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Big Ben in the Gloaming (JLDesign)

The sun is rising outside, but light is far from being cast on this most curious of general elections. If there is any national trend – and it can barely be argued there is, so eccentric and local are many of these seat-by-seat results – it is that, where the electorate were acutely aware of the marginal status of a trusted incumbent, they came out for them. Where they did not, they registered protest votes: thus, for example, Labour keep Birmingham Edgbaston but lose Kingswood; the Lib Dems, likewise, win Torbay and yet lose Oxford West and Abingdon. The Tories grab a seat like Cannock but miss out on a prime target such as Gedling.

It is the Liberal Democrat under-performance, however, which may well turn out to be most crucial: though the creaking First Past The Post system has vastly under-rewarded them, nor have they capitalised on the huge bounce given to them by Nick Clegg’s performance in the televised Prime Ministerial debates. The final week of the Liberal Democrat campaign was weirdly low key – no big bang, but lots of pleading that a vote for them was not a wasted one. They were consequently caught in a two-party squeeze which now makes it much harder to argue that the Tory momentum has been decisively checked.

So a minority government led by David Cameron, then? Perhaps. But all these weird results – most notably, Labour over-performance in London (Islington South, Tooting, Westminster North – and as I type Hammersmith) – could yet throw up a surprise which prevents it, or makes the argument against it stronger. But Labour have clearly been rejected, and the Liberal Democrats have not taken up the slack. A stable government formed by parties who together have a majority of the popular vote might still be sellable – but not as much as it might have been: a static Liberal Democrat party propping up an unpopular PM leading a discredited Labour party is no sure bet, and the Tories have no love for co-operation. A promise from someone for a swift referendum on PR might help, but the Tories will use their momentum and press friends to reduce the space anyone has to make that argument – and dare the new parliament to vote their narrow minority government do.

The sun has now all but risen, and the game is still on. Just.

I don’t like the current tone of the campaign. I don’t like electioneering that bases itself on personal attacks. I respect Charles Kennedy no end for refusing to join in with Michael Howard in calling Blair a liar, even though it could well have proven popular with some of the LibDems’ more rabid supporters. If you want to draw attention to the way in which Blair may or may not have manipulated process, the increasing secrecy with which he makes decisions, or specific policy areas on which he has failed in the last parliament or on which he cannot hope to deliver in the next, fine. But, please. Don’t reduce a general election campaign to name-calling. [Me, April 28th, 2005]

"No, *your* mom."

I’ve been re-reading items I wrote for another place five years ago. The 2005 election was a curious one – the hype going into it was of a Tory fightback. We got that, of course, but not by much. That talk was fuelled by real antipathy for Blair – the strength of which is easy now to forget, in these days of disillusionment with Brown – and the deep scar across the body politic which was the Iraq war. Perhaps consequently, I wrote of the 2005 election campaign as a scrappy, nasty affair, in which sitting Prime Ministers were called liars, Opposition leaders used disgraceful language when discussing immigration, and Charles Kennedy was a reasonable but often unheeded voice.

What a difference a parliament makes. For all that a resurgent Tory party depresses me, this campaign has actually – beyond all expectations – been a more positive affair. Yes, we’ve had the usual nonsense – no major party standing up for immigrants, scraps about leaflets and smears, and most glaringly a lack of detail from all questions about the cuts which will be made to public spending – but, by the same token, perhaps because, thanks to Nick Clegg, this campaign made the election so close, we have had actual debate. Dog whistles have been at a minimum – though when he was on the ropes Cameron resorted to them a little – and, though the left remains split, it is not so viscerally as before.

I remain ambivalent about the campaign’s most obvious innovation – the TV debate. But, talking to some non-voters the other day, each admitted that they were more likely to vote as a result of them. That, after all, is what it’s all about – and 2005′s turnout was only a little over 60%. If the 2010 campaign increases that desultory number, as it seems likely to do, then – whatever the outcome – it has achieved something positive.

So the eve-of-election polls are in, and bar a few out-liers they all tell a similar story: Tories in the mid-thirties, Labour high twenties, Lib Dems just behind. This is firmly in balanced parliament territory, of course, but in the Tories’ favour – Lewis Baston’s piece in today’s Guardian is very much worth reading, since it adds much needed nuance to the of-quoted 326-to-win figure. Not only that, but slightly better performance in the marginal seats – which one would expect – would tip Cameron’s party just over the top into proper overall majority. A slim Tory majority is in many ways the worst of all worlds, binding Cameron as it would to his party’s malcontents and mavericks. Either way, election night will be nail-biting for all involved.

So what might we expect of a Cameron government? Certainly, its central figures plan a bullish character: “David and his team are obsessed with avoiding the vacuum into which Tony Blair was sucked after winning in 1997,” says a senior Tory. “They know that, if we win, this is going to be a deeply unpopular government. They have six months at maximum to create the parameters for how they will implement the tough decisions.” Johann Hari’s dispatch from Cameronland today is required reading, too: “The cost of almost all council services has sky-rocketed, to fund tax cuts that disproportionately benefit the wealthy.” Jonathan Freedland, meanwhile, channels Kinnock.

Peter Kellner predicts tonight a Cameron minority government, but our constitution holds out another possibility, however improbably. Mary Riddell: “One certainty in this odd election is that a Lib-Lab pact would better reflect the democratic will than a minority Tory government.” Wishful thinking? Perhaps. Was Gordon Brown’s recital of 55 Labour achievements part of a core vote strategy? Perhaps. But that makes them no less real – and no less of a contrast to the alternative.

Making The Pitch

The times they are a-crazy. First, left-wing bloggers begin to push the line that the Cameroon’s are planning a coup (e.g. Sunder Katwala, Though Cowards Flinch); then Manish Sood, the Labour candidate for Norfolk north-west calls his own leader (and Next Left can’t be alone in wonder if this plonker of long standing is a plant) the worst Prime Minister ever; and, finally, half of the Lib Dem executive of Plymouth defect to Labour. This election, despite Tory triumphalism in the Telegraph today, remains so volatile that more stuff like this is bound to be trumpeted in the coming 48 hours. What is depressing is that the media is left to report what it thinks is the most exciting – rather than most substantive – story. And, for some reason, that is currently Manish Sood. (Strangely, it must be said, not Philippa Stroud.)

Will any of this break through, however? Douglas Alexander has been calling this a ‘word-of-mouth election’, trying to make a virtue of Labour’s cash-strapped efforts, but this sounded more convincing prior to the television debates when party political macro-messaging came into its own. Yesterday’s final Conservative Party Election Broadcast was an exemplar of the form, and in terms of messaging clearly far more effective than the slightly plaintive Lib Dem one. We await the final Labour PEB, although this video is probably overly negative to form a basis. The party badly needs, if only to shore up its vote, something of the positive passion that Gordon Brown had in this stonking speech from yesterday. If only we’d had more of this.

Tittle-tattle can still swing seats, however, and in a properly three-party race all the psephology goes out of the window – hence, one assumes the talk of tactical voting from embattled Labour ministers. As Donald Macintyre writes, the real story of 2010 has been the excellent hand played by Nick Clegg, rather than any great Tory victory; his efforts could very well dictate the result come Thursday night (certainly another slightly dodgy Crosby-Textor poll suggests the Tories have no hope of winning any seats from the Liberal Democrats). The final Labour push, then, will be like this from Brown: the Tories are no progressives, and will refuse Liberal Democrat support. Progressives should fear them, and should vote Labour where it will keep the Tories out. It isn’t as inspiring as yesterday’s speech, but it is nevertheless true.

Is it, though, a macro-message that can cut through the shrill noise of the final days of a chaotic campaign?

Number 10 and Number 11?

What is the Guardian thinking? In their endorsement of the Liberal Democrats over Labour, in many ways the paper is true to previous form – it supported Lloyd George and supported the SDP – but in its reasoning it seems wildly wrong-headed. In an election campaign that will define the very shape of the delivery mechanisms of progressive politics for the next generation, is electoral reform really the most important factor in making the decision about who to vote for? It is important and necessary, to be sure, but consigning help to the poor to an also-ran paragraph near the end of the editorial, in favour of a great paen to the wonders of PR, seems absurd.

It does, though, add another plaintive note for Labour to the mood music as we go into the final weak of campaigning. The momentum is shifting to the Conservatives, who receive the endorsement of The Times this morning. Neither of the latest polls put Cameron’s party in overall majority territory, but as the Telegraph’s Ben Brogan reports from Tory HQ, there is a renewed optimism amongst their number. In Thursday night’s debate, Cameron avoided direct answers in favour of clear messaging – time and again, he returned to core principles and strong beliefs. These were at times more right-wing than we’ve been used to – benefits, immigration – but they added up both to an answer to the perennial question ‘what does he stand for?’, and to a repudiation of a Prime Minister who, after bigotgate, sees his character torn to shreds in the press. Meanwhile, Brown’s talk about fighting until the last second makes him sound more like John McCain than Barack Obama.

Few party messages have truly broken through the hurly-burly of the debates; excepting Nick Clegg’s breakthrough in the first, only Cameron has truly rammed home a coherent, whole message. It was a good performance, and though something more is needed in this week to secure an overall majority, it put him in good stead for these last days – and he will likely be rewarded for it. This should worry anyone who believes in ‘progressive politics’, the Guardian included. In a post well worth reading, Next Left reminds us of what that paper said in 2005, quoting CP Snow:

“It is quite possible that while Liberalism and Labour are snapping and snarling at each other the Conservative dog may run away with the bone. That would be lamentable.”

If such an outcome would have been lamentable in the early 20th century, it would be just as lamentable in the early 21st.

The case must still be made – positively, energetically, proudly – that the Tory dog must be kept in the pound.

They Do It Slicker.

I’ve been reading Mark Halperin and John Heilemann’s Race of a Lifetime, a book ostensibly about ‘how Barack Obama won the White House’, but in truth a quite in-depth look at each viable campaign first of the 2008 Democratic primaries (Obama, Clinton, Edwards) and then of the general (Obama and McCain). It’s not the same kind of book as Andrew Rawnsley’s recent Brit-centred political tome, The End of the Party (in this month’s coveted Words We Like spot), since it prioritises narrative over detail, which may itself be a useful metaphor. Halperin and Heilemann have no footnotes and no moments of great pause. They simply tell a story we haven’t heard before very well.

I wouldn’t say, then, that the book is instructive to read whilst we in the UK are having our own general election. But it is interesting, firstly because it emphasises how very personal the American political system is. The British system can be about individuals, too, of course – in every general election, some surprise local story sneaks up on the national media, in no small part because of the quite personal effects specific candidates can have in a given constituency. But the broad sweep of our system has traditionally been party political – all colours and rosettes, manifestos and messaging.

Except that this campaign has been different. It’s striking how little actually happened in the week between the first ever televised debate between the candidates for Prime Minister (even that term seems alien to the Commons system) and, er, the second ever televisied debate between the candidates for Prime Minister. The Tories, for instance, didn’t hold a single London press conference; Gordon Brown, as Jonathan Freedland has noted, is nowhere in particular to be seen. The polls came out, and everyone agonised about a sea change in British politics, but the whole affair seemed on hold until three men – out of thousands of parliamentary candidates across the country – had another slanging match on the telly.

So our politics just got personal. But Halperin and Heilemann make very clear how much travelling American presidential candidates do, and how visible they are. There is a tension in this new focus of the British system: we haven’t entirely made the change. We await the big debates, but in between we try and have a normal British campaign. Predictably, this results in a feeling of weird inertia – amateur politics going on between over-produced slices of network primetime. This isn’t how the American system, weened on the personal, operates. Not only that, but there are hundreds of constituencies across the UK which are electing hundreds of different representatives, some of whom do not – gasp! – belong to one of the three ‘main’ parties. There is some of this in the American system – Halperin and Heilemann detail how the Missouri Democratic candidate for the Senate, Claire McCaskill, worried that Hilary Clinton would damage  her chances were they on the same ticket in November 2008 – but presidential candidates are also truly national figures who are ultimately performing for their own benefit. The ‘candidates for Prime Minister’ are quite different. The campaign feels like an unwieldy, unsatisfactory, hybrid.

Guess which other party had a St George dress-up photo op today.

Still, this may be the last campaign of its kind. All polls currently point to a hung parliament in which the most likely result would be a ruling coalition of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This would ensure the introduction of some form of proportional representation – particularly if the party with the most seats also came third in the popular vote, a probable outcome once First Past The Post begins to struggle with a truly three party system. PR would surely lock the Tories out of power forever, and the party is therefore therefore desperate to halt the slide in their support (though right-wing tactics smack instead of a twitchy core vote strategy). But Cameron was in last night’s debate reduced to arguing that change was good, but to make sure it happened you needed to vote for a known quantity you could trust. And we all know how that tactic worked out over the pond.

The political quote of the week belongs not to one of the three participants in Britain’s first televised election debate between the main party leaders, but to David Miliband. “When JFK said America would send a man to the moon,” the Foreign Secretary wrote on his blog, namechecking the same US President alluded to by David Cameron at the Tory manifesto launch,” he didn’t say ‘build your own rocket’.”

Margaret Thatcher used the non-existence of society as an excuse to gut the state; Cameron, with the counter-intuitive boldness of the PR man, has used its rude existence to do the same. Steve Richards called Cameron’s Big Society “reheated Thatcherism” this week, and that seems just right – as Eddie Izzard put it, “It’s Thatcher, but in new suits.”

The genius – if that is what it is – of the Tories’ little blue hardback is that it hides its big purpose behind its big idea: the state is to be supplanted by Victorian philanthropism, the contention that a volunteering sector happy to help the poorest part of society – the part least likely to set up their own schools, hospitals and welfare systems – and largely unsupported by a state cutting itself to ribbons, will somehow replace government. It’s a contention, not an intention, because the ‘modern’ Tory party doesn’t care a jot if that’s what the volunteers do. It just wants to do away with the state. It will do this beneath the cloak of the Big Society, but once that is whipped away this country, like the hand of a clever magician, will be emptied out.

A poll this week suggested that the deal might already be done – in the marginals, a Crosby/Textor poll for the Telegraph suggested, the Tories are safely in majority government territory. But would you trust a poll showing a similar figure for Labour, if it were conducted by Campbell/Gould associates? Lynton Crosby ran the dog whistle Tory campaign of 2005; Mark Textor was Boris Johnson’s campaign manager. One hesitates to accuse any poll of political bias – though the Tories themselves are not beyond it – but everything is still to play for. We can at least deny the Tories a majority; but who is best placed to do this for us?

Nick Clegg, who has done himself and his party huge favours with a creditable performance in that otherwise inconclusive TV debate, spoke at the Liberal Democrat manifesto launch of hardwiring fairness into society. The most obvious plans to achieve this involve breaking up the banks and reforming politics. But, as ever, Liberal Democrat fairness is not egalitarian in purpose: the party’s commitment to raise the income tax personal allowance to £10,000 does not help the poorest fifth of our society, which earns on average about £11,000 a year; their policy to restrict tax credits will actively damage it, since, according to the IFS, £6,453 of that average income is made up of … tax credits and benefits. (See table 1 here.) That’s not fairness; it may be liberalism, but it bears little resemblance to the leftist tone Liberals are known, when it suits them, to adopt.

Vote For Policies, a website touted this week at the Green manifesto launch for reasons that will be obvious when you hit their homepage, is a useful tool: you vote for policies blind, and the site will tell you where you are best matched. This has so far been a difficult election campaign for me, since I’m so used to being able to sit on the sidelines and commentate about how hopeless the Tories are. This is the first election of my adult life in which the Tories stand a chance, and yet I have been unable to provide full-throated support to any alternative party. I was ready to be won over by the Lib Dems; that tax problem I found in their manifesto felt like a deal-breaker. Vote For Policies, meanwhile, showed – confirmed – that on most issues I am over-whelmingly with Labour. This almost-but-not-quite match is all you can expect. On civil liberties, on the war, on immigration, I am set against the party of Attlee, Bevan and Brown; but in terms of sentiment, in the general direction of travel, they are my best option.

Here’s why: if you are against the Tories on married couples tax breaks, on eviscerating the state, on refusing to protect education funding and on pretending that a rise in VAT is fairer than a rise on National Insurance; if you think tax credits, Sure Start and partnership with the third sector have improved communities and brought them together in ways unimaginable in 1996; if your vision of a tax system is that it should ensure the bonds of society are strengthened rather than broken, and of the National Health Service that it is both preventative and comprehensive; if you think it strange that we can’t afford to protect frontline services but we can afford to give a tax break to the richest 3,000 estates; if you think it doubtful that frozen pay and innumerable lay-offs in the public sector will do anything to help a fragile consumer economy; if you find laughable the suggestion that the party which couldn’t trust real local government (Bob Piper on this) will now give up a coercive power it enjoys excercising in its own backyard (Michael Crick on that); if an invitation to join the government of Britain strikes you as an invitation to do its job for it, then Labour offers the alternative. The Liberal Democrats might, it is sure, make excellent and natural partners in a hung parliament – and this result may well enable a proper purge of the old system which forced Labour into its Blairite bondage in the first place – but their approach is too scattered, too confused, to ensure the fairness they profess to desire. (And where’s the commitment on a continued fox hunting ban, chaps?)

The great criticism of Labour – one I share, and one I have trouble getting over – is that it is overly authoritarian, too fond of CCTV cameras and DNA databases. But the Tory anti-statist response is too much – ravenously, hungrily – the reverse. In reverse is the last direction this country needs to go. The Tory manifesto launch was glitzy, but it’s big idea seems to have fallen flat, not particularlty mentioned since by any Tory in any media appearance. As was revealed in ITV’s debate, Cameron’s sleight of hand is yet to rival Paul Daniels, let alone David Blaine. This is a progressive moment. You can find that quote on page 0:5.

Distinguised, innee?

“If I seem happy, it’s because I believe that we can show people, against the odds, and the odds have been against us, that we can come through.” This from Gordon Brown in a sympathetic interview with Ginny Dougary in today’s Times Magazine. This is very much Labour’s task in this election campaign and, as I noted last week, just getting to the point where people are willing to give this message a moment’s notice has been a considerable achievement for the party. Still, the polls in the last week have shown an increase in the Tory lead – still not the increase they need to form a majority government, but enough to be the largest party in a Hung Parliament.

Thus, perhaps, Lord Adonis’s plea to Liberal Democrat voters in yesterday’s Independent. It’s too early in the campaign to call for strategic voting, however, and any appearance that the Lib Dems are closet lefties will only help the Tories in seats in the south of England. Still, it formed at least part of the noises off – coming from both Brown and Lord Mandelson – that Labour might be willing to do business in a Hung Parliament. If, as the polls currently suggest, the Tories (to Cameron’s discredit) succeed only in becoming the largest party – and they aren’t achieving majority-winning swings even in the marginals – could the Lib Dems really prop up Labour? Surely not. This is an election campaign in which Labour must provide a strength of argument, not a sleight of hand.

The start of something like this came in the Mirror earlier in the week, but accusing the Tories of simply not knowing what they’re doing isn’t enough – although Philip Stephens’s analysis in the FT of the substance and strength necessary in an incoming government might, if reapplied to Brown’s clear strengths (even the marginals rate him higher than Cameron on all key leadership indices), could come to be allied with that ‘incompetent’ attack into a clear statement of the need for a Labour fourth term. Andrew Grice is right in today’s Independent to point out the naked self-interest of business leaders in supporting the Tory policy on curbing rises in National Insurance; Labour should waft the smell of that rat as much as they can – not least because the NI policy is so small, so trifling an issue, that it should be met not as a defensive scrap over a pre-announced policy, but as a chance to engage in substantive philosophical debate.

The manifestos are published next week – perhaps that’s what Labour are waiting for. But Dougary’s conclusion in that interview shows Labour the way forward: “[Brown] is a man of substance in a shallow age. So the question is – will we get the prime minister we deserve?” This election should not be a referendum on Gordon Brown – business trust Mandelson, voters like Darling, Miliband has sound, progressive ideas – but the party he leads has every chance to call Cameron’s Conservatives on shallow policymaking which is not informed by the values which have made Britain, if far from perfect and at times overly authoritarian, a better place over the last 13 years. It’s not worth squabbling over minutiae.

Mike Smithson almost nailed it this week with a simple question:  Is speed of rebuttal going to be decisive? The internet makes campaigning more febrile than ever, that much is certain; but what does Smithson mean by ‘decisive’? The week has seen two battles in which blows have been traded so rapidly that the main news bulletins have struggled to keep up: the first, which revolved around Labour and Tory plans for National Insurance, and whether business was right or not to back the latter, resembled a rapid game of Stop The Bus; the second, in which Labour said David Cameron was like Gene Hunt, and Cameron said thank you, probably disappeared under the radar altogether. Most people are not plugged in to the constant rebuttal feed; by the time they get their news at 6pm or 10pm, the story has gone through so many iterations that its muddled.

These are issues the parties will need to finesse if either of them are to win a decisive victory on any given topic. It has been a bad week for Labour, who are back down to a double digit deficit, but stories like today’s headline Observer piece will still have traction, if they can be given room to breathe. The Tories have been successful not just at defensive stifling, however, but offensive policy announcement. In an interview in today’s Telegraph, William Hague promises new cancer drugs and an opt-out from the European Public Prosecutor programme, both of which are just the right side of emotive and offer the much longed for clear blue water at relatively little actual cost. Labour need to match this sort of effort, whilst underlining their essential superficiality; calling Sir Stuart Rose deluded doesn’t quite cut it.

"Hang on, chaps, it's on the tip of my tongue..."

The world and his dog linked this week to James Forsyth’s Spectator piece about the reasons for this remarkable Tory backslide: now only five or six points ahead in most polls, David Cameron’s Conservatives are getting very worried indeed. (William Hague dismissed the idea the party were planning for a hung parliament on BBC News this afternoon, but there was fear in his widened eyes.) What Forsyth presented was a Tory command paralysed by a division between irreconcilable factions, and a leader unwilling to choose between them. Everyone in the inner circle, it seems, wants to be a in charge of strategy. This is resulting in a non-strategy – but perhaps not one without purpose.

And so to the revealed Tory slogan: Vote for Change. Whatever your political allegiance, this empty motto must surely sink any heart you have left for this election campaign. ‘Vote for Change’ – unlike, for instance, Barack Obama’s call to transformation, ‘Hope’ – doesn’t just meaning nothing; it is dangerously vague. Obama’s detractors last year scoffed that ‘hope’ was an abstract noun, entirely divorced from actual policy detail. This was never true – hope became such a potent frame for 2008′s presidential election because it obliquely referred to the rejected nihilism of the Bush years, the guttering of Liberty’s flame, the failure of the American ideal on the world stage. ‘Vote for Change’, on the other hand, cannot be effective shorthand in this way – change for what? The slogan encapsulates not the voters’ deepest desires, but the Tories’ deep uncertainty.

Damian Thompson thinks it’s all about Dave’s unlikeability factor; Peter Oborne reckons the answer lies in going on the attack; Tim Montgomerie, whose political radar has been all over the place in recent weeks, has a ten-point plan. But Montgomerie’s ‘deploy Hague and talk about immigration’ stuff, and Oborne’s insistent that “the Tory vision for government is darkly realistic”,  is the sort of right-wing axe-grinding that could do the party real damage; it will open them up further to Labour’s ‘take a second look’ line. Confoundingly for the Tory leadership, the other way forward is to obfuscate. To which end, Hague tried to make an argument today at the party’s Spring conference that, “In Brighton this weekend we present the choice: five more years of Gordon Brown’s tired Government making things worse. Or David Cameron and the Conservatives with the energy, leadership and values to get the country moving.”

The problem – but perhaps also the strategy – is that the Tories still haven’t defined what those values are, or precisely why and how the country is moving in the wrong direction. Cameron uses words like ‘modern’ and ‘radical’; but, Labour must and will ask the electorate, what does he think they mean? In an absence of real definition, the electorate are assuming – perhaps rightly – that they are not ones they would recognise.

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