UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Debates - first impressions

We've had the first debate of a campaign that I have argued might change or define the 2010 General Election campaign. I may be wrong. Last night's first debate between the would-be Chancellors was essentially a score draw. Vince Cable scored slightly higher (36%) than Osborne or Darling (both around 33%) but essentially there were no clangers dropped, the time flew and all escaped unscathed. In a sense, the debate was pretty sterile (one Tweet commented that British personalities do not lend themselves to an American style of debating) and merely confirmed all the opinion polling on the public's preference for Chancellor.

We learned too of the great opportunity in the debates for the Lib Dems (the "plague on both your houses" card, along with gentle humour, was a key aspect of Cable's game plan); and we learned that, despite all the excitement of simply having debates, the format is stilted and doesn't allow the opportunity for in-depth argument, comeback or audience opposition. This debate felt pretty controlled, the debaters talking to themselves rather than interacting with the audience in the way that we're used to on Question Time. Six or seven rounds of applause last night. In the real debates between the prospective PM's, even applause will be against the rules. There were a few challenges (one could hardly call them clashes) between the candidates, but we're unlikely to see anything dramatic.

My hunch remains, though, that with over four hours of Leader's debates, in the cut and thrust of a busy campaign, we're likely to see a clanger dropped. It might just prove momentum shifting. The Chancellor's Debate was merely a perfect reflection of where we are.

PREDICTION: Conservative majority of 15

Blair returned to domestic politics today. A decent critique of the Tory putative manifesto. Could have real traction - it neutralises the Blair/Brown feud as an issue, reminds voters that Gordon was once a winner (with Blair, and ensures that the man who onced wooed Middle England is now telling Middle England to have a long hard look at the Tories. They just might.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Moment of Truth

So, first debate tonight. Quick predictions.

This is make or break for George Osborne. The myth of Saint Vince may take a knock tonight, he is a great commentator but he may come unstuck when he is nailed on policy. Darling is likely to enjoy the benefit of low expectations and will focus on the mastery of detail. The media have whipped up an atmosphere, especially in the Tory press, where George Osborne must be seen to succeed and be credible and convincing. If he is not convincing or, worse, if he blunders - then the calls for him to be replaced by Ken Clarke will continue in the right-wing press and Labour will find their prayers answered - Osborne can't be trusted on the economy. Don't take a risk on the Tories.

The debates will decide this election. The polls are so close that the debates now represent a killer weapon for one party and will provide a possibly fatal blow for another. Could be Clegg. Could be Osborne. We're going to find out over the next few weeks who blows this chance.

Osborne took a gamble today pre-announcing his National Insurance tax cut. Osborne is more similar to Brown than both would accept. Brown had his 1p tax cut disaster. Osborne's tax cuts - on inheritance tax (which deferred the Election that Never Was, but actually was a deal for only a twentieth of the electorate) and this NI cut too will both be found out. With the Tories ring-fencing NHS, overseas aid and unlikely to cut defence spending; they have boxed themselves into the position of cutting taxes and the defecit and pledging no cuts to frontline services. All of this puts the Tories back in the election-losing frame of representing major cuts to public services - which has lost them three elections. And Labour and the Lib Dems can now credibly accuse the Tories of announcing a policy today that will result in greater cuts to the public sector. Will the voters buy that?

Stakes high for Osborne then; both on this policy announcement and on his performance today. I predict that the would-be Chancellor who has the most to lose will lose the most tonight.

PREDICTION: Conservative majority of 12

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Osborne in a twist

George Osborne got in something of a twist this morning on Today when explaining the difference between the Tories and Labour on cutting the deficit.

Alistair Darling apparently refused to turn up. The introduction made it look as thought Darling had flunked it. The result - Osborne was forced to explain how he would cut the deficit and the spotlight was on him as prospective Chancellor.

Between Osborne and his interviewer Evan Davis, some interesting points came out.

* Osborne refused to give details of how the Tories will specifically cut the deficit, on the one hand defensively saying "we will set out more detail in our own time, we want to keep the public informed" whilst criticising Labour for having "no credible plan for cutting the deficit".

* Osborne is "waiting for the analysis of the fiscal implications of the budget from the Institute for Fiscal Studies" before setting out details of how the Tories will cut the deficit.

* The Tories will cut "the bulk of the deficit over the next Parliament, which is the same as the Governor of the Bank of England"... and surely the Government who announced, in similar - perhaps more detail - that they plan to cut the deficit by more than half over the next four years.

* Tories will "go beyond cutting the deficit by two thirds" - but he failed to express how. Osborne referred continually to the Tories having a "credible plan", without elaborating. "I am not going to go into the plan today - but people will have further details - people will know what they are voting for. We want a mandate for a government that will cut the deficit and get this economy moving again".

* Evans rightly challenged Osborne that most of the emphasis from the Tories will be on controlling spending, not tackling deficit via taxation. Darling's efforts are focused mainly on controlling spending too, he just can't talk about it: Labour are focusing on 67% of deficit control from spending cuts; Tories focusing on 80% of deficit control on spending cuts. Amounts to £5bn difference in government spending, or 1% of Government spending.

* Osborne: cause of problems "bloated government spending, out of control departments, no proper audit of where money goes in government, poor productivity". What about the bankers and credit crunch?

* Government "cannot convince anyone they have credible plan... need a government that can instil confidence in international community and domestic community". But where is the Tory plan?

* If NHS budget is ring-fenced - what cuts will transport, universities face? IFS anticipates 16 - 25% cuts. "If I had more information about the public finances, it would make it easier".

A pretty poor performance by Osborne. Terribly policy light this close to an election. I can't put it any better than Janet Daly (not a columnist I would normally quote) in the Telegraph:

"What became clear was that the Tories simply were not willing to enunciate any clear, concise distinction between their approach to the economic crisis and that of the Government. Talking in vague terms of energy and vision (time for a change) cuts no ice against the proposition that Labour clearly intends to put at the centre of its election campaign: we are the grown-up, responsible team who have seen you through this crisis - so the last thing you want is change for its own sake."

This could be a key feature of this election campaign. A Labour Party so often pilloried for a lack of substance over spin taken on by a Conservative Party heavy on spin and light on substance. Whoever goes for detail, convincing detail over spin at the debates will gain alot. It may be too late for the Tories, who had enjoyed the complacency of soaring poll ratings for so long, to flesh out the detail now.

PREDICTION: Conservative majority of 15

I am revising my prediction down somewhat. Interesting poll today of marginals: detail in full here:

The first in a series of polls in key marginal constituencies, our new poll for Reuters suggests that the Conservatives are doing slightly better in the marginals than nationally, but not enough to guarantee a majority.

Later polls will track voting intention and turnout in these key battleground areas during the campaign.

Voting intention in these key marginal constituencies is Con 37, Lab 41, LD 11% (among those who are certain to vote). Assuming uniform swing, this would result in a hung Parliament with the Conservatives as the biggest party.

This four point Labour lead represents a 5% swing to the Conservatives in this band of key marginal constituencies, compared to the 4% swing at a national level that we have just recorded on our March Political Monitor.

Nevertheless, everything is still to play for, since almost half the public (46%), and more than a third of those who are certain they will vote, say they may still change their mind about which party to vote for. Labour and Conservative voters are more likely to say they have definitely decided who to vote for (60% and 59% respectively) than Lib Dem voters (23%); this leads a lot of scope for tactical voting by Liberal Democrats, in these constituencies where it could easily be decisive.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Cuts and the Fag End Parliament

Budget Day today and Parliament certainly had the feel of the end of the Parliamentary Session about it. A definite farewell appearance from Darling at the steps of Number 11. And PMQs had the feel of both Cameron and Brown rattling through the arguments as though they can't wait to hit the campaign trail proper. This close to an election, the moment when the power is handed away from Parliament to the people, knockabout in the Commons almost feels irrelevant. It's time to go to the country.

An unnecessary budget today - some important political positioning and some positive news for the Chancellor to tell on the deficit. Today provided him with the opportunity to present the deficit as coming under control, with a cut of £13bn next year. A further announcement today of £11bn of cuts, with individual departments coming up with their cuts contributing to the £11bn. You look at the detail however, and can't help wondering why these savings haven't been found before. Take the Ministry of Justice - savings of £25m on consultancy and procurement and £5m in savings by cutting the Senior Civil Service by 20%. These aren't really cuts, they are the kind of efficiencies that any responsible government department should deliver as a matter of course. Labour's weakness in the cuts now or cuts later debate is that their record on waste is fairly dismal.

So, we have had today more detail from the Government on where its cuts will fall. And a pledge to reduce the deficit by more than half over 4 years. Will we see similar detail from the Tories and Lib Dems? A trickier one for the Tories to handle - they don't want to fall into the trap of being portrayed as willing to cut frontline services, but don't have access to the books to identify and cut the peripheral waste that is contributing to the deficit. That said, the key cause of the deficit was the banking bail-out: it has driven up the deficit to such a level that the Tories can lump in wasteful public spending in a way that would have been too "nasty party" for them two years ago. They had barely mentioned cuts in the Cameron years prior to the meltdown. The City's failings allowed them to go after their core vote-winner of public sector cuts.


William Hill now predicting Conservative majority of 11 - 14. Polls continue to narrow - 5 to 7 points the agreed average. Lib Dems doing very well at 19 - 20, surely due to rise a couple of points if Clegg gets through the debates OK. We need to see a marginal poll to get a better idea of the current projection. Certainly it seems that LobbyGate, Sam Cam's pregnancy and other extraneous issues just don't affect the poll rating. It will take something major to shift the polls from this 7 point average. But this is still very much Phoney War territory - there are sure to be dramatic changes in the polls as the campaign gets going... my hunch is they will continue to narrow. Labour full of surprises.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

You're slightly sleazier than we are

The well trodden battle lines of political party funding are being revisited by the main parties. Once again, it seems to be an argument where all the parties bluster and cry, but noone is guilt free. Everyone has their skeleton in the cupboard and an axe to grind for their political foes.

For Labour: it's the unions. For the Tories: it's Lord Ashcroft. For the Lib Dems: well, the only big donor they ever had turned out to be a crook - unlucky for them. So, David Cameron - after enduring weeks of Ashcroft bashing and an uncomfortable admission that Ashcroft is a non-dom (no surprises there) is now bashing Labour's funding by a major trade union that's threatening a major British Airways strike action. How dare Labour, Cameron asks, receive £11m in funding from such a disruptive force?

What's not been highlighted much in this row is that in bashing the unions, the Tories are back in core vote territory. They need to win seats in the North. Labour seats where there may be many union members or those who may think it's fair enough: a union of thousands of members, all of whom are UK taxpayers, can all club together to pay some of their money to the union and for the union (and the member has a choice here) to donate some of their subscription to the Labour party. To the public at large, once explained (and many target voters for the Tories won't need this explained), this sounds acceptable. Many simply won't buy the kind of chicanery that Greg Hands embarassingly attempted to sustain on Newsnight on Monday evening: namely that Lord Ashcroft's millions from a single non-domiciled, non-UK taxpayer are somehow more (or as, what is their point exactly?) acceptable than thousands of union members chipping into a fund to support a party more inclined with their political viewpoint.

The Tories fire here may be running out - hence Cameron's desire to go strongly on Unite at PMQs today. The strike will probably be averted. And it will become clearer that it is perfectly possible for Unite to fund the Labour Party and to support government policies x, y and z, but still defend the legitimate interests of SOME of its members against the might of British Airways. The argument that Unite are swaying government policy seems a little lost in that context. And if the strike is averted - with the Government spinning the line that they stood firm and resolved the issue constructively whilst the Tories played politics - the Tories may just end up with egg on their face.

The key message in all of this is that this is probably a dead end for all parties. But it shouldn't be: once again, issues of funding and influence are being thrown around by all parties with not much of the mud sticking but everyone looking shabby. A further blow to the credibility of politics and politicians. But they're thrown around in a childish and inconsequential fashion. No party is willing to grapple with the issue, sacrifice something and clean up party funding. And once again, the same tired accusations are wheeled out.

This latest outing proves that the debate hasn't yet moved on from "you're slightly worse than we are" to "how can we clean up funding for good". It is accusation heavy, solution light.


A bad day for Brown. He admitted his error in telling Chilcot that defence spending HADN'T risen year on year. In some years it fell in real terms. Yet to be seen what impact this has. Personally I feel that Chilcot thus far - and Brown's giving of evidence before the election - will neutralise Iraq as an issue at the election. Defence spending is unlikely to be a key issue - there will be others. Brown fessing up may also (also) slightly dent the Tory accusation that he can't be straight with the public. Massively belated, sure - but Brown has for once admitted his error. Cameron's own recognition of this - meant to be damning - that "that's the first time the PM has admitted an error in three years" didn't come across as strongly as he might have hoped. Cameron needs to decide whether to stick the knife in on defence spending - the spectre of using the troops for political gain will probably caution him against that.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Countdown begins...

The countdown really began ages ago. We've been waiting for this general election since Gordon Brown flunked the Election That Never Was back in autumn 2007. The troops were marched to the top of the hill back then, were marched back down again and have been gathering, plotting, self-destructing, re-launching, sleazing ever since. This has been a long-awaited General Election - and it's nearly upon us. May 6th is fast approaching. And politics is back - and interesting again.

For many months the election seemed fairly predictable - with the prospect of a Labour meltdown and an electoral super-swing back to the Tories. Just over six months ago, the thought of a hung Parliament was laughable. To question a Tory majority seemed ridiculous. But the polls are narrowing - and suddenly this has become the most unpredictable election since the mid 1970s.

Comparisons have been made with 1992. In 1992, a tired Conservative Government was rejuvenated under Major and squeaked one of the most impressive General Election results of the twentieth century. It was not unpredictable, but was unpredicted. The exit polls got it wrong. "Shy Tory Factor" concealed the strength of support for Major's Tories in the opinion polls and brewed an ugly complacency in Kinnock's Labour Party. The accepted wisdom of the political class - that the Tories couldn't win, that it was Labour's turn - was thrown out by the electorate.

But 2010 already has the feel of unpredictability. The Tories have a mountain to climb - over 100 seats needed to get a majority of one. On a uniform national swing, the Tories need to hold a lead of 10 points over Labour. Current opinion polls show this averaging at 6 points. Polling from marginal seats suggests that Labour is narrowing the gap there too. In the battle of the personalities, the personality vacuum of Brown has been filled in with the image of a bully but the public don't seem to care. Confidence in Cameron and Osborne appears at best to have reached a glass ceiling, at worst collapsing. The third party is holding its own; and will be given a prominence and credibility higher than any other General Election as the TV debates and prospect of a hung Parliament present Clegg as a serious player.

But does the electorate care? Voter apathy may be at record levels. The majority of the voting public was disgusted by politics and politicians after the expenses scandal. Unmasked during the difficult times of a recession, voters are likely to regard all politicians as sleazy, "on the take" and remote from their needs. With an electoral system that relegates the vast majority of consituencies as sideshows incapable of affecting the overall result - many are likely to feel remote from those elected and powerless to influence the overall outcome of the election. The main parties are likely to fight a battle in 80 or so consituencies for the votes of around 300,000 swing voters.

Opinion polls show a massive sense of pessimism about the General Election result. The majority are sick of Brown - and doubtful that New Labour has delivered. But they are not inspired by Cameron's Conservatives. The Tories have not "sealed the deal" - and have fought a campaign devoid of policy and over-reliant on winning by default. I believe the opinion polls are punishing the Tories for that stance - the people are asking where the beef is. Just as they punished Kinnock's complacency - the public has made it clear that the promise of "change" is not good enough. They want to know the detail - and it may be too late for Cameron to fill in the gaps.

So much for the context. What I want to do with this blog is offer my rolling predictions for the General Election in all its detail - to record my predictions and see if I was right. I want to analyse the content of the campaigns, track the emergence of substance over spin and (where possible) analyse policies to see if they're any good. And above all, I want to analyse how this General Election has contributed to the Return of Politics.

Whatever happens, this election will deliver a massive change in British politics not seen since 1997. I suspect that it will also reveal the depth of disillusionment and disengagement by the British public with its politics and politicians and the deficiencies of its electoral system. Voters will stay at home. But I suspect too that the result will actually strengthen politics - the result will be tight, there may be a small majority or minority government. The public will say: "most of us don't want to vote for you, we find you repulsive, remote and irrelevant... but those of us who have voted aren't as tribal as you anymore... we want a small majority government that is forced to listen to us and an Opposition that isn't destroyed and still has the legs to oppose. We have decided and the jury will remain out". Whoever wins will find it tough.

We didn't get that in 1997, 2001 or 2005 - and political engagement suffered. We may do better in 2010.

PREDICTION: Conservative majority of 20