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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

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