Saturday, February 6, 2010

Exeter constituency - some complications

In my previous post, I quoted the Conservative candidate Hannah Foster, who has said "The Exeter seat decides the country. If Exeter changes hands, the country changes hands, and if it doesn’t, it probably won't." And indeed, a swing of 7% from Labour to Conservative would do that: the size of swing that the Conservatives need for a majority.

However there are quite a few complications I didn't consider:

1. Boundary changes
The Topsham and St Loyes wards have been moved to the East Devon constituency for the 2010 general election. Analysts who study such changes suggest that this change disadvantages the Conservatives. Labour's actual majority in 2005 was 14%. Based on the new boundaries UK Polling Report estimates a notional 2005 majority of 19% (9200 votes). Electoral Calculus estimates a notional 2005 majority of 17%.

2. Campaign money

The Conservatives have much more money to spend. Nationally this is well known, and locally this is confirmed by the glossy mini-magazine produced to promote Hannah Foster.

3. Decapitation strategy

There is some evidence that the Conservatives have a plan to target potentially vulnerable Cabinet Ministers, and Ben Bradshaw is often mentioned in such lists. This strategy might or might not succeed, but it does mean more resource and national attention is given to the seat than otherwise might be the case.

4. MPs' expenses

Rather than the usual advantage from incumbency (and a Cabinet post), the mood of the country might well be against incumbents, because of the scandal of MPs' expenses. In principle it should just be the people who were seen to be abusing the expenses system who are punished by the electorate. In practice, those who are punished might well also include those who voted for such a system, or indeed - more indiscriminately - all sitting MPs, even those who campaigned against the flawed system and predicted such abuses. Even more likely, many people will imagine that "They're all as bad as each other" and that somehow not voting acts as some kind of a protest.

5. Toilets

OK not toilets especially, but unanticipated local issues. Recently, for example, Exeter City Council were forced by budget constraints to propose closing 10 of the 26 public toilets in the city. A concerted campaign by the city's newspaper The Express & Echo resulted in this proposal being abandoned in favour of other cost-cutting measures.

Perhaps this particular episode will be mostly forgotten by election time, but some voters will continue to harbour resentments about it; some will forget the issue but be left with a vague sense of not being happy about the running of the council; and some will associate the parliamentary candidates with their respective parties' role in the episode. Similarly with a myriad of other episodes. In this particular case, the reason for the cuts was that the previously healthy council budget was damaged (on top of the recession and Icelandic bank difficulties) by the Government's imposition of a vastly underfunded bus travel scheme. Yet, in this case, it is "the council" that gets the blame for the cuts rather than the Government. It does not always go like this.

Nevertheless, with a LibDem City Council, a Conservative County Council, and a Labour Government, there will likely to be plenty of scope for a blame game.

6. Unitary

A decision is expected in the next few days on the review of local government in Devon. My sources tell me that a Unitary Exeter will be the outcome. This outcome - or a decision to stick with the status quo - would I suspect have little effect on the election. And it is likely that a Conservative government would reverse any substantive changes, in any case. However, a Unitary Devon outcome would be disastrous for Ben Bradshaw's re-election chances, because Exeter would lose its council. This would be a major blow to civic pride, and local accountability, and the benefits of Exeter having a Cabinet Minister as its MP would be seen to have been non-existent.

7. Homophobia

The 1997 Exeter election was infamous for a repugnant homophobic campaign against Ben Bradshaw. 13 years later, the country is more comfortable about sexuality, and the fact that Ben Bradshaw is the first cabinet minister to be in a civil partnership scarcely causes a ripple. On the one hand this suggests there are fewer bigots around in 2010 who will vote against a gay man on principle. On the other hand, of course, those who in previous elections might have voted for Ben Bradshaw primarily in order to counter homophobia, and who might feel in 2010 that there are other issues (the Labour government's record, for example) that weigh heavier with them this time around.

8. Media attention

I've already mentioned how Ben Bradshaw's status as a Cabinet Minister might render more media attention for the Exeter campaign than one might normally expect. Other reasons for greater attention might well be:
  • Seen as a good television performer by his party, Ben Bradshaw is often put forward for Question Time and other political programmes. This high visibility might well continue during the general election campaign.
  • Ben Bradshaw's Cabinet portfolio includes that of the media. He is likely to remain outside any debates about broadcaster bias during the campaign (properly a matter for the party chairs), but discussions about the future of the BBC, of the television licence, of local newspapers, and of national newspaper ownership are likely to involve him. Journalists understandably seem to give such issues special attention. Ben Bradshaw is also a former journalist for both the BBC and the Exeter Express & Echo.
  • Hannah Foster, as a former Chair of Conservative Future, is highly regarded within the Conservative party as a determined serious contender and an excellent candidate. She was an early selection onto the Conservative A-list. She has been successful in getting herself into the Exeter Express & Echo on many occasions, while the publicity and website produced by her campaign have high production values (although actually I've just noticed three typos on the website homepage!) David Cameron and other members of the Shadow Cabinet have visited Exeter several times in the last year and given strong backing.
  • Graham Oakes, the LibDem candidate, has experience of three parliamentary campaigns as candidate: Exeter in 1992, Wells in 2001 and Dorset South in 2005. He is no novice then, although the lack of literature from the LibDems so far suggests that this seat is not a target for them, given the third place in 2005 and the number of south-west seats under threat from the Conservatives.
  • Exeter changed from Conservative to Labour in 1997, just as the country as a whole did.

9. Vote squeeze

Although the hurdle for Hannah Foster to climb looks large, it is entirely possible that the LibDem vote could be squeezed. Hannah Foster looks to be campaigning very much on a Cameron-style "liberal Conservative" platform rather than the old-fashioned right-wing conservatism of "cut taxes for big business; slash public spending; marriage good; immigrants bad; EU bad; lock up the criminals and throw away the key". So her more liberal platform might well attract those who previously voted LibDem and who want Labour punished.

On the other hand, should UKIP stand a candidate (the Earl of Dartmouth has been selected as a prospective candidate), Hannah Foster's less obviously Eurosceptic platform might well be squeezed by UKIP more than Conservative candidates in previous elections.

Another potential squeeze relates to climate change. These particular candidates from the three main parties are, I believe, likely to follow their official party lines on climate change. Yet there is evidence of strong scepticism in the country. However, I suspect that while climate change is a huge issue for those who accept the science, the sceptics would be unlikely to see it as an issue requiring tactical voting (in constrast with, say, Euro-scepticism, socialism, fear of immigration, or hatred of taxes). Nevertheless I would expect to see climate sceptics gravitating to the Conservative party, whatever Hannah Foster's actual views or the official party line on this particular matter, since Conservative PPCs, bloggers and columnists typically rate the issue as low priority.

Previous elections have also included a candidate from the continuing Liberal party. This has usually divided the liberal vote - had this not happened in 2005, the LibDems would have come within a whisker of overtaking the Conservatives. This would have made the 2010 battle look very different indeed, with a liberal in second-place to a representative of a strongly centralising government.

Current forecasts

Ladbrokes are predicting Exeter will be held by Labour (odds of 5/6, with a Conservative win at Evens). Electoral Calculus are predicting Exeter will be held by Labour with a majority of 2.7%.

I'm sure there are further factors I haven't considered: please feel free to let me know of any. This should be an interesting campaign...