Saturday, September 29, 2007

Gordon's dilemma

As promised, here's my Labour conference round-up as published in this morning's Newcastle Journal, together with some further reasons why Gordon shouldn't risk it.

***

Early in his speech to the Labour Party conference on Monday, Prime Minister Gordon Brown dropped what, in normal times, I would have interpreted as a clear hint that he was not going to call an autumn election.

He said: “When people ask me: ‘Would you recommend this job to anyone else?’ I reply: “Not yet’.”

Those two little words “not yet” would ordinarily have been a dead giveaway. But these are not normal times, and that was not the spin that was being applied in Bournemouth.

Instead, Brown’s closest allies – notably Schools Secretary Ed Balls – have spent the week pointedly refusing to dampen the election fever, and on occasions, actually stoking it.

Soon, the waiting will all be over. In the next ten days or so, possibly sooner, Mr Brown will have to decide whether to go for it, or kill the speculation by ruling out an election for the foreseeable future.

Having made clear my view some weeks ago that he would not call one, it could be egg-on-face time for yours truly - but that comes with the territory for a political pundit.

My underlying reasoning hasn’t changed – that the public doesn’t really want an election now, and that Mr Brown will struggle to increase Labour’s majority beyond 66.

I still hold to that view. But it is beyond dispute that, in the course of the past week or so, the thinking at the top of the Labour Party has shifted in the direction of an early poll.

Monday’s speech, on the face of it, didn’t sound like an electioneering one. There was no political knockabout, and the other party leaders were not even mentioned by name.

With its strong religious overtones and frequent references to his early life in Kirkcaldy, it came over more as a personal credo, a statement of what makes Mr Brown the man he is.

But at another level, the speech was deeply political. Although David Cameron was not mentioned by name, there can be no mistaking the fact that he was its prime target.

Not only did the speech see Mr Brown continuing to crawl all over the Tories’ traditional territory, it also presented an antidote to Mr Cameron’s “broken society” rhetoric.

Over the past year, the Tory leader has based his whole strategy on the premise that social issues, rather than economics, will be uppermost in the voters' minds come the next election.

But on Monday, Mr Brown made clear that he is quite happy to fight on that ground, setting out his own distinct vision of the kind of society he wishes to create over the coming years.

Of course, it would not have been New Labour if it had not been stuffed full of re-heated policy announcements.

To take one example, my wife, who recently gave birth to our second child, is already in the middle of the nine months' paid maternity leave that Mr Brown “announced” on Monday.

But what was both new and potentially devastating for the Conservatives was the way in which Mr Brown weaved such initiatives together in a convincing overall narrative of his government's moral purpose.

It was this moral dimension which provided the common thread between policies which might otherwise appear to have come from opposite ends of the political spectrum.

So for instance, the Prime Minister spoke of his desire to ensure that young people from low income families will no longer have to pay to go to university – an ideal that might be said to be rather leftish in nature.

At the same time, he espoused supposedly “right wing” ideas such as ensuring that immigrants who sell drugs or carry guns will be thrown out and shops that sell alcohol to under-18s closed down.

So if the speech was, by common consent, judged a success, why do I still think Mr Brown shouldn’t call an election?

Well, one factor that has received little discussion in the national press thus far concerns regional disparities in voting patterns, and the fact that there is no longer any such thing as a uniform national swing.

I would confidently predict, for instance, that in the North-East, Labour will do better in terms of its overall share of the vote under Mr Brown than it did under Mr Blair in 2005.

But with 28 out of 30 seats in the region already in the bag, that will not be a lot of good to him if Labour’s vote falls slightly in London and the Midlands, where there are many more Tory-Labour marginals.

The real hot chestnut for Mr Brown here is his own backyard of Scotland, where the Scottish National Party is still riding high following its success in May’s devolved elections.

Scotland, even more so than the North-East, is Labour’s real powerbase, and the loss of 10-20 seats there would make it nigh-on impossible for Mr Brown to increase his overall parliamentary majority.

In other words, polls showing Labour leads of up to 11pc do not by any means tell the full picture, and may even present a highly misleading one.

Thursday night’s by-election result in Sunderland, which saw the Tories winning a seat from Labour on a 3.7pc swing, may be no more reliable as a national indicator – but at least those were real votes.

At the start of the week, it was still possible to believe that the election talk was merely a tactic, designed both to wind up the Tories and keep the left on their best behaviour.

It seems to have gone beyond that now. Plans are being laid, staff recruited, loyalist ministers like Barbara Follett given the green light to speculate openly.

If Gordon does go for it, I would rate it the biggest political gamble since Margaret Thatcher despatched the Falklands task force in 1982 – one which could either lead on to glory, or career-ending humiliation.

Get it wrong, and Mr Brown’s long-awaited first annual conference speech on Monday will also prove to have been his last.

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1 comment:

Ted Harvey said...

As I post this Paul, it looks like the thoughts of the Labour hierarchy are again in flux... and Ithink it is edging back towards 'no election for now'. I expect that the Tories will continue pushing the early election drumbeat. The Tories do not want one but they will be able to claim that Gordon Brown is feart or frit to face the country if he does not goes for it.

On the Scottish factor there is no doubt that Brown has a problem in Scotland. I get the sense that already a number of ex long-standing, almost tribal, Labour voters who 'turned' SNP at the recent Scottish elections are getting comfortable with the notion of having broken their historic taboo.

On a more substantial level, there is clearly enthusiasm among SNP workers for an early election to capitalize at UK level on their recent success. But others and I have cautioned them. For one thing they need a bit more time for their new voter converts to settle into their new mode as SNP supporters.

Secondly, they need remember the history - which is that at almost every general election following a Scottish revival the SNP have been painfully marginilized. The Lib Dems in Scotland remain an irritating enigma after their woeful misjudgment at the last Scottish election when they failed to form a Government with the SNP. Experience with devolved entities elswhere in Europe shows the long term trend is for th voters to vote more locally at the regional level and then distinctly different at the national (multi-regional) level. I think that there is some research that shows that this tend to become one of radical or progressive (local) versus a conservative (national).

The relevance of all this to the UK scenario is, of course, that it is Brown's fiefdom. Therefore it will loom large (overly?) in his thinking. Labour in Scotland remains utterly unable to come to terms with the results at the last election.