UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Last chance saloon

Very quick blog on the final debate.

First off, it has been amazing how these debates have shaped the election. Lagging massively behind at the start of the campaign, the Lib Dems have surged hugely since the first debate. They have become major players. They have pushed Labour into the nightmare scenario of third place. Labour hoped for second place and a hung parliament - they now face a huge battle to avoid third place in this election. Yesterday's gaffe did not help.

The story of the debates has been the surge for the Liberal Democrats. It has changed an election in which we thought that Labour would rally and deprive the unconvincing Tories of an overall majority.

Instead, the campaign - after the first debate - was thrown into a three way campaign not seen in British politics for generations.

I suspect tonight will confirm what we've seen before. Clegg and Cameron the slick, convincing agents of change. Brown the, perhaps substantial... but ignored and forgotten leader of a party that has run out of steam and is no longer being listened to. The Labour spinners in the media centre will appear as tired and out of touch as their leader.

I suspect the debates have already set the course. But Cameron has the opportunity, at the business end of this election, to come through as the solid candidate for Prime Minister. Clegg has shown his novelty value. Brown has been nowhere. To win his majority, Cameron needs to cut through the style and novelty of the last debates and give the electorate a reason to vote for a Tory majority next week.

I doubt he will do it. For the reasons I've already set out, this will most likely be another narrow win for Cameron, but still failing define themselves after wasted years in Opposition. Failing quite to shake off the unseen, unpredicted second party. The Liberal Democrats. And setting us up next week for the Tories falling agonsingly short of a clear majority.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament, Tories short of majority by 5.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

A disastrous gaffe

A game-changing moment? There have been plenty of microphone gaffes by politicians over the years, but Gordon Brown's gaffe today is extremely significant in this election campaign. Why?

Brown's gaffe reveals many of the weaknesses that many suspect about him and were confirmed in the back of that car today. Fatally, Brown was revealed as completely duplicitous. One of the untold stories of this campaign is how unconvincing Brown is in his interactions with voters. Just as he cannot seem to master the presentational aspects needed to win the debates, so he cannot master the charm and human interaction with voters on the streets. His decision to allow Sky News to fix a microphone on him was already fairly painful with his forced "Hello, nice to see you's" as he's gone from one Asda supermarket to another. And today, he was busted saying one thing to a voter and then denouncing the encounter as a "disaster" and the placid voter as "bigoted" as soon as he got out of sight of the voters. Tragically, he'd actually won her over. But thin-skinned Brown didn't see it that way.

It was blatantly duplicitous. We've seen the fixed Brown smile before when explaining away the Election That Never Was or denying any involvement in the Damian McBride email scandals. We've seen Brown running away from the Lockerbie decsion, denying copying Tory policy on inheritance tax, the 10p tax row and pretending to like Tony Blair. Brown is now a politican defined by his inability to be straight with the voters, a line that - to their credit - the Tories shaped from day one of Brown's premiership. He batted off some fairly disastrous allegations of bullying in Andrew Rawnsley's recent valedictory on the Labour Party - noone quite believed him.

Today's gaffe made flesh Brown's weaknesses. Duplicitous. Not straight with the voters. A man who has never stood for serious election. Prone to temper tantrums. Unable to take responsibility - look how he blamed one of his advisors. Unable to face up to his mistakes and even a liar: even after his painful forty minute visit to Mrs Duffy, he claimed he'd "misunderstood the question". That is a lie - he understood it perfectly well. In his comic appearance on Radio 4, he decided to portray Mrs Duffy as an immigration-obsessed lunatic, though she had asked a broad range of questions on the deficit, education and crime - he now looks fatally out of touch with working class voters on immigration. And, cringe-time, out came the YouTube fake smile on Mrs Duffy's doorstep after his already cringe-worthy apology dash.

The most damaging aspect laid bare is Brown's total lack of credibility. When he next goes out on the streets meeting voters, who will take him seriously? Today's incident laid bare the Labour party's fatal decision to allow Brown a clear run at the leadership in 2007. With a different leader, one with the Prime Ministerial credentials of warmth, empathy, powers of persuasion, charisma and credibility, the Labour party would be doing far better in the polls. Brown was a sorry, laughable sight today - a man who scarcely believes himself that he is fit to be PM. The decision to knock on Mrs Duffy's door and apologise only served to make Brown look more unfit for office.

Tetchy, tired and lacking in credibility - it's time for Brown to go. And as each Labour Minister is wheeled out to defend the indefensible - they look more and more out of this campaign. Mrs Duffy will be a key part of the history of Gordon Brown's premiership - as the moment we really knew it was all over.

Third place for Labour looks a lot more likely tonight than it ever has before in this campaign.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament, Conservatives short by 5

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Who's at most risk from Clegg?

Spooked by the Lib Dem surge over the last two weeks, both Labour and the Conservatives have rushed to spook voters thinking of voting yellow on May 6th. Flirt with Clegg, say Labour, and you end up married to David Cameron. Vote Clegg, say the Tories, and you'll wake up with Gordon Brown in Downing Street on May 7th.

Both Labour and the Conservatives are trying to spook voters away from the Lib Dems. There aren't many facts, it all hinges on impossible calculations and predictions, but it does seem clear that the Lib Dem surge should hold until polling day. They're holding steady at around 29% in national polls. But the polling figures also show that of those who are saying they will vote Lib Dem, 27% say they may change their minds. Labour and Conservative voters are more decided, with only 15% saying they may change their minds.

So what do you get if you vote Clegg? Perhaps the right question to ask is which of Labour and the Conservatives has the most to lose from the Clegg surge?

The big worry for the Tories is that a Lib Dem surge puts out of reach the 30 Lib Dem / Conservative marginal seats that Cameron needs to win to tick off the easiest of the 118 seats required for an overall majority. The Tory strategy has long been based on winning the vast majority of these Lib Dem seats. It now appears likely that the Lib Dems will hold the vast majority of those seats.

For the Tories, this is a major headache. It means that Cameron now has to win seats outside his target list of 118. It means Cameron needs to win harder Lib Dem seats requiring even greater swings and Labour seats, many of which are in the North. And the figures for the Tories in the North don't look good. Labour may be behind in the national polls (and collapsing in the South at 17% of the vote), but the Labour vote is holding up in the North at 40% compared with Mr Cameron's 24% (the Lib Dems are a steady 29%). Seats such as Leeds North East and Ellesmere Port near Liverpool look unlikely to fall to the Conservatives given their current regional projections. The Tories are realising this, claiming rather transparently that they were "extending the battleground" to Labour held seats outside their target list of the most winnable seats. It represents a major change in tactics for a party that has poured money into around 130 target seats since at least 2007.

The Lib Dems threaten the Tories everywhere, looking likely to hold on in the Conservative / Lib Dem marginals and taking away valuable votes in the North with a healthy share of the vote. Crucially of all the parties, the Lib Dems have their support spread evenly across the country, with 32% support in the South and Midlands and just 27% their lowest vote share in London. Labour on the other hand crash to 17% in the South, but soar to 40% in the North. The Tories hold firm at 40% in the South, Midlands and London, but have their own crash to 24% in the North.

There is a chance that the Lib Dem surge may help the Tories in the North. If Labour leak votes to the Lib Dems and Tories in equal measure, in some seats it may let the Tories in if they're already in second place. But if the Tories don't make in-roads to the Lib Dems in the South, then it will be serious squeaky-bum time for Cameron in the North. My hunch is that he will do better than some expect outside the Tory 118 seat comfort zone, winning seats as far down the list as the 150s... but that the strength of the Labour vote will leave Cameron just short of his overall majority.

Of course, the Tories are being noisiest about the dangers of a hung parliament and of voting Clegg. The IMF will be called in, they say. You'll wake up on May 7th and Gordon Brown will still be here. None of the disaster scenarios spelt out in the Tories rather panicky (and riskily negative) election broadcast this week will come to pass.

For Labour, the danger is not so much Vote Clegg, Get Cameron. The danger is if too many vote Clegg, you get Labour meltdown. But it's a tricky balance. They know that the more who vote Clegg, the more likely their best scenario - a hung parliament - will be. No serious Labour Minister could have expected to win this election. From the start, they have been in John Major "damage limitation" mode. The size, or lack of, Cameron's majority matters greatly to them. But coming third in share of the vote and matching the depths of Michael Foot's 28% after his "longest suicide note in history" is seriously bad news for the Labour recovery post May 7th. It may even deprive them of the right to be Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition. They will want Clegg to do well, but not too well.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament - Conservatives short by 5

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Is anyone listening to Labour?

Labour has tonight released a letter to the press urging for a greater focus on policy over presentation in the remaining 10 days of the campaign.

the focus on the debates, both the process surrounding
them, and the polling before and after which they have attracted, has
dramatically reduced the amount of airtime dedicated to the scrutiny of
the policies of the parties. This is particularly so in the case of the
main bulletins which remain the main source of news for many people.

Is this fair? Or is it desperation from a party struggling to be listened to.

By all of this, the Labour Party mean that the debates have turned the election into a style contest - they can't say that, but it's what they mean. Certainly there has been an incredible focus on the debates - in part because they were new, in part because of the success of Nick Clegg in the first debate which has turned the polls around and pushed Labour into third place. But I would also argue that they've generated huge interest not so much because of Nick Clegg's own performance, but because an election with a tired incumbent party and a yet to be convincing opposition had ample space for a third challenger. And once viewers saw a vision of three party politics - they rather liked it.

True, much of the coverage of the debates has focused too much on style. The Sky News build up had frequent clips from body-language experts and regular analysis on language (but not substance) from Joey Jones with slow-mo coverage of every aspect of their body language too. The post-match instant polling gives an instant reaction and dominates the coverage after the debates.

But the debates are 90 minutes of relentless focus on policy. There is nothing but policy in that hour and a half. The analysis may venture too far on style at times, but these are four and a half hours of primetime in-depth policy discussion that we've never had at an election before. And they are pulling in the viewers. Next week's debate is likely to top ten million viewers. That's a hefty amount of policy coverage that no previous election has seen.

Labour claim that the Tories and Lib Dems agree with them that the debates focus too much on style. They probably do. But they've crucially won, or drawn, a debate. And they won their debates by getting their message across through the vital mix of style and substance. You may not agree with Cameron on Europe. But he got the substance across on this and other issues, and the instant verdict of the public was that he won. You take the electorate for fools if you think they just voted on whether they liked Clegg's tie or Cameron's haircut.

In all of this, Brown and Labour are not facing up to reality. All successful political leaders, wherever they are, need to mix a combination of style and substance. Brown attempted to rise above it all right at the start of last week's debate - "if these are about style, then count me out". That may be tempting, but Brown can't just opt out of the laws of politics. You need people to agree with you. But, first, you need people to understand and listen to you.

If you could be bothered to listen to him and see beyond the rictus smile, I actually thought Brown did win on Thursday. But noone was listening anymore. And for those who were, his clunking style got in the way of that. Cameron and Clegg are clearer and more effective communicators. Brown is suffering from the terrible consequences of being a poor communicator and peddling a message that people are tired of listening to. And the debates have accentuated that, but not created it.

Labour badly need to be listened to - they are in danger of becoming entirely peripheral to this campaign. Rather than moaning about it, they need to sort out their communication problems. Wheeling out an Elvis impersonator on Saturday, after hyping it for hours beforehand on Twitter; probably isn't the way to get out of the rut.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament, Conservatives short by 5

Friday, 23 April 2010

It's not a knockout

The dust has settled on the second leader's debate. The frenetic, rather pathetic, spinning from each of the parties after the debate has died down - where each party rushed out to claim victory. Spin alley was pretty undignified the first time round. Last night it made most of the party reps look fairly foolish.

As predicted by this blog, the second debate was pretty much a draw. Some polls showed Cameron the winner. Others Clegg. But the margin of "victory" was always pretty small. Brown lagged behind by a few points, but there was no clear winner. For the second time, noone gaffed. But this debate was feistier than the first, because it mattered so hugely - more than the first debate and more than the final debate.

Brown did rather well. He came third in most of the polls but if the assessment was purely on the basis of his performance, what he said, how he came across (and in comparison with the first debate) - it was a dramatic improvement. He was on top of the policy and gave the kind of competent answers on foreign policy that you'd expect of a sitting Prime Minister. He doesn't agree with Nick anymore, but I actually thought Brown sneaked his way back into the game a little bit. The trouble is that it's too late. People have stopped listening. In reality, Brown has been knocked out of these debates. He's clearly uncomfortable with the format, struggling to look as at ease as Cameron and Clegg. He may be good on the substance, but he won't persuade in this format because he simply can't come across as fresh, new, slick and engaging in the same way that the others can. Like it or not, this is a TV contest like the X-Factor, and he has been knocked out of the debates, if not yet the election as a whole.

Clegg survived. This was a solid performance. He didn't gaffe. He was the best at engaging with the audience, at telling a convincing anecdote (as opposed to Brown's pre-rehearsed bathtime "gag" and Cameron's lame story about being left behind on his morning jog). Clegg comes across as not trying to hard. He also never lets either Cameron or Brown get away with anything, always jumping in with his rebuttal. He neatly side-stepped an out of order question from Boulton on the half-baked Telegraph story. He held his own on Trident. On Europe, Cameron failed to land a blow on the EU Treaty referendum and succeeded in highlighting Cameron's dodgy coalition of Euro loonies in Brussels. He was convincing in claiming the EU wasn't perfect, but a necessity of an inter-dependent world that the UK needs credibly to engage with.

Cameron held out for a draw, maybe sneaked a win. But the main mission for him was to win big and burst Nick Clegg's bubble. He did not manage to do that. I was amazed to see that he had been declared the winner. At times, Cameron was almost marginalised by Brown and Clegg and his eyes flickered nervously and shiftily when he was attacked. His rebuttals lacked punch. He showed the most anger when attacking Brown's leaflets - this looked petulant and self-centred. But he was much better and more commanding than last week. Cameron looked more prime ministerial. But he has not commanded the debates and constantly looks as if he is stunned and looks like the bewildered favourite that the outsiders have left behind.

So, there was no knockout punch from anyone on anyone. Two debates down, there is now solid evidence that Brown isn't any good at them, Clegg is rather good at them, and Cameron is not as good as we thought he'd be at them. The third debate is unlikely to change that.

For Cameron, he must now find a way of reining in the Lib Dems in the next two weeks. I doubt that the final debate will do that definitively. The Tories looked desperate in claiming that a Hung Parliament would lead to the IMF being called in. It's also clear the Conservative HQ are mobilising smear campaigns against Clegg in the Tory press. They need to stop that nonsense and focus on ruthlessly clarifying the Tory message over the next two weeks - spelling out in clear terms why the Conservative package, by which I mean its policies and its people (not its philosophies) deserve a cross on the ballot paper in 13 days time.

Going negative is not the way back for Cameron.

PREDICTION: HUNG PARLIAMENT - Conservatives short by 10 of overall majority

Thursday, 22 April 2010

A score draw

A very quick blog on tonight's debate. This debate will define the campaign. A win for Clegg will cement the Lib Dem lead. A defeat, a gaffe or a clanger from Clegg will puncture the Lib Dem bubble for good. Watch for headlines like "flash in the pan"... basically putting Clegg back in his box for the rest of the campaign.

Another lacklustre, struggling performance for Brown will put the Labour party to bed for the election. Downbeat, almost invisible, in the last debate... Brown needs to elevate himself and get involved in the action. If he's nowhere, then the Labour vote will remain pitifully below 30%. Disastrous for Labour.

Cameron. All the pressure is on Cameron. He needs to find a way of dealing with Clegg without compromising all the work he's done since 2005 on dragging the Tories into the centre ground. Attack Clegg too much and it risks looking like a lurch to the right. Especially on foreign policy topics where basically the public has disagreed with Cameron on Iraq and Afghanistan... and where he can be exposed as breaking his "cast iron guarantee" on the Lisbon Treaty.

I doubt Clegg will do as well as last time. Cameron and Brown need to watch out for too blatantly copying Nick Clegg's technique... Brown is the favourite to stare awkwardly into the camera a la Clegg. But Clegg is likely to be able to pitch a good enough line on Iraq and Afghanistan to stay safe.

Cameron needs not to attack Clegg, but to give people a reason to vote Tory. The lack of difference between Labour and the Conservatives on foreign policy will make this difficult. Cameron needed this debate to be one where the are clear dividing lines between the parties. Unfortunately for him, the biggest dividing lines will be with the Lib Dems. Cameron risks appearing like Brown, whilst arguing that Brown would be a disaster.

My prediction? Cameron and Brown will be desperate. There is a chance of a big clanger from one of them. We've also seen Cameron recover from a dire situation before. He may tonight prove his bouncebackability once and for all and put in a serious performance. My hunch, though, given the subject matter will be a score draw. No clear winner tonight, setting it all up intriguingly for the last debate.

PREDICTION: Conservatives short of majority by 20

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Cameron: not HD-ready

Another poll puts the Lib Dems in the lead. We've yet to find out whether this is a bubble that will burst before polling day. Just as Cameron held a more commanding lead when an election seemed a long way off, we might find that the Clegg bubble bursts closer to polling day. But the fact that it's lasted a week should have the Tories mighty scared.

I try in this blog to forecast some of the key things that will happen in the future. It now looks more likely than at any point in the last Parliament that a hung parliament will be the outcome on 7 May. Opinion polls indicating national swing are totally irrelevant in all polls but especially this poll. So, before May 6th, I will be publishing predictions in full for every seat in the country. This is the only way that anyone can come up with an accurate prediction.

If it is to be a Hung Parliament - the knives will be out for Cameron on May 7th. How did the Tory leader not secure an outright win against a hapless, much hated Prime Minister going for a fourth term, after the world's biggest economic crisis.

Here are some of the mistakes that I think Cameron has made and is continuing to make:

1. It's all about him Since the start, it has all been about Project Cameron, the Cameroons, Cameron's Conservatives. Cameron tried to make it about him, because he judged that the Conservative brand was too toxic. So he focused the change on presentation rather than substance. He changed Marathon to Snickers without explaining in detail what was changing inside. This fatally played into...

2. The Heir to Blair The Tories had been dealt three election defeats by Tony Blair. You can't blame them for copying Blair. Cameron, from the start, modelled himself on Blair. His personal and political admiration for Blair has been well documented. Perhaps one of the best things Labour could do is to bring out Tony Blair to remind voters that, first, Cameron isn't anywhere near as good as Blair was and, second, most voters are pretty sick of the Presidential style of Blair. But this overt attempt to copy Blair forever risked the Cameron project being about style over substance. Blair at least filled in some of the gaps. Too often, Cameron is caught talking vaguely about values, and "change" without specifying what "change" he would offer in practical terms.

3. The Big Society risks turning into a big flop. Already activists are saying that it's a hard sell on the doorstep. This will surely be judged as a huge strategic mistake. The 2005 Conservative strategy of focussing on 5 key policies (I can nearly remember them now: clean hospitals, controlled immigration, school discipline) may have failed on the substance, but at least you know what their priorities were. This election, when it really matters, the Conservatives have chosen to hide their probably very good policies under the cloud of a vague "Big Idea". Apart from anything, it's massively ambitious and it puts the focus on what the individual can do rather than what government can do. That might be a good approach after an election, but not when voters are looking specifically to elect a government on the basis of what they would do.

4. Where are the Shadow Cabinet? They may be somewhere, but they are nowhere near well known enough, credible enough or prominent enough at this stage in an election campaign. It is quite absurd for its prospective Chancellor - at the end of an economic crisis and with debt the key policy challenge of the next Parliament - to be virtually invisible. It makes the Tory campaign a sort of cardboard cutout. You have Dave, but beyond the man himself you struggle to identify what else there is. Voters need a wide base of evidence if you're going to seal the deal with them. A one-man band is not enough. At this stage in 1997, we knew Blair, Brown, Straw, Blunkett, Cook. We knew the whole package we were getting.

5. A Hung Parliament "would be bad" I may be wrong, but this line of attack to stem the Lib Dem surge seems a huge tactical mistake, and one that reflects all of the problems I've outlined. The point of an election campaign is to persuade people what you stand for, why the should vote for you. Claiming that "Five more years of Gordon Brown" or an "indecisive Hung Parliament" would be bad is not enough. It assumes that the electorate are willing to swap whenever the incumbent is looking dodgy. A fatal flaw neatly summed up by Marina Hyde on the campaign trail.

"Do you want another five years of Gordon Brown?" he asked. The crowd gave up a huge chorus of "No!" "Or do you want real change with the Conservatives?" he continued rhetorically. That only three or four obliged with a "Yes!" seems the most sledgehammer of metaphors for his current difficulties – yet it was so.

6. The future once? Not his fault, but Cameron has been in the job too long. Always a challenge to appear new when you've been attacking the Government for so long. But a greater focus on policy, rather than opposing, in the election campaign might have made people listen again.

A range of problems. But when, or if, there's a post mortem on why the Tories didn't get their majority - it will surely be that they just weren't HD ready. People wanted to change channel, but the picture was all a little bit fuzzy.

PREDICTION: Conservatives short of overall majority by 10

Monday, 19 April 2010

He was the future once

Wow. We never quite thought that the TV debates could have such an explosive effect on this General Election campaign. But the dust has settled, and the Lib Dems seem to be establishing some kind of poll increase of around 7%. They are unlikely to finish the campaign above 30%. But a final share of the vote of 27% or 28% seems entirely possible.

This is devastating for the Tories. Their entire strategy relied on snatching the 30 or so Lib Dem / Conservative marginals in the South West and South East. That now seems in serious danger. The Lib Dems are simply not going to lose all the target seats for the Conservatives in Cameron's crucial list of 118 marginals he needs to get his majority of one. Many of them were already going to be difficult. The likes of Chris Huhne, for example, occupies a marginal seat in Eastleigh near Southampton. But candidates such as Huhne - and others in the Tories' crucial list of 118 seats - are often seen as "sticky". I didn't think they'd shift before Clegg's barnstorming debate performance. They certainly won't now.

So, the key change is that it now appears more likely that we will have a Hung Parliament. The strong Lib Dem polling is encouraging Cameron to claim that a vote for Clegg is a vote for Brown. A foolish strategy. The whole reason Cameron is behind is his failure to properly clarify and explain what a Tory vote means. What do you get if you vote Cameron? For too long, he has pitched what a Tory vote doesn't mean. It means you don't get five years of Gordon Brown. Nick Clegg is right to say that, in the post-Blair age, tha vacuousness simply doesn't wash anymore.

Cameron faces a big headache for the next debate. Attack Clegg and he risks attacking the most popular politician since Churchill. He also risk attacking him on the issues that he's tried to drag his party to the centre ground on. Too much bashing of Clegg's wishy-washy liberalism could turn off the very Lib Dem voters he needs to win in his marginal seats. He has to pull of the difficult trick of claiming on the need for decisive government. A real mandate. If he'd properly clarified the Cameroonian project, that would be easily done. But he's still colouring in the gaps. Still struggling to explain the "big society". He has been out-Cameroned by Clegg. He no longer feels new. The line "he was the future once" could well turn out to be the epitaph on Cameron's campaign for a decisive mandate.

In a sense, Cameron was a victim of his own failure to "fix the Tory roof when the sun was shining". For too long, Cameron's strategy relied on Brown and the Labour party self-destructing. Major's 1992 election victory couldn't be pulled off by Labour could it? No, it couldn't. But a Lib Dem surge will give Cameron a mighty headache between now and polling day.

Best strategy? Give Clegg enough rope to hang himself. 18 days is a long time in politics. Cameron needs a Clegg gaffe to recover the ground. He's unlikely to lay a glove on him otherwise. Just ask Tony Blair and Gordon Brown - they'd been dealing with it until January this year.

PREDICTION: Conservatives short of overall majority by 10

Friday, 16 April 2010

So, what will change?

A big night last night. It feels like the morning after a cup final or even an election itself. Nick Clegg's team will perhaps feel as though they did win a cup final last night. Widely declared as the winner - for whatever reason - Clegg and the Lib Dems will be feeling high as kites this morning after last night's success. It could not have gone better.

Just take this morning's headlines. Long complaining of being squeezed out of the debate or overshadowed by events, not even the closure of the entire UK airspace bumped Clegg off the headlines. "Clegg comes of age" shouted the Telegraph. "Clegg smashes two-party system" claimed the Independent.

Make no mistake, last night's debate will have changed our politics. Leaders debates will always now be a feature of our General Elections. Many worried the debates would be too sterile. Lack of audience participation aside, they weren't sterile. They were a good cross between the organisation of American debates and the cut and thrust of PMQs.

The biggest change - and the reason why Nick Clegg did so well - was because last night was a glimpse of a bigger politics than the two-party system we've been saddled with for generations. Clegg was allowed to speak and not be heckled or jeered at by the unfairness of the House of Commons system. We saw a politics that wasn't just about a choice between Labour and the Conservatives. Three arguments as opposed to two was exciting. And you got the sense that Nick Clegg represented all those who wanted to break into the political system, to put their view across, be listened to and empowered to make a difference.

But it was just a glimpse. What will it change? In the first post debate poll, Sky had the Tories on 35%, Labour on 27% and the Lib Dems on 26%. At a general election, this would translate in to Labour losing 100 seats, Tories gaining 82 seats and the Lib Dems gaining 17. It would leave the Conservatives a whopping 38 seats short of an overall majority. It is crazy to think that, even if they gained more than a quarter of the percentage of the vote, the Lib Dems would still have less than a sixth of the MPs in the Commons. The most damaging aspects of two-party politics - in the electoral system - must surely be changed. Without doing so, we are short-changing the electorate. People don't vote Lib Dem because they think they won't get in - we need to reform the voting system so that it gives every party the chance for their percentage of the vote to be fairly reflected in the number of seats it has.

These debates need to act as the spur for real electoral reform. If a majority gave Clegg the win, it was probably as much a vote against two-party politics as it was a vote for Clegg. Bold government needs to ask the people whether it is time for a change to our electoral system as well as the government we select.

What else will change? The Lib Dems are certain to get a bounce from the debate. Clegg may feel sobered this morning by the fact that he still has two more to get through. But a win is a win, and the Lib Dems will generate momentum in the polls. I wouldn't be surprised to see the Lib Dems pushing 25 or 26% in the next poll. This would have a catastrophic effect on the Tories strategy to win their 118 marginal seats, 30 of which are Lib Dem held. They need all of them - and every increase in the Lib Dem vote puts Cameron's majority at risk. The Lib Dem's gains are likely to be at Labour's expense - and Labour could slip below 30% at the next poll.

Last night was fascinating. What is fascinating now is the effect of the debates on the polls. Last night appears to have made a Tory outright majority less likely. But the proof will be in the polls we get tonight - and whether Clegg can keep this effort up.

As for Brown? I can't remember one thing he said last night. Clearly in third place, he needs to make sure he doesn't slip to third in the overall polls too.

PREDICTION: Hung Parliament - Conservatives short by 10

Thursday, 15 April 2010

An historic moment awaits in all campaigns and this campaign

Tonight will be a historic night in UK General Elections. For the first time, the leaders of the three main parties - Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Nick Clegg - will debate, live, with each other on national television. For an hour and a half, they will be under intense scrutiny; the media and the public on the look out for every word, gesture, killer line, gaffe, glance at the watch, blush...

The fact that we're having these debates probably reflects just how close this election is. Tony Blair refused to debate in all his elections. He had too much to lose. John Major, William Hague and Michael Howard wanted to debate because they knew Tony Blair wouldn't risk it and the election was out of their hands. This time, they all know it's a gamble. But the elction is a close one; and they're stuck with it.

Brown will be dreading it. He was ill at ease for the first two years at PMQs. He has a legion of gaffes and non-answers behind him. The YouTube smiley face disaster. Refusals to answer questions on boom and bust, the election that never was, the released Lockerbie bomber, the McBride affair. He has agonising experiences on GMTV under his belt. His answers are long, verbose and too focused on stats.

Against Cameron the PR man and Clegg with his nothing to lose, easy charm; Brown's appearance is a nightmare in waiting for the Labour party. Brown has more presentational weaknesses to resolve than any other candidate. But with expectations low, just one glimmer of humanity or charm from Brown could register with the voters.

Cameron's expectations are sky high. He needs to perfom well, but not come over as the slick PR man. He needs to get into the detail. But his history stands him in good stead - cool under pressure, speaking without notes, when in an almighty hole in September 2007; Cameron produced a hugely impressive party conference speech that made Brown cancel the election. He will have rehearsed immaculately.

Clegg should enjoy himself. He clearly knows his stuff. He's not the same Clegg that blundered over the "thirty quid" state pension. He needs to look different, but he should ease himself into this first debate and simply use the opportunity to get his messages across.

In an election that has yet to engage people, he might just inspire the voter who has given up on the idea of an uninspiring choice between Cameron and Brown. If he plays into the anti-politics audience, presents himself as wanting something different - he might just find people agree with him. He has no baggage - an advantage and a disadvantage. If those without an opinion of him (good or bad) see him mess up - they will come to a conclusion pretty quickly. There will be no other baggage to persuade them he was "having a bad day, is OK really".

The verdict? Utterly unpredictable. All the leaders have their form; with Brown's looking dodgiest. But any one of them could screw it up.

In the end, as with the Chancellor's debate, it is more likely to be sterile - with every candidate playing it safe. The stakes are just too high.

PREDICTION: Cameron to edge it, Clegg a close second, Brown third. Brown likely to disappoint with long, unsympathetic or fake answers and dodgy body language.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Big idea risks leaving us with no idea

The Conservatives launched their 2010 Manifesto today, boldly entitled "Your Invitation to Join the Government of Britain". A manifesto with what David Cameron has called a "big idea" - that it's "we, the people" who change things not the state. With a pledge that "we're all in this together" and that the current climate demands honesty that government doesn't get it right all the time and the empowering people is the central change that Britain needs.

It was pretty strong stuff - at the most passionate point in the launch, he claimed that the governments of the last 40 years had got it wrong, had "taken people for fools" in pretending that government knows best. Including Thatcher and Major?

In promoting philosophy or concept above hard proposals or policy, the Tories are gambling big time. The answer to the key PR question of "what's the headline?" was clearly meant to be "Power to the people - Tories say we're all in this together". The essentially philosophical argument that a state that does less is better than a state that is interventionist was clearly intended to be the take-away message.

Of the interviews I've seen since the launch (including a return to politics for Chris Grayling) - this philosophical approach gives more mystery rather than clarity to an already ill-defined Tory message. I would have thought that the key goal of the Tory manifesto would be finally to provide some real meat on the bones - to pull off the trick of the 2007 Conservative Party Conference and provide a few memorable policies which answer voter's questions of "OK, the Tories are for change, but what does that change mean in practice?". It was hard policy that should have won the day today - but instead the philosophy dominated. It was a manifesto that sparks debate, not a rallying of voters behind a clear plan for change.

However committed the Tories are to this new philosophy and however laudable it may be - their change is more of style than of substance. It didn't answer the Tories main questions. What change? Where the substance? Even if the substance is there (and I haven't read its 130 odd pages) - the headline messages are not ones to persuade swing voters. A call for action assumes that voters are engaged. They are not. They are disillusioned and the answer to the expenses scandal is not "well, OK, we do get things wrong and we need more of your help to do it".

And Grayling struggled to defend it to Adam Boulton. Power to the people is all very well - Margaret Thatcher flirted with it - but what if they demand too much (very possible with no money in the coffers) or what if Cameron and his government don't agree. I believe that people want better government - properly empowered local government - not for the buck to be passed to them as citizens. Citizen action groups, referendums on council tax skirt round the issue.

Power to the people - real and meaningful power to the people - is delivered via bold democratic reform. The manifesto delivers none of that. Cameron claimed that politicians have promised too much in the past. This change to society is hardly conservative or shy in its promises. The challenges of government could quickly puncture his big vision of big society if he ends up ignoring it or not giving up real power.

Above all, I am certain that this manifesto will be seen as an opportunity missed. What the Tories needed was clarity. We didn't get it. It's a manifesto that might help the Tories limp across the line. But nothing more.

PREDICTION: Conservative majority of 15

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Trouble in the marginals...

A new poll out today confirms the scale of the task in Labour held marginal seats. The seats that David Cameron must win if he is to overhaul the 117 seats needed to get a majority of one.

The poll underlines the irrelevance of the national polls. It states the obvious, but it's important to underline the fact that David Cameron has to win in seats where Labour has held high levels of support since 1997 and, more often, since 1992. Areas that have got used to returning a Labour MP for four elections.

The polling suggests that in many of these constituencies - principally in the North - the Conservatives have an estimated 5.5% swing from Labour to Conservative. Put crudely, this will only be enough to secure around half of the seats (principally in the South East) in their target list of 117. The seats requiring a swing of more than 5.5% are mostly in the North... places like Bury, Warrington, Dudley. And they need them all to win. No question.

To get an overall majority the Conservatives need a swing of 6.9% in marginal seats, so this shows them falling short. The topline figures for voting intentions in these seats are CON 38%(+1), LAB 41%(nc), LDEM 11%(nc). To put that into context, for this particular group of seats (I assume by design rather than co-incidence) the required 6.9% swing equates to the two parties being exactly neck-and-neck. So in theory, if the Conservatives are ahead in MORI’s marginals surveys, they should have an overall majority. In practice of course that assumes Lib-Dem marginals behave the same as these ones, which is somewhat dubious assumption, so in reality the Conservatives could need a bigger or smaller swing against Labour, depending on how they do against the Lib Dems.

Election nights always surprise. But it just doesn't look possible that the Tories will win all those seats. It convinces me to scale back my prediction into Hung Parliament territory. The Great Unknown (never mind the Great Ignored) is Labour turnout and whether the Lib Dem vote or expenses fury to "Other" candidates takes votes off the Tories in those marginal seats, snatching their precious marginal wins from their grasp.

PREDICTION: Conservatives 4 short of a majority.

Safe as houses

Great line by Stephen Hammond in PMQs yesterday commenting on Brown's first day on the campaign trail, including his visit to a "normal house" in Kent. Very good. And quite a revealing line from Brown. "People... said they wanted to secure the recovery". Really? A classic example of Brownite bunkerism - not a very personal or empathetic explanation of what people are concerned about. Seemed to underline that he came away from campaigning merely with a confirmation that people agreed with him. Very Brownite indeed - bulldozering on with the same line. Even if it's true that people care about the recovery - he needs to find a way of expressing that in a more down to earth way.

Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): The Prime Minister opened his election campaign yesterday by promising to campaign among real people, but he spent the whole day visiting the homes of staunch Labour supporters. Does he intend to spend the whole campaign visiting and moving from safe house to safe house?

The Prime Minister: By the time I met them they were all staunch Labour supporters, as a result of the message that we put to them. Yesterday I visited a number of places in Kent and asked people what the major issue affecting them was, and they said that they wanted to secure the recovery. I had to tell people that the Conservative party taking £6 billion out of the economy would put the recovery at risk. The issue is very clear: jobs with Labour, unemployment under the Conservatives.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Compare and contrast - Brown's constitutional reforms

Gordon Brown. On election as Prime Minister. June 2007

"What I propose today is not, and should not be seen as, the final blueprint for a constitutional settlement, but a route map towards it".

"Constitutional change will not be the work of just one Bill or one year or one Parliament"

"I propose that we start the debate and consult on empowering citizens and communities in four areas. The first is powers of initiative, extending the right of the British people to intervene with their elected local representatives to ensure action, through a new community right to call for action and new duties on public bodies to involve local people."

"There are very specific challenges we must meet on engaging young people and improving citizenship education. I hope that there will be all-party support for a commission to review this and make recommendations. Although the voting age has been 18 since 1969, it is right, as part of that debate, to examine, and hear from young people themselves, whether lowering that age would increase participation."

"But just as the Executive must become more accountable to Parliament, Parliament itself must become more accountable. Given the vote in this House in March for major reform of the House of Lords as a second and revising Chamber with provision for democratic election, a statement will be made by the Government before the recess as we press ahead with reform."

"I have heard the need for change. This change cannot be met by the old politics."


Gordon Brown. On campaign trail for re-election as Prime Minister. April 2010

"It is time to see an end to the old politics and to change our politics for good."

"And so I am asking the British people for a mandate to undertake the most comprehensive programme of constitutional reform in this country for a century."

"But I also want to rebuild faith in public life."

"But a new politics does not simply mean constraining the behaviour of individual MPs – it also means strengthening the power of Parliament to hold the executive to account.

"The British people will be given a new right to petition the House of Commons to trigger debates on issues of significant public concern".

And let me say to you today, that Labour’s manifesto will include our commitment to charting a course to a written constitution.

"And, after citizenship education has improved, we will give Parliament a free vote on reducing the voting age to 16.

"And in order to reassure people, in this new century, that the executive will no longer be able to determine when it should put itself forward for the people’s approval, Labour’s manifesto will include a new commitment to fixed term Parliaments."

"On changing the House of Lords root and branch. I want the British people to be served by an elected House of Lords. We will ensure that the hereditary principle is removed from the House of Lords, despite the Conservatives’ determination to block all change in the current Constitutional Reform Bill."

Brown had three years to reform politics. And his grand promises in 2007 led to nothing. They were followed by the most rotten period in British politics for generations. To make this speech today on reforming politics really begs the question: "why not before?".

PREDICTION: Conservative majority of 20.

They're off....!

So, the election has been called. Gordon Brown has announced the most unpredictable election for a generation. It will be May 6th, just under 30 days time. And in the 48 hours since the election was called we've learned a little about what might be in store on the campaign trail.

Before that, we had a final glimpse at Westminster - the Manure Parliament will be dissolved (can you dissolve manure?) on April 12th. In the final PMQs today, there was a feeling of "not a moment too soon". In truth, this has been a Parliament that has gone on far too long and - with around 145 MPs not standing for re-election - you could almost sense the relief in MPs as they left the Chamber today. For many it has been a bruising time as the expenses scandal took its toll. For others, they have been waiting for this election since Brown marched his troops up the hill back in October 2007 - only to bottle the Election That Never Was.

Tentative steps so far in the campaign. Brown went for a rather clunky launch statement outside Downing Street - understandably using a strategy to promote his Cabinet and strength in depth as an vote-winner. Cameron meanwhile stood alone with a view of Westminster behind him. His Shadow Cabinet - with a further Grayling gaffe over the weekend and continued uncertainty around Osborne - will likely play a backseat role in the campaign. A more Presidential style. If Cameron can last the campaign, this may work. If he gaffes or gets exhausted - the Tory project will suddenly appear thin.

Brown's first day on the campaign trail appeared to play it safe. Stage-managed meetings with party activists passed off as "Brown drops round to a normal house for tea" might not convince the voters for long. The truth is that he will be hating this campaign. He is clearly ill at ease with the voters in person, even though the crowd in Morrisons in Kent gave him a positive reception. He then suffered the first (mild) heckling of the campaign. Sky News enjoyed themselves, running the clips of Brown scuttling away into his car at least twice in five minutes.

Brown is in for a rough ride. Cameron will get less stick on the campaign trail and is easier and more comfortable with the voters, developing a classic sleeves-rolled-up look whether it's a bakery or a hospital ward. He looks as though he enjoys contact with real voters. Brown will be in for more heckling like he had today - especially if he's seen to run away from it or inept at dealing with it. Even Tony Blair famously found it difficult to handle - no doubt Cameron would too. But Brown should be braced for more of this on the campaign trail. He hides himself away or plays safe at his peril.

PREDICTION: Conservative majority of 20