Thursday, April 22, 2010

Britain faces up to an unprecedented political change

Three roughly equally supported parties in an election is a fairly unusual phenomenon in any country – but that is what we have in Britain at the moment – and the General Election is only two weeks away! Then three main parties are clustering around 30% each in the opinion polls with a little fewer than ten percent left for the minnows. In recent elections the Liberal Democrats have polled well – 23% in 2005 – but more than ten points behind the other two big parties. That seems to be changing in 2010, with profound effects in sight for both our country and our political system.

Anyone who predicts the outcome of this election with polling day still two weeks away is a seer not a political scientist. But let me have a go. My prediction for the percentage of the votes for the three main parties is as follows: Conservatives 36.5%; Labour 29%; Liberal Democrats 26.5%. This suggests that the LibDems will slip a bit over the next two weeks and that the Tories will be the beneficiary. Don’t ask me why – it’s just a gut feel. So Mr Cameron can start to measure up for curtains in Number 10 can he, and Gordon Brown can pack his bags? Not so fast sunshine! The outcome of my soothsayed election would give the following seat distribution: Conservatives 279; Labour 256 and the LibDems 83. With “others” taking 14 seats this means that the Conservatives, though the largest party, would be 47 seats short of an overall majority. Put another way if the two parties of the left ganged together they would have an overall majority over the Tories and the rest of 46.

Labour and the LibDems have much in common and the prediction in my scenario assumes that a fair number of Labour supporters would vote tactically to keep out a Conservative in a specific seat. If we say that this won’t happen then the Libs would get six fewer seats and the Conservatives six more – which doesn’t really change the outcome much. Still a very hung parliament!

So back to the political realities. Would the LibDems feel obligated to support the Conservatives as the largest party? I don’t see why they should. Would they feel obliged to keep Gordon Brown in power? No again. So is there a third way? You bet there is!

The outcome that many of us would hugely relish would be a formal Labour/LibDem coalition in which the power-brokers would be the LibDems. They would insist (I hope) on a clean sweep through the current cabinet. They would accept a Labour Prime Minister but not the current one – one of the Millibands is a likely choice. Vince Cable would be Chancellor and Nick Clegg Foreign Secretary – and very good they would be at their jobs as well I think. The rest of the cabinet would be younger and much less tainted than the current lot. It really is a mouth-watering prospect because it would not just be new for Britain in peacetime to have a formal coalition but the ideological drivers behind it would be sound.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The mould really could be broken this time...

Clegg put a plague on both their houses in his references to Labour and the Tories in the debate. His physical position on the left of the three party leaders on the stage allowed him to turn to the other two and sweep them together as “old politics” with the LibDems being the only offer of true change. This is seductively attractive – especially to a new generation of voters brought up on the X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. Remember this younger electorate chose John Sergeant ahead of real dancers and refused to be told not to. They will have no compunction about choosing the LibDems and Clegg for similar reasons. Headlines like “Cameron says it’s a two horse race” (in The Telegraph”) don’t help the Tories at all – it sounds arrogant and it patently isn’t true. Indeed for years it has been clear that the main thing that stands in the way of Cameron and government is the strength of the LibDems.

I first became interested in politics as a fifteen year-old at the time of the Orpington bye-election in 1962. Orpington promised that the old order could be shattered and it was very exciting at the time - but it didn’t happen of course. Then in the early 1980s I became one of the first members of the SDP who similarly tried to break the mould. That didn’t happen either. Now, for the first time potential mould-breaking may be happening during a General Election campaign. It may run out of steam and it may once again be a disappointment for those who want real change. But the chances of the mould being shattered for good are higher now than ever before in modern Britain. I hope that it happens.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The first TV election debate

I think that we did see the real David Cameron on the first debate. He looked very odd indeed - and that's saying something when he was alongside Brown who, as Neil Kinnock has said, looks better on Radio. I can’t quite put my finger on why Cameron looked so strange – almost like an alien – but no doubt the clever folks at Central Office are on the case.

Cameron’s voice was OK – how has he managed to re-modulate away from the Eton accent? Quite an achievement. He didn’t go for the throat at either Clegg or Brown and at times he got lost completely. His pre-drafted peroration at the end was excellent – as a CV. But I doubt that it really worked with a very cynical electorate.

He made, in my view, two bad mistakes:

The “40-year-old black man” was an appalling description of the man he met in Plymouth. It throws together all non-Caucasians into one black pot. Far better to have identified where the man originally came from as a six-year-old (The West Indies? India? Somewhere else?) rather than just categorist him (vaguely) by his colour. The question was about immigration not about colour!

The “As someone who has got two children, one of whom started at a state school in London…” was bollocks. His daughter is at a Faith primary school in Kensington utterly unlike the vast majority of state schools that ordinary kids have to go to. And does anyone believe that when the time comes Arthur Elwen won’t go to Eton like Daddy? Of course not!