip to what amounts to a small town inhabited by people who are politically sympathetic, and an opportunity to meet their party’s star performers. The conference debates, and the myriad meetings, debates and parties of the fringe are exciting, hectic stuff, and the adrenalin will carry one through. But there is a whole other side to party conferences. If you work in public affairs for a cause, a charity, a commercial lobbyist, public sector body or as a political correspondent for the media, the conference season is the definitive end of summer. While the delegate or MP will only attend one conference, some of us go to all three (or more, for those with an interest in Scotland, Wales or smaller parties). Welcome to the sad subculture of the party conference exhibitor. On the road Each party, and each conference town, has its own distinctive atmosphere. Labour in Brighton, and the Conservatives in Bournemouth, are probably the best, and the Lib Dems in Blackpool probably the worst, for entertainment value. Blackpool was perennially unpopular, for its air of dereliction, its chilly grey seas, unreliable train connection at Preston and sometimes squalid hotels. But it had some redeeming features as a conference venue, such as the rattling trams, the splendid Funny Girls drag show and the illuminations. Recently the lamp-posts along the sea front have been adorned with giant illuminated bloodshot eyeballs, which always evoked a smile of recognition from some conference delegates. But Blackpool is no more, replaced by the less quirky charms of Manchester and Birmingham for the two big parties. Their conference centres may be very efficient, and large enough, but something is lost when the party conference is just another big-city event rather than the taking over of a seaside town. Hats off to the Lib Dems for sticking with Bournemouth, which is always a pleasant venue with its warm climate and sandy beaches and its ready supply of cheap and reasonable hotels near the conference centre. The conference season has its own rhythm. The Liberal Democrats, unfortunately for them, go first in mid-September while the political classes are still struggling out of their summer torpor, and the conference is a lot smaller and more earnest than the other two. Labour’s is huge and hectic, and...

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Labour’s problems run deep (19 August 2008)

If a change of leadership can’t help Labour, as today’s poll suggests, there is little the party can do to regain public support Whenever you ask someone what they would do in a hypothetical situation, you should not be surprised if the reality turns out differently when it comes to the crunch. The same is true about the things people tell pollsters. In the run-up to the 1992 election polls regularly found that Labour’s narrow lead under Neil Kinnock became a larger lead when voters were asked how they would behave if John Smith were leader. Just after the election, a Gallup study found that, according to voters, replacing Kinnock with Smith would have been worth about five points to Labour’s share of the vote. In that relatively close election, it would have been enough to make Labour the largest single party in a hung parliament, perhaps not far short of an overall majority. However, while voters (contrary to myth) rarely lie to pollsters, they quite often lie to themselves. Saying they would have supported a Smith-led Labour party in 1992 was a way of reducing cognitive dissonance for people who were not going to vote Labour at all, but felt as if they should. This in turn stored up a massive potential for buyer’s remorse during the 1992-97 parliament. In early 2007 polls started to show that a hypothetical match-up between Gordon Brown and David Cameron would produce a worse result for Labour than under Tony Blair. These polls were tapping into a sense of public weariness with Brown, and uncertainty about the economy, and can be seen as a prelude to the government’s current trough. But perceptions changed, twice in fairly rapid succession in summer and autumn 2007 as Brown first built a good reputation for competence and then destroyed it. Polls about hypothetical situations are not very good at predicting what actually happens when that situation comes to pass, but they can give an insight into how people are thinking about the current state of affairs. The hypothetical question about a David Miliband leadership in this morning’s Guardian-ICM poll indicates it would make very little difference. This suggests that there are not that many people who are put off Labour specifically by Brown’s leadership, and that the problems lie deeper – with the state of the economy and the spread of a “time for a change” feeling. It suggests that there is relatively little that Labour can do or say in the present circumstances to recapture public support. If Miliband did seem to make a difference, then that would indicate not so much that there was decisive public support for him to replace Brown, but a...

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