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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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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Fight or flight

Fight or flight

This post originally appeared on Progress Online. North Warwickshire (west Midlands): Mike O’Brien The Conservative majority in the semi-rural constituency of North Warwickshire stands at a slender 54 votes. Explorer and former army officer Dan Byles is standing down after only one term in parliament to ‘pursue new challenges’. North Warwickshire consists of two elements – the solidly Labour town of Bedworth, lying between Nuneaton and Coventry, and a more mixed rural area to the west containing former mining villages and some Birmingham commuter suburbs like Coleshill. Labour did well here in the 2013 county elections and led by 11 points in a poll by Michael Ashcroft. Mike O’Brien is a familiar face in Warwickshire. He gained the seat from the Conservatives in 1992 and represented it for 18 years. He was a minister throughout the Labour government, serving in six different departments. It would not be surprising if he resumed his role as a safe pair of hands in the middle ranks of government after 2015. Cardiff North (Wales): Mari Williams Cardiff North is a mostly middle-class suburban area of the Welsh capital, which seems to have been swinging gradually in Labour’s favour over time. It was represented by Julie Morgan from 1997 to 2010 in Westminster and since 2011 in the Welsh assembly. Her loss was by a small margin on a low swing. Labour’s candidate in 2015 is Mari Williams, locally raised and a former deputy headteacher who has also served on the Fabian Society executive. Labour morale locally will have been boosted by the regain of the assembly seat, good results in the local elections in 2012, and an 11-point lead in an Ashcroft poll. Outgoing Conservative MP Jonathan Evans previously served a term as an MP for another marginal seat, Brecon and Radnor, from 1992-97. Brent Central (London): Dawn Butler Brent Central in north London was a new constituency in 2010, formed from the merger of Brent South (solidly Labour) and Brent East (Liberal Democrat since 2003). Its inaugural contest was between the two members of parliament. Brent East’s Sarah Teather prevailed over Brent South’s Dawn Butler. Teather is standing down after an uncomfortable parliament, having first been elected on a left-of-Labour anti-war vote in 2003 and finding herself in government with the Conservatives. This should be one of the easier Labour gains – local elections and polling by Michael Ashcroft shows Labour over 30 points ahead. Butler is standing again, and should resume her parliamentary career. She was minister for young citizens and youth engagement in the Labour government and may well return to Whitehall with a less clunky title in 2015. Hove (south-east): Peter Kyle The Conservatives won Hove, the genteel section...

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Dark Vistas

Dark Vistas

This post originally appeared on Progress Online Time is running out for two polling phenomena which many have been expecting to kick in before the next general election. The first expected pattern was that the support for insurgent parties would fade as the choice of governments started to loom larger in the electorate’s minds. Thanks to the general slough of despond, and the timing of events like the European elections and the Clacton by-election, there has been little sign of this happening. The United Kingdom Independence party has continued to poll upwards of 15 per cent of the vote, and the Scottish National party and the Green party have been on an upward trend as well during 2014. The combined Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat vote share has hardly hit 80 per cent in the polls this year (it was 90 per cent in 2010). The vote for the others may subside as the election approaches, but this cannot now be regarded as a certainty, merely an unproven possibility. It was also widely expected that the Conservatives would move ahead of Labour once the economy showed signs of improving. The severe economic underperformance of 2010-13 has come to an end, and some polls have shown a huge spike in economic optimism since spring 2013. While Labour’s lead has drifted down from the heights it reached in 2012, this has not been because the Conservatives have regained any support, and the blue line has remained narrowly and stubbornly below the red line on charts of voting intention. The polling trends are following wages and living standards in remaining stagnant. None of the main Westminster parties currently has much wind in its sails. The situation is worst for the Liberal Democrats. They should have started to recover by now, but they still seem to be in decline. The May 2014 local elections were shockingly bad for the party, and its polling numbers are still subterranean – having been overtaken by Ukip they are now in some danger of being overtaken by the Greens. Most observers during this parliament have expected 40-45 of their current 57 MPs to survive, but many such estimates are now being revised down to 30-35. Labour’s performance in Heywood and Middleton was certainly unnerving, even if not quite as woeful as some commentators made out. A tiny increase in the party’s vote share since 2010 is not a good sign. During 2012, Labour achieved some genuinely good results in by-elections, with solid swings from the Conservatives not just with reference to its 2010 election defeat but also compared to its election victory in 2005. Other than in Wythenshawe and Sale East, performance on this yardstick has been...

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Enoch at 100

Enoch at 100

This post originally appeared at Progress Online. Enoch at 100 is not really, as its subtitle claims, ‘a re-evaluation of the life, politics and philosophy of Enoch Powell’, more a rather belated Festschrift. It is an overwhelmingly friendly assessment of its subject. While Tom Bower in his chapter on immigration does not shy away from the necessary criticisms of ‘Rivers of Blood’, the section still argues that Powell had a point even if he ruined the respectability of the argument by the manner in which he put his case. Make no mistake, Enoch at 100 is a case for the defence. As with all edited collections, the contributions vary in quality. The dullest chapters are those that shoehorn Powell into political arguments that have mutated beyond recognition (Europe most notably) since Powell’s death, and attempt to work out what he might have had to say about current debates. The chapters that were securely rooted in their time, such as Andrew Alexander on defence and foreign affairs, were more convincing – although it is hard to reconcile the crudity of Simon Heffer’s argument on Powellite economics with the high quality of his Powell biography. Some of the personal reminiscences were engaging (the two arguably left-of-centre contributors, Frank Field and Anne Robinson, are in this category). Michael Forsyth’s elegant chapter on the constitution quotes Powell’s wonderfully cynical description of the true function of the House of Lords, for which it is almost worth the price of admission in itself. I wish that the book had contained a chapter about Powell’s relationship to party politics, and his attitude to the deployment of low cunning in the service of political goals. Powell was sometimes fastidious about the mucky business of politics, particularly when practised by Harold Macmillan: he called Macmillan’s address to Conservative members of parliament in 1957 that won him the prime ministership ‘devilry’, and was clearly genuinely offended at the political scheming that went on during the leadership contest of 1963. But then, a little later, he plotted with Harold Wilson, in the unsavoury surroundings of the gents’ toilets in the Aye division lobby, to maximise the damage to the Conservatives in the February 1974 general election. Powell rightly rejected the accusation that he was a traitor: ‘Judas was paid! I made a sacrifice’, but doing so makes one wonder whether he was identifying himself with another character in that drama. Powell’s victories were often merely the prelude to painful, slow defeats. By arguing the Tory case so forcefully in 1970, he helped provide Edward Heath with the means to take Britain into Europe. By the narrowness and exclusivity of the nationalism he espoused, and the inflammatory rhetoric he used, Powell...

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