September 04, 2008

Apparently Clarke is right about something

Charles Clarke’s prediction of disaster at the next election is based on very firm ground. The latest polls by Populus and Yougov have Labour behind by 16% and 19% respectively. Historical precedent for this kind of margin between the leading two parties is hard to come by. Thatcher’s famed 1983 win was taken by a popular vote margin over Labour of 14.8% and granted her 397 of the possible 633 seats (63%). For reference, New Labour’s 1997 victory had a 12.5% popular vote margin, achieveing 418 of the 639 seats (65%). In order to find an election where the popular vote margin between the two primary parties is over 16% one has to go back to 1931, where Stanley Baldwin’s conservatives took a 24.2% lead over Labour, resulting in 473 of the 556 of parliamentary seats (85%). The background to that election was in fighting within the Labour that resulted in their leader, Ramsey Macdonald being expelled from the party.

Clarke’s suggested solution, changing party leader, might not be a particularly strong idea. None of the viable alternatives (Harmen, Milliband, Straw) are particular popular or well known, though this didn’t seem to hamper Michael Howard in 2005. The public dislike party leadership changes without electoral mandate (still ranks as one of the highest criticisms of Brown) and party infighting. If they were hold a general election immediately after the leadership change, they would also get slammed on the party unity vote, as happened to the Conservatives in 1997. Another important consideration is that while the public dislike Gordon Brown, and would be inclined to protest vote him, they appear to have similar feelings to the whole New Labour Brand.

Finally the question comes up as to what substantive changes would one actually make to Labour? Judging from public statements party members seem to think the problem is primarily presentation – Milliband argues for rallying round, Clarke for replacing Brown etc. This seems to ignore the public who have genuine economic grievances and a strong belief that the country is on the wrong track. Something I’ve definitely noted amongst successful politicians is that you have to genuinely stand either against an idea, or for an idea.

The constant list of policy tweaks that Brown has announced whilst in office don’t say much to the public. Since they seem to be on the same track with the new economic policies being announced at the moment – its hard to see them coming back from this. Frankly Labour leadership could do a lot worse than this simple exercise: in one sentence why would we vote for you over the Conservatives? The answer to this shouldn’t be a rehash of existing policy or ideas, but a simple, bold, new concept.

- 2 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Looking at popular vote margins may not be the most illuminating approach… the Conservatives held a General Election not that long after switching to John Major and he got a whopping 14 million votes, which translated into a majority of just 21 parliamentary seats, whereas 13 million votes in 1997 gave Blair a majority of 178, margins of 3 and 4 million respectively over the party in second place.

    05 Sep 2008, 14:04

  2. I agree with your concept, which is why I referred to several elections, rather than just one. Other observations:

    1. Your 1992 figure, whilst accurate to the closest million is a rather large over approximation, the actual voting margin in 1992 was 2,532,523 – claiming it is 3 million overestimates by 15.6%.
    2. I presented figures in percentages, which makes the difference quite a bit clearer – the Conservatives had an 8% margin in 1992, whilst Labour had a 12.5% margin in 1997. Referring to the raw figures of one party, or a margin outside the context of overall electoral turnout makes it an even less relevant comparison.
    3. The 1992 election was held 15 months into John Major’s time in office. I don’t think a hypothetical new Labour Party leader could last that long without a mandate. Also – during those 15 months, John Major achieved major policy and political objectives that stood him in good stead come election. He had fought and won the first gulf war, and signed the Masstricht treaty, which gave him a strong foreign policy edge over Labour, People also hated the Poll Tax, so associated with the worst excesses of the conservative government at the time and introducing council tax to replace was a massively popular idea. Certainly a sign to people that he was a different kind of leader than Margaret Thatcher.
    4. The most conclusive proof that popular vote isn’t a good metric is the three times in the last century (1910, 1929 and 1974) when a party won the popular vote, but had a minority in the House of Commons. In all of these situations the popular vote margin was very small.

    In the absence of per seat polling data – can you suggest a better metric?

    05 Sep 2008, 18:59

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