Friday, 7 May 2010

Reflections on an odd election

I got some things right when I put on a few pre-election bets with Paddy Power. So I shall collect on Labour winning 251-300 seats at 5/2 and on Labour in Tooting at 11/8 and Harrow West at 4/7 as well as the Greens in Brighton and Lib Dems in Somerton and Frome. But my optimism in some other Labour seats and my expectations of 70-plus Lib Dem seats proved misplaced. Yet the results of the election - still coming in- are fascinating for their variety. I think there are some early lessons.

The biggest one is for David Cameron. His failure to win what should have been a relatively easy victory is not just about strong local opponents: it is as much about the incoherence of a strategy that started presenting itself as Blairism-ultra and morphed into neo-Thatcherist talk about austerity. At the same time, his lieutenants presented potentially attractive policies like 'free schools' without proper costing and vague notions about delivery. If he was confused, the voters were more so. Had he really been studying the Blair election-winning blueprint properly, he would have recognised that coherence, fiscal discipline and consistency were its hallmarks from 1994 to 1997. And there are five other observations after last night.

1. Clearly, the returning officers in some areas need to get their act together. If someone has arrived at the polling station in good time, they should be allowed to vote, even if it means locking them into the station until polling is finished. Denying people a vote in such circumstances is outrageous.

2. Labour needs to study certain seats where its vote held up, including not just the obvious places like Birmingham Edgbaston, Westminster North or Islington South, but also places like Mitcham and Morden, where Siobhain McDonagh has turned a seat only won from the Tories in 1997 into a rock-solid Labour seat. The swing to the Tories there was a mere 0.4%. This suggests that a stronger campaign elsewhere could have stemmed more losses.

3. The Liberal Democrats would probably have held more of their seats and gained others had Nick Clegg not been so sanctimonious about tactical voting. In places like Wells and Somerton and Frome it was tactical voting that won it for the Lib Dems. Equally, had they not pretended they could win in some other Lab-Con marginal seats the Tories would have been in a worse position. Clegg would be in a stronger bargaining position in such circumstances.

4. It was a bad night for independents. I must confess this was a bit of a surprise. I have no time for Esther Rantzen but I expected her to do rather better than she did. Perhaps what she lacked and Martin Bell did not (though you wouldn't know it) is that Bell won with the help of some very efficient party organisers loaned to him for the occasion.

5. Northern Ireland rejected David Cameron. Sylvia Hermon won handsomely. Sir Reg Empey failed to win in his own constituency. Peter Robinson aside, the DUP held their seats, and many are angry about Cameron's batty decision to big up the official Unionists. The SDLP and Hermon vote with Labour. And the Alliance Party which took Robinson's seat are Lib-Dem allies. It is also worth remembering that Sinn Fein's potty refusal to take their four seats means that the winning post is actually 324. If Clegg can't do a deal on electoral reform with Cameron, Labour could govern with Lib Dem and NI party support.

What happens now remains to be seen. I've always thought Clegg would prefer to do a deal with the Tories before he dealt with Labour, even though the outgoing Prime Minister has the right to try to form a government first when the opposition has failed to win an overall majority. Cameron can only get it if he offers a referendum on electoral reform - I suspect he might do so, while allowing his MPs to campaign against as with Wilson's EEC referendum in the seventies. But the arithmetic still presents an alternative that could have a working majority.

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