Category Archives: Elections

Will Oldham change the Labour narrative?

Until yesterday, the media narrative for the Labour party since the general election has been one of unparalleled disaster.  This only increased with the election of the very left-wing Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, a man whose main political work was as a serial rebel and protest march speaker.  Wholly unelectable, rejoiced the largely right-wing media in mock-sepulchral tones.  And he didn't do the things that politicians should do, like pander to the media march - this is a leader who committed the cardinal sin of failing to turn up to an Andrew Marr interview.  Honestly, where were his priorities?

Corbyn hasn't been much of a hit in the Commons, the place where the Westminster village gathers, and has rather annoyed regular Westminster watchers by taking the sting out of Prime Minister's Questions.   He doesn't even seem very interested in Westminster occasions, as if somehow they don't really impact upon his own supporters and voters in the constituencies.

Then, of course, there came the disaster of the Syrian air strikes debate - or more accurately ISIS air strikes debate (or Daesh, or IS, or whatever acronym we choose in the fond belief that they're really very interested in what we call them).  Corbyn, a man of principle even if he does look eternally miserable on television, remained opposed to strikes and wanted his parliamentary party to join him.  An undeniably inexperienced leader, he failed to properly bring his colleagues on side by largely ignoring them, and his media management remains atrocious. He gave a poor if honest speech in the debate, was eclipsed by his own shadow Foreign Secretary but helped by David Cameron's ludicrous mis-step in having spoken about terrorism's fellow travellers.

Yet while the largely hostile media revelled in Mr. Benn's fine speech (most OTT love letter was probably that of Labour refusenik Dan Hodges in the Telegraph) the voters in Oldham West were preparing to deliver a more significant verdict - that of Labour's heartland voters.

Oldham is an early test of Mr. Corbyn's electoral potency.  This may be a man who won a huge grassroots majority in his election as Labour leader, but the depreciation of his image and apparently hopeless attributes as leader have been consistently trumpeted by a hostile media.  Even yesterday, there were serious hopes that Labour would be cuckolded by UKIP in Oldham - take this piece by the Spectator's Sebastian Payne (soon to move to the FT).  Payne even visited Oldham, escaping the Westminster bubble for a day, and his finely tuned village antenna revealed these truths.  That "Corbyn's leadership appears to be dragging the party towards electoral oblivion", that there were signs on the ground that "all is not well for Labour", that UKIP's John Bickley could be the party's second MP and believes "he has struck gold with Jeremy Corbyn".  On it went.  Despite visiting Labour headquarters in Oldham young Mr. Payne still reported that UKIP could win the seat, Corbyn was a disaster on the doorstep, every time John McDonnell spoke he turned more voters towards UKIP.

But who can blame the Spectator's correspondent?  He was hardly alone in his assessment or in his Westminster assumptions that Corbyn was simply not proving up to the task, and a single visit north was not going to alter that.

Then the voters had their say.  It wasn't a big turnout, but at around 40% it was not disastrously small either.  Labour won, and won handily with a 10,000 majority.  And Labour's share of the vote actually increased.  So Jeremy Corbyn, the man who won the Labour leadership with the largest popular vote ever granted a party leader, can actually win parliamentary elections too it seems.  It's almost as if he might actually be in tune with the thinking of supporters of a left-wing party.

The vote on air strikes, too, was instructive.  While there were some headline Labour figures opposing their leader's stance, and much of the media narratvie has been about a wretchedly divided party, only 8 of Labour's 53 new MPs supported air strikes.  The vast majority agreed with Corbyn.

Labour is undoubtedly a party in turmoil.  But their new leader's key attribute is that he reaches well beyond the confines of an insular Westminster village, and the civil war on his parliamentary benches may well be more of an indication of how out of touch the more traditional, or mainstream, MPs are than any suggestion of Corbyn's own isolation.  A Corbyn led party has won a by-election that the common narrative said would be very close or potentially a disastrous loss.  He has won it well.  He keeps the loyalty of his newly elected MPs - and the majority of his shadow cabinet, and the majority of his other MPS - in a highly divisive vote.  When we next read about Jeremy Corbyn in the press, if the narrative doesn't change as a result of Oldham we should at least be highly sceptical of any stories projecting him as an inevitably election losing catastrophe.

And the Tories should sit up and take notice.  While their party gets deeper into revelations of bullying leading to suicide in their retrograde youth movement, they cannot take any comfort from the complacently driven canard that the next general election is theirs for the taking.

Election Notes 1

Ten days to go, and it seems time to update this blog accordingly.  It's not that I've been disinterested in this election - on the contrary, it is fascinating, especially given the uncertain outcome - but time doesn't so far seem to have permitted.

Polls, Polls

There have been more polls than ever before in this election, and for all the slim differences between them they are all pointing to no overall majority for either main party.  Hence, of course, all the chatter about whom might deal with whom on May 8th onwards.  You can take your pick of the various conglomerate polls being issued on a daily basis.  The UK Polling Report comes from a Yougov expert; May2015, the special election site set up by the New Statesman, provides exhaustive polling commentary; and three university academics update their election forecast regularly too.  But the BBC and pretty well all of the press feature regular poll tracking.  In the end, this is a parlour game for observers like us, and once May 8th comes around all of the polls that have been keeping us entertained and fascinated in the election period are reduced to utter irrelevance.

The Forecast - Who Will be PM?

So we can probably guess either Cameron or Miliband, barring a sudden change in party leader to facilitate better coalition deals, but which one of them eventually governs from No 10 is virtually impossible to predict, and may still be a mystery several days beyond the election.  Given the likely outlay of votes for their own parties, the next PM will have to be the one who is most likely to garner a workable coalition, and it has to be said that Ed Miliband does look a more likely bet than David Cameron.  The problem for Cameron is that there is only one party he can realistically do a deal with, and that will be the much reduced Lib Dems.  Even that opiton is hardly a certainty.  For all the success of the Coalition, a large group of Tory MPs have been consistently chafing against it and might be expected to try and torpedo any future arrangement.  From the Lib Dem side, many of their activists have been similarly put off any more coalitions, especially given the look of their own reduced circumstances in parliament as a result.  Add to this the uncertainty of Nick Clegg's return to the Commons, or that of the only other feasible Lib Dem leader who would favour coalition with the Tories, Danny Alexander, and even the Lib Dem option doesn't look particularly good for Cameron. A Tim Farron leadership, for example, would be much more susceptible to Labour's wooing.  Cameron's best chance of governing is obviously to achieve a majority, but present polling evidence suggests this is well nigh impossible.

Ed Miliband, conversely, has a number of options to consider.  As well as the Lib Dems, he can rely on some acquiescence from the SNP, however much he may try and puncture the idea pre-election.  Any Green or Plaid Cymru MPs might similarly be inclined to give a Miliband government a working chance, as would Northern Ireland's SDLP MPs.  The May 2015 site considers the options in a detailed look at likely seat outcomes here.  Dan Hodges in the Telegraph takes issue with their reasoning here.

A Question of Legitimacy

British prime ministers have rarely encountered problems of legitimacy, but the tightness of this race, and the prospect of a second placed Ed Miliband taking office has certainly produced some debate about whether a leader who is placed second in both votes and seats would be legitimate.  The New Statesman's George Eaton considers the dilemma here, while the Guardian's Jonathan Freedland seeks to challenge the narrative of legitimacy here.  On the BBC site, meanwhile, James Landale offers up several scenarios on legitimacy.  The most conicse, and most robust, response, however, is probably that stated by Dan Hodges.  He says simply (and accurately):

The rules of our political system are clear. We were offered a chance to change them in 2011, and we politely declined. All that matters is the parliamentary arithmetic. If Ed Miliband has enough votes to win a confidence motion, and David Cameron does not, Ed Miliband is prime minister. No caveats. No debates. No “battles over legitimacy”. If Miliband wins, he wins.

Electoral Domesday – could the next government be the second and fourth placed parties?

It was conventional wisdom that the AV referendum in 2011 had effectively 'parked' the issue of electoral reform for a generation or so.  Just, of course, as it was conventional wisdom that the Scottish referendum would also 'park' the issue of Scottish independence.  Neither of these wisdoms look very secure now.  In the case of Scotland, the problem was that the referendum was never allowed to run its proper course as with a week to go David Cameron and his fellow English party leaders changed the issue to something that wasn't on the ballot paper - gerrymandering of a high order.  In the case of electoral reform, Professor John Curtice's interesting figures look as if they too could bring the issue of reform firmly back into the main stream - and, since they were published by the Electoral Reform society that's probably what they were intended to do.

Professor Curtice notes that the key factor for success in the First Past the Post system is the geographic concentration of votes, and he further adds that this is effectively undermining the national claim of the system to be a "winner takes all" one.  His findings (full report here; Electoral Reform summary here) suggest the possibility of a Labour Party which comes second in votes securing the highest number of seats, and being shoehorned into government by an SNP which may well have come only sixth in terms of UK-wide votes, but have enough seats to secure Labour a majority in a coalition.

Curtice looks at the relative prospects of the smaller parties, on whom much of the election outcome will depend, and finds that the SNPs geographic concentration of votes could well propel them into winning significantly higher numbers of seats than the more geographically spread UKIP, even if UKIP scores significantly more votes.  To add to the possible post-election chaos is, of course, the fact that not only will SNP MPs only hail from one part of the UK, but - since the notorious devolution 'vow' - it is part with barely any domestic issues actually decided at Westminster.

Curtice discussed his report on the 'Today' programme (scroll in to around 45.55 minutes) and it makes fascinating listening.  No longer is the issue of whether FPTP throws up another coalition the only point of discussion.  Just as crucial, given the SNP surge in support (largely at Labour's expense in Scotland) is the question of who the coalition might actually comprise.  Thus, to the disproportionality of FPTP is added the unresolved headache of an incomplete devolution settlement.

If this looks like an issue of unfairness to the main parties - and I suspect it is the Tories who would make the most ground on this - then they might like to reflect that their own leaders have led them to this potential impasse.  All three leaders were guilty of panicking att he sight of the Scottish referendum polling figures, and unforgivably altered the basis of the referendum with no thought to the consequences.  In addition, only Clegg campaigned for reform of the Westminster system when he argued for the AV option in the referendum, although his acceptance of a hopelessly skewed referendum question (which only posited AV as an alternative, rather than the principle of proportionality) showed, at best, considerable political naivety.  David Cameron and the rest of the Conservative Party, meanwhile, have consistently failed to consider the inequities of the FPTP system, and then fell foul of their coalition partners in the tit-for-tat of blocking Lords reform (the Conservatives) and constituency boundary changes (the Lib Dems).

Whatever mess emerges after the next election, it is an irony that the men responsible for its genesis will also be the ones charged with resolving it.

MP Resigns Seat and Gets Elected Again For Same Seat

In some respects that really is it.  Clacton has re-elected its old MP to continue being its MP.  Douglas Carswell had always been an active and energetic constituency MP with a high profile, and the recent by-election has proved it.  He is also too well versed in constitutional and parliamentary lore not to be aware that voters essentially are meant to select the man and not the party.  There was in fact no real reason for him to resign at all, but then where would have been the splash, and the fun, in that?

Of course the UKIP factor is important, but it would be foolish to deny the impact that Carswell the ex-MP, candidate, and new MP, had on the by-election in Clacton.  He himself acknowledged that the result in Labour Heywood and Middleton represented a much more significant achievement for UKIP - though not, it should be added, one that actually brought them a seat. Again.  It will be interesting to see if the less well-entrenched  Mark Reckless can pull off a similar feat in Rochester and Strood.  If he does, it might start to look like a UKIP bandwagon, and it will certainly look like one that deals more hammer blows at the Tories than it does at Labour.

But by-election mania is nothing new.  Nick Robinson, in his prescient blog post on the Clacton result and the "Rise of UKIP", references the SDP of the 1980s, and he might have gone on to note that - like UKIP today - the SDP won huge by-election victories, which unlike UKIP took seats from both parties, but like UKIP relied quite heavily on personality politics to do so.

 UKIP - and more particularly Carswell - have done well.  They have made history.  Whatever the panicked reactions of the main parties though (and Scotland showed us how good they are at panicking at every polling opportunity) UKIP isn't yet on a roll, and their speciality does seem to be victory on low turn-outs (the European elections, a 51.2% turnout in Clacton and a mere 36% in Heywood).  They make a lot of noise, cause weak leaders to worry, and fill a lot of space in the 24-hour news cycle.  But they're not a mould-breaking phenomenon yet, any more than the SDP were.