Monday, October 01, 2007


Oh, I Give In: Election Fever!

After long being convinced there’d be no snap Autumn election, I have to admit that I’ve changed my mind this weekend: perhaps it’s simply that the momentum seems to have picked up to such an extent that Gordon Brown would look dithery if he didn’t go for it; perhaps it’s that the opinion polls are just what I’d want in Mr Brown’s place; perhaps it’s that I finally caught the bug at Saturday’s emergency Federal Policy Committee meeting to decide the Manifesto. Maybe only a successful and united Tory Conference could derail an election now – and how likely’s that?

That Manifesto in Full

While the Tories of course have the slight problem that as yet they have no set policies, and that the tons of reports they’ve produced over the Summer to choose from all contradict each other, the Liberal Democrats’ policy programme is ready. As announced to Lib Dem members from Chris Rennard’s ‘war room’ yesterday, this weekend saw a packed meeting of the Federal Policy Committee to decide the text of our General Election Manifesto in the event of Mr Brown going to the country in the next few weeks. Obviously I can’t tell you what will be in the Manifesto – though, as usual, if you’ve been following our policies, you’ll have a pretty shrewd idea. Nor can I tell you what sort of things were said at Saturday’s meeting. Perhaps after the election’s out of the way (perhaps in two years’ time!), I’ll write my memoirs of it on here, of what the three biggest arguments were, of the policy that was cut out by mistake, or of just how I used the medium of M&Ms to heckle a fellow FPC member.

What I can tell you is that this was my fourth Manifesto – crikey! – and that, having had far less time for consultation and preparation, it was rather less smooth and consensual a final meeting than those of 2001 and 2005, but still less gruelling than 1997. You’ll probably not be surprised to read, either, that I read the whole thing through in advance and drew up my personal ‘red lines’, carefully preparing forms of words to alter or add to what was there, often drawing on what was in a previous Manifesto (and often something I’d put in back then, too). So I talked quite a bit on Saturday, and if I might introduce the least important reason in favour of an early election, I’m quite keen to find out which of my insertions really has made it to the final cut… But will this draft of the Manifesto ever be presented to the British people, or will Mr Brown pull back and make us rewrite it in six months’, a year’s, or two years’ time?

Canning or Callaghan?

With all the spin that Gordon Brown is right now making up his mind on whether to call an election, two past Prime Ministers are hanging over him. If you saw the news coverage of Mr Brown’s nakedly Tory election pitch in his Leader’s speech a week ago, you’ll have seen the portrait of George Canning appear again and again on your screen – the shortest-term Prime Minister in British history, who died after just 119 days in office. With all this election fever in the air, went Nick Robinson, surely the only thing that could hold Mr Brown back was the spectre of losing the job after just as short a time. What surprised me was that the alternative short-lived premiership of Jim Callaghan wasn’t presented as the Scylla to George Canning’s Charybdis: the man who teased people about an early election he might have won, then doomed Labour to two decades in the wilderness instead. At the time of Mr Brown’s speech last week, the appearance was of going for a Canning, but I still felt it was more of a Callaghan. Certainly, his and other Labour ministers’ speeches sounded like the opening of an election campaign – terrifyingly authoritarian and shamelessly Tory in tone and, unlike the current crop of Tories, Mr Brown is no lightweight, so you feel he means it. He wrapped himself in the flag, literally coloured his platform blue, and set his stall as socially conservative, inward-looking, foreigner-bashing and based on the past. I still didn’t believe it. I thought he’d fired the starting pistol only so the sound of it would make the Tories panic – but though that still might be the case, election fever seems to have got out of control.

Last week, the talk was mostly of an October 25th polling day. No wonder George Canning was such an irresistible parallel: that might give Gordon just 120 days to George’s 119. Now the gossip seems more around the 1st of November. With dark nights and old electoral registers, both would suggest low turnouts, which are probably bad for Labour as well as (it’s an old-fashioned consideration, I know) for democracy. An October election would clash with half-term and see some people away; a November one would be after the clocks go back and make people even less willing to go out in the evening. I suppose November 1st does have the advantage for electors that they could demand candidates dress up in Halloween outfits (election law forbids treating, but tricking is a grey area), and they could burn unsuccessful candidates as Guys the week after. Neither date appeals, personally; between the 25th and the 1st lie both our anniversary and my birthday, and I’d rather enjoy them in a less fraught way. If it’s October 25th, that’d mean we’d wake the next morning on our thirteenth anniversary – a Friday, no less – to hear election results, and those are never quite what a Lib Dem hopes for, are they? And until Saturday, I’d assumed neither date would appeal to Mr Brown, either. A low turnout might help the Tories; Labour is still on the verge of bankruptcy after finishing their 2005 election campaign £20 million in the red; and after all his sensible rhetoric of “I’m getting on with the job,” after he’s waited a dozen seething, bitter years to get his hands on it, would this notoriously cautious man risk throwing it all away?

Perhaps the biggest counter-argument to that is not fear, but hope. ‘Cautious’ Mr Brown has been much less cautious since he became Prime Minister, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that he feels liberated since Mr Blair vanished in a puff of sulphur. I suspect a large proportion of the population feel the same sense of relief that he’s gone – so why not capitalise on that feeling while it lasts? And that sense that hope may not last brings us back to Jim Callaghan. He played about with the idea of an Autumn election that the press and his party thought was almost inevitable, half-singing with delight at the idea of standing them up: “There was I, waiting at the church.” Winding people up when you’re about to call on them to support you isn’t the wisest of political moves, and of course Mr Callaghan’s cautious retreat from an Autumn election with a chance was followed by the worst political Winter suffered by any Prime Minister in my lifetime. ‘The Winter of Discontent’ has become such a lazy cliché since then to describe every slight problem, rather in the way that pop groups for the last third of the Twentieth Century were called ‘the new Beatles’ before being forgotten, but it became a cliché because it was so absolutely dreadful. And it was Mr Callaghan’s own fault, for destroying hopes of union reform while a senior member of the government. Mr Brown’s previous government record is the economy: if that comes off the rails before he calls an election, that too would seem like poetic justice. Is it best to gamble on a run for it while the good times last?

Above all, he now has the sense of momentum – it isn’t just that people increasingly expect there to be an election and might feel let down if he doesn’t go for it, but that people expect Mr Brown to win. The Tories are fighting each other because they expect to lose; Labour are in good spirits, despite their terrifyingly right-wing, authoritarian Conference platform, because they think they’re going to win; and, very simply, a lot of voters like to be on the winning side and hitch their support to the person that looks like a winner. At the moment, that’s Gordon Brown.

If I’m Going to Go Goggle-Eyed for an Election, I Might As Well Include Opinion Polls (and tea leaves, star signs and the entrails of goats)…

OK, then – I suppose I should move on from gut feelings to ‘evidence’. I don’t think much of opinion polls – particularly individual ones. A long, consistent trend, maybe, but delirium over this morning’s meaningless margin of error, no. So though the ‘Brown Bounce’ over the Summer looks good for Labour’s chances, when election fever went wild last week over the YouGov poll for Channel 4, I thought Mr Brown would be wise to ignore it. In part, it’s because it looked then like a one-off. In part, it’s because it was from the famously unreliable YouGov, and showed a Lib Dem figure that only the most eye-rolling, foam-mouthed Tory on Political Betting would put any weight on. But mostly, in Mr Brown’s place I wouldn’t have trusted it because I know how polls change during elections. The Labour lead apparently doubled to 11%, but look at where it came from: Labour 44 (+5); Tory 33 (no change); Lib Dem 13 (-3). The thing is, what’s happened during almost every election campaign is that opinion polls suggest that during the election period the Tories stay roughly stable or up a bit but Labour falls significantly while the Lib Dems rise. So, though of course history is never a perfect predictor, if I were Mr Brown I wouldn’t trust a lead supplied by soft Lib Dem votes that are likely to move right back where they came from once their party’s on the telly more often. If Gordon Brown is to win, he needs to pull votes from the Tories. Just look at his speech a week ago: it was aimed full-square at shifting Tory voters.

If last week’s YouGov poll failed to give me the election fever erupting across most of the media, though, the rush of polls since have been much more plausible. The latest YouGov in the Torygraph is pretty grim reading for the Tories, and still great for Labour despite their slipping slightly: with Labour 43 (-1), Tory 32 (-1) and Lib Dem 15 (+2), it maintains that striking 11% Labour lead over the Tories while including a less unbelievable Lib Dem figure. The latest Mori poll in the Observer has a slightly narrower lead, but still a relatively similar pattern of Labour 41, Tory 34, Lib Dem 16 (with us up a little again, though a flurry of Mori polls make direct comparisons difficult). The latest ICM in the Sunday Mirror, too, had a narrower Labour lead, with Labour 39 (-1), Tory 33 (+1) and Lib Dem 19 (-1); a tiny crumb of comfort for the Tories only through being less disastrous for them, and a suggestion that ICM’s previous 20% for the Lib Dems was an outlying rogue, much as the lower YouGov was.

The one that I’d be really keen on if I were Mr Brown is the latest Populus poll in the Times: it doesn’t give the highest Labour share, but it has a Labour lead of 10% and exactly the direction of change I’d want – Labour 41 (+4), Tory 31 (-5), Lib Dem 17 (-1). With a strong lead at the expense of the Tories and a Lib Dem figure that’s not so improbable as to be rejected out of hand, that’s pretty much the ideal poll for Mr Brown, I’d have thought. But is it true or not? Cut open a goat and make a wish.

Taking Advantage of the Opposition

Whatever the polls say, and whether an early election is or isn’t good for Labour, it’s probably not good for either of the main opposition parties. Of course, both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats called for an early election to give Gordon Brown a mandate, so we can’t complain! Lynne Featherstone wins points not just for backing the wiser and more principled Lib Dem policy of fixed term elections – the whole idea of Mr Brown being able to choose the election to gerrymander it to his best advantage is a perversion of democracy – but for making the point in two of the best headlines seen this year. As far as the Liberal Democrats go, I imagine that (as the poorest party) it may be tricky to build up a ‘war chest’, like everyone else we don’t have all our candidates in place yet (yes, I’ve been asked too, but my health’s still too wobbly), but in particular a short election campaign is worse for us, and an Autumn campaign will be a short one: we do better the longer we have to stick out leaflets and the longer we get airtime, and Mr Brown will want to limit both.

The Tories, however, are in a far worse state. They may be flush with cash, but they have no policy programme and little unity. Worse, having built up a Tory narrative over the past couple of years of a relatively liberal, green, safe, changed party, David Cameron hit the rocks over the Summer and has lurched to the right – but having ditched all his green credentials and stopped sounding like Mr Nice, Mr Cameron has not yet established an alternative persona (and I reckon it was a terrible mistake for him to trim at all; he was far more dangerous sounding not like a Tory). So perhaps the strongest reason for Mr Brown to go to the polls is that the Tories hate each other right now, and that’s a lucky time for Labour. Will their Conference be bloody? If the election is called this week, could the Tories be hit by John Bercow’s defection to Labour one day and by Zac Goldsmith’s defection to the Liberal Democrats the day after (finally burying Mr Cameron’s tattered green pretensions)? I doubt it, myself, but then who could have predicted that Norman Tebbit and Margaret Thatcher would effectively give their blessings to Gordon Brown over David Cameron, bitter old hatemongers that they are? In Mr Cameron’s place, I’d be petrified that I was about to get three weeks’ notice on my job, and after him, who do the Conservatives have?

There may be one Tory even more worried about an election than David Cameron… But I’ll give the answer to him in my next post.

Update: Congratulations to Richard Allan for having beaten me to a post this morning on the same subject, with better gossip and with almost the same title! And, slightly later, FPC Vice-Chair Jeremy Hargreaves has written a post about the Manifesto which, while less tongue-in-cheek than my account above, is spot-on.

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"often drawing on what was in a previous Manifesto" - if reports of the meeting are to be believed, you walked in with a stack of previous manifestos taller than YOU are! ;-)
Praise indeed, though for that to be true, I’d have to either use very, very thick ink or be the Mekon ;-)

Rather than bring them to the meeting, I’d read through quite an alarming number of old papers while at home – so I’m afraid the only material I carried into the meeting from past Manifestos was in the form of notes jotted on the current draft and, of course, in my head. The papers in front of me which I was constantly cross-referencing were in fact the comments from the Shadow Cabinet and the costings, each of which were only made available at the meeting but for each of which I was strangely keen to scrutinise the small print…

To be serious for a moment, my own personal definition of the job of an FPC member is that your single most important responsibility is to make sure the party has the best possible Manifesto, so I do tend to be slightly better-prepared than some when the crucial day comes.

I do miss the days of Manifestos with much longer word counts in which we could submit whole sections of exciting extras and I could, for example, tuck in commitments to our forming both UNIT and Thunderbirds…
"I do miss the days of Manifestos with much longer word counts"

Slightly intrigued by that. DO we now operate to manifestos with shorter word limits than say in 97 or 2001. If so is there any particular reason why?

It's an interesting observation that the number of words we use in leaflets now is considerably less than it was a few years back (contrast eg the election addresses in Newbury and Bromley for example)

I do wonder whether that actually does very little to increase voter engagement and puts more emphasis on the presentation rather than the substance.
Hi Hywel

Yes, indeed we do – for a variety of reasons, but driven by the then leadership (and upheld by the current one). Compare the 1997 and 2001 Manifestos on one hand and the 2005 one on the other and you’ll see that the word count has plunged dramatically. I can’t tell you exactly what the proportion is, as I’ve, er, long since forgotten the passwords for my once top-secret Word copies of them, but I suspect the 2005 word count cut the 2001 by more than half. It’s largely, I think, that we want people to be more likely to read our Manifesto; it’s partly a dislike of it having become a “Christmas tree” on which everything is hung; and, related to that, there’s an attempt to pull it back to a realistic programme for just one Parliament.

You’ve partly inspired my latest post which, as ever, is in no danger of being too short…
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