The Thick of It


Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lib Dems falling apart at the seams

Ever since propping up the Tories in government I've reported on the Lib Dems plummeting poll ratings and of an increasing number of splits in the party. The Lib Dem bird was flying high after Nick Clegg's first appearance in the pre-election leaders' debates but now appears to be cowering in a corner, waiting for the inevitable as the party falls apart from the seams.

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In their first six months in power since the first world war the Lib Dems have managed to record their worst opinion poll ratings in two decades, hovering around 10%, after their 23% saw them lose 10% of their seats at the last election.

We've had rumours that former leader Charles Kennedy will defect to Labour, councillors in Devon, BirminghamSheffield, six in Rochdale have quit the party and the leader of Liverpool Council Warren Bradley has warned that the party face being wiped out after giving in so weakly to Tory cuts.

Closer to (my) home in Islington, the Lib Dems were once running a 'council of the year' (awarded before they'd even been in power for a year) but were wiped out in May (after presiding over an unpopular cutting frenzy), even before their bigger brothers and sisters turned blue.

There are only 11 Lib Dem councillors left in Islington but even they are now at war with each other over student tuition fees. Highbury East's John Gilbert has excused his party's volte-face after a single issue election campaign to scrap tuition fees by claiming that they were duped into accepting almost every Tory policy in coalition government finances were worse than expected. At the same time one of Gilbert's colleagues, Hillrise councillor Greg Foxsmith hit out at Nick Clegg's lack of credibility following the tuition fees debacle:

"In fact, when you go into an election promising to be straight with people you have to honour that. It is going to be difficult for Mr Clegg, and those in the Coalition, to keep their credibility."

It will be almost impossible for Islington Lib Dems, like those across the country to keep faith with the party under such trying circumstances. I'm not surprised that so many have broken and split from their (old) party. I'm not sure how long committed councillors like Foxsmith will be able to keep faith when the party they joined no longer exists, much as he and many like him left Labour in the 1980s when it lost touch.

A year ago I took part in a Five Live debate with Mark Oaten entitled: "What is the point in the Lib Dems?" Growing up in South West London I used to think it was to provide a local alternative, strong in local government. This has now been undermined. Nick Clegg might not mind as he prepares to follow Ramsay MacDonald's footsteps and become a full-blown Tory.

How long before Islington Lib Dems are down to an even smaller rump than they already are? It seems only a matter of time before some of them follow the lead of their (former) counterparts across the country walk away while there is still the chance of some dignity.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Labour ahead again

After the Independent, YouGov/Sun both put Labour ahead of the Tories in the opinion polls recently, The Guardian's ICM poll has also given them a slender lead.

Aside from appearances at Prime Ministers question time we've seen very little of Ed Miliband as yet. That he finds himself in a slightly advantageous poll position could result from several factors. The first is that not having Gordon Brown in charge seems to make Labour more popular/less unpopular. Not being the Tories helps too.

Until Ed Miliband's reign begins to take shape in public - and it hasn't yet - the main story is the demise of the Lib Dems. This was widely predicted at the outset of the coalition and the prophecy of many is being borne out. The third party's support is now the lowest among under 24s, the same group that supported them most strongly at the election only a few months ago. The Lib Dems are paying the price for campaigning on a single issue, student tuition fees, then dropping their core pledge as soon as they gain any power. The party was clearly to the right of where many (mistakenly) thought they were, repeatedly banishing their left wing policies and of course electing a proto-Tory in Nick Clegg as their leader.

After yesterday's showcase interview with The Guardian I'm looking forward to Ed Miliband making further dents in the Tories position. His strategy seems to be to re-build in-party morale first before turning outwards to the Tories. Nothing sorts party morale out like taking control of the media agenda and kicking the unpopular Tories.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Labour sustain lead over Tories

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Labour lead over Tories holds

Labour has maintained its opinion poll lead over the Tories, despite doing very little of note as Ed Miliband gets his feet settled in under his desk.

Having spent several years helping my clients understand data about their reputation I can safely say that a graph showing an upward trend is definitely a good thing in this context.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What wins elections?

Is it enough to be an opposition to a disliked government to win elections? Of course not. Neither is it enough to complain but not to offer an alternative. Perhaps the least likely path to electoral success is by heading into ideological extremes. Whenever Labour or the Tories have been perceived as occupying the left or the right respectively, they have been rejected by voters. 

YouGov's Peter Kellner has argued that while politicians and parties need to be seen to be centrist to be accepted by the electorate there were other reasons that were more significant in seeing a change in government since 1945. Kellner's advice is that Ed Miliband should be careful where he positions himself: follow current public opinion and look weak - the perceived centre shifts over time; "give swing voters solid reasons to hope their lives will get better if you win. Then they will vote for you". The point is simple and echoes what I've said for some time - opposition isn't enough for Labour. Labour needs to be a credible alternative and needs to set out some specifics about what would be different in a Labour Britain to a Tory one. As Dan Hodges states: "There is protest. And there is power. Labour cannot be the party of both".

Labour must not just shout, it needs to show it can act, in the centre ground but sensibly, to show it understands what people want and how their lives will be better if they vote for the party.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Sunday poll boost

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The latest YouGov poll puts Labour (again) ahead of the Tories. ComRes for The Independent also puts Labour ahead. the first time the party has been ahead in that poll since Gordon Brown took charge.

We could see a rise in cynicism over the next few years. The Lib Dems profited in the last decade by ypresenting themselves as the only party honest enough to say what people needed to hear on Iraq and student tuition fees. The wheels have fallen off very quickly once they have had a sniff of power. Much like my own experience of a Lib Dem council in Islington. If a party that made such sway of a single policy trashes it as soon as they get in government what hope does anyone have of believing politicians any more?

The NUS planning to campaign against all Lib Dem MPs. This week's protest showed that the youngsters haven't become cynical and do still care. I was warmed by that. It showed that the cuts won't be easy to implement.

The Tories are little better than their coalition partners. Cameron made much of cutting back on special advisers. He has done that but only by employing a raft of Conservative Central Office staffers in the civil service anyway. This isn't new politics, much more like old politics. It just got interesting again, just like the 1980s.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Student protests and fees

Today's student protests will gain far more attention than any the preceded it over the last ten years. The violence will see to that but I expect there to be a positive trade-off from this - that alongside reports of the unrest will be an analysis of the issues involved. That hasn't happened as much as it should, I just hope the real issues are not over shadowed. 
Those pushing the changes through in the coalition didn't have to pay for their own education, though many did through pri. What worries me most about this is that charging students even more will cause further social problems with a long time lag. These issues were not addressed by the Browne review. At the moment most graduates spend most of their 20s paying off their loans. When fees double or treble this will take people almost half way through their working life before they pay it all off well into their 40s in some cases. As a result many graduates won't save for a pension or to buy a house. I fear the hike in tuition fees will have far greater implications than may of those waving the legislation through have even considered. 

With an ageing population which already saves too little for retirement and with first time buyers priced out because they can't save big enough deposits is heaping even more debt onto them really a good idea? I don't expect the coalition to u-turn, Tories never do. 

The d√©nouement will take some time. The first effect is likely to be that the Lib Dems who campaigned so hard for the student vote will lose many of their university seats such as Sheffield Hallam, Nick Clegg's seat; Manchester Withington, John Leech, held by only 4%; and those in Bristol, Cambridge and Leeds. That reckoning will come in five years. The rest will wait, but could be serious.

Lies, lies and leaflets

The Phil Woolas furore reminded me that many election campaigns probably sail close to the wind but nothing gets done as the result isn't as close as his. First let me say that he was wrong to use the statements he did. All the same he is entitled to a full legal process before the world sweeps him away.

It wasn't that long ago that Elwyn Watkins' own Lib Dem party were forced to pay my neighbouring MP Emily Thornberry four figure compensation for making false claims in leaflets about her attendance in Parliament. That seems to have escaped many people.

Lib Dem Deputy Leader Simon Hughes also profited from a slanderous by-election campaign in 1983 when there were unsavoury and homophobic attacks on Labour candidate Peter Tatchell. The Guardian thought there was an "insistent level of vilification which infected the campaign." Hughes has held the seat ever since. 

What about Tory Peter Griffiths who in 1964 asked voters "if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour"?

Phil Woolas is the first in 100 years to have been taken to task in this way but I do feel that if these rules were applied more strictly that there would have been others. Woolas was wrong and I hope we have moved on from 1964 and 1983, but the other examples are a fruit for thought.

Friday, November 05, 2010

Phil Woolas and smears

Today's judgement that Phil Woolas fought a campaign including "lies and smears" at the 2010 general election demonstrates just how careful candidates must be. I campaigned in Oldham East and Saddleworth in the 2001 election for Woolas and saw then how emotions in a perennially marginal seat ran high. Relations between Labour and the Lib Dems were at absolute zero while racial tensions following rioting meant the constituency was littered with bitterness. Then much of the blame was laid at the hands of the council with some in my party blaming those in yellow of aiding the malaise and being indirectly responsible for Oldham's troubles. 

I'm not surprised it came to this after years of tensions in the area. I had always felt that Woolas had done a good job in tough circumstances. Now though I'm incredibly disappointed that Labour's name might be put to anything that could end up being described as nasty as this.

What happens now? Any one of the three main parties could win the seat. A backlash against Labour is possible but not automatic. The Lib Dems have been second there for several elections but are hitting rock bottom in the polls. The Tories haven't held the seat for fifteen years but could be in with a shout. The constituency is an odd mix of traditional Labour working class terraced housing and much wealthier country homes. If Labour loses the re-run it would be a dreadful shame for the party and activists who worked so hard to keep it Labour, but not a surprise after this.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Labour poll position holds, Lib Dems nosediving

YouGov today put both Labour and Tories equal on 40%. Before Ed Miliband has really started to forge his own path and identity this shows there is great potential for surging into a healthy lead as the Tory cuts take hold. For this to happen Labour quickly needs to agree policy positions and media messages to clearly communicate the optimistic, positive alternative

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Lib Dems would only get 11 MPs at this rate. Whenever there is a negative announcement it is always made by a Lib Dem or a Tory and a Lib Dem. Anything the Tories are confident they won't take heat for they announce alone. The continuing poll bashing the Lib Dems are taking shows that the Tory strategy of making their coalition partners take the hit for unpopular decisions is working. At this rate the Lib Dems would even lose seats if we had full proportional representation.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Tube strike London

Today London has been hit by a tube strike. I'm currently trying to keep my evening appointment. So far this has led me to walking away empty handed from Old Street, my station, as the underground that TfL said was working,wasn't. I walked to Farringdon, took a train to Blackfriars and then a boat to Embankment.

The reason for all this? Most people don't realise or care as they just want to get home. Tory mayor Boris Johnson plans to cut the number of staff on the network.

Employees have the right to strike by law just as ordinary Londoners have the right to complain about the disruption. As mayor Boris has a duty to negotiate with the unions to avoid this. He came to power pledging to ban strikes - ridiculous and illegal. He could do something far less radical and far more achievable - agree a deal.  Londoners and London's economy could do with a mayor who gets things done rather than spouts empty rhetoric.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Labour in the lead

Today's ComRes poll for The Independent shows Labour in the lead over the Tories. While this makes me happy it doesn't mean a thing as there won't be another election for almost five years. What it shows is that before he has even done anything, Ed Miliband has a great opportunity. Post-Brown people are obviously liking Labour just that little bit more. Clear and consistent positive messaging from Labour can help to consolidate this.

Interesting nuggets from the research show that only 60% of those who voted Lib Dem only six months ago would do so again. 27% of them would now vote Labour. Labour are equal with the Tories among men but ahead among women. I want to see much more of Yvette Cooper to see that lead maintained.

The real test for the coalition will come when cuts start to bite. The same polling company is running a weekly survey for ITV about the cuts specifically. Very few services or benefits have yet been taken away from people. As that happens Labour's lead must grow for it to take advantage in 2015...a long way off.