Saturday 28 November 2009


My General Election Spread (Part 2)

Lib Dems 20%

The 2005 general election saw the best result for the Liberal Democrats, the 3rd party in British Politics, since their predecessor party fought the 1929 election. They achieved 23% of the vote and 62 MPs standing on a platform of a liberal, progressive alternative to both the Conservatives and Labour and most prominently as the only one of the three major parties to vote consistently in opposition to the Iraq war. The Lib Dems' big parliamentary breakthrough came in 1997 when they more than doubled their representation to 46 MPs, though their share of the vote fell by 1 percentage point to 18%, having never managed to gain more than 23 MPs in the 60 years before. They increased their representation, and share of the vote, in both 2001 and 2005 bringing them to their current high-point in the Commons. Furthermore, the current political climate would seem extremely favourable to them with a deeply unpopular Labour government and a Conservative opposition who have struggled to establish their popularity amongst a significant portion of the electorate. The political momentum of the last 13 years and a favourable wind (politically speaking) would seem to be behind them for the next general election, and this is undoubtably the narrative that the Lib Dems themselves would like to convey.

Despite this though I consider their benchmark to be at 20%, 3% below their 2005 score and there is a very good reason for this. It is because there is another, much less optimistic side to their current political narrative. The fact is that right since their success in May 2005 the Lib Dems have been stalling everywhere, repeatedly failing to make any ground. The local elections in '06, '07, '08 and '09 and Euro-Elections elections this year have all shown the same pattern with the Lib Dems just about holding their ground electorally but making no significant progress anywhere. For example, in 2009, though achieving minor advances in seats in the Euros and votes in the Locals these were accompanied by a fall in their share of the vote in the Euros and seats in the Locals. They have proved strangely resistant to any advance in their national position and are widely predicted to lose out badly at the next election to the Conservatives against whom they have made almost no progress since 2005.

The Lib Dems have come within 3% of Labour in opinion polls but they seem incapable of capitalising on this to deliver a decisive blow to either Labour or the Conservatives. Even in bye-elections, which throughout the 90's and early 00's gave some of the Lib Dems most impressive successes, the Lib Dems have had only mixed success since 2005, with one victory in Dumfermline and West Fife balanced by disapointing showings in several others. There have been other poor signs in Scotland and Wales' devolved elections (both previous Lib Dem strongholds), with the Lib Dem vote suffering mild decline, and in the South West, the other traditional Lib Dem stronghold, various local councils have swung to the Conservatives.

Beyond this slightly grim electoral news evidence from opinion polls places 20% as the crucial barrier that the Lib Dems should be realistically aiming to pass. Ever since the election of David Cameron as Conservative leader in December 2005 the Lib Dems have bounced around in the 15-20% in nationwide opinion polls. Despite two major Labour meltdowns in the opinion polls, significant problems with the Conservatives establishing their own popularity, two changes of leader, the (presumably) best efforts of the Lib Dems themselves and all the vagaries of political events they have proved incapable of broaching and staying above the crucial 20% barrier, significantly below their vote in 2005 of 23%, with surprisingly little movement over the years around their average of 18%. Though it should also be said they have only briefly drifted below 15%.

The first major problem for the Liberal Democrats, constantly facing the dilemma of being a centrist third party squeezed in a strongly ideologically bipolar British political universe, is that following 2005 there has not been a single issue, like the Iraq war, to make them stand out and act as a rallying cry for support fleeing from the two major parties. The second major problem has been the Conservative leader David Cameron. He has relentlessly followed a program of changing the positioning of the Conservative party to make it appear as a more centrist and liberal party. This seems to have decisively undercut the Lib Dems' progress at appearing as the main acceptable liberal alternative for voters fleeing Labour.

It is impossible to as simply quantify this as voters now swapping from Labour to Conservative rather than Labour to Lib Dem. It could be rather that the same strand of voters is moving from Labour to the Lib Dems but that a similar number of separate voters are also moving from the Lib Dems' right wing to the Conservatives. It is extremely difficult to tell with the crude data that is available, nonetheless the pattern is unmistakeable.

The Lib Dems currently have 63 MPs in the House of Commons, built at the last election on their exploitation of public anger over the Iraq War and their astute positioning between the Conservative and Labour. It is the best result they have been able to achieve for 70 years and has led to a significant increase in their profile and exposure and influence in British politics. If they are to maintain this profile and standing beyond the next election though they can not afford to see their share of the vote fall below the 20% threshold. If they do they will see serious losses,their first since since 1992, to a resurgent Conservative party that will cripple their burgeoning ability to present themselves as a serious possible party of government, reduce their pool of parliamentary talent to utilise in the future and quite possibly retard their slow progress (which they have really been making since their nadir in the 1950's) for another decade, if not more.

They are not necessarily doomed though, even at this point. It is possible that they will still be able to find some issue or event to galvanise their support and/or allow them to distinguish themselves from the two main parties between now and the general election and stage at UKIP style recovery against expectations. Their time in which to do so, however, is fast running out.

Others 10%

It has been traditionally said that Britain has a two party system. This is largely true in that there have been only three parties that have ever formed the government of the United Kingdom, and this is a case of Labour taking the Liberals' place as part of the two party system rather than a development of a three way sharing of government. That said, however, a more nuanced view of British politics would bely this analysis. There have been extended periods where further parties have held a considerable influence in parliament and also in devolved, European or local politics and neither have major parties always been monolithic entities. An example is that the fact that the period in which Labour replaced the Liberals as the main alternative to the Conservative Party in the UK lasted from the 1918-1935 general elections and arguably longer, a period of about 20 years before the two party system in parliament settled down again.

British politics in recent years, especially since 1997, has seen the rise of smaller parties, with the strongest third party since 1931 and numerous high profile minor parties. This has been assisted by the establishment by Labour of devolved assemblies and the increased importance of the European Parliament but it also seems to represent a wider political trend whereby support seems to be seeping away from the major parties to a wider base. Possible causes of this include the dramatic increase of possible media of communication, which among other things, reduces the cost of organisation and help to bring together politically like-minded people, even of a relatively rare political persuasion; as well as encouraging awareness of a wide range of issues, which may not be addressed by major parties, and increasing public scrutiny of major political parties, which may encourage cynicism towards them. There is also the decline of the major parties as mass organisations, especially in terms of polarisation and identity of various parts of society, such as certain classes, with one of the two main parties.

Whatever the reasons for this trend the best possible characterisation of current British Politics since 1997 may be that we have a three party system, whereby the Conservatives are a party, Labour are a party, the Lib Dems are half a party and the minor parties make up another half of a party between them. These minor parties together achieved 7% of the vote in 2005, higher than the minor party total at any previous UK election in the last 50 years and considerably more successful with a haul of 12 seats.

The period between 2001 and 2005 saw a number of events, which contributed to the rise of the minor parties. The first of these was the continuing boost in publicity achieved by minor parties through the mechanism of assemblies outside Westminster. Whether the European or devolved assemblies the ability to elect representatives along with the influence and publicity this gave helped provide a boost to the position of UKIP, SNP and Plaid Cymru, and to a lesser extent various minor Scottish parties as well as the BNP and Greens. Especially important to this was the 2004 European elections which gave the greatest boost to minor party support seen over the parliament and saw the decisive breakthrough of UKIP with 16% of the vote and 3rd place across the UK.

The Second mechanism has been alluded to before, namely the curious and infrequent scenario following the Iraq war whereby both of the two major parties were relatively unpopular, with neither regularly polling more than 40%. This is accentuated by the fact that political support in the UK has become considerably geographically polarised, with evidence seeming to indicate that some minor parties have gained support in areas where one of the two major parties no longer offers serious opposition, such that when voters get sick of the dominant major party in that area, minor parties move into fill the gap instead. An example of this would appear to be the success of the SNP in Scotland and the BNP in the north of England. Both of which have large areas where there is just no effective Conservative opposition to traditional Labour domination. A much more localised version of this phenomenon, perhaps with the addition of the influence of strong local personalities and celebrities, can be seen in the success of Respect and the Kidderminster Health Concern.

The third of the reasons for this trend has been the increasing influence of single issue pressure groups in society. These have grown more widely influential in society in the form of NGO's and pressure groups, but only recently have they begun to gain serious strength as political parties. The textbook example would be the Greens, but in a different way also the BNP or UKIP, though with very different single issues. Perhaps the most remarkable event in this regard, since 2001, has been the rise of these parties. The UK has had a long history of minor political parties, but the only successful ones have been, until the last decade, almost solely the local nationalist parties in the home nations outside England. The rise of UK wide minor parties, or even perhaps more accurately significant minor parties within England, which has always politically dominated the Union (and in most other ways), but has always proved resistant to the growth of minor parties. This changed in the 2004 European and 2005 general elections with significant growth seen by UKIP, BNP and Greens, to the point where UKIP overtook the SNP's long held position as the 4th largest party by number of votes.

The years since the 2005 election have only seen the intensification of these trends on all fronts. A continuing rise in the prominence of environmental issues has seen an increase in the profile of the Green party, continuing fears about immigration and disillusionment with Labour in its working class heartlands has fueled the rise of the BNP and disillusionment with Labour in Scotland lead to the SNP narrowly winning the 2007 Scottish parliament elections, giving it a minority administration and all the chances to grandstand, on behalf of the Scottish people of course, that comes with it.

The 2009 European Elections were expected to see a retreat of the performance of the minor parties, with a widespread expectation that UKIP would fade without the vast publicity afforded to them by the campaigning of Robert Kilroy-Silk in 2004. Then the Expenses scandal broke in early May 2009 and the whole game changed. With all three major parties roughly equally embroiled in the Westminster expenses scandal the field was left open for the minor parties, who saw an unprecedented spike in their opinion poll ratings, reaching 30% in one poll and across the average peaking at 18% of the (Westminster) vote. They would then go on to achieve 43% of the vote in the European Elections in a climate of unprecedented distrust of all 3 major parties, with UKIP itself actually managing to push the governing Labour Party into 3rd place, the first time that one of the two major parties has been in 3rd place in a nationwide election in the history of the UK.

The importance of the Expenses scandal to UKIP and all the minor parties could not be exaggerated. By simultaneously damaging the reputation of all three major parties almost precisely one year before a general election it gave them an unparalleled boost in support in a parliament that has been dominated by a duel between Labour and a rejuvenated Conservative Party. To the leaders of the three main minor parties it must have been as though all their Christmases had come at once. Without this event it would probably be a safe prediction that the minor parties would increase their vote in 2010, but by probably only a small amount, and with insignificant change to their representation. As it is, although their support in opinion polls has decreased steadily since June the minor parties still are registering unprecedented levels of support for this close to a general election, well into the teens in all opinion polls.

For these reasons I believe that 10% must be the benchmark for Others in 2010. Passing this threshold at a general election would represent an unprecedented level of support for the larger and also for numerous smaller minor parties. It also would represent the likelihood of seeing UKIP, BNP or Greens finally succeeding in electing an MP under FPTP, which would be an remarkable step for them. These three parties, as well as the SNP in Scotland will all be hoping to seriously increase their vote at the next election helped by the expenses scandal and the serious unpopularity of the Labour party. If possible this would be a serious achievement as well, representing an almost 40% increase on the minor party vote in 2005. This would seem an unlikely target if not for the remarkable success of these 3 main minor parties who have been incredibly successful at rallying support in their respective constituencies, their collective vote at the 2005 general election being more than 1 million, compared to little more than 200,000 in 1997.

In light of these figures and their relatively high profile in the national media, they and the SNP/Plaid along with various other minor parties have, I believe, a serious chance of achieving this total. It must be said though that if they do not pass this total at this election then it seems unlikely that they ever will. The 2010 election would appear to be both the height of continuing momentum for the Others and favourable political circumstances, both in terms of the expenses scandal and the distrust and decline of Labour and the Conservatives as national institutions.

Whichever way these events go in terms of this spread it becomes clear that 2010 is likely to be a once in a generation shift in British politics, in many ways equivalent to 1886, 1906, 1918, 1945, 1979 and 1997. We only have a 7 month wait to see which way it will go, and though events between now and the election will doubtlessly affect the outcome we may predict now, though in what way we cannot foresee. I believe that this spread still bares relevance to the significance of whatever result does occur.

Sunday 22 November 2009


My General Election Spread (Part 1)
Here in the UK it is certain that we are now within a year of the next general election, with May 2010 given as the most likely date. The last general election was 5th May 2005 and under UK law the next one must occur by 6th June 2010. This election is expected to be the most significant since 1997 with the prediction that the government of the UK will change, something that last happened in 1997 and before that last in 1979, just over 30 years ago. It is widely considered almost certain that the Labour party, which has governed for the last 13 years since '97, will at least lose its majority in parliament if not suffer a catastrophic defeat, which will see the Conservative Party ( in opposition since 1997) form the next Government.

This is my spread for the next General Election, in terms of percentage of the vote gained by the major parties. These are the landmark figures that for various reasons including: their importance to the actual result, their relation to previous levels of support, historical poll data and psychological importance, I think that each party would be doing exceedingly well to surpass and doing exceedingly badly to fall below, including my analysis of why I have chosen these figures. These are not necessarily the levels of support I would predict each party will get at the next general election but rather the benchmarks of support that it would be significant for them to either achieve or fail to achieve.

It must also be said that percentages in elections, unlike actual totals of votes, are, of course, a zero sum game. With turnout perpetually below 100% it is always possible to increase your vote tally without affecting anyone else's, by getting people out to vote who would not otherwise have bothered. However, with percentages, irrespective of how many people vote, it is the case that one party can only push its score up by pushing another party's down. That means for any party to beat the spread and do better than its score another party must do worse and vice versa. And of course relative levels of support do not change for no reason, but in response to events and the actions of the various parties.

Now, lets see that spread in full.


Conservatives 40%
Labour 30%
Lib Dems 20%
Others 10%

Which also gives a (7+5)/2 = 6% swing to the Conservatives
Con 325 (+127)
Lab 245 (-111)
Lib Dem 48 (-14)
Others 16 (+4)
Con Maj: 0

These nice round figures not only represent a series of landmarks in terms of each parties share of the vote but also coincidentally give the even figures required for the Conservatives to stand on the threshold of being able to form a government. The implication could not be clearer, the Conservatives must beat this spread if they are to form the next government, and Labour must stop them if they are to avoid a Conservative government. What is more, as we move away from these figures the predictions for MPs elected quickly spiral away into either large Conservative majorities or relative Labour/Conservative parity, even with Conservative leads in the vote of 5-7%.

Conservative Party: 40%
The Conservative Party have been continuously ahead in the polls since the start of 2006, apart from the dismal summer of the Brown Bounce in 2007, for the first time since 1992. Since October 2007 opinion polls have shown them almost continuously hovering just over 40%, between 40-45%, with the only major exception being the immediate aftermath of the expenses scandal in May, June, July 2009, which hit all the major parties almost uniformly.

40% has long been considered the crucial figure which a party must secure to be sure of forming the next government. Labour in 2005 were the first party to secure a Majority in the house of commons with less than 40% of the vote for over 100 years and this reflects the degree to which the FPTP system is currently skewed by various factors towards Labour, due to factors like disproportionate seat sizes and differential turnout. These same factors, on the other hand, mean that for the Conservatives to gain a majority, short of the remainder of the vote splitting considerably more evenly than it ever has before, they must beat this figure.

Considering that the Conservatives have been almost uniformly scoring 40-45% in opinion polls it may seem that this figure is in fact lower than they should be expected achieve, especially given the occasional comparisons with Labour's opinion poll score from shortly before the 1997 election, which often passed the 50% mark by some considerable distance. To put it frankly, though, the opinion polls scores from that period were not nearly as accurate as those today, and even at their stratospheric victory of 1997, Labour only scored 44% of the vote, with a much lower level of 3rd party and minor party support and activity than we see today.

Even today though, and despite the incredible work done by David Cameron, as a result of various events in the 80's and early 90's the Conservative Party is still historically unpopular in some areas of the country, and comes from a much lower level of support than Labour in 1997, reflected in this spread. There have been whole areas of the country where reflexive opposition to the Conservatives has been part of the assumed culture and identity for the last 15 or more years. I am a natural conservative, and believe in my party, but I was born in the late 80's and grew up in the 90's. 1997 is the first general election I was aware of occurring and basically all my aware life the Conservative Party has seen its share of the vote sit, unmoved, between 30-33% as a series of 4 Conservative leaders fails to enthuse the public with any enthusiasm for the Conservative Party. I am hence incredibly wary of optimism in this regard and know quite what an achievement, a shift in public opinion, it would be for the Conservatives to reach or break past this figure.

This said though, considering that the Conservatives have been regularly achieving 40+% it would be a disgrace if they did not achieve at least 40% in the next general election. Even if one can argue about their overall legacy, the last 7 odd years have been a political disaster for the Labour government and if the Conservatives are not scoring nearly as highly as Labour in '95,'96,'97 before the election the Labour party have been scoring considerably worse than the Conservatives even at their worst moments of unpopularity, the Lib Dems have also failed to achieve any kind of breakthrough since their high-point in 2005. If the Conservatives can not achieve 40% of the vote in these political conditions it must pose serious questions both about their policies and actions over the last 7 years and whether they will ever be able to achieve their former levels of popularity.

In addition to this though, it is a figure the Conservatives must achieve, for reasons other than sheer bums on seats in the Commons. The next Conservative government, if elected, will be forced by the state of the economy, the state of the EU, the state of the Union, by the threats facing us in terms of foreign policy and by divisions over domestic policy in this country, to take numerous hard decisions, that will lead to stringent criticism from both within and without Britain. They cannot afford to limp through, like Labour in '05, with only 35% of the vote and ever decreasing public legitimacy. They need the legitimacy and the mandate that can only come from a resounding victory at the ballot box and shows that large swathes of public opinion are behind them, to equal Labour's support in 1997 and 2001.

Labour 30%
The Labour party has formed the government of the United Kingdom since 1997 when they won a landslide victory over the Conservative Party with 44% of the vote. This was followed by another landslide victory in 2001 with 41% of the vote and a much closer win in 2005 with 35%. Severe doubts caused by the appalling handling of the Iraq war and continued allegations of sleaze, spin and a lack of substance lead to Labour support falling by 6% between 2001 and 2005, with their government only saved by the continuing unpopularity of the Conservative Party.

As difficult as the last few years of that parliament were for Labour they do not compare with the last 4 years which has seen Labour slide even further under one political disaster after another, whether the ten pence tax disaster, the continuing difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, Smeargate, the Recession, the Expenses Scandal or their complete inability to come to grips with the new Conservative leader David Cameron, and his new agenda for the Conservative Party. When Tony Blair resigned from Downing Street it seemed as though Labour could recover their momentum but despite the Brown Bounce of Summer 2007 and a further smaller bounce in late '08 they have continued to slide in the opinion polls, leaving them struggling in the mid 20's from march '09 to the present day and facing almost certain defeat at the next general election.

Labour have passed 30% in a only 1 out of around 50 opinion polls taken since March and hence even this may perhaps be seen as an optimistic benchmark for them to be trying to pass. They are historically unpopular, scoring lower than John Major's government ever did (in comparable polls) before 1997. At one point in May of this year their average poll rating was 23% with one poll putting them on as low as 18% of the vote. Currently less than a year before the next general election they have struggled back up to (on aggregate) 28% in the polls but this is immediately following a period of poor publicity for their Conservative opponents and preceeding a period when greater attention is likely to focus on the poor state of the economy and other government problems, giving no guarantee they will be able to remain at this level, let alone improve on it.

If we look at the smattering of actual electoral evidence we have from the recent period, from the Euro Elections or bye-elections or Locals, there is even a coherent argument that Labour support is actually at best in the low 20's, as they have not managed to surpass this score in any of these elections. Their best result being 23% in the '09 Local Elections, coming 3rd behind the Conservatives and Lib Dems. My personal favourite electoral humiliation of the year being coming 6th in the European Elections in Cornwall behind (in order) Conservative Party, UKIP, Lib Dems, Greens and the Cornish Nationalist Party Mebyon Kernow. Behind these straight polling figures there is more bad news as well. In Polls on specific issues the Conservatives now appear more trusted than Labour on every single issue, even (although only by a tiny margin) such traditionally rock-solid Labour issues as the NHS and Education, not to mention questions such as who voters prefer as Prime Minister or issues like trust on the Economy.

In light of all these facts it may seem as though 30% is an unlikely high target for Labour to achieve, only giving them room for a fall of 5% from 2005, itself smaller than the 6% fall between 2001-2005, whereas the Conservatives are targeted at a 7% rise in their vote. As with the Conservatives in the opposite direction though, the psychological and historical significance of an actual result with Labour below this point cannot be underestimated. Labour have not fallen below 30% of the vote since 1983 and not before then since 1922, although even with this total they would still gain significant representation under our current FPTP system in a general election. Since the inaugaration of New Labour following Tony Blair's election as Labour Leader in 1994 they have been widely taken-as-read as the dominant party of British politics, representing a uniquely successful synthesis of traditionally right wing (though now centrist) economic and foreign policy and "compassionate" social democratic social policy. A position helped by the poor performance of their only main rivals, the Conservatives, in '97,'01 and '05.

Even in the Conservatives' election defeat of 1997, the possible result to which we see the greatest comparison for the coming elections, at the Conservatives lowest point, they managed to achieve 31% of the vote. For Labour to achieve less even than this figure, especially if they are to fall into the 20's, would be both electorally and psychologically devastating and would not only spell disaster for the 2010 election but also place serious question marks upon Labour's very survival. This is a party that is currently embroiled in serious financial trouble, with its only major remaining source of finance being a small number of powerful unions, which may give them undue leverage over any post-election defeat ideological reconfiguration of the party. A combination of the psychological shock of a major electoral defeat on the party's morale, the loss of numerous of the party's major parliamentary figures, as well as the almost certain ideological infighting that may result and the party's perilous financial position could be a sufficiently chronic shock to an already weakened party to allow the Lib Dems to challenge Labour from the right and other minor parties to challenge Labour from its more traditional left. These factors together could damage the party to the extent where, even if it does not fade away as the Liberals did following 1918 (the last time Britain's effectively two party system realigned itself), it could reduce Labour capacity to stage a recovery within the next parliament, near guaranteeing at least 8 years of Conservative government.

(This was originally meant to be a relatively brief piece on my ideas of what, considering the political events and climate of the last years, should be the benchmarks for our political parties in the coming 2010 election, my ideas about the bencharks against which their current and eventual standing could be compared. It has been a personal labour of love about a subject I find fascinating. However, in the writing it has become exceedinly long, of full essay length, and hence I am posting the first half here before the rest is complete, so I don't fall further behind my personal target of posting once per week, and also to avoid ending up with an incredibly long post. I hope you find it interesting. The sections on the Lib Dems and Others is to follow soon. )