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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The equally-gratuitous Part I.

Trench foot-in-mouth

Last week Gordon Brown called a voter who strode up and gave him what-for about immigration from Eastern Europe “bigoted.” After forgetting to take out his microphone. Whether it counts for anything or not is totally unclear – in 2001 the famously surly deputy prime minister hit a guy and Labour got a huge majority. But it’s not for nothing that this is the first real coverage Brown has individually got in weeks. This fracas sadly encapsulates Labour’s war so far – they haven’t been able to catch a break, nobody’s listening and nobody thinks you matter.

(As a personal note, I agree with Gordon Brown. Really I like him better the more everybody else hates him. But more on that in Part III.)

It is a strange sort of revenge for Labour’s resistance to proportional representation that Gordon Brown is learning how it feels to be the leader of “the other party.” Though Labour’s numbers have held relatively steady and the resurgent Liberal Democrats are beginning to drop back, the race between two fresh, dynamic, not-grizzled leaders looks better when you don’t stick Mr Shrek MP up next to them. Labour, having developed a taste for the blood of its own leaders, is watching large chunks of its support drift away (to apathy and to LibDems – less to Tories) and indications are that the campaign is totally falling apart. Senior party leaders are apparently trying to convince Gordon Brown to stay on as a caretaker in the event of a loss in an attempt to prevent deputy leader Harriet Harman – whose abrasive style and overexact behavior as Women’s Minister earned her the nickname “Harriet Harperson” – from gaining an indomitable foothold.

As the tetchy campaign enters its final week, both Labour and Tories rounded on Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg on a promise of amnesty for illegal immigrants and extremely ill-advised declarations about his intentions should the Liberal Democrats hold the balance of power in Parliament. These have allowed Brown and Labour, with some success, to declare that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is by proxy one for Cameron – and certainly even Brown-hating Labourites will find irritating his attempts to dictate their choice of leader. David Cameron’s Conservatives have too late realized the danger of the LibDem surge and are only now turning their guns on Nick Clegg after generic attacks on a hung parliament fell flat. A strong performance in the final Leader’s Debate has helped Cameron – no poll since 20 April has showed a vote-winner other than the Conservatives – but the chances it will save him from electoral ambiguity are fading. The election’s had its big bang moment: the focus now shifts from the general campaign to contests in 650 individual seats.

The election-to-come

The quote at the top is from a commentator on election night 1997 when Labour won 418 seats and exterminated half of John Major’s Cabinet.

Derrida (in a random and slightly gratuitous philosophy reference that I’m probably going to fuck up) liked to talk about the “democracy-to-come”: how democracy doesn’t constitute anything intrinsically but is a perpetual work-in-progress, moving and shaping with the passage of time and the change of mores as people and elites assert control in new ways. It’s not going anywhere, as such: there’s no pre-arranged destination, no inevitable moment of completion and triumph. Democracy is a political system that meanders down the road, leaning forward, nervously eyeing its surroundings. If so, in Britain this week democracy is hurtling down an expressway. But where to?

The Liberal Democrat surge has guaranteed that this will be the key question in any new Parliament: not who will govern but how British government will be. If the Conservatives don’t win a majority the Liberal Democrats will hold the balance of power. It is a decades-long party policy that they cannot participate in a regime that does not pursue electoral reform, and for the first time they will be large and decisive enough to enforce that policy. Hungry for power though they may be after a hundred years out of government, they are not likely to break this commitment.

Labour will lose. Nothing can stop that now. But their ability to survive – not as a party of government but as a party at all – now hangs in the balance of this vote. If Labour does indeed drop into third and 100 seats or more fall, a massacre of Labour’s leading lights could follow. It is, ironically, like an asteroid is coming towards the Labour party. What they need in the event of a loss is enough diversity so that the gene pool of potential leaders and their supporting personalities remains robust enough for them to quickly rebound. Two factors are working against this.

The first is that low turnout, high profile Labour safe seats, like David Miliband’s South Shields, are precisely the ones likely to give up a larger-than-average swing should the election go horribly wrong. Labour’s strongholds in the North are the most likely to suffer in such a situation, and given independent interventions and a large swing towards one challenging party could overtop the superficially large majorities held by several Labour ministers like brothers Miliband or the family BallsCooper. (Teehee – Balls.)

Labour may also suffer because of Brown’s reliance on peers in government, who are unelected but can still occupy most government positions. Three peers sit in Cabinet positions which can be held by MPs – two as Secretaries of State and one, Lord Mandelson, as Gordon Brown’s right-hand. A larger number are junior ministers at the highest profile departments – 3 of 9 at Business, excluding the Lord Mandelson; 2 of 5 at Defence; 3 of  5 at the Foreign Office. The competence of these officers aside, these are all positions which are not being used to blood MPs who will be the beating breast of a Labour opposition (and the core of future Labour leadership teams). With the attrition likely if a severe loss comes on Thursday and the potential loss of many junior ministers who sit as MPs, including the most politically sensitive in marginal seats, a rump Labour party would likely fall into the hands of its safest and most hardline members, possibly under an unexpected and inexperienced leader. The Conservatives know how this feels. But they will not share Labour’s pain.

Any hung parliament is unlikely to last long, especially if it results in any kind of broad electoral reform – a new poll will have to follow any alteration in the governing system. If so – and if Labour is unlikely to be a party to the decisions that shape such a reform – their concern should not now be this Thursday. It should be election night November 2010, or May 2011, or whenever this Parliament teeters to its conclusion. By then Tories and LibDems alike will truly have dipped their hands in the blood and they will suffer the burden of having no time for any proposed remedies to take effect (which is why Cameron is so desperate for a majority government – he’ll need his full five years, at least). Labour could profit from this, especially if any Conservative-LibDem regime tears itself apart over reform.

So this was supposed to be 2 parts. w/e. I have a lot of opinions.

Many of you have come up to me – in the street, in bars, during my wheatgrass colonic – and asked, “Peter, I have to know – what do you think of the British election?”  Normally I don’t like to comment on politics, as my friends know. Religion and sex acts with clowns are spicier conversation. But – oh, what the Hell.

Beforehand: since the six of you who read this are almost entirely American, you might ask, “Why should I care?” If “because I tell you to” is an insufficient answer, consider: the United Kingom is one of America’s ten largest trading partners and London stands shoulder-to-shoulder with New York as a global financial center; next to the United States, Britain is one of the four or five countries whose fiscal decisions reverberate through the world; and this will be the first time a democratic government under a market capitalist regime will be judged on the economic crash and its response to it. (Remember Obama was elected before ARRA and TARP really hit home.) With a skeptical free-market Conservative government challenging an interventionist Labour, this election is arguably a dry run for November here. You might not be surprised to see some of the same themes bleed in: it wouldn’t be the first time.

Baby got back… ground

Yeah, not inspired.

Gordon Brown has been the Prime Minister since summer 2007. He was originally Chancellor – keeper of the purse strings and holder (slash-frequent squeezer) of the Prime Ministerial testicles. That he became Chancellor and Tony Blair party leader and shoo-in for premier despite the latter being nominally the junior partner is said to be down to a mickey slipped him at a Italian restaurant called Granita, which is a singularly inappropriate place to decide the fate of a country. (At least one without a romance language). Despite getting unprecedented control over government policy for someone not actually responsible for making it, Brown was not a happy camper. He got no happier when – if the deal is to be believed – Tony Blair stayed on past and then well past the agreed time. Gordon Brown learned the hard way that though the banker’s offer may be the smart move, you could still be giving up the $1,000,000 briefcase. (649,875 GBP.)

Brown eventually hounded Blair out a decade after he took office after Blair was forced to deputize him to save the last election campaign in 2005. Brown thought the popularity he’d built up as a surly, hard-charging, hard-spending Chancellor would continue when he ascended the throne himself – and for a time it did. Then came the election that wasn’t. To be fair I don’t think it was really Brown’s fault – but speculation about a snap poll in late 2007 got out of control and he did nothing to stop it. In Britain the date of the election is not fixed, so to dangle the prospect of going to the people and then pull back at the last moment is a most dangerous electoral cocktease.

He’s been sleeping on the couch ever since. But the swarthy Scot is lucky that there has been no grand adversary to match the depth of his own party’s despair. No Margaret Thatcher, no Tony Blair, indeed no Ronald Reagan waits in the wings, ready to cruise onstage as the growling saturnine Scot departs. David Cameron’s Conservatives have failed to convince a skeptical public that he’s not Margaret Thatcher, whom the entire country appears to have retroactively decided was an LOL they turned into a great big OMG. Until recently, the third-party Liberal Democrats – alternatively left-liberal, free-market libertarian and a little bit country – were set to draw 20% of the electorate no matter what happened, ensuring that any winner would form a government on a very low vote total. (I am going to link relatedly to myself again. I have absolutely no idea where I found the time to write all this garbage. Unemployment? I kind of miss unemployment.) Short version is that because Parliament’s elected like the US Congress, if the Speaker of the House ran the fucker, a party which gets 20% of a 3-sided vote everywhere will not win anywhere, even if a proportional result would give them a far bigger seat at the table. In 2005 the Liberals won 62 seats on 22.1% of the vote while a numerically proportional result would have seen them take 142. Most of these were in Southwest England, Scotland, and a few scattered urban seats (most often with heavy college populations or young, affluent outer cities).

Another 35-40 seats, occupied by the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, single-issue independents, vanity MPs and the inevitable Irish constitute a wedge which in years past counted for no one. Practically, then, to form a government one party has to win 326 seats out of only 550-575, while the remaining 70-100 aren’t going to be in play at all. This in a country in which government by more than one party is basically unthinkable. (At least, as unthinkable as German rearmament.)

The only thing missing was Jim Lehrer… and “that one

For the first time in British political history, the cancer of American-style politics spread to the concept of a televised leader’s debate. They do it in Australia, they do it in Canada – it was only a matter of time. It was refreshing to me that starting it with the benefit of all our experience didn’t mean it was any better; while the Brits themselves seemed to be frothing at the mouth over this particular to-do, the parts I watched were just as much a pointless robotic clusterfuck as any presidential clash. It was rather like watching three middle-aged men play Trivial Pursuit, except all the questions were People & Places and nobody ever got a wedge. (“I talked to Wanda, in Bournemouth…”)

But the result was nonetheless remarkable: the Liberal Democrats surged from distant third to close second. They’ve always consistently struggled less with their message than getting anyone to hear it, despite a series of seasoned, well-spoken parliamentarian-leaders and broadly popular liberal policies. The election of Nick Clegg as their leader in 2007 looked for a long while like a major error – a 40 year-old former European MP only elected to Parliament two years before, Clegg never seemed very comfortable in the House Commons and was regularly put aside by a flagging Gordon Brown and his own seasoned deputy, shadow Chancellor Vince Cable. For two years Clegg polled behind the other two leaders and his own predecessors (who had the added disadvantage of also being Scots). He was always shit.

And yet neither Labour,  digging in against a televised leader’s debate, nor the Conservatives clamoring for it, realized that they were in fact drinking a nice big draught of hemlock. From here it looks like Clegg’s secret weapon has turned out to be that he’s the most American of the three – he’s good-looking and easy with the camera, exudes congeniality and above all else he’s seen to be calm, clear and level-headed. If the little worm bastard is any indication (sadly, they have that too), people don’t particularly like conflict in these debates – because, unlike Prime Minister’s Questions, viewers have the impression of being spoken to directly rather than watching others debate. Nobody likes to be yelled at, which is why Brown and Cameron have stumbled when they’ve tried to mix it up – they’re schooled and skilled in parliamentary swordplay. You wonder if even Tony Blair, the talk show Mr. Cool, would have been as well-suited to this format as Clegg.

He’s also a novelty. After three years people seem kind of tired of Brown and Cameron – the drawbacks of 24-hour saturation media is that a lot of people are seeing a lot more of you than they really ever wanted. Having had very little opportunity to speak to a mass audience, Clegg and the LibDems not only appears fresh and their ideas more interesting and innovative but, most importantly, they haven’t yet had time to annoy the entire world. He gets the sort of freshness of the Obama effect without the sixteen months of campaigning that slowly wore it away.

The proof is in the pudding. After the first debate Nick Clegg was unanimously thought to have won, in most cases by margins in double digits. Brown and Cameron alike polled about equally-poor second places. The LibDems’ numbers floated around 20% and hadn’t poked above their 2005 result in many months – after the debate they have not dropped below 26% and regularly top 30. For the first time in – awhile? Ever? – the third party came top in the polls. New numbers haven’t come out since the second debate, but while instant reaction registered a closer result, it still gave a Clegg win. At a stroke, the question became not whether the Conservatives could gain a majority but who would even be the largest party.

I’ll probably publish a part two when I feel like it. Or not.