Archive for the General Election Category

Triumph of the Wets

Posted in General Election on May 12, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The full implications of what David Cameron might be attempting may only now be dawning on our professional political classes. At 8pm last night John Prescott, the former Deputy Prime Minister, was sounding positively bullish, calling on Labour to mobilise for another General Election, confident in the fact that a Tory/LibDem coalition could not possibly last. By 8.30pm I suspect Labour was feeling far less sanguine when news began to leak of a fixed-term Parliament which could be a massive game changer.

Cameron and Clegg are now bound in political marriage, for better or worse. There will be no cutting and running here when times get tough or when the polls show that the Conservatives can get a majority in the House if they call another election.

It is possible that familiarity could lead to contempt, but it could also lead to a new long-standing Centrist coalition which could effectively lock the Labour Party out of power for a generation. Of course, in order to be centrist and moderate the Conservative Party will have to move to the centre which brings me to my second point.

Michael Heseltine on BBC News 24 last night used a term which I have not heard in decades, namely ‘One Nation Conservatism’. I suspect this is where Cameron has wanted to be all along, slightly right of centre, following in the footsteps of Rab Butler, Alec Douglas Home, Ian Macleod and, dare I say it, Ted Heath (pictured above) – a political position which dominated the 1950s and 60s for the Conservatives. It has taken political expediency and a lust for power to convince his party to take its first steps to follow him.

One Nation Conservatism is the left wing of the Conservative Party, standing for fairness and consensus in society which Thatcher famously denied existed (“there’s no such thing as society, only individuals”). She famously labeled them “wets”, the only Prime Minister in living memory to give such a derogatory term to members of her own party.

Cameron is now in position to banish, within his own party and crucially in the minds of the electorate the spectre of Thatcherism, confining it to its rightful place in the history of Conservatism as an aberration fuelled by circumstance and three General Election victories brought on by militant trade unionism (1979), a horrendously split Labour Party and a war (1983) and the combination of all three and an artificial economic boom for her last victory (1987).

In many ways Labour was right, the Conservative Party hasn’t changed. The nightmare for them is that Cameron is about to.

Press fails to find spirit of new politics

Posted in General Election on May 10, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

What a fascinating weekend of political manoeuvring despite the fact that we have no idea what is going on within the confines of the Cabinet Office.

Paddy Ashdown being interviewed by Andrew Marr on Sunday morning said he was struck by the new tone that politics has taken on, since Thursday, namely respectful, a willingness to compromise and talk of the ‘national interest’ above party. Michael Gove on the same programme said that he would be willing to give up his Cabinet portfolio (Education) for a LibDem appointment, if asked!

Not everybody feels that way though. Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian warned voters that this sort of grubby, closed door dealing is what you get with Proportional Representation. I like Jenkins’ stuff but I think he is wrong here. All indications coming from both sides is that substantive discussions of policy in order to find a consensus are taking place, such as how can we find a compromise position on Europe, between the Tory anti-Europe stance and the pro-Europe LibDems. At the moment this does not appear to be just a carving up of Cabinet positions (“You can have the Foreign Office if we can have the DTI”).

Why don’t we recognise consensus building when we see it? Well, it’s been a long time since anybody tried (February 1974 in fact) and a very long time since anyone succeeded. In fact it took the threat of imminent invasion by Nazi Germany to get the last cross-party Government off the ground in this country in 1940.

What is interesting is that the traditional media has so far failed to pick up on this new tone. At opposite ends of the political spectrum both the Guardian and the Telegraph have been stuck in traditional territory with the Guardian still desperately trying to whip up a Lib/Lab deal and warning of knives in the back for Clegg & Co. Meanwhile, the Telegraph commentators barely able to hide their contempt for having to deal with the Liberals.

The intriguing question is whether, if a deal is struck, the newspapers will be forced to temper their scorn for the other side. If they don’t they certainly risk alienating their readerships, because my gut feeling is that the public wants consensus and grown-up politics, not slanging matches and bickering, even if the papers don’t.

Election Blog: The Wisdom of Piers

Posted in General Election on May 7, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The most sensible comment I heard last night was from a Britain’s Got Talent judge at about 10.30pm once the BBC/Mori exit poll came in. Piers Morgan being interviewed on a boat on the Thames by Andrew Neil (why a boat on The Thames? I’ve no idea) said and I quote: “I think we could look back in a week’s time and say that the big story of May 6th was the financial crisis that is heading towards us.” Andrew Neil former editor of The Economist concurred.

The financial crisis in Greece has all the capacity to seriously derail this country and the international markets are very worried. Yesterday, the Dow Jones Index in New York fell 3 per cent over fears that Government debt in Spain and Portugal was unsustainable. The Nikkei Index in Japan fell 4 per cent in early trading.

Moody’s Investor Service summed it up yesterday. “As shown by the recent downgrade of Greek banks as a result of sovereign weakness, the potential contagion of sovereign risks to banking systems could spread to other countries such as Portugal, Spain, Italy, as well as Ireland and the U.K.”

Why are the markets reacting in this way? Because there are real concerns that Governments will not be able to reduce their debt levels or could even default without drastic action of the kind that was not talked about by any of the major parties during the election campaign.

My feelings all along have been that severe cuts are coming (no surprise there) but also that interest rates in this country will probably have to rise sharply in order to support UK Government Bonds – both of which are going to be painful. Bond markets in the UK, which started trading at 1.00am this morning have reacted badly to the idea of a hung parliament when they want stability and firm action.

Where do we go from here? My view on last night, is that the country has given a thumbs down to all parties. If I was in Cameron’s position, in a rapidly deteriorating financial situation, I would be very wary of trying to form and run a minority Government, especially with George Osborne as Chancellor who is neither liked nor respected in the Square Mile. That is just a fact, not opinion, and was said again by a spokesman for RBC Bank on radio this morning.

If I was in the Conservative Leader’s shoes I would seriously consider forming some kind of “Government of all the Talents” to get us through the next twelve months at least, which will probably include Ken Clarke as Chancellor and Vince Cable in the Cabinet. He needs to be far-sighted and statesman-like now. A quick grab for power on his own may make him feel good in the short term, but also leaves him in a position where he takes all the blame for the pain that is coming.

Election Blog: A Bad Campaign for Traditional Print Media

Posted in General Election, Media on May 6, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Well, it may not have been the Twitter and Blog election we were promised, but I do think we can draw some conclusions about the performance of our traditional media over the last four weeks. For the purpose of this blog, I am lumping the dailies in with their weekend counterparts.

Some individuals have done well. Jonathan Freedland has offered real insight in the Guardian whilst covering the campaigns on the ground, whilst Jackie Ashley and Martin Kettle have provided solid guides to Labour thinking, constitutional questions etc. Steve Richards in the Independent has offered a very good window into the Brown Camp and the PM’s individual thoughts whilst Simon Heffer in the Telegraph offered some excellent commentary on the Tory campaign and what Cameron could and should do next.

The Times, I am afraid has been poor. Election news reporting has been average but the commentary has been lame. The loss of Simon Jenkins to the Guardian, the disappearance of Alice Miles and the increasingly sporadic appearances of Anatole Kaletsky has left them bereft of any real stars, which must be an issue for the paper with paywalls just around the corner.

Commentator of the campaign though goes to David Yelland, the ex-Sun editor (pictured above). He only wrote once, but gave an astonishing insight into the Murdoch empire and how much a Cameron win means to them.

Overall however this has been a bad campaign for traditional media and I offer as evidence three key moments.

Firstly, Rebekah Brooks, nee Wade, and James Murdoch storming into Rod Liddle’s offices to complain about the Independent’s front page headline, “Rupert Murdoch Won’t Decide This Election. You will” an account of which can be read HERE. As Michael White in the Guardian put it, “that’s pretty uncool” and shows the extent to which many newspapers have been rattled by Cleggmania.

Secondly, the April 22nd campaign to discredit Clegg with Nazi slurs and bogus fraud claims. My own view is that the Telegraph, Express and Mail made fools of themselves with what looks like a last baying of a dying beast. Most interestingly, the public chose to ignor it with no discernible effect on the opinion polls.

Finally, the digital reaction to the Clegg onslaught at #nickcleggsfault on Twitter which instantly rocketed to the top of the Twitter rankings. My favourite was, “Kennedy assassination: new footage confirms gunman on grassy knoll was Nick Clegg.” I’ve heard the traditional media questioned before and often accused of bias, but never publicly ridiculed.

My media man of the election though is James Cook of the BBC, whom I met when he came to Worcester Bosch a few weeks ago, following the Prime Minister around on his Battle Bus. Not only did James give me some valuable insight into how Alex Salmond and the SNP are perceived in Scotland, but he also told me that he didn’t expect to sleep in his own bed until sometime on May 7th. Now that is above and beyond the call of duty!

Election Blog: What is Going on Out There?

Posted in General Election on May 4, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The news over the weekend that a number of opinion polls are giving the Tories a strengthening lead, particularly in key marginals is, on the face of it, a blow to both the LibDems and Labour.

So, is this “most unpredictable General Election in a generation” going to become a bit of a damp squib? My view is that this one is still too close to call and I would advise caution, particularly on polls which are attempting to gauge sentiment in battleground seats. A spokesman for the pollsters ComRes on Saturday evening was asked on TV how confident he was of his company’s data and his answer summed up the dilemma. “I’m confident of our national poll numbers, but I’m not confident of how that transfers into seats under this electoral system.”

Personally, I’m not even sure the national poll numbers are correct as there are multiple factors which could be distorting results and how they transfer down to a local level.

1: New voter registrations
Apparently there has been quite a surge in new voter registrations, particularly amongst the younger generation, none of whom will have been picked up by the pollsters.

2: Late Deciders
1 in 3 of us doesn’t make up our mind until we are actually in the ballot box.

3: Independent candidates
We have a record number of independent candidates standing against expenses scandal MPs all of whom will be armed to the teeth with details of duck houses, second homes and moats etc.

4: Local allegiances
Actually some of our MPs are quite good at their jobs and liked by their constituents. Take Jacqui Smith in Redditch for example, who is highly regarded in the constituency and had Tony Blair campaigning for her yesterday. Would Labour send TB there if they didn’t think they had a chance of holding it?

5: Minor Parties
Immigration has come right to the top of the agenda during this election campaign and that can only help the likes of UKIP and, dare I say it, the BNP.

6: Tactical Voting
This is the big one. The British have got a taste for this now and there are multiple websites which can help people work out how to vote. Also the pollsters struggle to pick it up.

I wouldn’t put my own money on any result at the moment, but I would fancy a little wager on how much egg the pollsters are likely to have on their faces come Friday.

Election Blog: Wot, no baby kissing?

Posted in General Election, Politics on April 26, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

News that Gordon Brown is to meet more ordinary people on the stump comes in the wake of press reports saying that the Tory campaign is shielding Cameron from the general public. Apparently, he is speaking almost exclusively to hand-picked groups of Tory supporters.

What’s going on? More than likely both campaigns are so scared of a handbagging by the likes of you and me (remember Blair getting ambushed by the woman outside the hospital in 2005 or Joe the Plumber making Obama squirm) that our political leaders are now being wrapped in cotton wool by their PR people.

Of course the downside is that everything feels slightly scripted and lacking in spontaneity. When was the last time you saw a politician kissing a baby?

It might also explain why Cameron is struggling to generate a real rapport with the public (Brown never had one anyway) and Clegg, with his ability to think on his feet and down to earth way of talking, is making a breakthrough.

Is the stump still important in the modern media age? I believe it is if you want to make a real connection. People want to see you, or at least watch you on TV, meeting people in the street.

The following is a description of Lyndon Johnson’s electioneering style in his campaign for Congress in 1937, taken from Robert A Caro’s mammoth four volume biography of the 36th President.

“The rapport was cemented by a physical demonstration of affection. With women, the cement was a hug and a kiss on the cheek. “Lyndon’s kissing” became almost a joke during the campaign. One elderly Hill Country rancher, annoyed by his wife’s insistence on attending a Johnson rally, growled, “Oh you just want to be kissed.” The rancher agreed to take her, but she was ill on the day of the rally, and he went alone. Upon his return, he told his wife, in some wonder: “He kissed me!”.

Labour appears to be belatedly coming round to the fact that it needs a less sanitised campaign, but it might already be too late. The real issue is whether Cameron will get out there and meet people and, if necessary, argue it out toe to toe with the electorate. We’ll all admire him a lot more if he does.

Election Blog: Clegg Must Demand Answers on Trident

Posted in General Election on April 22, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

The most disheartening part of the first leadership debate last week was the way both Gordon Brown and David Cameron wrapped themselves in the flag when it came to a discussion about the replacement for Trident, the UK’s nuclear missile system. It is not the place of this blog to advocate replacement or cancellation, but I do think this issue needs discussing in a grown-up non-jingoistic way.

Trident is a submarine-based missile system armed with nuclear warheads. We currently have approximately 200 warheads on four Vanguard nuclear submarines, based out of the Faslane naval base in Scotland. Trident was designed to enable the UK to respond to a massive first strike nuclear attack by a foreign power, namely the Soviet Union. In other words, the Soviets hit us and, because our nuclear submarines are at sea not on land, we could hit them back. The current Trident system has been in operation since the early 1980s and is now reaching its sell-by-date. The cost of replacement is circa £80 billion over its serviceable lifetime.

Why then do you rarely hear this issue being discussed? The answer is that the two main parties do not want to discuss it, which is why they both close down the argument as soon as it comes up, as Brown did last week (“I’ll never leave this country undefended”). Labour is scared of the discussion because of its links with pressure groups like CND which Thatcher ruthlessly used against them in the early ’80s. The Conservatives are scared of the topic because the right wing of the Conservative Party would never forgive a Tory Prime Minister for abandoning our independent nuclear deterrent. Both are worried that the other will paint them as ‘weak on defence’.

Which leaves us with no debate when we actually need answers to some pretty crucial questions:

1: Can we afford it?
In the current economic climate £80 billion is a lot of money. I know you can’t put a price on security, but how at risk are we? Which brings me to point 2.

2: Do we need it?
Every war or insurgency this country has been involved in since 1945 (Korea, Malaysia, the Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan) has involved the use of conventional armies with no deployment of nuclear weapons. In what eventuality would the UK Government therefore use the nuclear option?

3: Who will it be used against?
Brown mentioned Iran last week. However, my understanding of geopolitics is that if Ahmadinejad gets a nuclear weapon (and it remains a big ‘if’) he’ll point it at Israel not us. Who are we going to point ours at?

4: Will anybody be mad enough to use it?
When J Robert Oppenheimer, the father of the atomic bomb, witnessed the first ‘Trinity’ test explosion in 1944 he famously quoted the lines from Bhagavad Gita, “now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. Of course he was nothing of the kind because what Oppenheimer didn’t understand then, but became obvious over the coming decades, particularly with the development of the Super Bomb, was that the implications of being the first to use nuclear weapons were so enormous that nobody ever did. Therefore, does a UK Government foresee any circumstances in which we would be the first to strike?

5: Isn’t this out of step with Obama?
The Nuclear Posture Review published by the Obama Administration on April 6th shifts the focus away from a cold war strategy that saw the main threat as coming from Russia or China, recognising the major threat now is from nuclear proliferation or from a terrorist organisation. It also regards having a huge nuclear stockpile as redundant. Why are we going down this route therefore when Obama is going the other way?

There are many across the political spectrum, including individuals like Simon Jenkins, former editor of The Times, along with Conservatives like Malcolm Rifkind and Michael Portillo, none of whom can be called CND apologists, who are openly questioning the need for a Trident replacement, particularly at a time when our conventional forces are so over-stretched. Yesterday in The Times, four senior military commanders questioned its usefulness.

This is a huge issue for this country but the silence is deafening from the major parties whenever the subject comes up. Tonight, when it does, Clegg has to stand firm and ask his opponents for answers to some of the questions above.

Election Blog: Could Bromsgrove be Cameron’s Waterloo?

Posted in General Election on April 21, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

I’ve been puzzled by my own constituency in recent weeks. Bromsgrove is Julie Kirkbride’s seat and has been a Conservative stronghold since the seat split with Redditch due to boundary changes in 1983. Kirkbride has been returned with a circa 8,000-10,000 majority in the last two elections, but I had assumed that things might get a little more exciting this time for two reasons.

Firstly, the Conservatives will have inevitably taken something of a hit for the Julie debacle, not least because Bromsgrove was furious, which manifested itself in the windows of the local constituency office being broken this time last year.

Secondly, and most importantly, Bromsgrove Conservatives have had a Central Office appointment foisted upon them, namely Sajid Javid, and they don’t like it. Javid who, if he holds the seat, will become the Tories’ first Muslim MP also has a less than PR-friendly past.

Why? Well it’s simple really, because before becoming a Conservative candidate, Sajid was Managing Director and Head of Global Credit Trading at Deutsche Bank in London, responsible for cash and derivative credit trading, CDOs, securitisation, structured finance, convertibles etc. In short, most of the stuff which created the credit crunch in the first place. (Funnily enough, he doesn’t mention this much in his campaign literature).

One Bromsgrove Conservative, namely Adrian Kriss, decided enough was enough and decided to run as an independent candidate.

Despite all this, all has been quiet up until now, with exception of a couple of small posters for Sajid in fields adjacent to the A38, with no visible advertising for Labour or the LibDems. However, in recent days, Kriss has upped the ante, rebranding himself as an Independent Conservative. What’s more, I noticed this morning that Mr Kriss has purchased an enormous 48 sheet poster site in the centre of Bromsgrove which must have cost circa £2k at least with printing and media costs.

Two questions. Can Kriss win? You have to say ‘no’ but these are not ordinary times and just being able to purchase this poster will be a shock to the Tories.

Secondly, what does this mean for Cameron? Well, the electoral arithmetic goes like this. In order to get a majority he has to hold onto all his current seats, take a huge number of Labour seats and take approximately 23 LibDem seats. After last Thursday the latter was looking like a big ask but I am beginning to wonder if he is not getting into a fight for one of his own here.

The Tory nightmare, even if Kriss can’t win is that he splits the Conservative vote and lets in Labour or the LibDems.

Interesting times.

The Leadership Debates Round 1 – A Good Night for Clegg

Posted in General Election on April 16, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

I got up early this morning to write this before reading or watching any reviews of last night’s debate, to make sure my thoughts wouldn’t be coloured by the political pundits. As I said in yesterday’s blog, my own view is that this sort of thing merely entrenches currently held opinions, so this blog comes with some health warnings.

Anyway, in order of political power, I thought this is how it went.

The Prime Minister had a reasonable night and, in all honesty, that was about as good as he could hope for. Many will have tuned in as Polly Toynbee said in yesterday’s Guardian to watch the Brown ‘car crash’ but he avoided that with ease. His opening statement was classic Brown. No empathy, no showmanship just “this is what I stand for, this is what I’m going to do, take it or leave it.” I don’t think that will hurt him with undecided voters – there is so much cynicism about politicians out there that attempts to cosy up will be seen as a ploy. Interestingly, he took the attack directly to Cameron from the off. This is a clear Labour tactic, to almost run as an opposition party by making the real opposition answer difficult questions. It worked very well in Scotland against the SNP.

In my view, Cameron had a bad night. This is not the David Cameron we see and hear in the House of Commons, who teases and baits Brown to distraction. I don’t know whether his handlers told him to be Prime Ministerial and statesmanlike but he seemed at times reluctant to engage. In terms of policy, I’m still not sure where the Conservatives stand on key issues. Is money raised from spending cuts going to cut the deficit or is he going to spend it on the NHS and Defence? Equally, I’m sure it’s annoying that some Chief Executives in the NHS have got a seven per cent pay rise but capping this sort of thing is going to raise peanuts in the grand scheme of things. I also thought the standing arrangements did him no favours. At times, particularly early on, he was assailed from both sides as both Clegg and Brown piled in on him, which made him look distinctly uncomfortable on one or two occasions (if this was deliberate, kudos to whoever it was in the Labour Party who came up with it).

Clegg, I thought, had an excellent evening. His, almost certainly rehearsed, astonishment at the two major parties’ embrace of reform of the House of Lords (“I can’t believe I’m hearing this”) was one of the few highlights and will give a valuable insight to many voters on the maneuverings of the two main parties to block political reform whilst all the time calling for change. He was also very specific about where cuts would come, in particular child benefits and the proposed replacement for Trident. His one wobble moment, came when Brown and Cameron, played the patriotism card over Trident (Brown: “I’ll never leave this country undefended”). This issue deserves debating without any of the participants wrapping themselves in the flag (I’ll come back to this when I post again next week before the debate on foreign policy).

In short, no knockout blows and many will have switched off well before 10pm, but I suspect the Conservatives will be more worried today.

Report card:

Brown, reasonable start
Cameron, must do better
Clegg, keep it going

Why we need electoral reform

Posted in General Election on April 14, 2010 by Tom Leatherbarrow

After posting yesterday’s musings it occurred to me that a little bit of explanation might be necessary about why I think our current electoral process needs a makeover.

We currently use the First Past The Post, winner takes all system. Sounds good doesn’t it? A clear distinction between a winner and the losers, a bit like the Grand National. In practice however it is, more often than not, a very unfair system.

Let’s take the 1997 Election for example, when Blair got a whopping majority. In ‘97 it took circa 32,000 votes to elect a Labour MP. I arrived at this figure by taking the total number of votes cast for Labour, namely 13,518,167, and dividing it by the total number of MPs elected, namely 418. By way of comparison it took, 58,187 votes to elect a Conservative MP.

But the real disparity comes with the Liberal Democrats for whom it took a whopping 113,976 votes to get one of their MPs elected. The Liberals took 16 per cent of the popular vote across the country (5.25 million voters) but got less than 7 per cent of the seats. A fair division of the seats based on the popular vote would have given the Liberals approximately 105 seats. By way of comparison, the Labour Party got 43.2 per cent of the popular vote which delivered 63 per cent of the seats available.

Why such a disparity? Because First Past The Post rewards the winner with nothing for those who come in second. What the Liberals do is rack up a huge number of second place finishes across the whole country. For example, in the North of England with its traditional Labour stronghold seats, the Liberals come in second behind Labour because the Conservative Party is regarded in many areas as a bunch of toffs. Equally, however, they also come in second in traditional Tory stronghold areas, like the Shire counties, where Labour is still regarded as a bunch of trade union dominated revolutionaries.

So what I hear you cry, there’s nothing in life for losers! Except that we have a huge block of moderate centrist voters who diligently cast their vote in constituencies across the country and are totally unrepresented. What’s more, many voters are put off voting Liberal because they know that under the current system they have no chance of forming a Government (the two major parties are always quick to point this one out, “it’s a wasted vote”). The question is, what would the Liberal vote be like if they actually had a chance?

The current system is directly responsible for much of our national cynicism about politics. It produces two entrenched camps who squabble and swap power between them oblivious to the need for national consensus. It led indirectly to some of the most controversial policies of the last thirty years like the Poll Tax and the Iraq War. With huge majorities and the whipping system there was nothing to stop either Thatcher or Blair committing to both.

I worry about a hung Parliament in the short term, particularly in terms of its affect on the economy. However, it might just prod either of the two major parties to do what, deep down, they know they should do anyway. Get rid of this outdated and unfair system.