Peter does the British election, Part III: All right on the night?

6 May 2010

Am I actually still writing this?  Bah. Part 1 here. 2 here.

The night before the day after the night of

Speaking of elections-to-come.

British polling organizations rely on national polls of voting intentions taken via various means, much like national polls in the US. A few sources (Electoral Calculus and the UK Polling Report, principally) are available to translate that result into what really matters, namely seats in parliament. In that sense, individual parliamentary races function much like state-by-state campaigns in a presidential election. In Britain results are individually more or less important for the personalities they return, but the end result is the same: hit the magic number and win. The polls, therefore, are less an effort to see who will “win” – or what the British people are thinking – than to determine the difference between this time and last time. That’s the swing.

When there are two parties really competing for government and a third with some areas of strong localized support and steady but diffuse strength everywhere else, this is generally a useful exercise.  But when all three unexpectedly start to poll the same nationally, the system goes haywire. This is especially true when you add regional differentiations, unevenly distributed turnout and the targeting of specific seats, at which LibDems and minor parties have grown adept. In the last election, which began to lay bare these predictive deficiencies, Electoral Calculus mis-predicted 74 seats, 52 of which resulted in an erroneous prediction. It suggested a Labour majority of 130 rather than the 66 which was actualized. The swing between Labour and the LibDems in key marginals was 6.7%: but Labour lost Cambridge on a 15% swing and Manchester Withington on 18.4%. (And these were not the only ones.) Strange, unexplained results in what was otherwise a relatively-average election. What happens when the same factors are at play but with all three parties even nationally? What happens when a relatively small number of three-cornered contests become four-sided or five-sided with independents and nationalists? What happens when talk of a majority is totally anachronistic? (And what happens when it isn’t?)

If you ask me, the models are crap, the polls no longer tell us anything – in marginal seats or nationally – and nobody will have much of a pot to piss in on election night. I think that fact in itself is meaningful. We’ll get there yet.  (I’m not doing a fucking Part IV – if I do I’ll have to write about Toynbee tiles or something weird.)

Watch out, Radioactive Man!

Yes, that was a reference to a show nobody watches anymore. But more on Gordon Brown later. (Snap.)

On BBC America and similarly British themed broadcasts and bootlegged internet streams (which, if you know of one, I’d be obliged if you’d share) the election broadcast will start shortly before 5pm Eastern. British polls close nationally at 10, and shortly thereafter the BBC’s Election Night broadcast will report its exit poll, which will predict not merely share of the vote but seat totals, swings and a potential majority. Or not, as the case may be. For the next few hours after that, not much will happen – as counting proceeds only a few seats will declare their result before 12:00. This declaration consists of a returning officer, having concluded the final count, reading out the results for each candidate and then announcing who has been elected, after which each reads a speech. It’s wonderfully dramatic and avoids the disgusting back-and-forth we have in this country, but it’s trustworthy because the seats are too small to rig convincingly. (Though they do try.)

Here’s an example from 1997: (The creepy man whose picture opens the video is actually Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for the new seat of York Outer. Ouch. Fortunately he won’t win.)

For the past several elections, the first place to declare was Sunderland South, a urban riding in the North that was held from the darkest days of the 80s by Labour’s Chris Mullin. Mullin is not running again and the Sunderland has been broken up from two seats to three: Sunderland Central, Houghton and Sunderland West and Washington and Sunderland West. One of these three will be the first to declare, and chances are none of the three will take longer than three hours. If any of them fall it would open the curtain on a catastrophe for Labour – the most marginal, Central, needs a 13% swing to the Conservatives. It’s not likely, but they will be useful barometers for the rest of the night – pay especially attention to the Liberal Democrat vote, as they’re targeting heavily Labour areas for upsets.

Some of the other early seats, in a change of pace, may be from Northern Ireland. In the past these were only of regional interest – Northern Irish seats are dominated by local parties on either side of the sectarian divide. However the Ulster Unionists, the old ruling class of the northern provinces, saved just one seat in 2005 against the onslaught of the hardline Democratic Unionists and in an effort to stave off electoral oblivion announced a merger with the Conservatives. The result is the first credible candidacy of a national party there since the Sunningdale Agreement. It’s not clear whether the new Ulster Conservatives and Unionists, as they now are, will save the single seat they presently hold much less gain. Only two seats fall within a 5% swing, but David Cameron has been working Northern Ireland hard and the sympathies of the Democratic Unionists are also with him. (Though Brown won’t be counted out, in the entirely unreliable words of the Daily Mail. How this is a “bribe” but Cameron’s dangling of government jobs something more principled is beyond me.)

At that point some more results will start to pour in. Tis’ much to go over 650. But here’s a few things – both seats and trends – to watch:

Celtic Kittens: Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales have been largely closed to the Tories since 1997, when they were eviscerated in both, and since Labour have come to power they have prospered from vast new investment. The conservatives regained one seat in Scotland – with difficulty – in 2001, which they held – with difficulty – in 2005. The Scottish Nationalists saw their UK MPs increase to six and in 2007 won one seat more than Labour and formed a minority government in the Scottish Parliament. The LibDems did well, taking nearly 20% of Scottish seats, twice their UK average. In Wales Labour suffered slightly to the Conservatives and LibDems and lost a seat on a huge swing to an independent candidate, Peter Law. Shortly after he died of cancer – his election agent, Dai Davies, now holds the seat and is standing again.

Scotland has been one of Labour’s bright spots during the campaign – successive surges by the other three parties have been seen off, the luster is off the Nationalists and there’s surely real sympathy for Gordon Brown. It’s now a reasonable question whether Labour might actually gain seats. (At least one seat, lost in a by-election in 2008, is likely to return to the Labour fold, though this won’t count as a “gain” since Labour was the winner at the last regular election.) If Labour suffers but only slightly, as some polls have indicated, only the lowest of the low-hanging fruit is likely to fall. The Tories will continue to have a single Scottish MP.

Wales is tougher: it has a stronger native Conservative tradition, especially in rural areas, and fewer Nationalists and Liberals to act as a buffer. (Unlike elsewhere, the Liberal vote moved almost wholesale to Labour in the 20s and 30s and has infrequently looked back.) A referendum, held the same day, on increased powers for the Welsh Assembly are likely to focus the attention of locals on devolution of powers, an early and influential Labour reform. The Conservatives look likely to gain, but only because their vote before was so low. The Nationalists may as well. If the Conservatives gain fewer than six seats Labour’s had a good night. The reverse if they take more than eight. I think Labour will take back the independent seat.

Minor parties: Only a few seats are held by independents. (Excluding several MPs who’ve been thrown out of their parties; most of these are standing down.) We’ve already mentioned Blaenau Gwent. Bethnal Green and Bow in central London was taken by George Galloway in 2005 in protest at his expulsion from Labour (prompting this interview, which single-handedly proved to my 17 year-old mind why British elections are better – by the way, yes, their MP is Scottish). Wyre Forest fell in 2001 when Labour cuts threatened to close a local hospital.

I think all three are likely to fall. In the 2006 by-election in Blaenau Gwent, shortly after Peter Law’s death, the official Labor candidate came close to regaining the seat. By-elections are traditionally opportunities for an easy protest vote on a low turnout. So it was, but that Labour came so close says that the drama surrounding the 2005 result has faded greatly. With no real opposition from the other three Welsh parties, this looks a Labour gain. Same with Bethnal Green, where George Galloway has abandoned the seat to a lesser light. It should be an even easier take. Wyre Forest is a Conservative seat, but Dr Richard Taylor benefitted from both the old Liberals and the LibDems standing aside in his favor. This year both will feature, and even in 2005 the Conservatives gained 10% in a strong area. The presence of UK Independence Party (anti-Europe) and right-wing British National candidates may help or hurt him; but either way, he’s unlikely to survive.

Independents are unlikely to disappear from the Commons, however. In Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas, the spokewoman for the Green Party, has an excellent opportunity to gain their first seat at the expense of Labour. They’ll need a swing of only 7% in their favor, assuming the Conservative vote holds steady; but since 2005 this seat is a 4-way marginal between the three main parties and the Greens, and promises a cliffhanger of a result.

In Luton South, Esther Rantzen, who you would charitably describe as a television personality, is standing as a general anti-everything candidate and may win herself or let in the Tory or LibDem at Labour’s expense, while Labour may gain at Castle Point where expelled Conservative MP Bob Spink chose to fight on as an independent. If he takes a third of the old Tory vote, Labour takes it.

Each of these results may seem small-scale: but if no party wins a majority, especially if they’re only one or two a way, they take on new and specific importance.

How do the LibDems actually do?: One or two polls this week have shown the third party dropping back to their pre-debate numbers; others have them ahead of Labour. All polls agree the Tories will take first, but the relative success or failure of the Liberal Democrats in England will make the difference. Indeed the sole reason the Tories are not gaining a majority is because expected gains from the LibDems aren’t realizing.

They’ll gain seats in the Southwest, an area of strength for hundreds of years. But their strength here limits opportunities; there just aren’t many seats to take. Watch West Dorset, the seat of the Tory former Shadow Chancellor and a frequent LibDem target: if it falls, the Tories will be having a very bad night. The Southeast is ultrasafe for the Tories, but the areas in between – South of London and East of Portsmouth – are the key LibDem-Conservative battleground. Until recently the LibDems were danger of heavy losses. They may still be. Guildford is an ultramarginal that changed hands in the last two elections. Watch who wins and by how much for clues to the surrounding areas.

North of London, especially along the East of England, both Tories and LibDems will be fighting to exploit a drop in the Labour vote. The LibDems are at a disadvantage in that they didn’t expect to be targeting so many potential gains, but their candidates are generally solid, decent local people who can speak well in an electorate furious with the political class. A few specific areas stand out. The LibDems heavily targeted the city of Newcastle’s seats last time and narrowly failed to seize them, as they did with several key seats in Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham. They will need to make gains from Labour in such Northern urban and suburban seats to realize a total above 100.

And now, my final thought

It’s like writing a goddamn novel. I have to be in Congress Heights in the morning.

At the wire polls have swung the Conservatives’ way. If borne out, they may be in range of a majority.

I don’t think they will be. In fact, I think – against all reason – that Labour may yet have a good night. After the swings and the BBC gimmicks and the snotty interviews and the bad computer animation, and after all of the crap Gordon Brown has received, I think he’ll be right in his prediction that the people who haven’t quite decided – and they may be 40% – will come back.

The British press hate Gordon Brown. They hate him when he’s decisive and they hate him more when he waffles. They hate him for what he does and for what he doesn’t do – they hate not what he does with power but that he has it at all. They hate him because he’s ugly and half-blind and worst of all Scottish, the bad aftertaste of Tony Blair and the offensive reminder of the favoritism granted the regions for their loyal support of Labour. They hate him for good reasons and more often for bad ones. A lot of people agree with them.

But not all. Just like not all agreed that John Major was shit just because he came after Thatcher. In 1992 a “Shy Tory” factor kept him in power – disastrously, it turned out. Voting Conservative may not have been cool, but a lot of people did, to borrow Goldwater’s phrase, know in their hearts that he was right. I think the contrast Brown draws with Cameron and Clegg is precisely the sort that would encourage this sentiment – and this week in the campaign seemed to be the first time Brown himself believed it.

For a man who may not have a job tomorrow, he’s bounding around the country with something like a spring in his step. Maybe that’s the key difference: he can risk being effusive rather than dour precisely because nobody expects anything from him anymore. At the least they’ll be able to say he went out with something like grace. At the most…

Well.  At the most I’ll need a Part IV.

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