UK politics. World events. Bureaucrat released.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

Predictions, predictions

The result itself, well... in the end, I was pretty close to the actual result.

My prediction:

A Hung Parliament. Conservative Party short of an overall majority by 20 seats.
Conservatives with the most votes and the most seats.

The result:

A Hung Parliament. Conservatives short of a majority by 19.
Conservatives with most votes and most seats.

The BBC/ITV/Sky exit poll was remarkably accurate, despite having estimated a very low total for the Lib Dems, and showed very little deviation from the final result.

What we have learned, though, is that the pollsters must look again at the impact that the debates have on opinion polls. It seems likely now that the Lib Dem bounce was entirely false, or almost entirely false. Were the polls just reflecting excitement and not intention to vote Lib Dem? Or did the Lib Dem support crash in response to a fatal pincer movement from Labour and the Conservatives whose "Vote Clegg, get...." warnings managed to pull voters back from the brink of voting Lib Dem. Whichever it is, and the two may amount to the same thing, both the pollsters and the Lib Dems need to work it out

Brave new world

These are strange, exciting political times. For the first time since 1974, the UK is in the highly unusual position of having to grapple with a hung parliament. Election night was a strange one. The initial exit poll seemed highly unusual, forecasting a low vote for the Liberal Democrats but unsurprisingly forecasting a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party.

It turned out to be right. The Tories fell well short of an overall majority as the largest party, and now the horsetrading begins. Nick Clegg rightly made an early statement giving Cameron the first right to seek to form a government. In the circumstances, he could not have done much else. But what are the main considerations now for Clegg and the Liberal Democrats?

1. Coalition with Brown out of the question. This is the one absolute known unknown. There is no way that Clegg will prop up Brown. It would be electoral suicide and would quickly be labelled as a "coalition of losers". The coalition would also come under instant and vehement opposition from the press. Brown and Clegg do not get on - arguably worse than Cameron and Brown. It would also empower a Conservative Party that, despite all Labour's difficulties, failed to convince the British electorate on May 6th. I suspect, also, that Labour will not want a deal either. They will want quickly now to move on from the Brown era and install a new and more popular leader.

2. Not enough common ground with Cameron? Clegg and other senior Lib Dems will have war-gamed the outcomes from a hung parliament, and an offer from Cameron will clearly have been the key rehearsal. They may have been surprised by how far Cameron went yesterday. But the reality is there are very real differences between the Lib Dems and the Tories; and the important thing for a coalition government is where they do not agree. They do not agree on Europe and Clegg could not support a deal which sees a European Sovereignty Bill go through. Nor could they credibly shift their position on immigration or Trident. There are also differences, but not quite as severe, on aspects of taxation policy for example on the Tory married couples allowance. The differences are such that there must be significant compromises on both sides.

Neither is likely to do that; Cameron making the point that he deserves the right to implement the majority of his programme, whilst allowing some Lib Dem policies to be implemented. Clegg, too, can hardly turn round to all those who voted Lib Dem on May 6th and say that Trident or voting reform no longer matter. Both risk considerably disenfranchising their voters by suddenly crossing out parts of their manifesto. Instead, they need to judge what are the central aspects that they can give up without losing their grass-roots support. Europe, voting reform and immigration are not in that category.

3. A high price on voting reform? Clegg will be under huge pressure to deliver voting reform. A totemic issue for the Lib Dems, it is also seen as the central demand if there is ever a need for another party to enter a coalition with the Lib Dems. This is the dream situation for all those demanding electoral reform. But the Tories will not offer anything meaningful - yesterday's opening gambit was too low and will not satisfy anyone in the Lib Dems, least of all Clegg. But the Lib Dems need to be careful. Voting reform is not the key issue for the public. There is a real risk that they may risk appearing to be slavishly pursuing narrow party interest and ignoring the overwhelming demand to form a coalition in the national interest to tackle the more urgent problem of the economy.

In all his demands on voting reform, Clegg must remember that it is by no means clear whether a referendum would be won. And there is a real offer of power here on the table. If one of the key arguments in favour of PR is that it delivers coalition government; it may seem ridiculous to turn it down to secure that very outcome via a more circuitous, and by no means guaranteed, route.

4. Cabinet seats and a stake in government? It seems that these are not off the table. They offer the chance for real power and must be considered seriously. It does carry significant risk, though. The risk is that the Lib Dems would share a stake in the difficult decisions that the Conservatives now face. Being in government right now is probably a time when most would be pretty sanguine about their chances of being able to take popular decisions. The Tories need the Lib Dems - that's clear - but they will secretly be attracted to the possibility of sharing the blame and the difficult decisions with another party. The Lib Dems must balance the chance to implement some of their policies and to raise their credibility after being seen to be in government, with the reality of unpopularity that comes with power. But to turn down power may make many wonder what on earth the Lib Dems are for if, when given the chance, they decide not to go for it.

They may judge that it's time for the Lib Dems to grow up and start to build the house, rather than throwing rocks at it. Clegg's victory statement, three years ago, suggests to me that he agrees with that proposition for the Lib Dems to modernise and be more constructive.

5. The future of Labour and the Parliament. Clegg cannot just consider the here and now. He also needs to think about the shape of this Parliament. Labour, once rid of Brown, will quickly regroup. They will elect a presentable and much more popular leader in David Miliband. They will have a competent-looking Shadow Cabinet, packed with former Ministers whose reputations are broadly intact. And there is a very real chance, coalition or not, of a second election in the near future. There is a real risk not only that the Lib Dems could be tainted by governing with the Tories, but also that a rejuvenated Labour party finds itself able to present itself as the "clean centre Left" at an election that could be within two years.

My hunch, then, is that the Liberal Democrats will not enter into a coalition with the Conservatives. More likely is that the Lib Dems will agree to support the Conservatives on the most pressing issues, the economy, but that their support on other issues will be reserved. Expect a Clegg statement something like this:

"General Election result means that no party convinced enough of the electorate to give it a majority in the House of Commons. We are in a state of flux. But we cannot afford to be in a state of flux. The severity of the economic crisis that we face means that we must take brave decisions. The central issue of the election, and of the moment, is that we must come together to tackle the deficit. The Liberal Democrats will support the Conservatives to in a national economic council to tackle those challenges. We must have stable government that reassures the markets and the world that Britain will come through this crisis. But elsewhere there are real differences that remain. On Europe, immigration and political reform. We made a commitment to every Liberal Democrat voter that we would fight in the next Parliament on those issues. We cannot simply walk away from those promises. So we will continue to argue for what we believe in on the issues where we think differently to the Conservatives and the Labour Party. "

This, of course, depends on what Cameron offers Clegg on voting reform. He may surprise us once again and map out a course with Clegg to a referendum, where Tories campaign against and the Lib Dems campaign in favour. The Tories will know that the whole deal hinges on this. They will also know that they may be likely to win a referendum voting for no change to the voting system. For them, too, swallowing their pride on electoral reform may be worth doing in order to get a secure and stable coalition government.

But voting reform is where it hinges. Cameron's willingness to give significant ground will define this deal. But Clegg too could decide that there is too much risk in a full-on coalition. Better to offer qualified support in the national interest.

Time will tell.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Our day of power

Well, the talking is very nearly over. The leaders are holding their final rallies with their supporters on their home turf. The campaign has been a marathon for all three leaders - we've had the excitement of the debates; the eruption of Nick Clegg and his Lib Dem surge; the downright farce of Duffygate and Cameron's final all-nighter. And yet, some polls still suggest that up to 40% of voters have still not made up their minds.

Tomorrow, just before the polls close, I will publish my final predictions for the General Election Result and for what I think we'll be seeing over the course of the weekend. I'll also set out some of the key seats to watch for and my predictions of what will happen in those seats. In predicting the Election result, I've looked at all the target seats for the Lib Dems and the Conservatives and analysed what I think will happen in those key marginal seats.

Tonight and tomorrow is almost always one of the most fascinating moments in election campaigns. We see the final, frantic flurry of speeches and campaign hustings for each of the party leaders - the mad dashes to every corner of the country. And then, at midnight, the power of choice and of democracy is handed firmly back to the people of the country. Our leaders are strangly powerless. They retire to their homes to wait and hear what we have decided. There is no Government. We cast our votes: millions of people up and down the country making tiny crosses on ballot papers.

With this election, comes the real added power of massive uncertainty. Not since 1992 has an election been in such doubt. In many ways, this election is more uncertain than 1992; that election was notable for the pundits being proved wrong in how predictable they thought it was - before the event, many thought a Labour victory was the likely outcome.

The undecideds will be the great unknown tomorrow. We've seen the polls - and broadly they have settled on the Conservatives on 35%, with Labour and the Lib Dems vying for second place on 28 or 29%. I suspect there may be a late surge on polling day towards the Conservatives. The Lib Dem bounce is unlikely bounce again on polling day. They have peaked, and may actually fall short when people come to mark their cross.

My first predictions put the Tories winning a majority of 20. In each subsequent prediction, I have revised that downwards. It is remarkable that, in a campaign with the economic recession as the key issue and against a hugely unpopular Prime Minister, the Tory vote share has at best flatlined, at worst declined. Based on YouGov polls at the start and end of the campaign, the Tories have dropped two points during the campaign. It is easy to forget now that back in December a hung parliament was still thought fanciful, and that a December before that that the Tories were in for a comfortable majority.

There are a few certainties on Friday morning. No party will secure a comfortable majority. For the Tories not to do so will be deeply worrying for them. The Cameron project of reform was not enough - it did not convince in sufficient numbers to deliver a clear majority. If they win either a small majority or are able to operate a minority administration - life will be very difficult indeed for David Cameron. I predict that the story after the election, in six months time, will be one of a rejuvenated, Brown-less Labour Party very quickly rediscovering itself in opposition to a Conservative government that will be having a mighty difficult time of it. Wafer thin majority - or lack of one. A rookie Cabinet. Not knowing whether they can survive or whether they need a second, dangerous, election. Facing the harsh realities of government, with its Ministerial gaffes and organisational blunders. Struggling to cut the deficit and win support for those cuts. It will be very, very difficult and it is hard to see the Conservative Party emerge from that experience electorally stronger.

But tomorrow is the day for the people. The talking is over. The politicians can do no more. Silence descends. We go out and vote. We make our decision. It is a beautiful day, where people exercise real power. Ministers and former Ministers resign themselves to personal defeats. And the leaders are on the edges of their seats.

We will be, too. Good luck with the choice you make tomorrow.

The future

Election Predicton: GENERAL ELECTION 2010

A Hung Parliament. Conservative Party short of an overall majority by 20 seats.

Final Seats Prediction


Conservatives with the most votes and the most seats.

Share of the vote: CON 35 LAB 29 LIB DEMS 28

Ministers to lose seats: Phil Woolas, Jacqui Smith (ex-Minister, but this is the closest we'll get to a Portillo moment), Gillian Merron, Phil Hope, Jim Fitzpatrick.

Nick Brown only Cabinet Minister to lose his seat. Ed Balls to hold his seat.

Gordon Brown to concede defeat around 11am on Friday.

Tories to gain 2 seats in Scotland.

For the Conservatives, there will be huge relief at having secured a return to government for the first time in 13 years. There will, though, be increasing disappointment at their failure to secure an overall majority. 20 seats short, they will not be able to rely on the Ulster Unionists to get all of their business through; they will need to rely on other deals with the Liberal Democrats to get things done. They are unlikely to want to, or seek agreement for, any coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats. Minority government will not be easy for them. With a rookie team and an unpleasant menu of cuts - a second election in a year or so is likely.

For Labour, this result will be seen as a huge let off. Brown will quickly set out a timetable for his departure; he may lead Labour for a short time to avoid Harriet Harman building a power base for a leadership bid. Miliband will quickly declare his interest in the leadership - for him, the chance to oppose a minority Tory government, with a front-bench of competent former Ministers and, finally, rid of Gordon Brown. Labour will quickly want to pin the defeat on Brown and swiftly move on. Labour without Brown will soon seem a very different, re-energised beast. It will supplant Clegg as the new kids on the block.

The Liberal Democrats will be closer to power tomorrow morning that at any time since the Lib-Lab pact. My hunch is that there is no natural alliance between the Lib Dems and the Tories, and that there will be no deal on Friday or over the weekend. But if they fail to "break the mould", they may reasonably judge that a couple of places at the Cabinet table and being seen to make a difference; to keep Cameron's Conservatives in check from within and be tested with real power may be worth more than slavishly chasing electoral reform. If the election campaign has done anything for the Lib Dems it must make them realise they can do more than chirp from the sidelines. They have increased their vote election after election and gained impressive support across the country - north, south, urban, rural, Scotland, England. If the Lib Dem goal is ultimately to secure genuine three party politics; as a party unlikely to secure a majority of its own for decades (if indeed they ever could), being seen as constructive and serious players in government could be an offer too good to refuse. I am increasingly convinced that they should swallow their pride and take a constructive role in government. They grew up during this campaign - and government is what the grown-ups do.

Whatever happens - we're in for an historic night.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Labour will slaughter Brown this weekend

Every election defeat means disaster for the leader who leads their party off the cliff. But the Labour Party will slaughter Gordon Brown like no other defeated Prime Minister before him if Labour, as must be certain now, loses the General Election in the early hours of Friday morning. He chose to be PM, he chose to stay and fight on in spite of each coup - and he led Labour to defeat. Before I offer my prediction on the result, let's consider what will happen to Brown after Friday.

First, if it is to be a Hung Parliament, let's not forget that Brown is not obliged to resign until he's certain that he could not command the confidence of the Commons. Now, it's not been in Brown's nature to reliquish his premiership lightly, and it's not beyond the bounds of possiblity that Brown may seek cling on by his fingernails and try to form a coalition with the Lib Dems if they have gained a significant amount of seats. It's unlikely that the Lib Dems will win enough seats to be able to combine with Labour into a credible coalition, but I would not rule out Brown trying to cling on. Ted Heath lingered on in 1974 when he came second and four votes behind Harold Wilson's Labour Party. Brown is likely to be much further behind - but he may still try.

I suspect Brown would be strongly "urged" by those who ducked leadership coup after leadership coup to throw in the towel. So my hunch is that Brown won't linger in the bunker long, but it's likely that we'll see the Prime Minister concede defeat and go to the Palace to resign much later than in previous elections. I can't see a statement from Brown at four or five on Friday morning at his count saying that he's called Cameron to congratulate him on securing the most number of seats and having first right to form a government.

Labour's reaction to Brown's predicament on Friday will be fascinating. They should surely have already planned for this outcome. When John Major held his "put up or shut up" leadership challenge in 1995, he had a target written down beforehand - if he secured less votes, he would resign and wave his paper to those who claimed he was acting rashly. Even Thatcher calculated the maths to work out when she was finished. Brown must surely have done the same and will have decided to make a clean, dignified break. But Brown's track record suggest this is unlikely.

Ultimately, it may not be Brown's decision. Others in the Labour Party may have their own ideas. Brown's deadliest opposition on Friday is likely to be all those who pulled back from the brink in the failed coups of the last few years. The "Cabinet", led by Miliband and Straw are more likely to break their silence - blame the election defeat squarely on Brown and a "failure to renew the Labour Party" and insist that he stands down. They flunked the chance to kick him out before. They will not flinch from that on Friday. There may be such a collective relief at seeing the old, powerful bear finally mortally wounded; that they all pile in to finish him off. If he fails to go with dignity, the Labour Party will turn the pistol on him themselves. If they all decide to pile in with relish; including even Tony Blair finally breaking his "silence" it could be a very bloody end for Gordon Brown.

For the likes of (David or Ed) Miliband, a Hung Parliament will be "game on" in a big way. It will be a dream escape for a party that got stuck with the wrong, conceited, too-scary-to-oust leader but luckily was fighting an election against a Tory party whose project of renewal was incomplete and who had failed to "seal the deal". Cameron's project is more complete than Kinnock's in 1992, and he is a more convincing and appealing leader - and for that reason Cameron will achieve what Kinnock couldn't quite achieve and squeak through with a Hung Parliament.

A Brown-less Labour Party should seize the opportunity for re-birth. If they manage to limit their losses on Thursday and keep the party in second place and in tact, a revitalised leader will be able to get after the Tories on May 6th. The Tory inheritance will be rotten. The Tories are likely not to let anyone forget their argument that it was Labour's fault. But it was also Brown's fault and has been framed as Brown's fault by the Tories incessantly.

A Brown-less Labour Party will be one relieved of a mighty and painful sore. If skilful, a new Labour leader may be able to provoke twinges of regret in voters if he parades an experienced Shadow Cabinet packed full of ex-Ministers against Cameron's rookie team dealing with nightmarish spending cuts. Mervyn King suggested that the party that wins the election may be out of power for a generation. That might be excessive. But the Tory "win" - whether it's a wafer thin majority or not - may begin to look decisively flakey a few months down the line.

Ringing endorsements

Duffygate thankfully livened up last week's campaigning. And the debates have provided welcome novelty factor. But after five years of a rotten Parliament and a Prime Minister seemingly scared of facing the electorate - Thursday of this week can't come quickly enough.

We had endorsements from most of the major papers last week. The Tories reached beyond their natural right wing press to secure the approval of the Economist and the Times - good going for David Cameron. There was, however, a note of caution in those endorsements. The Sunday Times claimed the Conservatives "deserve the chance to govern", possibly similar to the endorsement that many will make at polling booths on Thursday - that it's time to give something else a chance, rather than being wholeheartedly convinced that the Tories are the answer.

The Lib Dems secured the coup of an endorsement from the Guardian, who claimed that the "liberal moment has come". They also advised their readers to vote tactically in Labour/Conservative marginals to keep the Tories out. In doing so, they rightly recognise the threat of a centre left fudge on Thursday, with some Labour voters drifting to the Lib Dems and reducing the Tory swing needed in harder to reach seats. The Observer's endorsement was wholeheartedly Lib Dem - perhaps it would have been uncouth to have argued twice for tactical voting, perhaps the Observer has more confidence. The Observer rightly congratulated Nick Clegg for his impact on the Lib Dem campaign. It has strengthened his leadership immeasurably within the party. His leadership makes the Kennedy years almost seem wasted years - one must think that Clegg would have driven home the Lib Dems advantage in 2005 post Iraq with more energy and drive than Charlie K.

Labour meanwhile continue to die slowly before our eyes. The loyal Labour press duly endorsed them. Tragically for Brown, he again performed well at interview with Jeremy Paxman on Friday evening. But noone is listening. There were ugly scenes at a "campaign" event in Sunderland at the weekend, where Brown spoke to an audience of activists who angrily bundled out the outsider who dared to ask him a question. It looked bad and Labour would be roundly kicking themselves for not kicking him out were there not such a good chance of a hung parliament on Thursday. Losing to the Tories, but giving the Tories a majority, in difficult economic circumstances, with a dodgy inheritance where the likes of a Miliband could blame it all on Brown then swiftly regroup is actually a very good outcome for Labour. The Labour party will turn on Brown with venom on May 7th, perhaps as early as after 10pm on May 6th - to purge themselves of the Brown years.

My prediction for the election has now been calculated, and I will post it on Wednesday evening. Some of the key highlights and seats to watch out for will be in there too. We're in for a historic night - if only we could just get on with it.