Friday, May 21, 2010

What happened in Exeter at the General Election?

Before the election, the Conservative candidate Hannah Foster said "The Exeter seat decides the country. If Exeter changes hands, the country changes hands, and if it doesn’t, it probably won't."

It turns out she was perceptive, and my expectations were wrong. The results in Exeter showed a big increase in the Conservative vote, but not enough to take the seat. The Labour vote decreased, but by not quite as much as it could have done. The LibDem vote, at one time expected to be much higher following the first television debate, stayed much the same.

Candidate Party


Ben Bradshaw Labour 19,942 38.2 43.6
Hannah Foster Conservative 17,221 33.0 24.9
Graham Oakes Liberal Democrat 10,581 20.3 20.2
Keith Crawford UKIP 1,930 3.7
Chris Gale Liberal Party 1,108 2.1
Paula Black Green 792 1.5
Robert Farmer BNP 673 1.3

Notional 2005 figures from UK Polling Report

National, regional and marginal opinion polls during the campaign showed a much higher LibDem vote than this, for a few days showing a LibDem win. So what happened?

Firstly, in line with the national trend, I think that the closer it got to election day, the more people reverted to tactical voting in order to either keep the Conservatives from winning, or to ensure that Labour lost office. I'm sure that the relentless smear campaign by the right-wing press had an effect, and numerous other factors played a role, but I think this classic "squeeze" of the third party in the First-Past-The-Post voting system was a key factor.

Secondly, Hannah Foster for the Conservatives was clearly a strong candidate. On the liberal wing of the party, clued up on climate change, personable, experienced in politics, extremely well-funded, with visits from Shadow Cabinet members and assisted by a young energetic team, Hannah was formidable. Without the boundary changes that moved the Conservative-leaning Topsham and St Loyes wards out of the Exeter constituency (to the East Devon constituency), Hannah could well have won.

Thirdly, Ben Bradshaw for Labour also ran a great campaign. A blizzard of leaflets almost matched the Conservatives in number and production values. He wisely persuaded party managers to let him stay to defend Exeter rather than tour other constituencies and the television studios, as had been expected of him as a media-friendly Cabinet Minister. There more hustings than ever before, and his doorstep charm was undiminished. Most significantly, his campaign put out the message that the race was neck-and-neck between Labour and the Conservatives. This claim became self-fulfilling, because many of those inclined to vote LibDem, Green or Liberal did not want to risk a Conservative win, and so reluctantly voted Labour tactically.

Graham Oakes therefore did brilliantly to maintain the LibDem vote share. In fact, despite the squeeze, there was a slight increase in the total number of LibDem votes over the 2005 notional figures. This was despite having nowhere near the funds to match Labour or the Conservatives. As the third party in the constituency, the LibDems could not afford to fight as Labour and the Conservatives could. Many Exeter LibDem activists had to be deployed elsewhere in Devon, defending sitting MPs against the Conservative onslaught. Labour could bring in reinforcements of volunteers from London; the LibDems could not. Labour and Conservatives sent waves of high-profile front-benchers into the campaign; the LibDems could not.

The coverage in Exeter Express & Echo showed the usual bias towards the Conservatives, with some fawning this time also towards Ben Bradshaw, as the Cabinet Minister responsible for the media. This bias was matched in the national press, as illustrated by this article in the Daily Mail by the right-wing journalist Quentin Letts.

So how did votes change?

As can be seen in the table above, the Conservative vote increased by 8.1%, the Labour vote decreased by 5.4%, while the LibDem vote stayed much the same. So it was the collapse in the smaller parties that explains the difference between the Conservative increase and the Labour decline. The best news of the election is that the BNP came last.

In the absence of further evidence, my guess is that there were a few people who switched directly from Labour to Conservative, but a more common route was a switch from Labour to LibDem, combined with big tactical "stop the Tories" voting by those inclined to vote Green, Liberal and LibDem.

What were the key issues? It's of course difficult to say. Many different issues were covered in the debates, by the media, at hustings, and on the doorstep. Labour's leaflets tended to emphasise the government's record on the economy, the NHS and schools. Conservative leaflets tended to focus on David Cameron as the person to sort out the deficit, help working families and increasing employment. The LibDem leaflets emphasised the four steps (fairer taxes, fair chance for every child, fairer economy, cleaning up politics) and attacked Labour's record on Iraq, taxation, and the moving of cancer surgery to Plymouth.

Despite tough questioning at the hustings, I'm not sure how much voters were actually swayed by MP's expenses, unitary local government, foreign affairs or climate change.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the next general election in Exeter. Ben Bradshaw's majority is now down to 2721, which the Conservatives could take on a swing of just over 3%. However, assuming the coalition government survives for the next 5 years as planned, there are plans for constituencies to be resized, and for there to be a vote on changing the First-Past-The-Post voting system to AV. Either of these plans could have a profound effect on the Exeter battle.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jumping all over the fence

For all the inherent mishmashedness of the construct, I'm a natural Liberal Democrat.

Not a liberal in toto, because the ideological purity of that philosophy needs for me the counterbalancing of a concern for freedom with concerns for social justice, democracy and our environment. I have had plenty of animated discussions with friends who have argued that liberalism properly understood can encompass all that I need from the latter concerns, but I think the debate is far from settled; and when it comes to a framework for shaping political decision-making I'd rather run the risk of amalgamating philosophies that lead to potentially contradictory conclusions (that can be pragmatically compared against each other) than have conclusions that omit the above concerns because the arguments are too subtle.

Whatever. Philosophically, it's a mess. But I'm certainly not a conservative or a socialist.

So when it comes to the charge of "supporting" a Tory government or "propping up" a failed Labour government, I am uncomfortable, as are many Liberal Democrat voters.

Looking back over my tweets from the last week, I find evidence of this discomfort.

I started with...
I don't relish Nick's choices. My gut feeling is to permit - but be no part of - a minority Tory govt, & explore new HoC's opinions on STV
This got me accused of being a soft Tory, which of course stung. But, I reasoned, coalition with Labour would be seen as keeping a failing government in power. The parliamentary arithmetic is dodgy, and would lead to an unstable government, beholden to tiny parties. Struggling on like this would also lead to both parties hemorrhaging popular support. At the same time I thought that coalition with the Conservatives would be unlikely to work given the sharp policy differences and instinctive psychological antagonisms. And I believed the Conservatives were temperamentally incapable at this time of handling compromise, and so would screw up coalition. Either option would lead to a quick second general election in which (without electoral reform) tactical voting in favour of the two larger parties would lead to electoral wipe-out for the LibDems.

A minority Tory government might protect the LibDems to some extent, gain some minor policy concessions, and lead to cross-party agreement on electoral reform. In this scenario, Labour and LibDems would work in opposition together to block the worst excesses of conservatism. The Tories would screw up minority government and a second election would lead to gains for both Labour and the LibDems. The downside would be that this option would play to the "hung parliament = instability" accusation.

The importance of electoral reform in all this is not purely party self-interest, by the way. Firstly, our current voting system allows a party to attain absolute executive power with a small share of the vote. As Mark Pack put it, "It's not about academic debates on the features of different electoral formulas; it's about the gritty realities of taking power away from the political establishment and giving it to voters". Secondly, the fact that about half the parliamentary seats never change hands between parties leads to complacency and abuses like the expenses scandal. Thirdly, the quality of our national debate suffers because so few voices outside the Labour and Conservatives are heard in Westminster. There are more than just two views in the country. And it's not just the Liberal Democrats: Green and UKIP perspectives deserve to be heard in Parliament since they speak for many in the country, albeit not at the level of the two large parties. But at a more obvious practical level, a British coalition would struggle to survive if the leader of the larger partner can choose to call an election as soon as the polls favour it, and see tactical voting in the FPTP system squeeze the vote of the smaller partner.

So when the Liberal Democrats began coalition talks with the Conservatives, I was of the #dontdoitnick movement:
I agree #dontdoitnick for unworthy reason: Tories can't handle compromise, so will screw it up. But not good advert 4 PR
At this point Twitter and the blogosphere became almost unbearably tribalist. Conservatives suddenly began to be unsettlingly nice to LibDems; Labour supporters frighteningly antagonistic.

The presumption on both sides was that this was all about party advantage. One minster was quoted as saying "If the Liberals do a deal, they will be toast at the next election... You can write the leaflets now". This truth disproved the assertion that a LibDem-Conservative coalition was about party advantage, but no-one seemed to notice. "Party advantage" quickly elided into "A seat at the top table for Clegg", "Trading principle for ministerial cars" and the like.

On Any Questions, Shirley Williams reached the conclusion, as I had done, that there could be no coalition without electoral reform, but allowing Tory government would be possible. Meanwhile, John Redwood thought that calling the LibDem's campaign for fair votes a "pet project" would set the proper expectations.

At about this time, Evan Harris (praise be upon him) wrote that Labour offered the closest value match. The quest for a Rainbow Alliance of red, yellow, green and others was underway, and I got caught up in the enthusiasm for a #progressivemajority.
If it can work, brilliant.
Interestingly, though, the abuse from Labour supporters did not ease up, even after the LibDems opened talks with the Labour party. Conservatives wallowed lovingly in the phrase "Coalition of Losers", but it became apparent, as Ed Balls sabotaged the talks, that Labour seemed psychologically unprepared fora Progressive Majority. The SNP were publicly rubbished; electoral reform was batted away. Perhaps, as some younger Labour supporters notes, there are quite a few conservatives (small c) among the Labour old-guard. Or perhaps 13 years of unthinking authoritarian ways has cut Labour off from the progressive movement.

The irony is, a progressive majority could have been possible if there had been more LibDem MPs and fewer of these old-style Labour MPs. It truly was a case of "Vote Brown; get Cameron".

Finally, with the tribalist abuse reaching fever pitch, a deal was struck. My MP Ben Bradshaw offered warm invitations for Liberal Democrats to join the Labour party. I reserved judgment on the deal itself, until I read the details, but declined Ben's kind invitation:
Let me think... climate change, Iraq, STV, #debill, expenses, banks, authoritarianism, #nuttsack, Vince... no, I'm good thanks
Labour spin doctors insisted angrily that Nick Clegg made David Cameron the Prime Minister. I prefer to think that the voters did that, albeit through a bad electoral system. Things could have been very different if Labour had honoured its promise on voting reform.

When the coalition agreement was published, I read it carefully. I was pleasantly surprised:
I've read the coalition agreement. There are so many good things there, that I can probably live with the bad.
Following the election, few Labour tweeters, bloggers or politicians seemed to want to engage LibDems in policy discussion, and yet this Liberal Democrat - Conservative coalition agreement includes policies for a pupil premium, a scrutiny of Trident's value for money, the restoration of the earnings link for the basic state pension, an increase in the personal allowance for income tax, an increase in Capital Gains Tax, the tackling of tax avoidance by the very rich, the halting of the Conservatives' planned cuts in inheritance tax for the very rich, the replacement of the Air Passenger Duty with a per-flight duty, the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments, a referendum on electoral reform, a power of MP recall, PR for the House of Lords, a statutory register of lobbyists, the removal of big money from politics, the devolution of power to local government, the phasing out of the default retirement age, the repeal of Labour's assault on civil liberties, the scrapping of ID cards, a review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech, the ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason, plans for home energy improvement, support for renewables, the cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow, measures to promote green spaces, a national recharging network, prohibition of public subsidy for nuclear power...

So many good things that would have been unlikely without this coalition.

I'm still very wary:
Particular concerns about STV, welfare, nuclear energy, Higher Education, marriage tax bonus, slimy bastards & electoral oblivion
... but coalition on the basis of these policies does, on the whole, seem better for the country than the unstable Tory minority government I originally favoured.

The "I voted LibDem; now they've let in the Tories; I'm never voting for them again" meme was, and continues to be, highly virulent. It's nonsense of course: LibDem votes have prevented both a Tory-only government and a continuing Labour-only government, both of which would have been dreadful for the country. I fully expect the LibDems to be shafted by the slimy bastards, and, if the gamble on an electoral reform referendum fails, to be wiped out at the next general election. But that is the price to be paid for getting so many progressive policies implemented.
RT me [can't quite believe this situation] It's amazing Tories are willing to implement progressive policies & Labour isn't.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The General Election: Reflections on my failure as a blogger

I started this blog 18 months ago with a number of aims:
  1. To help sharpen the Liberal Democrat offering to the British people at the next general election, an offering that at that time appeared to lack focus and presentational quality.
  2. To try to help improve the quality of discourse at the more "tabloid end" of political discussion, to move beyond slogans and smears.
  3. To try to influence how voters, particularly in Exeter where I live, go about choosing between political parties and candidates, to move beyond tribalism to rationality.

It might well be said I've failed fairly comprehensively on each of these aims:
  1. The LibDems succeeded in improving their policies and presentation, but no thanks to me. I've not seen any evidence of influence.
  2. Nick Clegg's performance in the first television debate led to improved LibDem poll ratings, but subsequent journalism and politics indulged in all the usual barren punch-and-judy behaviour. There was no renaissance in political discourse that I could see amongst commentators, politicians or voters.
  3. Yesterday's general election results, for me, confirm that this behaviour still works as a way of getting votes. In Exeter in particular, Labour ran with a message of "It's neck-and-neck between Labour and Tories", successfully scaring those who believe in LibDem policies into voting either for Labour (to stop the Tories) or for the Tories (to get Labour out).

Now, I say "failure", but to be fair, there are influential bloggers out there who had very welcome success in relation to Aim 1 - I would single out Neil Stockley, Alix Mortimer & Alex Wilcock for particular praise - so my failure here was not a great loss.

And in relation to Aim 2, I'm very far from being the first person to find it difficult to create tabloid-style arguments that are more than either whispers in the wind or glorified slogans. Maybe blogging can't have such grandiose aims.

And to be fair in relation to Aim 3, the Exeter LibDem candidate Graham Oakes did very well not to have his vote squeezed at all, given that the self-fulfilling "Lab-Con neck-and-neck" scaremongering was championed by extremely well-funded, well-staffed and media-supported Labour and Conservative campaigns in Exeter.

A final point. Perhaps the way I went about blogging was fatally flawed. The most successful blogs have a sense of authenticity about them: "This is what I think", they say, "disagree with me if you like, but you can't deny me my voice." This blog lacked that authenticity. It wasn't my voice. I could have written about tabloid-level arguments without trying to use them; but that seemed somehow patronising and elitist. So instead I tried to construct them. However as constructs I found the overall tone of the blog unconvincing; and being perceived as having a Machiavellian agenda inevitably highlights the inherent elitism anyway, without the benefits of authenticity.

It's worth emphasising that I wasn't "dumbing down" or "slumming it" in order to deceive. I genuinely believe that if your arguments are too subtle and clever to be translated into language that can be readily understood outside activist circles then there's probably a flaw in those arguments somewhere.

It's interesting that Twitter turned out to be a more rewarding experience than blogging, probably because it was authentically my political voice rather than a more stylised blogging construct, but again there was little evidence of impact.

What to do now?

I will probably continue to post every now and again. I think we live in exciting times politically, and Exeter is also an exciting place politically. But I think it's best to stop having ulterior aims beyond writing what I think.